Everyone’s talking about China these days—we find ourselves scrutinising the way it’s growing, and the way it’s reaching out and reshaping the world. What’s less discussed, however, is how the rest of the world is exploring this rising behemoth.
For decades, China was a mystery, enmeshed in seismic internal upheavals, closed off to almost all outsiders. Then, it opened up. Today, it’s a place of business for Singapore-based entrepreneurs such as TWG Tea’s Taha Bouqdib and Fort Sanctuary’s Daphne Lau; a former place of study for Lydia Lim and Lam Tze Tze, who attended university in Shanghai and Beijing, respectively; and a place tied to personal memories for June Rin and Rebecca Eu, whose families have commercial and personal links to the country.
June, in particular, knows first-hand how China has changed. “I backpacked through the country with some friends in the 1980s. I learned a lot in just three weeks, and became much more street-smart,” she shares. “Since then, every decade has seen it change by leaps and bounds.” Our Singapore Tatler insiders share their tips on how to navigate the vast and varied pleasures of China.
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In this first part on travelling in China, our Singapore Tatler insiders share their tips on how to navigate the beautiful city of Shanghai.
The Beautiful Bund
Shanghai’s waterfront is iconic for a reason—lined with beautiful heritage buildings on one river bank and soaring skyscrapers on the other, it’s a visual crystallisation of China’s past and present in one sweeping view, and even frequent visitors to the city remain in awe with its beauty.
“Whenever my wife Maranda and I are in Shanghai, one of our favourite things to do is to take a walk along the Bund. It might sound cliched, but it’s such a beautiful place to experience the energy of the city, especially in the spring,” says Taha. For a glamorous night on the town, he suggests M1NT, a club whose luxurious decor includes an entrance lined with shark tanks.
Lydia Lim pinpoints the Bund18 building (Wai Tan Shi Ba Hao in Mandarin) as her favourite place of the neighbourhood: “Here, there’s Bar Rouge for drinks, French restaurant Mr & Mrs Bund for food, The Peninsula Shanghai down the street for awesome burgers, or the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund for afternoon tea.” Indeed, there is no shortage of top-notch hotels in this area—Taha loves the Ritz Carlton Shanghai, Pudong, while Rebecca Eu is fond of the great view from Grand Hyatt Shanghai’s rooftop bar.
Gourmet cuisine is also plentiful. Lam Tze Tze’s favourites include Salon de Thé and La Boutique de Joël Robuchon for pastries and Hakkasan Shanghai for Cantonese favourites. Rebecca recommends The Cool Docks, a south Bund neighbourhood that’s perfect for a leisurely afternoon of cafe hopping. “There are lots of good restaurants in the area, and it’s very quiet, romantic and chill,” she says. “It’s fun to explore whether you’re travelling alone or with a big group.”
Rest & Relax
Rebecca has a deep appreciation for Shanghai, as her mother, Mary, is from the city, and she spent quite a bit of time there when she was younger. The Fairmont Peace Hotel, an art deco landmark on the Bund, “was my Shanghainese grandmother’s favourite hotel. I remember running around the halls like a crazy princess”, Rebecca quips.
To indulge in a taste of old Shanghai, Rebecca urges a visit to The Jazz Bar at the Fairmont Peace Hotel and the Long Bar at the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund for its jazz bands. “These are beautiful venues for enjoying live music, it feels like you’re stepping into a scene from The Great Gatsby.”
Mary is also a co-owner of The Waterhouse at South Bund, a boutique hotel that was converted from old military bunkers. Not surprisingly, this is also one of Rebecca’s favourite places to stay in Shanghai.
The French Concession is a great neighbourhood for soaking up Shanghai’s history. The area is so named because it was once ceded to the French as a settlement area, and it’s known for its European architecture. It’s a favourite spot for Taha. He explains, “I have always been drawn to places steeped in history, where I could imagine myself living in another time.” For Lydia, the best streets in this neighbourhood are Huaihai Road, Xintiandi, Tianzifang and Xuhui—all lined with interesting architecture and shops.
To go even further back in time, the charming water towns a few hours outside of Shanghai boast dwellings, waterways and bridges first built hundreds of years ago. Of these, Taha enjoys Zhujiajiao’s picturesque atmosphere, while Tze Tze favours Wuzhen, which is known as the Venice of China. The latter is good for travellers who cannot unplug—a World Internet Conference was held here in 2014, which led to this very traditional-looking town being wired for Wifi connection.
No cosmopolitan city is complete without great shopping, and Shanghai is no exception. For Lydia, Réel Department Store “is my favourite mall because of its mix of indie designers and name brands”.
For even more adventurous fashion lovers, the city also has plenty of unique options. Its fabric markets, such as the South Bund Fabric Market, are famous for skilful tailors who can whip up made-to-measure garments with finesse. “You can bring your own fabric to them, or buy the fabric there,” says Rebecca. Depending on whether you’re getting a suit or an evening gown made, the maestros take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to complete the garment, and then courier it to your overseas address if needed. “If you’re visiting during winter, they also sell ready-made coats.”
If it’s a couture-grade cheongsam you’re after, look no further than the shops along Maoming Road between Changle Road and Nanchang Road, says June. “They each specialise in different styles. One shop may have denim cheongsams; another may have them in floral silks. You can also bring your own fabric to them, and they will cut the pattern in muslin first to fit the garment to your satisfaction.”
Food, glorious food
The soup dumpling called xiao long bao (pictured right) is one of Shanghai’s best-known culinary delights, and Tze Tze recommends those from a chain called Jia Jia Tang Bao, which is less oily than other outlets. Another famous delicacy is the hairy crab—the tastiest specimens originate from Yangcheng Lake, about an hour’s drive from Shanghai.
There are plenty of purveyors passing off subpar hairy crabs as Yangcheng crabs, so for the best experience, June recommends making arrangements to purchase the crabs directly at Yangcheng Lake. “They’re very easy to prepare, you just need to clean and steam them. If you pick the crab up fresh at 5am, you can enjoy them for lunch, and they taste so much better too.”
Authentic Shanghainese food is not that easy to come by if you’re a visitor, Rebecca explains, because it tends to be cooked at home. For a true taste of homestyle Shanghainese cuisine, it does not get better than the Jesse restaurant. It’s very popular, so advance reservations are the way to go. If you’re looking for a more contemporary take on Chinese cuisine, Tze Tze is a fan of Fu 1088 and its vegetarian offshoot, Fu He Hui.
“Food in Shanghai tends to be quite heavy, so after a few days you might want something a bit lighter,” she shares. “Vegetarian options are still quite rare, and those that exist tend to offer a lot of starchy mock meat. Fu He Hui does vegetarian food in a more modern way.”
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