While the Shanghai of today is undoubtedly a city on the verge, the truth is that the outpost once known as “The Whore of the East” has always been a frontier of sorts. Its checkered past as a dingy backwater-slum-turned-lawless-colonial-paradise gave rise to a reputation in the late 19th century as a place where anything goes, from high fashion to opium dens. Thisis where men came to get rich and women fled to escape arranged marriages. The illicit scene may have mellowed over the years, but Shanghai’s image as a vanguard of style lives on. It’s surely no coincidence that Karl Lagerfeld chose Shanghai as the setting for his Chanel Métiers d’Art collection last December. Lagerfeld imagined a journey that Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel might have made to the Orient. (Although she never visited China, her interest in chinoiserie is well documented.)
The Shanghainese of today are as style-conscious as ever. When we venture out into the streets the morning after our arrival, we’re surrounded by advertisements for luxury brands, upscale department stores and boutiques. Yet the flashy consumerism is counteracted around virtually every corner by a glimpse, however fleeting, of ancient China. We begin a tour of the Old City—a once-walled Chinese-owned area that is rapidly disappearing beneath the zeal for new development—at a serene Taoist temple, complete with distinctive upturned eaves and gray shingles. We walk through an eerily quiet wasteland of building rubble and arrive at a dilapidated neoclassical mansion that has been reclaimed by vines. Peeking inside the open courtyard, I’m heartened to see strings of laundry fluttering from the ironwork balconies and an urn full of goldfish—at least people are still eking out some kind of living here. Still, it feels like we’re witnessing the last gasp of a disappearing world.
Deeper into the Old City, the pace of life quickens. The streets narrow into alleyways lined with houses (known as longtangs) filled with people going about quotidian tasks: beating their washing, chopping greens, washing out chamber pots, beheading fish and preparing lunch on open-air wood stoves. Blocks of scruffy-looking 1960s apartment towers loom over the scene, and beyond them skyscrapers vie for attention against a heavy sky. We stop for lunch at Lu Bo Lang (Yuyuan Lu 115), a famous Shanghai Dim Sum joint in the centre of Yuyuan Garden (a 16th-century garden that’s one of the major landmarks of the Old City). Servers bustle from one huge round table to the next, replenishing pots of tea and producing an endless stream of steaming family-style dishes—stock-filled dumplings, whole-baked crispy fish, and plates of slippery noodles—for the happy ?chattering hordes.