The Daily Telegraph - China, Shanghai's funky fusion of East and West
October 23, 2004

This historic port, already the country's most glamorous city, is reviving its reputation as the heart of oriental extravagance.

I accidentally pushed the door into the Gents' and came across three startled figures in strappy A-line dresses of white towelling and high heels, applying riotously pink lipstick upon pouty lips and fingering their tousled hair with gel. Two of the men looked up wide-eyed and startled. The third winked at me and smiled.

I hastily exited, fumbling across the corridor into the Ladies'. A girl sporting an electric blue bob and metallic mini pushed past, swinging her shimmering beaded handbag and glancing up at me through mascara-sticky lashes.

By the sinks were two friends wearing traditional cheongsams, skin-tight silk with side slits up to the curve of their bottoms - one in scarlet, the other in citrus yellow. Suddenly, Donald Duck's voice rang out in the lavatory.

The one in red took out a dinky mobile phone from her clutch bag with its Disney ring tone and looked witheringly at the caller's name.

This was my first surreal Shanghai surprise. The setting was one of the city's trendiest fusion restaurants, Mesa, in a converted warehouse space. The menu was salad of Asian pear, endives, feta and beetroot, followed by burnt orange-glazed duck with red cabbage and hazelnuts.

The clientele was a mix of creative foreign expats mingling in Mandarin with Shanghai's bright young things. And all were willing to spend £40 a head on a meal, which is as much as the average monthly wage in China. Shanghai's time has definitely come.

If you think a trip to China is going to bring you face-to-face with only tourist tat and fake Nike trainers, you're in for a shock. The east coast in particular is getting to grips with a stylish modern identity, no longer plagiarising European or American trends but creating its own in fashion, art and interior design.

In the historic port of Shanghai, you can hear the echo of the swinging 1920s and 1930s art-deco scene with all its chic chinoiserie and exotic orientalism. But there's also a very loud 21st-century boom, which is powered by bales of money, massive immigration and edgy East-meets-West ideas.

Shanghai is the country's most glamorous city, something David Tang (of the Shanghai Tang lifestyle brand and stores) realised 10 years ago when he launched his revolutionary concept in Hong Kong. Shanghai has grown rapidly (its population is now 20 million) and the people have moved beyond the standard pale of chain stores and knock-off street markets.

Shanghai is now reviving its legendary position as the Eastern metropolis of excess and extravagance, a city where Charlie Chaplin, Noël Coward and Aldous Huxley were once seen sashaying through its dance halls and smoking in its opium dens.

Top of the must-see list is the city's historic Bund boardwalk, a sweeping neoclassical curve on the Huangpu river. Here the old trading houses, foreign banks and customs buildings are being converted into restaurant and retail emporia such as Three on the Bund.

The site, which opened earlier this year, has become almost establishment, featuring not only Giorgio Armani's flagship store but an Evian spa and the only Jean-Georges restaurant outside New York. Down the road, soon-to-launch Bund 18 is still a building site but being painstakingly beautified by an Italian architecture firm. It too will be filled with high-end outlets such as Cartier, Zegna and restaurants staffed by Michelin-starred chefs.

Back from the Bund, cobbled Xintiandi Plaza offers everything from fancy fashion stores to fine dining, all nestled within traditional Chinese stone buildings in the architectural style known as shikumen. Layefe is China's original concept store, with casual fashions and sleek homeware, while Joy Luck offers glam evening dresses whispering on the rails in chiffon, organza and, of course, silk.

For a hipper, younger scene, stroll through the old French concession neighbourhood with its leafy boulevards and beautiful colonial homes. Tell a taxi driver "Taikang Lu" to locate petite Lane 210, halfway down this busy market street.

Among the art galleries and studios you will find La Vie - one of the loveliest one-off boutiques in town with sassy drawstring pants lined with bamboo-patterned silk and sheer T-shirts boldly embroidered with bug-eye fish. Wrap skirts are ragged and unstitched, creating a gypsy look in sublime silks. For men, there are modern takes on padded Mao jackets, as well as fisherman's pants in light cottons.

Opposite, the International Artists' Factory has four storeys of workshops and boutiques, including Shanghai Harvest Studio, drawing tribal themes into its fashion palate. Inspired by the Miao minority are the flirtiest skirts with a thousand mini-pleats boiled into a hip-hugging tie-dye number, unknowingly mixing Miyake style with Prada batik.

Inside the shop is a huddle of Miao women in traditional embroidered jackets and leather belts with multicoloured threads.

If you can dig deeper to support China's creative spirit, steer yourself to Moganshan Road, where the ShanghART and Eastlink galleries provide perfect foreign-friendly ways to buy.

Lorenz Helbling, the Swiss founder of ShanghART, reckons now is the time to invest in contemporary art in China. On the shelves of his gallery are years of stacked-up catalogues, and the walls are crammed with wildly diverse work (with prices as high as $100,000).

One of his artists, Zheng Guogo, creates great swathes of what seems to be traditional scrolled calligraphy except for the startlingly modern script lifted from today's newspapers.

Bold Chinese characters splash the words: "World Trade Center Remains Cleaned Up" or "Lewinsky went to court again". Another artist on Helbling's books, Song Tao, photographs himself within a seething crowd in Shanghai, head limp, hanging from a helium balloon in a faux act of suicide.

For even more remote fringe, venture to the riverside loft spaces on Dongdaming Road, including DDM Warehouse and Aura Gallery. Here in Shanghai's docklands is the city's vanguard culture, offering plenty of opportunity to cash in for those with a keen eye for rising stars.

"China's nouveau riche would rather buy Tang antiques than contemporary art," says David Quadrio, founder of BizArt, a non-profit art forum in Shanghai. "They just don't want to take the risk."

Not all of China's energy is channelled through Shanghai. The capital, Beijing, is firing on Olympic-fuelled cylinders and has a new neighbourhood to showcase its cutting-edge contemporary art. In the north-east of the city, 798 is a revamped Bauhaus-style industrial estate built in the 1950s by East German comrades. After only two years, most of the factory spaces are busy with artists working and exhibiting here.

Lu Jie, curator of the Long March Foundation and currently showcasing rural folk art, told me the best art is in Beijing because artists are naturally drawn to the political heart of a nation. "They can only find that kind of inspiration here, from a complicated, shifting political backdrop," Lu says.

Much of the work is controversial for China and would have been tough to get away with 10 years ago. At 798 Photo Gallery, a raw ruined room with crude fittings, there was a moving exhibition called "I Want School ", by Xie Hailong, about education standards in rural China. His photographs showed classrooms without tables or chairs, with students learning outside because the roof had collapsed.

In 798 Space, there was grandiose installation art and oversized sculpture filling the cavernous rooms although the factory alone was worth visiting. Original German-made lathes and hole-punching machines were bolted to the floor, while faded slogans painted in red on the ceiling said: "Long Live Chairman Mao".

The contentious art within included a trio of bright red Tibetan monk statues, as well as photographs of posed factory workers in the nude lined up in rows.

I walked around the room with my local Chinese guide who generally spent his days touring Beijing's better-known tourist sites, such as the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven. This was his first visit to 798.

As we left, he whispered: "I think maybe this is even better for people to see than the Forbidden City." He paused, then added: "I think this is the real China."