February 15, 2001
The Melting Wok
Shanghai has overtaken Hong Kong to become the New York of Asia.
It was Friday night in Shanghai, a major linchpin of the Jewish Diaspora, and folks from all over the world were dropping in to wish Rabbi Greenberg "Shabbat shalom." But in the fastest-changing city in the world, we were gathered for worship in a skyscraper instead of one of the lovely old synagogues that served a 30,000-strong community less than a century ago.
Shanghai, where so many foreigners made their fortune before the Communist clampdown, is once again a melting pot for merchant adventurers, many of whom find common ground at Greenberg's services and haimish Friday night dinners. Both Sephardi and Ashkenazi dishes are served, symbolic of the town's dual-pronged Jewish heritage: the Sassoons, Hardoons and Kadoories whose fortunes built synagogues, schools and hospitals, and the second wave who took refuge here from pogroms and Nazi persecution.
Although religion is still not quite PC here, the churches are open again now that China has opened up to the world, even if the synagogues have been appropriated by the civil service. And the Shanghainese are once again doing what they do best -- trading their socks off and partying till dawn.
This fabulous metropolis of 20 million has awakened from a half-century of sleep and reclaimed its reputation for wicked fun. Dubbed the Paris of the East when the British and French ruled the roost, today's Shanghai is the New York of Asia, fast overtaking Hong Kong in importance.
Its great delight is that it's so accessible and user-friendly, looking like Europe with a touch of Chicago, full of tree-lined boulevards for strolling and skylines for gawping at. Thanks to a wealth of world-class architecture, the past and future are present simultaneously in Shanghai, which makes for heady viewing.
The elegant former French Concession is as famous now as in the roaring '20s for its smart shops, fashionable clubs and magnificent Art Deco buildings lining its main thoroughfare, the Huaihai Lu (formerly Avenue Joffre). Stroll east towards Fuxing Park, where locals touchingly celebrate the new liberalism with ballroom dancing in the open air beneath statues of Marx and Lenin, in whose names such decadent pursuits were once banned.
More traditional sights are concentrated in the Old Town, where most Chinese lived when Shanghai was a treaty port and the posher neighborhoods were reserved for foreigners. Beyond the tourist circuit of the Yu-Yuan Garden with its teahouse pavilion and nearby bazaar full of cheap and cheerful souvenirs lie the attractions of real life -- a huge cluster of convivial old men kibbitzing around a single game of Chinese checkers, a stall selling props for ancestor worship.
Shanghai's older generation is fascinating in every respect, not least its members' passion for keeping fit, which drives them into the parks and squares at first light to join tai chi sessions or perform their own keep-fit routines, oblivious to passersby. A common sight is the elderly lady flexing her leg into a high-kick atop a railing and the grandpa studiously walking backwards (they say it's good for the brain).
A good place to see all this action is around People's Square, a race course in Shanghai's heyday and now home to the world-class Shanghai Museum and Grand Theatre as well as charming little Renmin Park. It is approached from the Nanjing Lu, which runs from the famous Bund past endless department stores to the Shanghai Centre and beyond.
The Centre houses not only Greenberg, who hails from Brooklyn, and a whole host of apartments, shops and offices serving the ex-pat community, but the posh Portman Ritz-Carlton, which offers the city's most Western-style welcome. The "Porterman," as it's known in local parlance, boasts one of the world's finest Italian restaurants and a fabulous jazz bar; its caring staff is a welcome buffer against initial culture shock, and best of all are the private tours given -- for a price -- by the general manager in the sidecar of his vintage motorcycle.
The Ritz-Carlton is up against stiff competition from an equally glitzy establishment that enjoys the added luster of being the world's tallest hotel. The Grand Hyatt Pudong sits on the far shore of the Huangpu River, dominating a neighborhood that was wasteland just a few years ago and is now home to a whole clutch of futuristic, Blade Runner-type buildings, including the shocking pink baubles of the Oriental Pearl tower.
Owned by the Chinese government, the Grand Hyatt is less cozy than the Portman, but its views and facilities are unparalleled. No visitor to Shanghai should miss a visit to its 87th floor Cloud Nine bar, whose 21st century architecture is softened by traditional entertainment from magicians, Chinese fortune-tellers and paper-cutters who recreate your silhouette in seconds. The third-floor Pu-J's disco is one of the most hopping clubs in town, while Cucina, complete with wood-fired oven, recalls the buzzy brasseries of Milan, albeit with a fabulous view of the Bund.
To really experience Shanghai, it's vital to spend a good stretch of time on the Bund, ogling the splendid old buildings while gazing across the river at the new (and ideally, cruising between the two at night, when the buildings are floodlit with more wattage than Las Vegas). The spectacular Peace Hotel was built as the Cathay by Victor Sassoon in the '20s, when it was the site of the city's most fabulously glittering parties. However, in spite of its sumptuous Art Deco interior and famous jazz band, it is perceived as a tad overpriced for the level of service.
One hostelry on the Bund that is pricey but worth every penny is Australian Michelle Garnaut's fabulous restaurant M on the Bund. World food is served here amidst international buzz on the seventh floor of an old shipping building, with a huge terrace where it's possible to take drinks, with or without dinner, enjoying the best view in town.
Good food is not hard to come by in Shanghai, and the best native fare is also served in spectacular surroundings at Meilongzhen on Nanjing Lu, a 1930s building once Communist HQ and still a feast for the eyes, its wood-floored rooms ablaze with carved dragons, Chinese lanterns and waiters expertly dispensing chai -- the fragrant, leaf-laden brew served everywhere -- from teapots with two-foot spouts.
Getting around is cheap and safe, though not necessarily foolproof. Taxis are plentiful, with rides costing only a pound or two within the city; a recorded message provides an English welcome and reminds travelers to pay what's on the meter and demand a receipt. However, as drivers do not speak English, it's vital to get the hotel doorman to write your destination in Chinese and procure a driver who knows where he's going.
A great antidote to this frenetic city is a day trip to Zhouzhuang, the region's Little Venice, where you can cruise the canals, explore historic houses and find phenomenal bargains, especially in the side streets. A recent haul included silk devore scarves for $1.25 and evocative "antique" advertising posters for a similar price. In Shanghai itself, go with a guide to Huating Market, where fabulous fake designer handbags cost less than $15, or to Amy's Pearls in the suburbs, where real freshwater pearls, jade and silver are spun into fabulous confections.
But don't expect to fight the locals for the best bargains -- they're all at work aspiring to top-end goodies by Versace, Polo, Prada, Gucci and all the other international designers bullish enough to have set up shop in Asia's most happening city.