Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Shanghai Social Diary

The elaborate luncheon at Maison de l'Hui was to honor Paolo Sabbatini before he departed for Prague.
by Jeanne Lawrence

I recently returned from another fall season in Shanghai—that exotic, endlessly fascinating and ever-changing city. I've compiled the best of the stories and pictures I gathered about social life and travels in China in diary form, and I'll be posting them from time to time. Here's another:

NATIONAL DAY HOLIDAY

SHANGHAI—I stayed in town on October 1, which is National Day, the beginning of the weeklong holiday that commemorates the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on that date in 1949.

This holiday is one of the two "Golden Weeks." The other is Chinese New Year, also called the Spring Holiday, which usually occurs in January or February.

I try never to travel on either of these occasions because of the crowds. If you watch director Lixin Fin's award-winning Chinese documentary film, Last Train Home, you'll understand. He documents "the world's largest human migration," when 130 million migrant workers return to their rural homes for the Spring Holiday. (It's as if half of America traveled home for Thanksgiving!)
The Trailer for Last Train Home.
MAISON DE L'HUI IN ROCKBUND NEIGHBORHOOD

With so many people out of town for the holiday, Shanghai was relatively quiet. I was especially delighted to be invited to an elaborate lunch by Shelley and Edward Lim and Wang Hui Min (who uses the English name Faye Wang). Faye is the founder and powerhouse behind the Xiao Nan Guo brand of restaurants and spas.

We lunched at Faye's new upscale brand concept restaurant, Maison de l'Hui (Hui means wisdom). It had just opened in the Rock Bund, a six-block historic area that is one block from the famous Bund Promenade.

When I first moved to Shanghai in 2008, I wouldn't have dreamed that the neighborhood, then a slum, could ever hold promise. But when the scaffolding came off, the area, with its architecturally interesting Colonial buildings, became known as the Rock Bund. (I've written about it in a previous dispatch, here)
Visitors Simon Pinniger and Carolyne Roehm with Shelley Lim, who lives in Shanghai.
CAROLYNE ROEHM IN SHANGHAI

I had been to the Maison de l'Hui before, when New Yorker Carolyne Roehm and Simon Pinniger came to town briefly and we met for lunch with Shelly Lim at the elegant Peninsula Shanghai lobby restaurant.

Since Carolyne is a designer herself, Shelly thought she might be interested in seeing the design of Faye Wang's newest restaurant that hadn't yet open. The designer for the Rock Bund Maison de L'Hui was San Francisco-based Anne Getty. She and her team Maria Quiros, Taylor Nagle and Beth Townsend flew in to design the space, while Shelly was the local design coordinator.
The Rock Bund redevelopment project restored the area's landmarked Colonial buildings. The gourmet restaurant Maison de l'Hui is located in this restored circa-1907, Colonial building.
Maison de l'Hui interiors and banquet rooms
I like that there are plenty of private dining rooms in Chinese restaurants of every level.
I wish New York and San Francisco had more of these private rooms, so we could dine without high-decibel noise
Ann Getty used her Western and Eastern art and antiques collections as inspirations for the hand-painted walls.
Ann Getty custom-designed the fanciful chandeliers. All were manufactured or fabricated in China.
LUNCHEON IN HONOR OF PAOLO SABBATINI

The Maison de l'Hui was the setting for an elaborate luncheon in honor of Paolo Sabbatini, the departing Director of the Italian Culture Institute for five years. Paolo, who hails from an illustrious Roman family, was being relocated to Prague to direct the Institute there.

"I am honoring my extended family on National Day, and I am celebrating my first day as a 'free citizen,'" Paolo said. As the new Italian Director Alidoro Catocci had arrived, Paolo had just turned in his official credentials. Alidoro was my luncheon partner. Since he doesn't speak English, we conversed in our broken French.

One of the things I like so much about Shanghai is the intermingling of the different nationalities. Though we don't all speak the same languages fluently, somehow we communicate. It's amazing how much you can understand even without words.
Italian Cultural Institute Director Paolo Sabbatini and Professor Martin Xu.
Top l. to r: Hosts Shelley Lim and Wang Hui Min (aka Faye Wang). Bottom l. to r: Susie Wang and Yue-Sai Kan.
Guests were an international mix.
Shanghai-based Edward Lim and Will Bumpus, son of Gayle King.
Paolo Sabbatini, who is also an artist and singer, joined Mexican Consul General Miguel Barrio in entertaining us with some lively Italian arias.
Edward Lim, Jeanne Lawrence, and Shelley Lim.
Yue-Sai Kan divides her time between her homes in Shanghai and New York.
Miguel Barrio, Nancy Merrill, Alidoro Catocci, Paolo Sabbatini, and Jeanne Lawrence.
THE CUISINE

The exquisite Chinese cuisine luncheon for twenty was served formally, with a series of little dishes, rather than in casual family style, where people at round tables help themselves from a Lazy Susan in the center

The courses were too numerous to recall, but the portions were such that guests left without feeling stuffed. Naturally, in the Chinese tradition, many toasts were made.
These large round tables are preferred for family and formal dining in China.
We sat and schmoozed around the lunch tables until late in the afternoon, giving Paolo a warm and stylish sendoff.
STROLLING THE ROCK BUND

After lingering over that Sunday afternoon lunch, I decided to walk to the Bund, the embankment along the Huangpu River. I love walking in Shanghai; there's always a new adventure or a new discovery, and sometimes I feel as if I'm in a movie set.

In the Rock Bund neighborhood, I enjoy walking the cobblestone streets and observing the distinctive Colonial-style architecture of buildings such as the former Union Church, the grand former British Consulate and its gardens, and the elegant Peninsula hotel, which opened in 2010.
A young gal in a white, Western-style wedding dress caught my attention. Then I noticed other young couples posing for their wedding photos.
Camera crews photographing beautiful brides in their long gowns are a common sight in the scenic spots around the city. I'm always impressed and entertained by these young couples, being watched by hundreds of people yet looking so at ease and striking poses as if they were professional models.
The Rock Bund was filled with other wedding parties.
I followed one young couple as they walked the path to the red-brick former Union Church, built in 1886 in Romanesque style, using it as an ideal spot for photo ops. The brides-to-be wear a wide variety of gowns for their official photographs.
I'm entertained by lively street scenes, such as these playful young people.
I continued walking through the streets, following the crowds, until I reached the Bund Promenade ("Waitan," in Chinese), the famous tourist attraction that was completely reconstructed by 2010. The river walk is lined with landmarked Colonial-era buildings that once housed banks and trading houses.

Despite the crowds, every visitor, young and old, city or country dwellers, foreigners or locals, can't miss a stroll on the Bund, lovely by day and spectacular at night.
Around the corner, a line-up of buses waited for visitors taking a stroll on the Bund Promenade.
Because of concerns about holiday traffic jams, parts of the Bund were closed to traffic and strictly reinforced.
Waibaidu Bridge (Garden Bridge in English), built in 1907, marks the north end of the Bund near Suzhou Creek.
The former 1930s Art Deco Broadway Mansions, on the left, are now a hotel. On the right is the Russian Consulate, circa 1917.
A view from the Bund Promenade. At the northern end of the Bund is the massive granite Monument to the People's Heroes.
PIETRO AND MARGHERITA MESCHI VISIT FROM ITALY

We saw more of the wedding scene when my friend Pietro di Meschi and his daughter Margherita Meschi arrived from Lucca, Italy. Pietro has been importing flower goods from China for more than 30 years.
The Peninsula Shanghai, was the first new building built on the Bund in over 60 years.
Pietro di Meschi and his daughter Margherita Meschi stayed in the elegant Peninsula built with Art Deco influences. Pietro di Meschi and Jeanne Lawrence in the Peninsula.
At the Peninsula, we lunched in the triple-height Lobby Lounge restaurant, a popular gathering spot for drinks, lunch, and traditional English tea service.
After lunch, we stopped first at the Bund for this view across the river of the financial district, Pudong, and the iconic Pearl Tower.
This photo is a must-have souvenir for every tourist.
Israeli photojournalist Dvir Bar-Gal caught our eye as he gathered his group on the Bund for his tour of Jewish Shanghai.
We were captivated by the sight of more wedding couples capturing their memories.
Last year, the Shanghai Daily reported that in China, the average age for marriage was 29 for women and 32 for men.
Such free entertainment wins a smile from everyone.
With a population of 1,300,000,000, China has many millions of marriages annually.
Maybe I should start my own wedding business company?
Photographs by Jeanne Lawrence

*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.