A Stroll through the Shanghai Night

Last night a dinner engagement with an old friend fell through and my wife had her own dinner plans with former colleagues, leaving me in the city center with two hours of empty time--a precious commodity in Shanghai.  I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the Shanghai nightscape.  From Xintiandi 新天地, where my wife and I had gone to have a cup of coffee, I strolled into the darkening evening, heading Bundward.  

Xintiandi is one of the famous tourist landmarks in Shanghai.  It was conceived in the late 1990s, after the Shanghai government designated the area for renovation.  Partnering with the HK based Shui On Development Group, they evicted thousands of tenants of the shikumen lanehouse neighborhood, tore down the old buildings, and put up sleek new apartments and office buildings.  Word has it that because the “sacred” site of the original meeting place of the CCP was in the ‘hood, they had to preserve that part and build around it.  Thus was born Xintiandi, a complex of renovated lanehouses that now house sleek boutiques, restaurants, and nightclubs, as well as the ubiquitous Starbucks.

To their credit, the designers maintained a sense of “authenticity” in the buildings.  There’s even a museum where one can get a sense of what these places looked like from the inside, stocked with antique furniture and photographs, old calendar posters and fan magazines from the 1930s.  Minus the peeling paint, cracks, smells, and decay of the real thing of course.  But just to remind us of what life is like in these old lanehouses, one is greeted at the entrance by a row of wooden chamberpots.

Xintiandi has been expanding outward, in spirit at least.  Heading eastward, I noticed that most of the buildings in the area replicated the style of Xintiandi--slickly renovated old houses and apt buildings with stylish cafes and shops.  
That soon gave way to the “real Shanghai” as I hit the end of the renovated area. 

I worked my way through a warren of old neighborhoods, with tiny mom and pop shops fronting the streets, selling everything under the sun.  Little hole-in-the-wall restaurants lit by the harsh florescent lights.  Hair salons with stylish young girls getting shampooed for the evening’s engagements.  People hanging out on their rickety wooden second-floor balconies looking down at the crowd on the street.  Laundry hanging everywhere.  Dark streets, lit up by tall streetlamps with light bulbs that should have been in somebody’s living room.

Making my way through the steamy heat of the plum-rain season, I passed through a vibrant night market on Shouning 寿宁 Road.  A whole slew of restaurants featured one of Shanghai’s favorite treats:  freshly boiled crawdads, all juicy and red, piled up in buckets.  Crowds of people lined up outside these busy snack halls, waiting for a spot to open.  
Then into a dark neighborhood of semi-abandoned lanehouses.  Burnt-out hulks of buildings designated for destruction, with a few families desperately hanging on to the remains of their houses before the final bulldozing session.  It was an eery feeling, passing through this half-dead neighborhood, soon to be replaced by a spanking new complex of apartment towers.

I soon reached the sparkling fairyland of the Yu Garden/Chenghuang Miao 豫园城隍庙 area.  Old-style wooden buildings with the upturned eaves beckoned with their fairy lights.  I strolled down Fangbang Road, the antique haven, but few stores were open this late at night.  Peasants approached me to hawk fake watches and handbags.

Finally the old buildings gave way to the skyline of the Bund.  I passed across the pedestrian bridge to the walkway lining the Huangpu River.  Tourists--mostly Chinese from other provinces--but also Europeans, mulled about, enjoying the night view.  Across the river, through the thick fog of the humid night, the buildings were lit up like Christmas trees.  In an extravagant display of wasted energy, the Citigroup building functioned as an electronic billlboard, pumping advertisements into the Shanghai night across its entire face, as did its next-door neighbor.  

For the first time, I noticed the electronic billboards on the boats that plied the river.  Lips, eyes, and faces of beautiful Chinese women lit the river as they passed across the face of the billboards carried by boats.  It was a scene right out of Bladerunner.  I thought of Neil Stephenson’s book Diamond Age, which describes similar scenes in Shanghai a century from now--only it’s happening today.

After snapping a few photos of the Bund nightscape, I made my way through an underground walkway to the old buildings that line the Bund.  I headed to Building Number 5 on the corner of Guangdong Road, which houses the now-famous Shanghai restaurant called M on Bund, and made my way up the elevator to the Glamour Bar.  Opened last year by M owner Michelle, this is one of many new trendy bars that now fill the cavernous old buildings built during the early twentieth century to house the city’s leading banks and private clubs.  Only a few customers there--it was only 8 pm after all, hardly Shanghai’s witching hour, but I got the feeling that this bar isn’t going to make it, or if it does, it will be heavily subsidized.

After quenching my raging thirst with a scotch and soda (50 RMB -- kaching!) and heading up to M on the Bund to take an obligatory photo from the top-floor balcony, I made my way back down and across the street to Building Number 3, which houses another set of fine clubs.  At the top floor, the bar was going strong.  I ordered another scotch and soda (60 RMB -- kaching!) and sat on the balcony overlooking the river, with a fine view of the Pudong skyline.  On my left was a group of British men and women, talking about their recent trip to India.  On my right was a trio of French women enjoying the scenery.  In front of me was a large group of Chinese businessmen, all dressed in nearly identical fashion, with dark suits and white colored shirts with black stripes or checks.  They were obviously there to strike a big deal.  Numbers were being exchanged, charts checked in the dim light of the evening.  A round of beers came out and they raised glasses in ritual form.  Another Shanghai neighborhood struck down in the clink of a glass?  Another high-rise transformed from paper to reality?  One of many possibilities.

I had some more time to kill and decided to head over to an old favorite haunt, Park 97 in Fuxing Park.  I discuss the development of Park 97 in an article that I’m hoping to publish next year on the clubbing scene in 1990s-2000s Shanghai.  I’ve been following the ups and downs of Park 97 for years now, since its opening in 1997.  A quick survey of the club revealed some recent renovations.  The DJ booth of the California Club has been shifted from the back to the front entrance of the club--a wise move in my opinion.  The Upstairs lounge space had been opened up, and the wall of an adjoining room knocked down.  Not a good move in my view.  There wasn’t much of a crowd there, but it was only 9 pm, and the party scene doesn’t really begin until 11.  I stayed to catch some of the DJ’s techno mix at the California Club and went Upstairs to take in a Brazilian band.  

Still waiting for my wife to finish up with her engagement, I had one more place to visit:  the  hip hop club known as Windows.  I cabbed over to Jingan Park, but found the place gone.  Not knowing where it had moved, I walked down Nanjing Road and noticed a few young students--Americans from the looks--heading up a set of stairs across the road.  I walked over and heard the beat of hip hop music, and realized it must have moved across the street.  Sure enough, walking up the steps, I saw the new Windows in its latest location.  It’s still a bit of a hole in the wall, but it was packed with young partiers, Chinese and western.  I didn’t stay long though--my wife called and picked me up at around 11 pm.  Good thing, since Windows, with its cheap drinks (10 to 20 RMB for a beer or whiskey) can be a very dangerous place.

This is a city on the move all right, with neighborhoods gentrifying at an amazing pace.  What takes decades to transform most cities is happening in Shanghai in the span of a few years.  It’s a real socioeconomic kaleidoscope, with the rich and/or well-connected (usually both) at the top calling the shots, the poor being constantly relocated by the thousands to the outskirts of the city, and a rising middle class caught in between.  A stroll through the Shanghai night reveals the vast socioeconomic transformations that are washing over China, and is well worth taking a few hours of your time.