Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in Shanghai with Pearl Lam

The art doyenne chronicles the best of her city for Helen Chislett: the glamour, the dynamism, the dumplings.

November 27 2009
Helen Chislett

“I love the atmosphere in Shanghai. Hong Kong is very cold in comparison, and Beijing is less culturally sophisticated. But Shanghai still evokes feelings of glamour, decadence and romance, which make it a fascinating place to visit. No wonder it was once known as the Paris of the East.

I first came here in 1992, and from 2003-2004 I curated a show on how French and Chinese cultures had influenced each other. I realised we needed to encourage more Chinese art collectors, so I opened a gallery here, Contrasts, in 2005, where my mission is to show dynamic, original works by international artists from established and emerging markets that speak of cross-culture, and push the boundaries of traditional Chinese art and craft techniques.

All visits to Shanghai should really begin with a stroll along the Bund, a kilometre-long stretch of waterfront, which offers the most spectacular view of the Pudong skyline. This area was once part of the British settlement. They brought the name from India from the Urdu word “band” for embankment. In those days, Shanghai was a melting pot of cultures, a truly metropolitan city of White Russians, Indians, Jews, Germans, British, French, American, Chinese and just about every other nationality you can think of. Everyone lived peaceably side by side and, despite the very rapid expansion and changes, that laid-back, tolerant attitude survives to this day.

Many of the buildings, which include some of the most historic and monumental in the city and range in style from art deco to neoclassical, have at some point claimed to be the tallest building in Asia. And soon that honour will once again belong to the city when the Shanghai Tower, a 632m-high architectural showstopper, opens in 2014 in the heart of the Finance and Trade Zone. It promises to complete a powerful visual triumvirate with its neighbours, the Jin Mao Tower and Shanghai World Financial Centre.

As well as the street life and the spectacular views, the Bund has also become home to many of the world’s leading retail names. Three on the Bund offers Armani and an Evian Spa, while Bund 18 boasts Cartier, Boucheron and Patek Philippe, among others. Both places also have a foot in the contemporary art scene. Three on the Bund is home to the Shanghai Gallery of Art, which routinely shows some of the big hitters of the Chinese contemporary art scene. Bund 18, awarded a Unesco Award of Distinction for its meticulous restoration, has a dedicated gallery space in its Creative Centre on the fourth floor, which is well worth checking out for the work both of young, emerging artists and of more established names. There is also a permanent sculpture in the lobby of towering bicycles by internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei, which is well worth a visit. It is the most extraordinary structure, which rises up through the stairwells. Another art must-see is ShanghART, which was founded by Lorenz Heibling in 1996, a fantastic selection which is akin to a permanent collection of Chinese contemporary art.

My own Shanghai penthouse is located in the French Concession, an area full of architectural gems dating from the art deco period. Unusually, it is also predominantly low-rise, with canopies of closely planted trees. The architecture reflects its colonial past – Spanish villas, French deco frontages and even English Tudor “country houses”. The atmosphere is similar to that of the Marais in Paris or Greenwich Village in New York: relaxed and rather bohemian with markets and small boutiques to explore. If it is art you enjoy, check out the James Cohan Gallery while you are in the neighbourhood, the Chinese “sister” to his New York space.

Don’t overlook the traditional Chinese art on offer in Shanghai, though. It’s well worth going to the Shanghai Museum, which has extraordinary collections of ancient bronzes, jade, ceramics and Chinese sculpture. There are 11 galleries in all (including one of contemporary painting), so allow plenty of time. The building is fascinating too. It’s located on People’s Square, the hub of the city, part park and part concrete plaza. But it was once the British-built race course, and the museum building was the jockey club. There is also the Shanghai Art Museum, which hosts the prestigious Shanghai Biennale (the eighth of which will be held in 2010), which launched in 1996 and to which inter­national artists were invited from 2000.

A short stroll through the park takes you to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai (MoCA Shanghai), the territory of respected Taiwanese curator Victoria Lu. MoCA is the city’s funkiest cultural centre. It has no permanent collection; instead it has continually changing temporary shows that are accessible even when they are ground-breaking. The internal architecture sets the scene beautifully, with a staircase through the glass structure to a veranda at the top where you can enjoy a fantastic view. It’s also worth checking out the Shanghai Oriental Art Centre in Pudong. Designed by French architect Paul Andreu, this futuristic building is designed to look like the five petals of a blossoming butterfly orchid: one is the entrance hall, the others a performance space, concert hall, exhibition gallery and opera auditorium.

As a resident of the French Concession, I am probably biased, but I would recommend staying in a boutique hotel in the area rather than in one of the modern high-rises in Pudong. The Mansion Hotel was China’s first deluxe boutique hotel, located in a building designed by Lafayette in 1932. It is a classic piece of old Shanghai – a graceful fusion of French and Asian. There are 30 guest rooms and a great restaurant specialising in locally caught seafood, with a terrace overlooking the French Concession. I also like JIA, part of an Asian chain. The Hong Kong branch was designed by Philippe Starck, but this one, converted from a 1920s building, has walls panelled in fabric with embroidered Chinese motifs and work by local artists. Finally, you could try the Pudi, which is adjacent to Fuxing Park, a tranquil spot, but also close to shops, galleries, teahouses, bars and such like.

My favourite food in Shanghai is found at Shintori, which is Japanese. The interior is very cool and contemporary, with both classical Japanese dishes, such as sushi, sashimi and tofu, and also Japanese fusion dishes, and I love the green-tea tiramisu. Of course, you may prefer to eat Chinese food in Shanghai, in which case one of the places I like to take visitors is the Shanghai opera restaurant Xian Qiang Fang. Here you will find classic Shanghainese and Cantonese dishes, including the famous hairy crab which is a local speciality. If you don’t fancy Chinese opera (and not everyone likes it), you can relax upstairs on bamboo beds.

The best place for dumplings is Din Tai Feng, which has locations city-wide. Although technically Taiwanese, everyone thinks the Shanghai branches are the best – they specialise in pork or crab dumplings called xiao long bao. There is also a fun noodle restaurant – Noodle Bull. For street food, head for Wu Jiang Lu, which has a mix of typical Western chain stores and an Eastern section run by the locals – it is also the scene of food festivals throughout the year. And Yongfoo Elite Club, located in the former British Consulate, is a popular members’ club and a good place for afternoon tea and Shanghai cuisine.

If it is nightlife you are after, you won’t be disappointed. M1nt is one of the hottest venues in town, having first opened in Hong Kong. And Yu Yin Tang is one of the oldest underground live music venues in Shanghai, with rock acts both worldwide and local.

If it’s relaxation you crave, Shanghai massages are rightly famous, and I can recommend those on offer from Dragonfly, which has 10 locations across the city. You may also enjoy a visit to Shile Boutique Lifestyle Centre over the river in Pudong, a commercial club designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki that includes a spa, health centre and Xiao Shan Qing restaurant. It is named after the “10 pleasures” of life that all should enjoy, as recommended by Chen Zhi of the Song Dynasty.

And then, of course, there’s the shopping. The best place for designer boutiques, such as Chanel and Dior, is Plaza 66. But if you want to see the work of Chinese designers, then Changle Lu in the French Concession is a good place to start. Tian Zi Fang is a chic shopping lane with a mix of small, creative businesses, as well as bars, cafés, craft workshops and artist studios in the alleys that radiate off it.

Shanghai is also a good place to have clothing made to order, and its tailors can turn things around in a matter of days or less. For that, though, you will need material, so head to the Fabric Market, close to the Bund. There are more than 100 stalls, most with tailors on hand.

The city is currently preparing for next year’s Biennale and World Expo, which starts on May 1, and where the UK pavilion will be designed by Thomas Heatherwick. All told, there’s probably never been a better time to visit.”

See also

People