Algirdas Bakas

How Shanghai Is Leading the World in Over-the-top Luxury

In go-go Shanghai, the pace of change in culture, commerce, and over-the-top luxury is electrifying. Is this mega-metropolis' race to the future also a race to the top?

An expat friend a decade into Shanghai recently joked, “When I go back home to New York, I feel like I’m in Florence. You know, it’s this cute, old, not very big town with, like, not a lot going on. Everyone’s excited because, after 15 years of work, they’ve opened up three subway stops on Second Avenue. Then I go back to Shanghai, and they’ve unveiled an entirely new subway line.”

Indeed, from the eight-minute Maglev airport train to Pudong to the gleaming 21st-century museums, luxury malls, and pâtisseries with $6 macarons sprouting up in nearly every part of town, it’s hard for a traveler to Shanghai not to sense that this relentlessly dynamic city is surpassing Paris, London, and New York in an enviable number of ways.

The subway is clean, easy to navigate, and fast. There is virtually zero crime. The cashless society you’ve heard so much about (or not) isn’t just trendy; it’s quicker and hands-down superior. All of which means that several times a day, the thought hits you: Wow, my city isn’t like this.

Left: The neighborhood around Yu Garden is one of the few spots not overrun by new development. Right: The Yuz Museum's popular Rain Room, by Random International.

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A couple of nights after arriving, I stopped by the grand opening of the Bulgari Hotel Shanghai, occupying a new tower in the center of the city. As it happened, the hotel grounds—which include the historic Chinese Chamber of Commerce, built in 1916 (ancient for Shanghai)—were also being used for a Shanghai International Film Festival gala. It’s an event that has taken on greater importance, with Chinese box-office receipts surpassing North America’s for the first time this year.

It was hard not to sense the excitement, especially among the throngs of young fans who had gathered like happy moths to glimpse A-list actor-singers Sammi Cheng and Kris Wu, who, it was rumored, would grace the dinner and after party. Knowing it was a dopey question but eager to hear the answer, I asked two twenty-somethings if they felt Shanghai was kinda sorta maybe the new No. 1 city in the world.

I was thinking demographics, geopolitics, the rise and fall of nations, but I was also curious about the growing nationalism—okay, chauvinism—I’d read so much 186 about. To my surprise, they blanched. “Um. No?” After suggesting Tokyo or New York City might be better candidates, one of them explained, “Shanghai, okay, maybe very first-world technology. But the people”—she wrinkled her face—“too many people not ready.”

Bulgari executive vice president Silvio Ursini batted away the question with a laugh. Nevertheless, he allowed that Shanghai— in perpetual competition with its starchier and historically richer sibling, Beijing—is China’s most important center for commerce, style, and, increasingly, contemporary culture. “In terms of restaurants and bars, luxury goods, social life, and influence,” he said, “it’s certainly the most actively interesting.”

The hotel seduces more than wows, cultivating a sense of understated luxury with sensual, deep-hued surfaces of teak and marble. Classic Bulgari ads from the 1960s and ’70s in the hallways and lobby lend an air of nostalgia-tinged cool. If the vibe scarcely pertains to Chinese history or culture, that’s intentional.

Antonio Citterio and Patricia Viel, designers for the company’s expanding hotel portfolio, noted that Bulgari’s aims are broader than just selling jewelry. “It’s a relationship thing,” Viel told me, describing the hotel and residences as an invitation to Shanghai’s newly minted consumer cognoscenti to “live the Bulgari lifestyle.”

Skateboarders outside the Long Museum.

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The wow moment happens at the 48th-floor rooftop bar, where Shanghai’s Rolex-and Ferrari-buying elite—few older than 40—gather wearing designer T-shirts and sneakers to snap selfies against the best views of the city. The stunning panorama extends across the winding Huangpu River, with its mesmerizing, nonstop flow of barge traffic, to Pudong’s cloud-piercing skyscrapers and the iconic Oriental Pearl Radio & Television Tower, which rises next to the site of the Jean Nouvel–designed Pudong Art Museum, a splashy waterfront landmark now under construction.

“Everything in China, whether business or culture, is topdown,” explained my expat friend. “The government says things like, ‘Let’s make a Chinese Broadway’ or ‘Let’s fund green businesses.’ It’s a no-brainer for the business community because that’s what is going to get funded.” In the early 2000s, the big push was art. “From no art scene whatsoever, suddenly, everyone had a gallery,” my friend continued. “Now there’s not one art district but three, four, five.

The first state-sponsored arts push breathed life into the M50 district, a nexus of studio spaces and galleries in a former cottonmill complex in the Putuo district. The next art hub to emerge was the former French Concession, an intensely gentrifying neighborhood of three- and four-story villas with Tudor façades whose crowning jewel, depending on your taste, might be said to be Xintiandi, the priciest real estate in all of China. (In this trendy enclave, you can follow a visit to the Communist Party Congress’s first meeting place with dinner at the Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill.)

From there, the art scene continued its spread to the Bund, the riverfront promenade in the heart of the city, lined with colonial buildings, where in 2010 the Rockbund Art Museum opened as one of the first in a wave of new contemporary-art spaces. The current plan includes transforming what was once a riverside industrial corridor, now dubbed the West Bund, into a vast district of museums, performance spaces, movie theaters, shops, and restaurants.

Early neighborhood anchors include the Long Museum, a private institution co-founded by former cab driver Liu Yiqian that displays both traditional Chinese art and international contemporary works, and the Yuz Museum, created by Chinese-Indonesian former chicken magnate and collector Budi Tek inside a dramatically repurposed airplane hangar.

One afternoon, Yuz associate director Wen Shi led me through an entertaining if entry-level Charlie Chaplin exhibition, before taking me to one of the museum’s signature crowd-pleasers: Random International’s Rain Room. A global sensation, the installation allows visitors to walk through a heavy, prettily lit, simulated downpour without—thanks to overhead sensors—getting wet. It’s perfect for selfies and justly deserving of adjectives du jour like immersive and experiential.

Left: The HKRI Taikoo Hui shopping mall. Right: A colorfully illuminated observation tower overlooks the restored 1930s lane houses at the Capella hotel.

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“Contemporary art in China is a very new phenomenon,” Wen remarked, adding that Tek hopes to use his vast collection of works from the 1970s onward “to educate the public.” Familiar international art is good for attracting audiences, she explained, but Yuz’s aim is to continually introduce more challenging work, especially by Chinese artists.

In a sign of China’s rising status in the global art world, Tek recently announced a partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to form a foundation that will oversee his trove of Chinese contemporary art and organize exhibitions. (He has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.) In a similar spirit of collaboration, the David Chipperfield–designed West Bund Art Museum, opening next year, will house a branch of Paris’s Centre Pompidou.

If there is an unmistakable global aspect to the city’s industrial-scale museum building, its underlying goal is to elevate China’s cultural profile. Shanghai is home to more than 200 museums (up from almost none 30 years ago), including vast spaces like the state-run Power Station of Art, a 138,000-square-foot contemporary art venue that has hosted the Shanghai Biennale, and a planned Pudong branch of the Shanghai Museum that will display traditional Chinese works of art. Tek believes that art is integral to China’s strategy for the future, noting, “It is everything needed to establish so-called soft power.”

There is development across Shanghai, all of it tapping into the city’s exploding wealth—glitzy shopping malls filled with Western luxury brands; high-end hotels (including the recently opened Middle House and Rocco Forte’s first Chinese property, coming next summer); restaurants by celebrated European and American chefs.

One of my most memorable Shanghai meals was at the Michelin-starred Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire restaurant inside the Capella hotel, which occupies a series of lovingly restored three-story lane houses on a tree-lined street in the French Concession. The menu includes foie gras terrine, beef tartare with Comté cheese and duck, a couple of Frenchy-Asian mash-ups, and escargots with incredibly dense (and delicious) spinach sauce with puffed quinoa, tiny croutons, and watercress on top. The tranquil setting offers a calming reprieve from the bustle and mega malls beyond. 

A Chinese-inflected French restaurant in 1930s lane houses reimagined by a Singapore hotel brand feels like the epitome of that has been variously referred to as the Paris of the East and New York on steroids. During my stay, however, I saw signs that residents are increasingly looking inward.

A shoe designer I met told me that 16 years ago, when she began selling her distinctly Chinese designs, “foreigners were my only clients—Chinese had no interest. But now it’s changing. Chinese are becoming interested in China.” famously protean, emphatically cosmopolitan Shanghai, a city “This is the yin and yang of Shanghai,” explained Richard Hsu, a curator for TEDxShanghai who teaches design at Tongji University. “The young guys collect their Rolexes and Ferraris, but they’re also digging deeper into Chinese culture and history.”

The notion of an authentic Shanghai is something I made a point of discussing with locals. But when I asked for help finding the most authentic parts of town, the question provoked long, thoughtful pauses. Himm Wonn, the owner of Doe, a fashionable streetwear boutique, suggested I explore the alleyways south of Yu Garden, near the Bulgari Hotel. There, the old bike shops, barbershops, and food stalls haven’t yet been clear-cut to make way for the next sprawling development, and the neighborhood feels like an exotic, vanishing relic.

Vintage 1960s and '70s advertising photos compliment the modern vibe in Bulgari Hotel's lobby.

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“Authentic doesn’t mean much in Shanghai,” said an IT guy I met. “The city has only existed since the early 1600s, so compared with, say, Beijing, there’s no such thing as a foundation here. Still, we have a lot of buried treasure to dig up.” In my wanderings, I managed to find Shanghainese authenticity in delicious abundance at the smoky, sweaty micro kiosks that sell breakfast buns with red-bean paste and at only slightly fancier spots offering dishes like stuffed beggar’s chicken, which is wrapped in lotus leaves and cooked in clay.

My hands-down unforgettable meal came at a shared table in one of the restaurants lining Shouning Road, a side street famous for xiaolongxia, or crawfish. Available year-round but best in summertime, the crawfish are prepared in several ways, most of them spicy, and are accompanied by Tsingtao and rubber gloves. I ordered a kilogram, along with a bowl of snails and a bullfrog stew with lotus root, chilies, and Korean-style rice cakes, plus side dishes of edamame and cold cucumber chunks. Just a step above street food, the meal would be reason enough to expatriate.

On my last night in Shanghai, I met up with Hsu, the TEDx curator, for a trip to the Shanghai Museum of Glass. Located in a former glassmaking complex that’s been redeveloped as a cultural and business park, the museum hosts exhibitions featuring local and international artists as well as interactive workshops where guests learn to make, blow, and color glass themselves. We’d come for the opening of “Brkn,” an exhibition of 21 installations exploring the implications of glass’s fragility.

Left: Afternoon tea service at Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire in the Capella hotel. Right: A pavilion at the Shanghai Museum of Glass.

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Among the brightly lit, highly Instagrammable displays were pieces with droll phrases wrought in neon and one featuring a caged white Nike sneaker with black glass stalactites jutting from its sole. There were also attractive models wearing mask-y makeup writhing around in piles of (simulated) broken glass and tossing shards into brightly lit playpens. The show reminded me of the dot-com boom in New York City, circa 1999, a time when money flowed, dinner and drinks were free, and no idea was too silly to dismiss.

An Italian couple in their 40s, both interior designers and friends of the exhibition’s curator, mentioned that, given the sheer number of events and openings in the city, it can be hard to find enough bodies to fill them. Back home and in the States, their contemporaries gripe about finding consistent work. But over the course of a steady, lucrative decade of projects in Shanghai, they’ve never been stuck with a boring commission.

“People here are ready to try new ideas,” they said. I realized, with a pang, that everyone I’d met in Shanghai seemed equally enthusiastic. On the ride back to my hotel, I chatted with a friend of Hsu’s, a former city planner for a large southwestern U.S. city who has shuttled back and forth to Shanghai for 20 years.

A Harvard-trained urbanist and architect deeply versed in issues around city planning, politics, and sustainability, he was ideally placed to answer once and for all my stupid question: Is Shanghai on its way to being No. 1? “I have no idea,” he replied with a laugh. “I will say that seeing this city do what it’s done has been the biggest privilege of my life. For the past 15 years, it’s been the greatest show on earth.” 

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