The changing face of Shanghai

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Fast-paced and commercially focused, Shanghai has paved the way for modern China. Felicity Cousins follows the city’s plans as it prepares to host its biggest event yet.

In the centre of Shanghai, opposite People’s Square, stands the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. Over the doorway, digital numbers morph into one another, counting down the days until the city hosts the biggest event in the world. In 2010 it will be the location for the World Exposition (World Expo), with around 200 countries set to take part, and a  staggering 70 million visitors expected over the six-month period.

The first World Exposition was held by Queen Victoria in 1851 in Hyde Park, London, to showcase Great Britain’s success as an industrious and inspirational nation. Crystal Palace was built especially for the displays and the Queen was so enamoured with the design that, when the exhibition was over, she had the whole glass structure moved and rebuilt as a permanent palace in south-east London. Although Crystal Palace has since burnt down, World Expo has come astoundingly far, with a guaranteed spotlight shining on any host nation, along with hundreds of countries showcasing their own achievements. Shanghai has set aside 5.28 square kilometres between Nanpu Bridge and Lupu Bridge along both sides of the Huangpu River for the event. The theme is based around urban life and the tag line is: “Better city. Better life.” This should come as no surprise. Shanghai is the largest economic and transportation centre in China and, according to the Rough Guide to Shanghai, has since the early 1990s been the fastestgrowing city in the world – ever.

By 2020, it is predicted to be the richest economic region in the world. Theresa, my guide from Destination China, explains the rapid development of the city. We are standing on the most famous street in Shanghai – the Bund (also known as the Champs-Elysées of China) – which features some of Shanghai’s most beautiful colonial buildings, from the Peace Hotel to the Bank of China. The Bund was the centre of commerce in the late 19th century, as a result of the investment from international banks and autonomous foreign concessions, including the British and the French. Today, the elderly come here for romantic walks along the waterfront, and the young for the nightlife.

On the opposite side of the river is the modern face of Shanghai, the skyline of Pudong. “Twenty years ago all of that area was rice paddies,” says Theresa, pointing to the impressive cluster of buildings, standing like a group of punk rockers, all with their own distinctive hairstyle. It’s the tops of the buildings which distinguish them from each other – each architect trying to outdo his predecessor. “The city is changing so much now that every six months we have to produce a new city map,” she adds. To get a better idea of the scale of Shanghai’s plans, we head to the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. Inside the cool interior is a large room with a perfectly sculpted scale-model of the city.

Pudong is still growing outwards (with the construction for World Expo) and upwards too – the Shanghai World Financial Centre is nearly finished and will be the tallest building on mainland China and the thirdtallest in the world. It will also house a Park Hyatt on floors 79-93, making it the tallest hotel in the world. Theresa says: “In Pudong everything is bigger and better.” It does seem like a dream neighbourhood – we watch an IMAX film, which takes you on a virtual 3D journey, swooping through spotless traffic-free streets of Shanghai, with a spookily calm voice-over repeating: “Better city. Better life.” It certainly gives you an idea of the scale of the megalopolis (and makes you slightly giddy), but it is not the real world.

Ian L Jones is general manager of the brand new Swissotel Grand Shanghai in the Jing’an business district on the opposite side of the river from Pudong, (full review on page 64). Chatting to him in the Flow lobby bar of the hotel, he explains that the city needs to keep up with the pace it is setting itself. “Shanghai is fast becoming Asia’s hottest MICE location, with a year-round programme of corporate meetings and events that will culminate in the 2010 World Expo.” Looking around the new hotel, it has anticipated the increase in MICE business, with two ballrooms, six function rooms and dedicated conference staff. But the problem is not with the venues, as Jones explains: “With Expo, the problem is the infrastructure, and actually getting to those conference centres in Pudong. It could take an hour in the traffic from Jing’an, so they really need to sort out the infrastructure.”

The government does have one way of controlling the traffic – by putting off potential car drivers altogether with extortionate prices for licence plates (and thus the right to drive a car). Theresa explains that you have to bid for a car licence plate at auctions and prices can reach CNY50,000 (a hefty £3,600) – although this has recently dropped to a more reasonable CNY35,000. People will pay these prices because having a car is a status symbol in China. If the roads are a cause for concern, there are other options. The Maglev train makes the 30-kilometre journey from Pudong airport to the city in an incredible seven minutes and 20 seconds and costs CNY50 one-way (as opposed to up to two hours in a car). And the subway system is good too.

Swissotel Grand Shanghai

What’s it like?

Swissotel Hotels and Resorts is owned by Fairmont Raffles Hotels International and entry into the Chinese market is just taking off. There are currently three Swissotels in China – one in Beijing, another just outside Shanghai in Kunshan (previously a Shangri-La) and this new-build, which had its soft opening in May. The 30-storey hotel is beautifully designed, with a sweeping staircase from the lobby lounge up to the mezzanine first floor, where the restaurants and chocolate shop reside.

Where is it?

In the Jing’an business district, close to the popular Nanjing West Road, which leads all the way to the Bund. It is next door to the Jing’an Temple and gardens. The hotel is a 50-minute drive from Pudong International airport and 20 minutes from Hongqiao airport. Alternatively, try the Maglev train from Pudong, which covers the 30 kilometres into the centre in just over seven minutes.

How many rooms?

467, including 94 Classic, 125 Premier, 150 Swiss Advantage and 83 Executive Club rooms, as well as three Pinnacle Suites, 11 Executive Suites and one Presidential Suite. Executive Club rooms (and all suites) have exclusive access to the Club Lounge with personal check-in and check-out, breakfast, snacks and free wifi access. (Pinnacle and Executive Suites are on floors 26-29.)

Room Facilities

All rooms have high-speed internet access (CNY120/£9 per day), LCD TVs, dual phone lines, desk, radio, safe, minibar (mine was an empty fridge), tea and coffee-making facilities, air-conditioning, iron and ironing-board, and 24-hour room service. The only difference in Classic, Premier and Swiss Advantage rooms is the size, and which floor the rooms are located on. My Premier room had modern décor and stylish design. It overlooked a large shopping mall and there was a good working area with a desk, a directional light and a leather chaise longue to relax on. The bed was very firm, but it was extremely comfortable. The bathroom had a bath with a separate rain shower, and glass walls so you could see the TV, as well as own-brand toiletries (including a wooden comb and a shaving kit) and a thick fleece-lined bathrobe.

Restaurants and bars

Café Swiss on the first floor has open kitchens serving Japanese, European, and Chinese fare. It’s open all day and has intimate seating for dinner as well as informal for breakfast. One perk is you can choose your own smoothie by pointing out your favourite fruits and the chef will whip it up. Next to Café Swiss is Mian Ba, a Chinese noodle bar where you write your order on a roll of paper as in traditional restaurants. The Flow bar is in the lobby and has running water surrounding it – when I visited, the chocolate shop was about to open. By the end of July there will be a high-end steakhouse and a Chinese fine-dining option at Yuan Yue.

Meeting and business facilities

There are six function rooms, a 575-sqm Grand ballroom and a 390-sqm Junior ballroom. Swissotel also has a business concierge concept to help with individual needs. There is a business centre on the first floor with two computers, as well as printing and photocopying facilities, but I found the email to be painfully slow when I was there. Internet access is CNY40 (£3)for 15 minutes.

Leisure Facilities

The spa and fitness centre is open now, but when I visited it was having the final touches put in place. The pool was beautiful, bathed in sunlight from a glass roof, and surrounded by loungers. The spa area has large suites with hot pools and steam rooms. There is also a bar selling healthy snacks and drinks.

Verdict

Despite having only been open for a short time, when I visited the staff offered topclass service. The hotel has a good location, being within walking distance of one of the main streets. (Tip: take your room key when you go out, as taxi drivers are still getting to know the hotel and it has directions in Chinese on one side.)

PRICE

Internet rates for a midweek stay in July started from CNY799 (£68) for a Classic King room.

Contact

Swissotel Grand Shanghai, 1 Yu Yuan Road, Jing’an District, Shanghai;

Tel +86 21 5355 9898

Website: swissotel.com

There will be 13 lines by the year 2010, and 18 by 2020. While the infrastructure may pose a problem as visitor numbers increase, there will clearly be no shortage of somewhere to stay. All the big players are here: Intercontinental, Hilton, Shangri-La, Marriott, Starwood, Hyatt, Four Seasons, Rezidor and Sofitel. In fact, at the moment there are so many options that occupancy in top hotels has been falling. Swissotel’s Jones explains: “With more and more hotels opening up in Shanghai, occupancy in five-star hotels has been falling over the last three years, ranging between two and five per cent.” However, Jones also points out that the average occupancy rate is growing between three and ten per cent, putting Shanghai in third place in Asia after Hong Kong and Tokyo.

fact file

Take: The Rough Guide to Shanghai, £12.99, March 2008, roughguides.com.

Read: The Britannica Guide to Modern China, £8.99. A comprehensive introduction to the world’s new economic giant. Go to constablerobinson.com.

Visit: Destination China for information including tours – destinationchina.biz.

With the developments in Pudong, World Expo, and the government commitment to leisure tourism as well as business, the big names have no qualms about continuing their expansions, including two new Shangri-La properties, another Four Seasons, a W Hotel and a Park Hyatt opening in the next few years. Middle Eastern-brand Jumeirah is also due to launch its first Asia-Pacific property in the city in November. With all this development, walking along Shanghai’s modern neon-coated Nanjing Road, towards the skyscraper skyline of Pudong, it is sometimes easy to forget the way it was.

The city certainly feels Western and not much heed has been paid to the old-style Shanghainese buildings which once defined the area. Sixty years ago, 60mper cent of the population lived in the tiny traditional houses, their lives played out on the streets, from eating meals to washing and working. Today, most examples of the city’s cultural past have been destroyed to make way for the “Better city. Better life.” Jones says: “Much more effort should be put in to stop these places being torn down. In a year’s time, the market around the corner from here [the Swissotel] will not be there. Some areas of the city are protected by the government [like the French Concession], but it’s a shame more isn’t being done. Soon it will be like the Beijing hutongs – just for the tourists to look at rather than the traditional way of living.

Fortunately, the Shanghai municipal issued regulations and started to protect some of the representative historic buildings built before 1949, including some residential areas.” There is one sanctuary for tradition – the old Chinese city, with its wonky streets, shops and teahouses, as well as the delightful 16th-century Yuyuan Garden. There is a definite feel of the past, despite the swarms of tourists. We stop to watch some cooks making the famous xiao long bao (pork dumplings) in a window front, before heading to Lu Bo Lang Restaurant to try them. As I struggle with my chopsticks I ask Theresa if all the work for World Expo will be completed on time. Without a pause, and with a look of surprise she replies: “Yes, yes. Of course.” And I believe her.