SHANGHAI—Theo Croker leans patiently against a pillar in the shadows of the bar as his burly saxophone player, Andrés Boiarsky, forces out a final few notes. Then he steps into the spotlight and unleashes a streak of sound from his trumpet, fingers flying. The audience watches in awe.
Croker has an impressive resume and pedigree. The 26-year-old, who started performing in Shanghai in 2007, is the grandson of legendary American trumpeter Doc Cheatham. Now he’s a star in his own right in a city that’s had a long-standing love affair with jazz. His band, the Theo Croker Sextet, plays on sacred ground: the Jazz Bar inside the restored Fairmont Peace Tower Hotel. In the 1930s, music fans flocked here. All these years later, they’re back.
“There are always people in the club I don’t know and have never seen before,” says Croker. “I met a woman the other night, she came here 70 years ago. She was 94 or something like that. She came here 70 years ago!”
This is Shanghai circa 2011, a port city where cultures and ideas have mixed for decades, where jazz has flourished, fallen out of favour, and then gotten its groove back. The story starts in the late 1920s.
“[Jazz] was the new sound that was going over the world,” says Peace Hotel historian, Jenny Liang-Peach. “So when Sir Victor [Sasson] built this hotel, which opened in 1929, he always had a jazz band here.”
At first, Sassoon brought in groups from the U.S. Then Chinese musicians got in on the action. Even Shanghai’s powerful gangster, Du Yu Sheng, developed a taste for this music, in between running opium and prostitution rings.
“He had his own personal jazz band,” says Liang-Peach.
But China’s communist revolution threw cold water on the city’s hot jazz scene. The government labeled the music as “decadent” and even outlawed it. That changed after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, as Chinese leaders slowly opened up their country to the world. Jazz musicians dusted off their instruments and started playing again.
“It woke up in Beijing around the 1980s…then it slowly came back to Shanghai around the 1990s,” China’s foremost jazz vocalist, Coco Zhao, wrote recently.
Now with a growing middle class, a thriving ex-pat community, and an annual jazz festival, Shanghai’s rediscovered its rhythm.
“The jazz scene here is happenin’, it’s slammin’,” says Danny Diaz, an entertainer from Hong Kong who lived in Toronto for three decades. “And it’s getting wilder. Now we’re getting into the Afro-Cubano, and the rhythmic, and the Brasileños, you know, and a bit of that salsa, a bit of that flamenco.”
Diaz is having a smoke outside the House of Blues and Jazz, a venue that bills itself as ‘the first blues and jazz bar in new Shanghai.’ He arrived in a limousine a little before midnight (not his ride – he just has “generous friends”) and is soon on stage, playing guitar, singing, and grooving with Roberto Santamaria and his CubaJazz Band. The crowd eats it up.
“They feel like it’s their living room,” says House of Blues and Jazz owner SongLan Xing.
Shanghai’s jazz fans have been getting comfortable in clubs across the city, tapping their toes and nodding their heads in response to a diverse mix of musicians. Australian saxophonist Willow Neilson blogs about it all.
“It’s like a very small but rich scene,” he says in between sets at the Cotton Club, a smoky bar in the former French Concession. “I’d say there are about 30 to 40 good musicians here, and we all work in various combinations.”
In a way, jazz is the perfect soundtrack for the new Shanghai. The bebop of daily life, with bikes and cars and taxis fighting for space on the streets, seemingly making up traffic rules as they go along. The cool jazz of night, when the city finally takes a breather. And the fusion jazz feeling that comes with the merging of cultures, styles, and norms.
“I love it. It’s great,” says Cotton Club patron Gu Ming.
Back at the Jazz Bar, the Old Jazz Band is mid-way through its rendition of ‘My Way.’ It’s the Peace Hotel’s tribute to the past: veteran Chinese musicians put on nightly gigs ahead of the Theo Croker Sextet. Their average age is 77, which sometimes makes their ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ feel more like ‘The Saints Will Get There When They’re Damn Well Ready.’ Georgie Boy is banging the skins tonight, his movements a little stiff.
“I’ve been playing for 50 years,” says the 83-year-old proudly.
A short while later, Croker and the gang take over.
“This song’s called ‘East Meets West, West Meets East’,” he says.
Then they launch into their first high-octane set. ‘Round midnight in the jazz capital of Asia: the possibilities seem endless.JUST THE FACTS
ARRIVING Air Canada offers daily non-stop service between Toronto and Vancouver and Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport.
DINING For great Shanghainese food, head to 1221. Located on 1221 Yan’an Xi Rd. +86-21-6213-6585 . email@example.com
SLEEPING The recently restored Fairmont Peace Hotel sits on Shanghai’s famous Bund. 20 Nanjing Rd. E., +86-21-6321-6888 . The online rate for a room for a king-size bed for two nights in January is $700.
PAMPERING Men should sign up for the Peace Hotel’s “All That Jazz” spa treatment. Be pampered for 90 minutes to the sound of jazz music. This includes a foot massage, facial, scalp/shoulder/arm massage.
CLUBBING The best places to watch jazz in Shanghai include the Peace Hotel’s Jazz Bar (20 Nanjing Rd. E.), the Cotton Club (1416 HuaHai Rd., thecottonclub.cn), Club JZ (46 Fuxing Rd. W. jzclub.cn), and the House of Blues and Jazz (60 Fuzhou Rd., houseofbluesandjazz.com).
WEBSURFING Check out Willow Neilson’s blog, Shanghai Jazz, at shanghaijazzscene.com. Find out more about Theo Croker at www.theocroker.com
(Photo: C. James Dale)
C. James Dale
SHANGHAI — The problem with epiphanies is you can’t control when they happen. So forgive me if I admit my most recent one hit in the middle of a nightclub as a DJ mixed from Frank Sinatra’s tribute to the Big Apple to Jay Z’s, while a crowd of foreigners and Chinese cheered, danced and ordered more drinks. This soundtrack was appropriate because it was then and there I decided Shanghai is the new New York, capital of the New Empire. I didn’t just want to visit this place — I needed to live here.
“Everybody wants to move to Shanghai,” Franky Lu, the baby-faced manager of M1NT Club, shouted in agreement.
For years, Shanghai was just the place my wife lived back when she wasn’t my wife. However, I’d always been intrigued by her stories of ex-pat life in the early 2000s. At that time, the city was a decade into its boom, with one foot in the past and one in the future — battalions of bikes and carts overflowing with goods shared the road with a growing number of cars, taxis and buses.
Eight years on, we flew in from Tokyo and she surveyed the changes on the taxi ride into the city, pausing here and there to chat with the driver in Mandarin as he darted in and out of traffic.
“This was all fields when I used to take this road. These apartments weren’t here,” she said, pointing out clump after clump of bland looking buildings.
Shanghai’s recent growth, the brutal and the beautiful, has helped dust off its reputation as a truly international metropolis. The original boom happened in the 19th century, when the city established itself as a major trading and economic hub. By the 1920s and ‘30s, Shanghai was considered the “Paris of the East,” renowned for its flamboyance, decadence and vice. But the party ended in the lead up to the World War II, and when the Communists came to power in 1949 the city stagnated for decades as its substantial tax revenues were siphoned off.
“There were no cars. Can you imagine that? No cars. A few buses, some army trucks. But no cars,” recalled Robbie Swinnerton, a Tokyo-based journalist who lived in Shanghai in the late 1980s. “There was about one new building and that was the Sheraton Hotel.”
That all changed in the early 1990s when economic reforms opened the flood gates of the city’s growth, and it hasn’t looked back since.
“For a developed city like Shanghai to still be developing at this rate is remarkable,” said Peter Trollope, a senior project manager with Mace International, a major player in the global construction industry. Trollope is working on a luxury mixed-use commercial project in the Hongqiao area. “You only have to look at the skyline to see the number of tower cranes servicing the development.”
With so much money kicking around this city, all the big companies are trying to get a piece of the action. Porsche just opened its first Chinese outlet store in Shanghai’s Pudong district. Hermès went a step further and set up a boutique for its special Chinese line, Shang Xia. Add the fact luxury hotels are setting up shop, including the recently opened, jaw-droppingly gorgeous Peninsula Shanghai, the first new building to go up on the Bund in 60 years.
Topping it all, of course, was Shanghai’s coming-out party, Expo 2010. China spent an estimated $60 billion to hold the event, tearing down buildings, moving thousands of families and hundreds of factories, paving almost every road, improving the airports and adding a high-speed rail link to downtown, constructing a new metro line, and on and on and on. It set a record for attendance with 73 million visitors.
“It’s great to be in a city that’s moving forward when so many places around the world have the brakes on,” said David O’Brien, the head pastry chef at Baker and Spice in the former French Concession.
The coffee shop/bakery is in a building that also houses three restaurants — Italian, Thai, and Mediterranean-style. The whole complex is run by the same owners who hired two Montrealers to turn what was once an abandoned Chinese restaurant into a stylish spot, typifying the new Shanghai. Locals and foreigners alike come here, and on any given day you’ll hear a mix of Mandarin, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Germans speaking English with Italians, etc. Then look out the window and you’ll see old Shanghai — the rusty, rickety bikes gliding by, the smiling man hocking eggs and fruit contained in two scratched up plastic buckets.
“It’s like I’m back in New York,” my wife marvelled over coffee, recalling her two-year stint in Manhattan. “It’s not just new places like this. It’s the feeling that was here years ago, that you can do anything. But now it’s opportunity meeting lifestyle.”
Do anything, or just live life. Jenny Liang-Peach, an Australian with Chinese roots who moved here a decade ago, noted the city has that effect. “I think Shanghai very much has that feeling. Like, I could live here, I could have a life.”
Liang-Peach’s job as head tour guide at the Peace Hotel, which sits on the Bund and has been restored to its former 1930’s glory, is to remember the past. But she can’t help but be excited about the present and the future. “The cultural landscape of this city is changing,” she told me over high tea at the Peace Hotel’s Jasmine Lounge. “There are so many reasons to get together, reasons of like-mindedness.”
That could be anything from music (the Cologne Opera just put on a full cycle of Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung”), to ballet, to sports, to an art scene that’s on fire. “It’s good this year,” art critic Xhing Yu said of the 2010 Shanghai Biennale, the city’s eighth. “I was surprised.”
Or if your version of likemindedness includes meeting friends for a drink, Shanghai is happy to serve. Recently opened el Cóctel, a dark, cozy bar, has gone so far as to hire bartenders from Japan, a country known for its commitment to mixology. “I have [Chinese] customers who have never had a cocktail, and now they’re regulars,” said Marty Campaign, the bar’s manager and part owner.
“This kind of place wouldn’t have worked here 10 years ago.”
Now, it seems, everything is working in Shanghai. From a long-standing restaurant like 1221, where dinner and drinks for five comes to less than $100 CDN; to the recently opened Little Huia, which serves New Zealand cuisine, of all things; to the comfort food and micro-brewed beer at Boxing Cat Brewery in the former French Concession.
“I think it’s a good mix of western and eastern cultures,” said Jasmine Yong, who works in the wine industry and was at M1NT near its 17-metre-long shark tank.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve done with Shanghai. I’m proud to be from Shanghai,” said Franky Lu, the energetic M1NT manager.
As the music kept playing and the crowd grew a little rowdy, I knew this wasn’t the place I’d spend every Saturday night if I lived here. But it was part of a collection of things that made me realize this city will someday be the centre of the universe, the “New York of the East.” Sure you can’t drink the water, it’s struggling with pollution, beset by voracious property developers, plagued by rising rental rates, and dealing with a growing gap between rich and poor, but name a great city that hasn’t faced these problems. My wife and I had made up our minds — welcome to Shanghai, population 20 million, plus two.
CHINA’S FAMOUS HOTEL IS A DESTINATION AGAIN
C. James Dale
Fairmont Peace Hotel
20 Nanjing Rd. E, Shanghai, 86-21-6321-6888; fairmont.com/peacehotel. Rates from $255. The Fairmont Green Partnership program is in effect.
Walking around the newly renovated Fairmont Peace Hotel is like taking a slow stroll back in time. Eight decades ago, this place was in full swing, a stylish bastion on Shanghai’s Bund where Art Deco glamour ruled and jazz provided the soundtrack. Opened in 1929 as the Cathay Hotel, it was built by Sir Victor Sassoon, whose family made a fortune in the Chinese opium trade. Sassoon was a major player in Shanghai during the 1930s, with ex-pats and locals clamouring for invitations to his gala parties. The hotel began its decline when Japanese forces invaded in 1937; under the Communists, Sassoon lost his holdings and the Cathay Hotel, renamed the Peace Hotel, lost its lustre. Fairmont began its restoration in 2007, but since then new competition has emerged on the Bund in the form of the ultra-luxury Peninsula Shanghai. Can the Peace Hotel take advantage of its rich history to persuade visitors to stay the night?
After three years and $65-million U.S., the Peace Hotel’s crown jewel remains its atrium. Visitors can’t seem to pass by without stopping and staring up in awe at the domed ceiling, which still has its original mirror and coloured glass. Look closely and you’ll see numerous pairs of whippets, a theme that repeats itself throughout the hotel. Other Art Deco details – woodwork, metal grate covers, Lalique glass – have been painstakingly restored or replicated.
Must-sees include the legendary Jazz Bar and the Peace Ballroom, with its bouncy floor that’s designed to put a spring in your swing step. The hotel’s shuttered main entrance, which stares grandly out at the Huangpu River, is also worth a gander. It will stay closed to all except for V-VIP guests because of a Feng Shui faux pas that dates back to the original design: A front door should not open onto running water or wealth will flow out of it.
The Willow Stream Spa has a long list of treatments with names sure to pique your interest: the “Pollution Solution” facial, the “All that Jazz” head-to-toe experience for men, and the glamorous “Sassy Sassoon” makeup, manicure and pedicure package. If you’re visiting for Valentine’s Day, consider pampering yourself and your loved one with a one- to three-hour couples treatment.
If exercise is more up your alley, the Peace Hotel has an 18-metre pool (which is bathed in natural light thanks to a long sky light) and workout rooms where guests can play video majong while they sweat it out on the treadmill. But the true amenity of this hotel is its history. Don’t leave without booking a tour with Jenny Liang-Peach, whose depth of knowledge about the Peace Hotel and Shanghai’s rich history is truly inspiring.
You’ll find it hard to leave the bed and its 400-thread-count sheets, but the six-foot soaker tub might lure you out. Rooms also have new Illy capsule espresso machines, iPod docks, BOSE stereo systems, 37-inch plasma TVs, and windows you can open.
This being China, the Peace Hotel is well staffed. Often, though, it can feel as if too many people are involved in dealing with your query, concern or problem. Other times, messages get lost in the shuffle (or in translation). Still, all the key players – front desk, concierge and managers – speak English well and are quick to take care of guests.
Guests craving Chinese food – or more accurately Shanghainese food – will want to make a reservation at the Dragon Phoenix, which has barely changed since the 1930s. Chef Gu De Lang has been king of the kitchen for almost 40 years (he even cooked for President Bill Clinton). Just reading the Chinese New Year dinner menu is enough to get your mouth watering, with offerings ranging from sautéed scallops with crabmeat to sweet dumplings, Ningbo style.
The European-style Cathay Room, on the floor above Dragon Phoenix, has created a “Be My Valentine” menu for Feb. 14, with the total adding up to 2,999 yuan ($452) – the pronunciation of the number stands for “eternal love” in Chinese.
The Jasmine Lounge sits on the main floor and is the place to go for high tea. And when it comes to rounding out your day, the Peace Hotel’s renowned Jazz Bar is the best place to go. Guests and locals gather in the storied watering hole every night to sip cocktails and tap their toes to the sounds of the Old Jazz Band or the Theo Croker Sextet. Make sure you call ahead to book a table.
The Peace Hotel may not do luxury as well as its new rival, the Peninsula Shanghai, but history is on its side. It is without a doubt the most famous hotel in China, and once guests take time to soak in the atmosphere, they’ll wish they could book a trip back to Shanghai’s roaring Thirties to mingle with the city’s glitterati and foxtrot the night away at one of Sir Victor Sassoon’s parties.
SPOIL YOURSELF AT THE PENINSULA SHANGHAI
C. James Dale
No. 32 The Bund, 32 Zhongshan Dong Yi Road, Shanghai; peninsula.com; 86-21-2327-2888. Rooms from $625 a night. No eco-rating.
APeninsula hotel is like that frustrating friend who, no matter how hard you look, has no flaws. Not one. You could say the luxury chain favours quality over quantity, given that it has fewer properties in the world than you have fingers. Its latest creation occupies a prime spot on Shanghai’s Bund – the first new building to be constructed there in 60 years. The Peninsula Shanghai overlooks the gardens of the former British consulate and has commanding views of the city’s hyper-developed Pudong district, the Huangpu River and the Yangtze in the distance. As rusty boats, the symbols of old China, slide inland or out to sea, the Peninsula stands majestically above the shoreline, representing all that new China has to offer, a place where luxury and history intersect to create a spectacular sleepover experience.
The architects, builders and designers collaborated to create an awe-inspiring space that pays tribute to the Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s. You could call it art deco redux. The exotic woods, black lacquer shelving, ornate glass and metalwork, blindingly polished chrome, and marble are all there, but they’re now living in harmony alongside the Peninsula’s high-tech touches. The consistent, overarching theme of glamour and grandeur can be found everywhere, starting with the light-filled lobby, with its contrast of cream-coloured walls and dark marble floors. A giant mirror adds depth and height, a fireplace provides a sense of warmth, and a striking chandelier offers a stylish touch, hanging overhead like an elegant flower. The hallways to the rooms are lined with thick wool carpets, and vases and sculptures are nestled into the walls here and there. Art, in fact, is all over the Peninsula: From abstract takes on Chinese calligraphy to installations that showcase brightly coloured plastic discs of various sizes, there’s no shortage of things to gaze at. Try to get a peek at the full-size replica of a Loening Air Yacht in the Rosamonde Aviation Lounge, a venue on the 14th floor that pays tribute to early days of air travel in China.
The Peninsula’s 235 guestrooms and suites range in size from 580 to 4,300 square feet, offering different levels of luxury, comfort and technological convenience. Want to lower the blinds from bed? Just press a button. Need to make a phone call or put on the privacy sign when you’re soaking and watching TV in the opulent bathtub? You can do that too. Feel free to dial international numbers so you can boast to friends and family about your surroundings – the Peninsula has VOIP service so long-distance discussions won’t cost you a dime. The rooms also have iPod docks, 42-inch plasma TVs, Nespresso machines and Internet radio with hundreds of channels to choose from (although the service can be spotty). And don’t forget the Peninsula’s signature “nail dryer,” the can’t-do-without for women who would rather be painting the town red than watching polish dry. If you plan to stay in, be sure to book a room overlooking the Huangpu River so you can watch Pudong light up and stare at the still-futuristic-looking Pearl of the Orient.
The 25-metre pool is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the Peninsula Shanghai. While most hotels opt for 15 or 18 metres, this one shows you why size matters. The vine-like tiling design, again art-deco inspired, shines brilliantly under the gaping oval glass ceiling that soaks the pool with light. When the weather’s nice, doors can be opened to an outdoor terrace. But if lounging by the pool or in the hot tub isn’t relaxing enough, consider booking an appointment at the spa, where you’ll face the difficult decision of choosing between the Instant Brightener Facial, the Pitta Pacifier, the Kapha Stimulator, or a host of other offerings. I booked an Ayurvedic treatment, and allow me to share some simple advice: Don’t underestimate the power of a small-framed Chinese massage therapist. After spending 80 minutes with Leila Liu I was more relaxed than I had been in months, albeit a little bit bruised and tender. Make sure you go early so you can relax and munch on snacks in the special waiting rooms. When you’re not in the spa or splashing around in the pool, you can check out the designer boutique smorgasbord on the main level. Chanel, Prada, Armani, Ralph Lauren – the gang’s all there and ready to max out your credit card.
The service is fast, friendly and genuine. Just ask the retired woman from New York who was stuck in the hallway because her key wasn’t working. One phone call and two minutes was all it took for a cheery employee to arrive to help her get back into her room, explaining kindly that she wasn’t the first one who’d had that kind of problem (perhaps the front desk had found out about my minute-long struggle to get into room 716 – I was in 719… oops). Another notable service at the Peninsula Shanghai is its fleet of high-end cars – Rolls-Royces and BMW limos – which guests can hire for a ride around town or a trip to the airport.
Forgive the tired old cliché, but the pancakes were light and fluffy. They, along with the bananas and small jug of syrup, made the in-room dining experience, well, an experience. As for lunch and dinner, Yi Long Court serves delicious Cantonese dishes and boasts an impressive wine list. It’s designed in the style of a Chinese nobleman’s house from the 1930s, and also has six private rooms, including one where you can watch the action in the kitchen while you eat. If you go, make sure you pick a busy night. I don’t know about you, but having six servers hanging around waiting for you to drop your chopsticks is slightly off-putting. Guests who want a better view, and Western-style food, should head up to Sir Elly’s.
If you can afford to stay at the Peninsula Shanghai, book a few nights. If you can’t, save up and spoil yourself – a sleepover here is definitely worth the investment. Just remember you’re there to see the city’s sights or you might not leave until check out. Consider yourself warned.