If China were to have its own New York or London, it would be Shanghai. It’s always been the city where the young of China and foreigners alike go to seek fame and fortune and has been developing at breakneck speed – it’s also one of the few places you’ll be see (/almost be run over by) a Lamborghini heading down the same street as an elderly man on an impossibly over-laden push bike. And the bike is probably making better time.
For tourists, the city is carved up into four different quarters, each with its own distinct personality. There’s Old Town, the Former French Concession, the Former British Concession (or ‘The Bund’ – meaning bank) and shiny new Pudong on the other side of the Huangpu river.
Visitors should try to see all these areas, but where should they stay? Having been there with business a couple of times recently, I wanted to try and find the best the city had to offer and managed to squeeze a lunch and quick tour at the historic Peace Hotel during at a recent fleeting visit.
Unlike many other high-end hotels in Shanghai (and the rest of the world), walking into Peace Hotel feels like taking a step back in time to a more glamourous age. Built in beautiful art deco style in the late 20s – the heyday of old Shanghai – it regularly welcomed world famous guests like Charlie Chaplin as and Marline Dietrich who stayed there in the early 30’s while filming “Shanghai Express” (pictured). Indeed the Dragon Phoenix restaurant where we ate once boasted more celebrity diners than any other restaurant in the world and was booked up for a year in advance.
Since then, the hotel has seen a great deal more. It was originally built by the wealthy bon viveur Victor Sassoon, heir of a very successful banking family – (their most successful trade at that time being importing then-legal opium into China). He invested millions of pounds into the city, totally transforming it himself. One of his greatest achievements was definitely the Cathay Hotel (Cathay meaning China) – he certainly liked it and the town, enough to set up permanent residence in the penthouse (now the Sassoon Presidential Suite) in the pyramidal tower atop the main building. A decade later he left, however, when the Japanese invaded. After they left it fell into the hands of the new communist government.
Most recently, it was closed for a three year renovation, restoring original features or recreating them loyally from historic photographs. It was reopened for the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 and is now managed with help from the Fairmont group.
There is a museum in the hotel which you can peruse and, like we did, you can also take a tour to see some of the amazing original and recreated features. We saw several areas including ballrooms, bedrooms and the Jazz Bar which hosts the world’s oldest jazz band (pictured). The hotel proudly displays the poster for a film made about them proclaiming: “They are not the best jazz band in the world, but they are the oldest,” the drummer taking the record at 92 years old! Every lampshade is exquisite and absurd little details like the greyhounds that Sassoon (being a lover of dog racing) had snuck into the deco prints, add even more character.
After our tour we made our way to the Dragon Phoenix, the hotel’s Chinese restaurant, to try some local and national delicacies. This room is also a fine example of the hotel’s rich history and also restoration. When the communists took over, they disapproved of the lavish decorations on the ceiling and the walls, the golden dragons representing the monarchy, opulence and old superstations. The then hotel employees were ordered to destroy them but loved the hotel so much they secretly papered over the decorations, thus saving them from being destroyed upon the second inspection. These have now been fully restored to their former golden glory.
The other treat for the eyes here is the view. Sitting on the Puxi side of Old Shanghai and looking across at Pudong and the new era of wealth in China that it represents is something to take in – the new ‘super-highrise precinct’ hosts many futuristic looking skyscrapers including the world’s second tallest building.
Of course this was not only to be a feast for the eyes as the highly experienced Chef Ma had put on an incredible meal consisting of nine of the restaurant’s specialities. The first course was a plate of four entrees (pictured), a piece of abalone (highly prized sea snail), cherry-styled fois gras, Shanghainese cucumber (sesame, garlic, vinegar) and their speciality fish (smoky, spicy, fried river fish). This perfectly captured the setting of the restaurant itself and the two sides of Shanghai on one plate, with two very traditional offerings and two very modern morsels.
The food was all extremely well cooked and presented and we went on to have a classic, light, Shanghainese specialty shrimp with peas; sautéed fish on bed of light egg-white mouse; Chinese style black pepper beef with asparagus, tomato, and black garlic. This was my personal favourite and was tender and delicious while my guest loved the sautéed fish, but we weren’t finished there – we continued on a gastronomical mushroom adventure with what I think were sea sponges and other mushrooms (always referred to on menus and tourist guides imaginatively as yellow fungus, black fungus and so on).
The eighth course was a new take on the classic pan fried (baozi) meat bun on a bed of fried onion. It was served in a sizzling hot terracotta pot and was definitely another high point for me (though we were about to explode at this point). The ninth and final dish was a fresh mango pudding with sago pearls and was just the thing by that point as anything more filling might have done for us.
As an outsider it was great to try local delicacies, Chinese favourites and also a couple of very Westerner-friendly options for my childish palate – plus the menu itself makes for a fascinating read! If you’re pressed for time or money (it’s not cheap, but with the Yuan everything becomes a lot less expensive – main course starting at about £10), you can also pop in for afternoon tea or to the jazz bar. The hotel is in a fantastic location to see all the best bits of the city, being one of the major silhouettes on the Bund skyline itself and really offers the best way to do Shanghai in style. Be warned though, there is an old saying about Shanghai that goes: ‘once you’ve been to Shanghai, you never really leave, and you will always return.’
Rooms start at 2150CNY but are currently on sale starting at 1290 (about £133/night)
Address: 20 Nanjing E Rd, Huangpu, Shanghai, China, 200002
Phone: +86 21 6138 6888