When I first went to Shanghai in the Winter of 1990, the only company I had was a backpack and a money belt light on ready cash. Having steamed up the coast by "slow boat" from Hong Kong, I disembarked shortly after dawn on the third day to find a city with just paddy fields on one side of the Huangpu river and a neo-classical time warp called the Bund on the other. My lodgings were a rambling Victorian mansion crammed with fellow backpackers and I remember getting a bed in a draughty corridor rather than a room. For visitors then, the biggest challenges were negotiating your way around a city with virtually no English signs and trying not to get mown down by the thousands of bicycles teeming down every street.
Those paddy fields are now filled with the glass skyscrapers of the Pudong business district. On one side of the river the 21st century is evolving at a fast clip. On other side the imposing European buildings lining the Bund feel more like the 19th. The 20th century seems to have been sunk somewhere in the middle.
It is a cliché of every single guidebook and article about Shanghai to say it is a city in a continuous process of re-inventing itself. And yet the cliché is the one constant about Shanghai. Every time I come back, I'm amazed by whatever grand new plan the city's government has dreamed up. This time I was told it was thinking of lifting the Exhibition Centre eight metres off the ground so drivers can have a better view of it from the Highway.
Unlike many noisy, polluted, concrete-ridden Asian cities, I am nearly always impressed with Shanghai. Possibly it's because I like old buildings and the one era Shanghai likes to re-invent most is the edgy glamour of the 1930's when the city's gangsters, jazz bars, art deco buildings and fast living earned it the moniker the "Paris of the East."
My current visit didn't get off to the best of starts when the American guy sitting next to me on the plane threw up the contents of his in-flight meal over both of us just as we were coming in to land. Chicken fettucini, chocolate ice cream and someone else's stomach bile are not the most aromatic combination, particularly when you have to remain in your seat because the plane is approaching its final descent. Things only picked up once I came through the arrivals hall to find a limousine awaiting me from the Ritz Carlton. In deference to the poor driver's nostrils, I kept the windows open for the 45-minute drive into town.
The 50-storey Portman Ritz Carlton hotel is located at the far end of Shanghai's famous shopping street, Nanjing Lu, on the edge of the French concession. Ensconced in one of the club rooms towards the top, I had a wonderful view out over the city. Walking out of the hotel lobby, it hardly felt as if I was in China at all. Starbucks, Mrs Fields Cookies, a Hagan Daaz ice cream shop and a modern supermarket are all in its forecourt. Back in 1990, the only Western restaurants I remember were in the ancient Jinjiang and Peace Hotels. Now the city is crammed with restaurants of every description, perhaps the most impressive looking of which is Ashanti Dome, a renovated Russian Orthodox church in the French concession, where guests dine on French cuisine in the frescoed cupola at the top.
Shanghai is definitely a city to visit with friends and I was glad my friend Helena was also in town from Hong Kong attending a Harvard Business School reunion with a large number of Chinese-returnees all full of plans of how to make their fortune. Over the course of the weekend we decided to try and visit as many of Shanghai's top restaurants and bars as we could fit in. Helena grew up in Shanghai and we started with a traditional Shanghainese lunch in the Jinjiang Hotel, which had some of the best and freshest Chinese vegetarian food I have ever tasted.
The next day it was lunch at Yong Foo Elite, a new dining club that specializes in classical Chinese cooking. Yong Foo Elite captures just about everything visitors love about Shanghai. The setting is magnificent: being right at the heart of the French concession in a former British consulate mansion house. The garden is dominated by a huge magnolia tree that sprawls over the main dining terrace and is dotted with candles, making it a perfect place for drinks after dark. Indoors, the chandeliers and art deco glassware give the mansion a turn of the century feel. The owners have collected an eclectic mix of Chinese and European antiques. In the study, for example, vintage 1960's Gucci armchairs are juxtaposed with a Ming dynasty bed tucked away in a corner.
There is still nowhere quite like the French Concession with its tree lined streets, two storey houses and unexpected discoveries. Many of its bars and restaurants have gardens where you have to strain to hear the traffic. Some of the most popular include Red and Face Bar, still the loveliest and hippest place in town.
Face Bar and its accompanying Indian and Thai restaurants are set in a former mansion house in the grounds of the Ruijin Guest House, which comprises a series of mansions built in the 1920's by a British entrepreneur who ran the city's dog racing circuit. Face is always busy at night, with many drinkers spilling out over the terrace steps onto tables around the grounds.
Like many haunts in Shanghai, Face is partly famous for its toilets, which are done to resemble a sauna, although when I went in to have a look the air-conditioning appeared to be set on Arctic mode. Over the course of the weekend, at least two people I had drinks with said they always check out the toilet facilities at bars before the drinks menu. It appears to have become something of a craze and reaches its apogee at People 7, located next to Shanghai's best Japanese restaurant, Shintori.
Getting into People 7 is an art in itself. Not because there is a bouncer or an incredibly long queue at the door, but because there doesn't appear to be an obvious handle, knob or button. A similar rule applies to the toilets and it's not a good idea to go in search of them if you're desperate. It took me more than a couple of minutes to work out how to get in and once I had I was dismayed to discover there didn't appear to be any means of lighting the cubicle. This leaves the hapless user with three options. Either shut the door and sit in the dark hoping for the best. Wedge your foot in the door and hope no-one comes past, or go and seek help. I chose the third option. Had I chosen the first, I would have been halfway to discovering the trick.
Aside from the toilets, People 7 is famous for its bamboo curtain, which is floodlit at night behind a wall of glass. It is a great place for romantic drinks, or for quietly chatting on the big white sofas.
Aside from the wonderful décor, the other thing, which always strikes me about Shanghai is the atmosphere. Bars of such a standard in London or New York would either be heaving or exceptionally difficult to get into. In London, they would also probably be hot, smoky, ear-splittingly loud and shut before midnight. The only places that bear any passing resemblance in Shanghai are Park 97 and Guandi. Both have great locations on the edge of Fuxing Park and both are always packed.
For the most part, it feels as if Shanghai's population has yet to catch up with the growing multitude of bars and restaurants. Most seem full of returnees, expats and visitors. This felt particularly true of 3 on the Bund, a grand old building that opened after extensive renovation earlier this year and houses Giorgio Armani on the ground floor, an Evian spa on the second and two five star restaurants - Jean George and Laris - on the upper floors. There is also a fantastic bar on the seventh floor called New Heights. Most of the customers sit outside under a floodlit palladium dome, which has spectacular views out across the Bund.
Next door is M on the Bund, the original Bund landmark, with its large drinks terrace at the front of a restaurant often voted among the world's top 50. Further down the road, I was told 18 on the Bund, is the next building under renovation, with the promise of a five star French restaurant.
After a weekend of constant eating and drinking, the Ritz Carlton's general manager, Marc DeCocinis, asked me if I would like to top it off with a drive around town in the side car of his vintage 1940's motorbike. Feeling like we were in a World War II movie, we set off on Monday morning for a whistlestop tour of the city and obligatory drive down the Bund. Half the time it felt as if we were the main tourist attraction. Marc says he takes select guests out on the bike a couple of times a week and some go on to buy their own from V Sidecars, a Shanghai-based company that restores the old Chang Jiang bikes.
Amid all this running around I also found time to try the new Banyan Tree spa. When most people think of the luxury Banyan Tree group, it is tropical beaches, which spring to mind. However, the group also operates a number of city spas, of which the one in Shanghai (in the Westin Hotel, off the Bund) is particularly impressive. A striking red, black and gold colour scheme is balanced by an air of incredible tranquility and the ministrations of softly-spoken Thai staff.
The spa's signature treatments are called the Yin Yang packages, which are based around the five elements: earth for balance; water for relaxation; wood for renewal; fire for vitality and gold for purification. Having stayed out drinking for most of Saturday night, purification seemed like a good option for a Sunday afternoon.
The two hour session included a sesame wrap to ease water retention followed by a Swedish massage and steam bath to eliminate toxins. Helena fell asleep during her massage. I may have had a few too many toxins to have done so during mine.
Treatments at the Banyan Tree are a very different indulgence to the kind we had been enjoying for the rest of the weekend. It was the perfect way to round off two days of history, hedonism and quite a lot of happy hours.