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How to Thoroughly Spoil Yourself in Shanghai

This week my lovely friend Dr S. is in town, visiting Shanghai for the third time. She’s practically a local now, so we can avoid going back to Yu Gradens for the tenth time and instead enjoy some of Shanghai’s less crowded sights. In fact, having friends in town is the perfect excuse to do the things you’d like to do every week – visit that fancy restaurant down the street, or spend the night in a jazz bar -but couldn’t quite justify doing on your own. So this week, we had an afternoon of completely indulgent beauty treatments at The Peace Hotel’s new Willow Stream Spa, followed by an evening of wonderful food and  jazz. What a great way to spend the day! 
The Willow Stream Spa has just opened, although the Peace Hotel re-opened its doors a year ago now. It’s an art deco dream, with a plush fit-out just as you’d expect from Shanghai’s favourite historic hotel, except a facial there costs no more than at my local salon so it seems like fantastic justification to go to The Peace Hotel instead. I wish I could have shown you the powder-blue skylit pool with striped sun-loungers, and the mahogony-furnished treatment rooms, but cameras were off-limits. 
Looking quite pink-faced and shiny by now, it was back to the French Concession for dinner at modern Chinese restaurant People’s 7. Exactly what constitutes modern Chinese food is hard to know, because modern Chinese cuisine is still very undefined, but the food at People’s 7 is light, and successfully metamorphoses some traditional dishes into their up-to-date counterparts.
The trickiest part of the evening is actually getting in the door. No doormen, mind you, just a dead-end with nine back-lit wells in the wall, and no door, no doorbell, no buzzer, and no idea how to get in. When we made our reservation though, they told us our ‘table number is 29’, and it took the very switched-on Dr S. less than two minutes to figure out that she needed to put her arm into the holes corresponding to ‘2’ and ‘9’ in the correct order, and suddenly the door slid back to reveal a dimly lit space of corridors and alcoves, where a waiter dressed in black guided us to our table while our eyes adjusted.

With tablepapers printed with Chinese word puzzles, and the same puzzles printed on plates by local ceramic studio Spin, you only hope that the food will be less tricksy. And it is. We began with a classic Shanghainese cold dish, ‘drunken chicken’ (chicken poached in Shaoxing wine) which had been deboned, gently poached and marinated, then chilled. Usually this dish consists of chopped chicken pieces, bones and all, so sharp bone shards are a constant distraction. It was delightful to enjoy the delicate flavours without having to worry about choking or where to put your spat out bone bits.

We followed with shrimp cooked with lily bulbs, a light and flavorsome stir-fry that allowed the delicate sweet flavour of the crunchy lily bulb petals to shine through. The restaurants’s specialty is mapo tofu cooked in paper and the spicy pork and tofu dish doesn’t disapoint, arriving atop a flaming burner which somehow heats the dish while failing to set the paper alight.
It’s my sixth or seventh visit to People’s 7, a rarity in itself in this city of ever-changing fortunes where restaurants come and go literally overnight. The food is consistently good, the service attentive, and visitors love the light Chinese flavours.
Next stop – back to The Peace Hotel for some old-time jazz. I still love seeing these guys play together – the average age of the self-titled Old Jazz Band is 77 years, and they play together like they’ve been doing it for decades, which I guess they have. Occasionally someone forgets to start a tune along with the others and just joins in randomly at his own pace, but no-one seems to mind, we’re all drinking old-fashioned favourites like martinis and Shirey Temples and enjoying the atmosphere. Get to Shanghai and get yourself some jazz, you’ll love it!

People’s 7 Restaurant 人间银七
805 Julu Lu,

+8621 54040707
Open 7 days for lunch and dinner

The Cathay Peace Hotel Jazz Bar
20 Nanjing Dong Lu
+8621 63216888
Open 7 days from 7pm, bookings suggested
No entry fee, minimum spend 150 rmb pp

Shanghai’s Jazz Age Returns to The Peace Hotel

Step out of your taxi on East Nanjing Road, just before it meets the Bund. You glance across the river at the bright lights of Pudong’s skyscrapers and the futuristic Pearl Tower, blinking pink against the dark sky, and gather your coat about you as the cool evening air swirls around your legs. You turn back and step through the oak and glass revolving doors of The Peace Hotel, and back in time some eighty years. It’s Shanghai, 1933. Look up at the golden glass art deco atrium as you walk towards the Orchid Lounge. To your left, a pair of heavy, dark wooden doors are where you’re headed, although they have no sign or title, no window to give some clue of what lies beyond them. No sound even, escapes from the room within, but as the hostess swings one open, you hear the sound of jazz, pure and simple. 
You walk in, your eyes adjusting to the dim light of the dark wood panelled bar. The famous Peace Hotel Jazz Band is seated and playing ‘The Very Thought Of You’, as couples, elegantly dressed, dance on the parquet floor. Some of the band played together at The Peace Hotel in the good old days, before the Cultural Revolution put a pause in their playlist. What stories they would have to tell! Or perhaps they see it as having come full-circle – Shanghai is again in its heyday, and they, once again, are playing old standards like Night and Day, and That Old Devil Called Love, as the audience sip gin and tonics and smoke cigars.

The Fairmont Peace Hotel Jazz Bar
20 Nanjing East Rd, near the Bund
Ph +86 21 6321 6888
The Jazz Band play nightly from 7.30 – 10.15pm, followed at 10.30pm by Theo Croker.
Reservations suggested. 100 rmb minimum order applies.

Eating at the Peace Hotel, 1962

The Peace Hotel, Art Deco masterpiece on The Bund, recently re-opened to great acclaim. Known as the Cathay Hotel when it was first built by famous Shanghai entrepreneur Sir Victor Sassoon in 1929, it is Shanghai’s most famous and well-recognised hotel with its iconic green copper pyramidal roof.

I was back there again yesterday for a function and to my delight they have now opened a tiny museum housing interesting objects from the hotel’s past. The museum’s curators asked locals to dig deep into their cupboards and find any ‘souvenirs’ they may have brought home with them from a visit to the Peace Hotel. What popped up were old key tags, cards, menus, and cutlery. Interestingly, all the hotel’s cards were in Chinese, English, Russian and French, reflecting the business mix of the day.

I love the serrated heavy metal key-tags – ‘Please Leave at Bureau’ and the old heavy hotel crockery. 
And of course I was transfixed by a menu from 1962 – just before the start of the Cultural Revolution, and not the hotel’s glory days, but fascinating all the same. Some of the gems from the front page of the 1962 menu included:
Stew Bean Curd Clot
Sparpows with Aniseed (could it really be sparrows? – only 0.6 yuan each!)
Cashew Nuts with Sea Liver Mosses
Jelly Fish with Golden Melon
The little museum is a bit tucked away, just ask the concierge ‘at the bureau’ to direct you. No entrance charge.

High Tea, The Peace Hotel

I went today to have high tea in the Jasmine Lounge of The Peace Hotel on The Bund. I should have prepped better for this high tea with a 24 hour fast beforehand – as it was I was woefully underprepared for the mountain of food that arrived, thankfully not all at once.  Opera cake, strawberry macaroons, chocolate butterflies, miniature doughnuts, smoked salmon on rye, all served with good quality darjeeling tea – heavenly. Just when I thought I couldn’t swallow another crumb, out came a plate of exquisite hand-made chocolates, including a green tea chocolate pyramid topped with gold leaf.
The real joy of the Peace Hotel though is in the surroundings. This masterpiece of art deco decadence opened in 1929, as The Cathay Hotel. Sir Victor Sassoon, the owner, and legendary entrepreneur, spared no expense on the incredible glass atrium ceiling, the art deco light fixtures, the bars and restaurants, and the rooms. Noel Coward wrote Private Lives while holed up here and every visiting diplomat and celebrity in the thirties stayed or dined here, Charlie Chaplin included. Sitting on the corner of Shanghai’s two most famous roads – Nanjing East Road and The Bund, it was the place to be seen.
Sadly years of political turmoil and state ownership from 1949 eroded and divided its beautiful interior, and covered up its art deco features. The rooms became offices, the atrium hidden, the beautiful tiles painted over. Although part of the hotel re-opened in 1956 as The Peace Hotel, now it felt like a sad ghost of its former self. It’s been under closed and renovation for the last three years, but as time dragged on and there was no sign of it re-opening I became apprehensive that the Chinese fervour for soul-less modernizations had taken hold here too. I shouldn’t have been worried. This is a true restoration, rather than a renovation, and all the incredible original features are unveiled – the banisters, the original art deco lights and heater grilles, the revolving doors, and the beautiful tiled walls. 

I’m looking forward to coming back soon to hear their jazz band play in the top floor bar, apparently with six of the original (now very elderly) members included. Bet they’d have a few stories to tell…….