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Shanghai surprises

History can be difficult to come by in China’s most cosmopolitan metropolis. In a bid to reimagine the city’s golden age, Kendall Hill goes in search of its last art deco treasures.

Meeting Audrey Hepburn was the last thing I expected in Shanghai. I find her down the end of a long corridor off Nanjing Road West, where she shimmers to life as a projection on a wall. One moment she's playing coquette in Roman Holiday; the next, she's slowly raising her giant black sunglasses in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Because she is almost life-sized, and because not another soul is around, it feels as if I am having a private audience with the resurrected star. It is a spine-tingling encounter.

What I did expect was to be overwhelmed by Shanghai's massive scale and boundless humanity. How on earth do you get the measure of a place this huge in just five days? With local estimates putting the population at 19 million official residents and another six million permanent migrant workers, Shanghai is bigger than Australia. Clearly, I need to narrow my focus. So, armed with a copy of the 1934 guidebook All About Shanghai and Environs, I arrive determined to hunt down echoes of the city's '30s boom era. The idea is that I will use this account of Shanghai's first golden age to navigate the mayhem of its second. I want to witness, if possible, the romance of what the guidebook describes as "the most cosmopolitan city in the world, the fishing village which almost literally overnight became a great metropolis".

But first I need somewhere to stay. Fate intervenes in the form of the newish Langham Yangtze Boutique hotel, a 1934 art deco charmer in the heart of Shanghai's west bank, Puxi. This sophisticated small hotel (96 rooms, two of them rooftop suites) opened in May 2009 under the charge of venerable innkeepers Langham Hotels International. In its glamorous heyday, the then Yangtze Hotel was a popular haunt of Chinese society, attracting starlets such as Zhou Xuan, Hu Die and Ruan Lingyu - China's answers to Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Harlow. The hotel has since been sumptuously restored to its art deco roots, complete with ornate glass skylight above the tea lounge and bespoke furniture in jewel colours against geometric black and gold backdrops. It's a fine base for a journey back in time.

I begin my meanderings at the Bund, "one of the most striking and beautiful civic entrances in the world", just as visitors of old would have done after arriving by steamer up the Huangpu River. Its grand sweep of neoclassical and Beaux-Arts monuments remains a striking statement of corporate vanity - even though most of the original inhabitants have long since departed, sent packing by the Communists.

The most ostentatious tenant is the 1923 Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation headquarters, a grand folly of columns and domes designed to eclipse its neighbours. Now a Chinese bank, its foyer is open daily for visitors to admire the ceiling frescoes realised by imported Italian craftsmen, and the opulent dome crowned with a mosaic of Ceres, Roman goddess of abundance. The HSBC architects couldn't have picked a more apt figurehead for modern Shanghai, now the biggest city in the world's fastest growing economy.

From the 1916 Asia Building to the 1914 Banque de L'Indochine, the Bund is a grand museum of early 20th-century architectural ornamentation. And it is simple for outsiders to interpret, thanks to historical plaques on the façades that provide a brief history of each building. Quite a few of the strip's star attractions, however, are in the throes of major renovations; some, such as the legendary Peace Hotel, have scheduled grand reopenings to coincide with this year's World Expo. Others, like the fabled Shanghai Club - once renowned for having "the longest bar in the world", according to the guidebook - are still some years from completion. Clearly I'm not the only one with a penchant for times past; it seems everywhere I look, gimlet-eyed developers are busy remodelling heritage gems into luxury hotels or apartments or, in the case of the old Palace Hotel, which once occupied the south building of the Peace Hotel, a luxury hotel and design centre for the Swiss watch company Swatch.

Elsewhere, the traditional "shikumen" terrace houses of former slums Xintiandi (New Heaven on Earth) and Tianzifang have been reborn as boutique villages of cafés and galleries patronised by the local bourgeoisie. Neither place rates a mention in my 75-year-old guidebook but that's hardly surprising. They are only remarkable now because they were spared the wrecker's ball and preserved for posterity. Their attraction is summed up in a quote about the redevelopment I find at the Shikumen Open House Museum in Xintiandi: "Older people find it nostalgic, younger people find it trendy. Foreigners find it Chinese and Chinese find it foreign."

North of the Bund, across Garden Bridge (now Waibaidu Bridge) into the old American Concession, there are few reminders of the city's 20th-century salad days. The Astor House Hotel, still staffed by Chinese doormen in kilts, opened in 1846 as the Richards Hotel and was the first Western property in China. Portraits of prominent past guests - US president Ulysses S Grant (he stayed here in 1879), Albert Einstein (1922), Charlie Chaplin (1931 and 1936) - hang from the foyer's mahogany pillars, while a timeline recalls seminal moments in the Astor's history, such as the introduction of electric lamps in 1882. The Chinese, rather poetically, called the lamps "mysterious artificial moons".

The nearby GPO is perhaps the grandest of the city's civic piles and also an official sales point for Expo tickets, so handy to know. There are further glimpses of Shanghai's elegant past in the brindle-brick towers of the 1934 Broadway Mansions and the pagoda-roofed building of the Shanghai Dock and Engineering Company, but the bulk of its antique beauty has been bulldozed and redeveloped into towering high-rises.

It's the same story across the city. There are 12 official preservation zones, including the Bund and the French Concession, but they represent a small souvenir of heritage in a vast metropolis. Conservation architect and guide Spencer Dodington tells me that about 80 per cent of "old" Shanghai has been razed and rebuilt since the mid-1990s. Pudong, the staggering new CBD on the Huangpu's east bank, is a compelling case in point. Its first superstructure, the Oriental Pearl, or Space Tower, went up in 1995. Fifteen years later, this former industrial zone houses hundreds of skyscrapers, including the current third- and sixth-tallest buildings on earth.

There's a line in the guidebook that seems to forecast this glittering future. At one point it rhapsodises about Shanghai being "an immense and modern city of well-paved streets, skyscrapers, luxurious hotels and clubs… and much electricity". Yes, loads of electricity - the place sparkles like the Cullinan diamond at night. Obviously, old Shanghai has lost much else besides buildings. I find myself hankering for its archaic street names, purged during the Cultural Revolution. Mohawk Road is now Huangpi Bei Lu, Love Lane is Wujiang Lu, and Nanjing Road West was once the famous Bubbling Well Road.

Bubbling Well is still home to a few treasures, including the 1934 Park Hotel, once billed as the tallest building outside the Americas and "the most luminous hotel in the Far East". A few doors west is my favourite discovery, the Art Deco Grand Theatre. Its geometric lines, contoured finishes and period fonts have been so impeccably maintained that on entering its foyer I feel, for the first time, as if I am genuinely stepping back in time. And, of course, bumping into Audrey in the deserted movie museum is an added thrill. She was just one of many classic beauties I encountered in Shanghai.


The Langham Yangtze Boutique has double rooms from $320. 740 Hankou Rd, Shanghai, +86 2160 800 800

The Shanghai World Expo runs until 31 October.

Texan expat Spencer Dodington is an engaging authority on Shanghai and its architecture. He runs Luxury Concierge China, a bespoke tour company. +86 1350 166 2908

All About Shanghai and Environs: The 1934-35 Standard Guide Book (China Economic Review Publishing, $20, pbk)is available online from Earnshaw Books.


The Langham Yangtze Boutique has double rooms from $320. 740 Hankou Rd, Shanghai, +86 2160 800 800

The Shanghai World Expo runs until 31 October.

Texan expat Spencer Dodington is an engaging authority on Shanghai and its architecture. He runs Luxury Concierge China, a bespoke tour company. +86 1350 166 2908

All About Shanghai and Environs: The 1934-35 Standard Guide Book (China Economic Review Publishing, $20, pbk)is available online from Earnshaw Books.

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