Shanghai polishes its tarnished cachet

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SHANGHAI, China -- In the crowded bar of the Peace Hotel, down by the waterfront boulevard they call the Bund, as though it fronted some middle-European waterway and not a looping tributary of the Yangtze, a swing-and-sway orchestra of superannuated Chinese gentlemen cranks out 1930s standards like "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Sing, Sing, Sing."

To the strains of tinny riffs driven by an uncertain beat, visiting businessmen and local entrepreneurs clink chilled mugs of Tiger Beer or draft Xingtao and toast the closing of deals with shouts of "Gan bei," a Mandarin imperative to "dry the cup" that has left many a celebrant glassy-eyed and rubber-legged by the end of a festive evening.

To be sure, the sounds of Count Basie and Benny Goodman belong to a Shanghai of memory, re-created for itinerant baby boomers and the sons and daughters of China once removed from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.

In its glory, this "paradise for adventurers," as romantics once called it, was an international city built on a foundation of silk, tea, opium and sin and lubricated with the wealth of European businessmen, the arrogant "big noses" who staked out sections of town as their own and barred the locals from their midst with signs such as "No dogs or Chinese allowed."

Today, having emerged from a scarring Japanese occupation in World War II and then 50 years of stultifying Communist rule that is finally easing its economic if not its political grip, Shanghai seems poised to reclaim its cosmopolitan chic and, with it, to become a desirable destination for Western leisure travelers in an Eastern frame of mind.

There is, in fact, much for clients to see and do here, and during my four-day stay I could only begin to scratch the surface of Shanghai's wealth of attractions.

Certainly, no visit would be complete without a reverential bow to the past at the aforementioned Peace Hotel and a walk on the Bund, a magnificent, one-mile-long thoroughfare bordered on one side by the Huangpu River and on the other by Renaissance- and baroque-style buildings that date to the turn of the century.

One of the most notable of the Western-style structures, the Peace Hotel was the dream of entrepreneur Victor Sassoon, who opened it in 1926 as the Cathay Hotel. The Cathay became the place to be in Shanghai for ex-patriots, itinerant businessmen and artists, and it is said that Noel Coward wrote "Private Lives" while sitting in the hotel's wood-paneled American Bar.

Today, the hotel remains popular, its bar still a crowded gathering spot, although I don't think many new theatrical pieces will be written here until the brassy house orchestra is pensioned off and replaced by a pianist playing cocktail music, and probably not then, either.

The property, featuring 284 rooms, a variety of restaurants and a roof garden, is located at 20 Nanjing Lu, at one end of the most popular shopping street in town.

Many of the Peace Hotel's public venues and guest rooms offer views of the Shanghai skyline and across the Haungpu River to a new area of the city called Pudong, where venture capitalism and a state-controlled economy have reached an entente to create a $40 billion project destined to become the city's primary commercial center.

For now, the look of Pudong -- like the rest of the city a landscape of newly minted high rises, precariously articulated construction cranes and ever-encroaching highways -- is typified by the erector set architecture of the Oriental Pearl, completed in 1995 and the third-tallest TV tower in the world at 1,355 feet.

At once a source of pride and dismay (some locals consider it an aesthetic misfit, and who am I to argue with the accumulated wisdom of centuries of Chinese culture?), the Pearl offers stunning aspects of the city from its observation deck.

It is a short walk from the Peace Hotel to Yu'yuan Garden and Bazaar in the old city of Shanghai, where life is lived, to a remarkable degree, as it has been for more than a century.

Although the coolies, prostitutes and beggars who once scratched out a tenuous living here have given way to a vibrant community of residents, shopkeepers and sidewalk vendors, the Chinese City, as this area is known, still is characterized by rickety structures erected in the 16th century and earlier.

Here, visitors can go bargain for silk scarves, leather goods, ivory chopsticks and packets of loose green or black tea.

Some clients might want to try the local street food, an adventure in dining that, in my experience, covered the range of the good (hot spicy noodles), the bad (steamed mussels spiced with, yes, metal filings) and the ugly (a forbidding-looking, charcoal-grilled mystery-meat kebab). A gargantuan portion of stir-fried squid, sliced and diced with a cement trowel, got a thumbs up from one adventurous traveler.

The 16th century garden itself, whose interior and exterior walls are perforated with moon gates and geometrically patterned window cutouts, is a refuge from the maelstrom of the surrounding streets.

A Chinese aphorism holds that "a winding path leads to a secluded place" and, just beyond every gentle bend here, visitors wander among lotus ponds, bamboo groves, flowers and arched bridges as if they had somehow entered into the landscape of a classical oriental painting.

Adjacent to the garden is an open-air mall with a lovely tea house at its center and all manner of shops surrounding it. Among the busiest is a pharmacy, where clerks in white doctors' jackets hawk curatives such as ginseng root, herbs, berries, tonics, lotions and powders. If these don't do the trick, there is always acupuncture -- and you can get the needles right here.

Not far from the Yu'yuan section is the Shanghai Museum, a grand structure built in 1994 in the shape of a Chinese cooking pot complete with a "handle" running from one edge of the facility's roof to the other.

The seven-story museum features 10 galleries of beautifully mounted exhibits, including displays of bronze artifacts, porcelain pieces ("pottery belongs to all mankind, but porcelain is China's invention" is the inscription on a gallery wall), calligraphy, paintings, sculpture, jade, ceramics and the artwork of China's minority cultures.

The museum, at 201 Renmin Da Dao, is adjacent to Renmin Gongyuan or People's Park, located on the site of the long-defunct Shanghai Racetrack.

Alas, the China of peasants and the proletariat no longer abides the sport of kings, except in Hong Kong, where is it bigger than ever.

Most visitors will want to see some of the city's best-known religious shrines, such as the Jade Buddha Temple and the Longhua Pagoda, but I also would recommend a trip to the Jing'an Ancient Temple across the street from Jing'an Park, the former English cemetery, at 1469 Nanjing Lu.

This active shrine is not included on most must-see lists, but foot-sore and tired visitors will find its yellow-walled courtyard a much-appreciated island of tranquility.

For more information, contact the China National Tourist Office, in New York at (212) 760-9700; fax: (212) 760-8809, or in the Los Angeles area at (818) 545-7504; fax (818) 545-7506. The Peace Hotel can be booked through Utell.

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