Signs of America in Shanghai

“Room with a view”: Room 2509 at Hyatt on the Bund

American companies have identified Shanghai as China’s most attractive city for foreign businesses: It’s cosmopolitan, clean and has an able workforce, among other factors.  I traveled here to see China, not America, but I did want to explore this angle. A lot of the companies that operate in Shanghai are from the West Coast: Disney, Apple, Starbucks, Tesla, Stone Brewing Co. and others.

I skipped Disneyland Shanghai, Disney’s biggest investment outside the U.S. at $5.5 billion because time was limited. But you can see the resort traveling into downtown Shanghai from Pudong Airport.

At the airport, I noticed FedEx’s new cargo hub, which can process up to 26,000 packages and documents per hour. It handles 66 flights weekly. FedEx noted that the “Asia-Pacific region remains the growth driver of the world” when it opened the hub.

Here’s a “coals to Newcastle” story: The new Apple watch I wore on this trip was made at a plant on the outskirts Shanghai, and it was shipped to our house in Nevada City on a cargo flight that went from Pudong Airport to Anchorage to the “lower 48.” (I enjoyed tracking the shipment on FlightAware). I passed an Apple store during the trip; it had a distinctive glass entrance.

I visited a Tesla showroom while scouting out another neighborhood — riding in the Langham hotel’s signature pink taxi, no less. (The driver was patient when I asked him to stop). The showroom had a row of charging stations in front. During the trip, I saw some Tesla’s parked on the street. The electric carmaker plans to build a $2 billion plant near Shanghai, its first outside America.

One morning, I sipped a “flight of coffee” paired with artisan chocolates at Starbuck’s new  30,000-square-foot Reserve Roastery, a magnificant building in the Jingan District.

It is the world’s biggest Starbuck’s with three coffee bars, a tea bar, a Princi bakery, Neuhaus chocolates and more. One of the most striking features is a two-story, 40-ton copper coffee roasting cask. At another station, workers are opening burlap bags of coffee beans. It’s redolent of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — but for coffee. The baristas were well trained; some of them spoke English.

I didn’t have time to stop for a beer, but I checked out San Diego-based Stone Brewing Co.’s taproom in Shanghai, complete with a beer garden. I stuck with the local brews on this trip; at Twelve at Hengshan hotel the Tsingtao beers in the mini-bar were free.

As cities go, the parts of Shanghai I visited were clean. On one cab ride, I noticed a worker riding his bicycle along the sidewalk, and he would stop at each trash bin and wipe it clean with a cloth. I do not see that in big U.S. cities. I felt safe wherever I went. Though I heard there were pickpockets, I saw no signs of them.

I was greeted wherever I went, but I saw few Americans. I suspect summer might be a busier time for U.S. tourists. The visa process can be time consuming, but hope spring eternal: One study predicts China will be the largest overseas visitors market for the United States by 2020.

The Peninsula Shanghai’s version of a laundromat

This would have been a good Herb Caen item: The rooms at The Peninsula Shanghai have a walk-in wardrobe and even a cupboard where your newspapers and laundry are delivered.

For laundry, you fill out a form, put your clothes in a cloth bag, and place them in wooden basket. Then you drop it in the cupboard and press “service.” A “valet runner” retrieves it from a locked access door that faces the corridor. Six hours later your laundry is returned clean. The walk-in wardrobe also has a nail polish dryer.

Fine dining in Shanghai

Yi Long Court

Shanghai is one of the fastest-growing food cities in the world. I’ve been enjoying some locals’ spots, but tonight I ate dinner at two Michelin-starred Yi Long Court 逸龙阁 at The Peninsula Shanghai – Your Best Hotel Option in Shanghai, where I’m parked for one night. It’s an iconic hotel.

“A modern take on the grand hotel with Art Deco flourishes reminiscent of 1920s Shanghai. Exotic woods, black lacquer, carved glass and polished chrome give an ambience of refined luxury. Despite its size, there’s an intimacy about the public spaces that – combined with the attentive service – makes you feel quite at home amid the glamour,” as a review in the Telegraph said.

My table at Yi Long Court had a magical view of the Bund amid towering buildings. (“A light show plays across the skyscrapers of Pudong.”) The interior is a mixture of Art Deco and modern Chinese art. The food was delicious. I had:
—Steamed “Xiao Long Bao” with hairy crab meat. (This is a seasonal crab that is prized).
—Hot and sour soup with shredded abalone
—Wok sautéed grouper filet with fresh seasonal vegetables

Almost time to go home. Timeshifter – The Jet Lag App now reads: “Take melatonin and go to sleep.” OK. Will do. This has been fun.

Afternoon tea with Wedgwood fine bone china in China

The California Golden Bears upset the USC Trojans in football this weekend for the first time since 2003. I remember watching that game on television at Lake Tahoe (and suffering ever since). This time I listened to the end of the game on ESPN radio from Shanghai, a flawless connection. It was an exciting finish.

Then I celebrated with afternoon tea on the patio of the Langham Shanghai, looking out on a tree-lined boulevard. It was awesome.

“The Langham is famed as the place where the tradition of afternoon tea was born over 150 years ago, an indulgence that is offered at Cachet Lobby Lounge,” as the hotel states. “Guests can enjoy a bespoke version of the afternoon tradition – ‘The Langham Afternoon Tea with Wedgwood,’ serving specialty teas in tailor-made ‘Langham Rose’ Wedgwood tea ware. A live pianist daily from 2:30pm – 5:30pm.”

The scones were served with real clotted cream, and a tower of delicious homemade sweets was offered for sampling.

As it turned out, Cal was present in the hotel this weekend. When I checked into the Langham Shanghai, I met a Japanese woman wearing a Cal T-shirt. We introduced each other, laughed about the long-distance connection, and she indulged in a smartphone snapshot. Go Bears! (BTW the Northwestern Wildcats won too this weekend and are bowl eligible).

The touch-button panels in Shanghai’s high-rise hotel rooms would baffle Charlie Chan

Room with a view: Looking down on the terra-cotta rooftops of an old shikumen neighborhood and Taipingqiao Park, with its man-made lake.

Shanghai’s best attribute is its blend of old and new. The Langham, Shanghai, Xintiandi, where I’m parked now, is a vibrant 24-floor high-rise, with white marble floors, rose-colored chandeliers, modern Chinese art (a painting of Chairman Mao wearing angel wings), an indoor swimming pool, a martini bar, and two Michelin-starred Tang Court, where I’m going to have lunch tomorrow.

Twelve buttons are on the nightstand to control the curtains and lights in room #2109

The rooms (I’m in #2109) have stunning views from floor-to-ceiling windows, touch-button panels for the lights and curtains, and a VPN connection that doesn’t drop (like some others have this week) to access WordPress, Facebook, Google, even The New York Times — otherwise inaccessible because of the “great firewall.” (A card placed in the room reinforces this). The room rate is at least one-third less than it is for comparable hotels in San Francisco and New York, and a breakfast buffet is included (enough for brunch). The recent trade-talk rhetoric has led to more favorable exchange rates, at least for now. The neighborhood cafes, coffee houses and brewpubs are downright reasonable.

In stark contrast to this modern high-rise hotel, I walked across the tree-lined street and found an old shikumen neighborhood with tightly packed alleys, low-rise buildings and terra-cotta rooftops, as one travel review notes.

A museum presents Shanghai life as it was around the 1920s and ’30s in a shikumen-style “stone-gate” house. The rooms are furnished with period furniture, and the museum includes a “tingzijian,” a small room “sometimes rented out at a low price to impoverished writers and others,” as a post in Wikipedia explains. The setting reminded me of classic films such as Charlie Chan in Shanghai (see video).

Shanghai is not a cement jungle either. I’ve discovered numerous parks — also a mix of old and new. One of them is Taipingqiao Park, which includes fountains and a man-made lake. “It is a fine example of an early twenty-first century Chinese park, built in an amazingly short time (6 months) in 2001,” as a garden website explained.

Huangpo Park, at the northern end of the Bund (the neighborhood where I’m headed next), is Shanghai’s oldest park, dating back to 1866. A scene from a Bruce Lee film, Fist of Fury, includes scenes from the park. I’m going to be exploring the Bund later this week.

“Paris of the East”

The city, such as the French Concession neighborhood which I visited, also has numerous tree-lined avenues and some European-like architecture — redolent of neighborhoods we’ve seen in visits to Paris and Buenos Aires.

I discovered it’s not a coincidence, either.  “The area earned its name ‘Paris of the East’, partly due to its flowing streets, lined with wrought iron stair railings and fences (same material as the Eiffel Tower),” I learned. France occupied areas of Shanghai in the mid-1800s, and starting in 1900 thousands of trees were planted along Shanghai’s boulevards — similar to the ones that were planted along the boulevards of Paris. The Chinese continued this trend.

The trees help “capture smog and carbon well,” according to the writeup. Well perhaps. Though the smog can be notorious — more in Beijing than Shanghai — I lucked out and it’s been clear. This is a better time to visit the city than most. The trees are showing their fall colors, too.

The hotel also is “green,” at least in some instances. “With Langham’s ‘Guests of the Earth” programme, our hotels are committed to sustainable development,” a card in the room reads. “We change your bed linen every other day and again after check-out. If you would like to have your bed linen changed more often, please place this card on your bed in the morning. If you wish to re-use your towels or bathrobe, please hang them on the towel rack. Thank you for helping us make a difference.”

And in a country of an estimated 300 million smokers, the hotel also is no-smoking.

Here’s a Charlie Chan (AKA actor Warner Oland) video clip: