|Behind the Bund
Lodged between the vibrant hub of People’s Square and the glamorous refurbishment of the Bund, the city's iconic promenade, is some of Shanghai's most majestic modernist architecture. For decades these buildings have stood deserted and disused, as if frozen in time. Recently, however, they have been brought back to life.
The furious pace of China’s urban transformation has led many to assume that all that is old has been destroyed – razed and replaced by the new. Yet, despite its science fiction skyline, Shanghai’s 21st century ambitions are crucially entwined with recalling its historical heyday. In Shanghai the relics of modernity are not so much being preserved as revived. It is in reanimating its past that the city hopes to catapult itself into the future.
Today, in the blocks behind the Bund, tangled webs of hanging wire mask Neoclassical and Art Deco masterpieces. Massive columns, carved window frames and a lobby with tile murals and stain glass stand in contrast to the street peddlers and hanging laundry that sways overhead. On sunny days makeshift tables pour out onto the sidewalk offering a place for workers to sit and slurp their noodles. The chef is set up in a corner of a lane house (or lilong) where the slow rhythms of an older way of life prevail.
Yet - like everything else in Shanghai - this long neglected neighbourhood is changing fast. Trendy restaurants, luxury shopping plazas, avant-garde galleries, and stylish hotels have all opened - or are due to open soon. Here, the layers of time collide, making this the perfect zone within which to explore all the complexities and contradictions of contemporary Shanghai.
The ethnic chic ‘Lost Heaven on the Bund, a four-story branch of one the city’s most popular restaurants, signals the area's current revitalization. Intricately carved dark wood chairs, elaborate brass table settings, embroidered cushions, massive door-frames, and hanging masks create the atmosphere of a hidden jungle temple deep within the city. The restaurant specializes in the tribal cuisine from a region described as the ‘Mountain Mekong,’ an area that includes China’s Yunnan province, Tibet, Burma, and Northern Thailand. The menu of exotic dishes features fish steamed in banana leaves, stir fried pomegranate flowers and papaya salad. After dinner climb up to the roof top bar for a peek at the view beyond.
A few blocks away, Hamilton House, at the octagonal intersection of Jiangxi Lu and Fuzhou Lu, is an emblem of the futurism of 20th century Shanghai. The Art Deco high-rise was commissioned by the legendary tycoon Sir Victor Sassoon, a Baghdadi Jew who arrived in the city in the late 1920s, and built a real estate empire whose remnants still shape the urban core. The ground floor of the building was recently converted into a fashionable bistro, where stylish patrons can sip cocktails and dine on fusion cuisine in the Art Deco-inspired interior.
Across the street, Hong Kong heiress Pearl Lam, has opened Contrasts - one of the city’s finest galleries. It is located on the first floor of a 1934 modernist tower, once the Commercial Bank of China, that was built as a minimalist mirroring of the Art Deco twins across the street. Devoted to a contemporary version of China’s ancient ‘literati tradition’ the gallery shows the work of China’s neo-traditional avant-garde. Don’t miss the basement, where Lam keeps her collection of designer furniture.
Further down Fuzhou Lu, towards the Bund, are two small shops dedicated to a reinvention of tradition. Suzhou Cobbler and Blue Shanghai White, which share the same old grey brick building, both give a contemporary touch to time-honored Chinese craft. Suzhou cobblers sells silk slippers large enough to fit Western feet, while Blue Sanghai White specializes in the hand panted porcelain of the ancient ceramic capital Jingdezhen. Teapots, mugs, plates, vases and even furniture are decorated with the owner’s original designs.
Immerse yourself in the old British flavor of the area with a stop at Bund Garden. This garden villa was once a part of the Neo-Gothic Holy Trinity Cathedral and School, made famous by its former student JG Ballard. The complex was built in stages at the end of the 19th and early 20th century and has recently undergone a multi-year restoration. The villa – designed as the rector’s house - has been converted into a restaurant and boutique hotel. Upstairs large rooms are furnished with original antiques, but the real treat is the back garden, a hidden oasis that backs onto the old cathedral. Here you can retreat completely from the city, sitting under the trees, sipping tea and listening to the old church bells. Not surprisingly, this is a popular venue for wedding parties.
The refashioned Bund Tea Company offers a taste of traditional Chinese tea culture. Occupying a 1908 building designed in the Queen Anne style with its intricately detailed brickwork, it is located in the same spot as an old British shipping company’s original ‘Bund Tea Company'. Inside rows of white tins contain a large variety of green, black and flower teas. Sit under the chandeliers, at a table ceremonially set up for tea tasting to get a sense of what it was the British got addicted to.
Two doors down in the same red brick building is a small gallery made larger by its super-tall ceilings and oversized windows and doors. East Asia Contemporary, which opened in 2007, is dedicated to showing the painting, video and installation of cutting edge artists from the region.
LAN club, which occupies a four-story neoclassical building opposite the upcoming Waldorf Astoria is striking for its over-the-top opulence. Extravagances include a cigar bar, a huge private banquet room with a wall-size painting of the three gorges dam, hallways with colourful hanging lanterns and a stuffed peacock. On the top floor the French restaurant Papillon has a garden interior with comfortable couches, a glass ceiling and living wall. Go for lunch when everything is half price.
What guarantees the future of the neighbourhood, however, is a vast new development emerging at its northern tip, close to where the Huangpu meets Suzhou Creek. Headed by the Rockefeller group and known as the RockBund, this massive restoration project encompasses 11 heritage buildings and is part of a refurbishment of the entire Waitanyuan (or Bund Origin), which includes the sprawling grounds of the former British Consulate and a newly landscaped park at the rivers edge. The old headquarters of the Royal Asiatic Society, which has been remade as the Rock Bund Art Museum will be the first building to open on May 4th with an exhibition from the famous firework artist Cai Guo Qiang. “We don’t preserve the past, we free it,” reads the PR slogan of the project, “The origin of yesterday is the origin of tomorrow .”