Travel: Swept away by Shanghai

It may be one of the fastest developing cities in China, but locals in Shanghai still have a deep respect for tradition.

Sunday, 10th November 2013, 6:00 am
A busy street at Xintiandi district in Shanghai, China.
A busy street at Xintiandi district in Shanghai, China.

Shereen Low explores a destination where old meets new.

It’s almost 9pm, and a group of people are starting to gather in the middle of Xianxia park in Shanghai’s Changning district.

Taking off their jackets, they limber up with stretching exercises: twisting, tilting and turning. But this isn’t a flash mob of youngsters showing off the latest break-dancing moves; instead, the majority of these movers and shakers are over the age of 50.

Some locals use the dance sessions as a means of keeping fit and nimble while socialising, but some of the single men and widowers see the dances as a step-up to courtship.

When the music starts blaring from an iPod hooked up to a portable speaker, everyone grabs a partner and starts to dance. The couples move in unison, swinging and swaying as the music continues to play, ranging from recognisable Western classical tunes to old-school Chinese tracks.

This event takes place every night for around three hours without fail, even if the group leader is unable to make it.

Even though I decline offers to join in, this is certainly an experience I’ll never forget.

In the surrounding streets, late-night salons are still busy with customers, and the smell of delicious street food wafts from simple stalls. But only a few blocks away, shiny new buildings are a sign that Shanghai, in east China, is a city that’s changing day by day.

Thanks to an economic boom, the largest city in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is growing at an exciting rate.

With flights now servicing the destination with greater frequency (Cathay Pacific now fly to the former trading port via Hong Kong five times a day), tourist numbers are also set to rise.

But despite all the new developments, the city’s cultural core remains the same.

For every fancy hair salon, there is a cheaper - and more basic - alternative next door, where 60 RMB (around £6.30) buys you a dry shampoo wash, cut, blow-dry, head and shoulder massage, a cup of tea and even ear wax removal (not for the sensitive).

And while Western practices are becoming more popular, locals still follow a very traditional Chinese way of life.

Away from the tourist centres of the Bund, Nanjing Road and Huaihai Road, at People’s Park in Huangpu, there are paper flyers advertising eligible bachelors and bachelorettes. Parents are more than happy to ‘advertise’ their child for a serious relationship and, hopefully, marriage at the Marriage Market, which takes place every Saturday and Sunday afternoon.

The Chinese government still operate strict internet censorship controls - social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter are banned - so forget Instagram selfies and Facebook check-ins, and instead enjoy Shanghai the old-school way.

Start with the historical and beautiful Yu Garden, a haven of peace away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Built in 1559 as a private garden, during the reign of Ming Emperor Jiajing, it was declared a national monument in 1982. With stunning rock formations and intricate carvings, it’s a must for any visitor.

Surrounded by traditional shikumen (stone gate) houses, Xintiandi - which translates as “new heaven and earth” - was where the Communist Party of China first met in July 1921.

These homes have been redeveloped into an affluent area full of shops, eateries and bars, although history buffs can get their fill at the Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

Likewise, the French Concession - the former settlement for the French in 1849 - has been turned into bars, restaurants and homes, frequented by expats and locals.

But I finish off my stay with a truly authentic Chinese massage experience at a local salon in the Changning district. This no-frills, hour-long treatment, complete with sparse decor, bright lighting and vigorous kneading and pummelling, costs just 78 RMB (£8).

I leave feeling relaxed and with a spring in my step.

It’s fair to say that for all the changes taking place in Shanghai, there are still plenty of traditions worth preserving.

Where to stay?

:: Peninsula Shanghai

Located on the Bund, and overlooking the famous Pudong (east bank) skyline, the Peninsula Shanghai is on the site of the former state-run Friendship Store, which was only open to foreign tourists.

The grand hotel harks back to Shanghai’s glory days when the city was known as the Paris of the East, and is decorated with a roaring Twenties and Art Deco theme throughout.

Chauffeur-driven customised Rolls Royces (in the signature Peninsula green) or vintage BMWs can meet and greet guests from Hongqaio International Airport.

The facilities and service on offer in rooms are equally impressive - ranging from complimentary unlimited free calls worldwide, to a built-in electric nail dryer to dry freshly-painted nails.

Enjoy a drink with a glorious view at Sir Elly’s rooftop bar overlooking the Bund.

:: Doubles from 2,900 RMB (£304), excluding taxes. Visit www.peninsula.com

Where to shop?

:: Nanjing Road, Huangpu

One of Shanghai’s most famous shopping streets, the 3.4 mile-long Nanjing Road starts at the Bund in the east and continues past People’s Square towards the Jing’an district. Designer stores such as Tiffany & Co, Prada and Louis Vuitton sit alongside European brands such as Zara and L’Occitane, and local shops selling souvenirs.

:: Hongqaio Pearl Market, Hongmei Lu 3721

Each floor in this Aladdin’s Cave of goods specialises in certain products: clothes on the ground level, pearls on the second floor, while the third is for tailored clothes and fake goods.

If you’re lucky, the sales assistant will take you through a hidden sliding facade, where you can find good quality copies of luxury handbags, watches and more - be prepared to haggle over the price.

Where to eat?

:: Jardin De Jade, Block A, 2558 Yan’an Road West

Look beyond the grandiose interior, reminiscent of a flashy Las Vegas hotel, because the food on offer here is first class. The house speciality - xiao long bao (steamed soup dumplings filled with pork and crabmeat) - and jasmine tea-smoked duck are simply divine.

:: Lost Heaven

38 Gaoyou Road, Xuhui (www.lostheaven.com.cn)

Serving tribal food inspired by the legendary Ancient Tea Horse Trail which winds its way throughout the south-west province of Yunnan, Burma and Tibet, Lost Heaven is a gastronomic treat.

Where to party?

:: The Apartment, 47 Yongfu Road, Xuhui (www.theapartment-shanghai.com)

Modelled on a New York-style loft, this cosy lounge, which also has a rooftop area, serves food and great cocktails, and has a six-hour-long Happy Hour every day.

:: The Public

Second Floor, 174 Xiangyang Nan Lu, near Fuxing Zhong Lu, Xuhui

Since its relocation to Xiangyang Nan Lu, The Public - formerly known as The Apothecary - has a homely feel and provides Southern-style food such as fried chicken and sweet potato fries, and expertly mixed drinks.

Travel facts

:: Cathay Pacific (020 8834 8888; www.cathaypacific.co.uk) flies five times daily between London Heathrow and Hong Kong, with interconnecting flights to Shanghai from £719 return, with business class priced from £3,349 return. Terms and conditions apply.