The furious pace of China's urban transformation has led many to assume that all that is old is being destroyed - razed and replaced by the new. Yet, despite its science-fiction skyline, Shanghai's 21st-century ambitions are crucially entwined with recalling its historical heyday.
Some of Shanghai's most majestic mid-century architecture is lodged between the vibrant hub of People's Square and the glamorous refurbishment of the Bund, the city's iconic promenade. After decades of desertion and disuse, these buildings are being brought back to life.
Today, in the blocks behind the Bund, tangled webs of hanging wire mask neoclassical and art deco masterpieces. Massive columns, carved window frames and a lobby with tile murals and stained glass stand in contrast to the street peddlers and the hanging laundry that sways overhead. On sunny days, makeshift tables spill onto the sidewalk offering a place for workers to sit and slurp their noodles; the chef is set up in a corner of a lane house (or lilong) where the slow rhythms of an older way of life prevail.
Yet, like everything else in Shanghai, this long neglected neighbourhood (just a 30-minute walk north of the World Expo grounds) is changing fast. Trendy restaurants, luxury shopping plazas, avant-garde galleries and stylish hotels have all opened - or are due to open soon. Here, the layers of time collide, making this the perfect zone within which to explore all the complexities and contradictions of contemporary Shanghai.
LOST HEAVEN Lost Heaven on the Bund, one the city's most popular restaurants, signals the area's current revitalization. Its four storeys of intricately carved, dark wood chairs, elaborate brass table settings, embroidered cushions, massive door frames and hanging masks create an atmosphere of hidden jungle temple deep within the city. The restaurant specializes in the tribal cuisine from a region described as the "Mountain Mekong," an area that includes China's Yunnan province, Tibet, Burma and Northern Thailand. The menu of exotic dishes features fish steamed in banana leaves, stir-fried pomegranate flowers and papaya salad. After dinner climb up to the roof top bar for a peek at the view beyond. 17 Yan'an Dong lu; 86-21-6330-0967; www.lostheaven.com.cn
HAMILTON HOUSE A few blocks away, Hamilton House, at the octagonal intersection of Jiangxi Lu and Fuzhou Lu, is an emblem of the futurism of 20th-century Shanghai. The art deco high-rise was commissioned by legendary tycoon Victor Sassoon, a Baghdadi Jew who arrived in the city in the late 1920s and built a real-estate empire whose remnants still shape the urban core. The ground floor of the building was recently converted into a fashionable bistro, where patrons sip cocktails and dine on fusion cuisine in the opulent interior. 137 Fuzhou Rd.; 86-21-6321-0586; www.hamiltonhouse.com.cn
ART GALLERIES Hong Kong heiress Pearl Lam has opened Contrasts - one of the city's finest galleries. It is located on the first floor of a 1934 modernist tower, once the Commercial Bank of China, that was built as a minimalist mirroring of the art deco twins across the street. Devoted to a contemporary version of China's ancient literati tradition, the gallery shows the work of China's avant-garde. Don't miss the basement, where Lam keeps her collection of designer furniture. 181 Middle Jiangxi Rd.; 86-21-632-1989, www.contrastsgallery.com
East Asia Contemporary, nearby, showcases cutting-edge artists from the region. 110 Dianchi Rd.; 86-21-6321-9678; www.eastasiacontemporary.com
TRADITIONAL CRAFTSMANSHIP Farther down Fuzhou Lu, toward the Bund, are two small shops dedicated to reinventing tradition. Suzhou Cobbler and Blue Shanghai White, which share the same old grey brick building, give a contemporary touch to time-honoured Chinese crafts. Suzhou sells silk slippers large enough to fit Western feet, and Blue Shanghai White specializes in hand-panted porcelain of the ancient ceramic capital Jingdezhen. Teapots, mugs, plates, vases and even furniture are decorated with the owner's original designs.
17 Fuzhou Rd.; 86-21-6321-7087; www.suzhou-cobblers.com
17-103 Fuzhou Rd.; 86-21-6323-0856; www.blueshanghaiwhite.com
GARDEN IN THE CITY Immerse yourself in the old British flavour of the area with a stop at Bund Garden. This garden villa was once a part of the neo-Gothic Holy Trinity Cathedral and School, made famous by its former student, author J.G. Ballard. The complex was built in stages at the end of the 19th and early-20th centuries and has recently undergone a multiyear restoration. The villa - designed as the rector's house - has been converted into a restaurant and boutique hotel. Upstairs, large rooms are furnished with original antiques, but the real treat is the back garden, a hidden oasis that backs onto the old cathedral. Here, you can retreat completely from the city, sitting under the trees, sipping tea and listening to the old church bells. Not surprisingly, this is a popular venue for wedding parties. 200 Hankou Rd.; 86-21-6322-3855
SIP A LITTLE HISTORY The refashioned Bund Tea Company offers a taste of traditional Chinese tea culture. This 1908 building was once home to a British shipping company that specialized in the tea trade. Inside, rows of tins hold green, black and flower teas. Discover why the British became so addicted to these leaves as you sit under the chandeliers at a table ceremonially set up for tea tasting. 100 Dianchi Rd.; 021-6329-0989; www.bundtea.com
NIGHTLIFE LAN club, in a four-storey neoclassical building, is striking for its over-the-top opulence. Extravagances include a cigar bar, a private banquet room with a wall-size painting of the Three Gorges Dam, hallways with colourful hanging lanterns and a stuffed peacock. On the top floor the French restaurant Papillon has a garden interior with inviting couches, a glass ceiling and living wall. Go for lunch when everything is half price. 102 Guangdong Rd.; 86-21-6323 8029
COMMUNITY RENEWAL More than anything else, what guarantees the future of the neighbourhood is a vast new development emerging at its northern tip, close to where the Huangpu River meets Suzhou Creek. Known as the RockBund, this massive restoration project encompasses 11 heritage buildings and is part of a refurbishment of the entire Waitanyuan (or Bund Origin), which includes the sprawling grounds of the former British Consulate and a newly landscaped park at the river's edge. The old headquarters of the Royal Asiatic Society, which has been remade as the Rock Bund Art Museum, will be the first building to open next week with an exhibition from the famous firework artist Cai Guo Qiang. 20 Huqiu Rd.; 86-21-3310-9985; www.rockbundartmuseum.org
Special to The Globe and Mail
Editor's note: The Bund neighbourhood is a 30-minute walk north of the World Expo grounds. This version has been corrected.