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