The door to the Monkey Lounge is unmarked, tucked down an alley, and identifiable only by its simian knocker. Shanghai may be a rich and roaring city, but its beau monde want to party discreetly, and this place is very discreet indeed. To get in, you need the closely guarded door code, and to get that you must make a reservation, by calling the unpublished phone number.
The entrance may be low key, but the interior is anything but. The old colonial villa contains a preposterous confection of gilded Corinthian columns, swagged velvet curtains, modern marble-topped tables and monkey imagery that ranges from little chimp-shaped lamps along the bar to intriguing portraits: Ingres’s Napoleon, modified with a monkey’s head in place of the emperor’s, hangs opposite a familiar likeness of a Manchu emperor with the face of an ape.
It’s an artistic trope that seems to be popular in Shanghai just now. Earlier that day, at the Shanghai Gallery of Art at Three on the Bund, I’d lingered in an exhibition of works by Qiu Jie, a former propaganda artist who places a tabby cat’s head on the odd human form in his intricate, exquisitely executed pop-political drawings. And later, at the ShanghART gallery on Huaihai Lu, I’d happened on a show by Zhou Tiehai, who superimposes the head of Camel cigarettes’ Joe Camel cartoon character on to human figures in copies of Titians, Canalettos and Manets.
As well as giving new impetus to the already buzzing restaurant, shopping and nightlife scene, the coming of the Expo has prompted a raft of gallery openings. Many of these are commercial, among the former textile mills and warehouses on Moganshan Lu, better known now as M50, but the philanthropically funded non-profit spaces are more interesting. The Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as MoCA, is a modernist crystal palace in the heart of People’s Park, funded by the Samuel Kung Foundation. It opened in 2005, as did the Shanghai Sculpture Space, a former steel plant on the western edge of the French Concession, shortly followed by the Creek Art Center on Suzhou Creek and last year by the Minsheng Art Museum, named after the banking corporation that funds it.
The challenge with all these spaces is what to put in them. None has a permanent collection, and of the many exhibitions I saw, the one that made the most impression was a BritArt retrospective staged by the British Council at the Minsheng, with works by Anish Kapoor, Peter Doig, Gilbert & George and Damien Hirst. Not the latter’s celebrated shark as it happened, but I did see sharks – live ones – later the same evening, in a mirrored aquarium on the 24th floor of the exclusive M1nt nightclub. If the Monkey Lounge feels laidback and decorous, M1nt is loud and brash, rapacious like its sharks. They let off indoor fireworks whenever anyone orders a bottle of Dom Perignon.
But perhaps even more over the top is Barbie Shanghai, a six-storey Barbie-themed “department” store that opened last year at 550 Hauihai Lu, selling 1,600 Barbie-related products from dolls to Barbie diamond pendants costing RMB39,800 (£3,985), by way of branded notebook computers and clothes in adult sizes. There’s a Barbie spa and a Barbie Café operated, improbably, by the excellent Australian chef David Laris, whose eponymous restaurant at Three on the Bund was once among the best-regarded in the city. Lately, however, its reputation has lost out to newcomers such as Jin’An, an ambitious restaurant on the second floor of the 26-storey PuLi Hotel, overlooking Jin’An Park and the temple after which it’s named. Its New Zealand-born, Melbourne trained chef, Dane Clouston, has produced a menu rich in locally sourced luxe ingredients including Chinese foie gras (with smoked chocolate), and Chinese caviar.
Jin’An was one of many things I liked about The PuLi, which opened in September. The attention to detail was clear: witness the fact that though the bath had been set by the huge picture window, someone had thought to put the switch that operates the blinds within reach of it, so that once you’re submerged beneath the foam you can open them and marvel at the skyscraper view, your modesty preserved.
Claire Wrathall was a guest of The PuLi (www.thepuli.com; doubles from RMB3,380/£338) and British Airways (www.ba.com); www.artscenewarehouse.com; www.m50.cn; www.m1ntshanghai.com; www.mocashanghai.org; www.shanghaigalleryofart.com; www.shanghartgallery.com
Monkey Lounge, No 22, 56 Donghu Lu
A luxury invasion
Shanghai used to be called the Paris of the Orient, headquarters of fashion and decadence for an entire Asian continent, writes Patti Waldmeir. These days, however, with a hunger for extravagance born of decades of deprivation, Shanghai no longer wants to be just the Paris of Asia – it wants to be Paris itself. And Paris certainly wants to be in Shanghai.
Witness the Expo mega-stands from Chanel, Prada, and Versace, among many other global fashion brands. In the Italian pavilion alone, a giant mannequin clad in orange-pleated Versace silk stands beside Amazonian designs from Ermenegildo Zegna and Dolce & Gabbana, Prada has contributed a three-metre high dummy in a purple body-stocking and glass-beaded dress, to grace the pavilion’s multi-story central atrium. Beneath it stand the Italian pavilion staff, also dressed by Prada. In a country where staff uniforms are mostly ubiquitous reminders of a time when fashion was frowned upon, the Prada-clad Italian staff stand out.
“Those must be diamonds,” said one elderly Chinese Expo visitor sagely to another, as they passed beneath Lady Prada’s cut-glass beads, on their way to the workshop where real-life shoemakers from Salvatore Ferragamo make hand-crafted shoes.
Meanwhile, some fashion houses have also launched special edition products to celebrate Expo, eager not only to genuflect before the Shanghai government’s favourite project (and possibly garner a few souvenir sales), but also to show respect to the rising might of Chinese consumers. China is already the world’s second largest luxury market – and the only one to emerge largely unscathed from the global economic recession.
Japan’s Shiseido designed two perfumes for Expo, for example, with bottles in the shape of a magnolia, the symbolic flower of Shanghai. Prada is showing an extensive line of Expo-inspired products, from shopping totes to key fobs.
“The Expo line sells really well,” says Helen Wu, a spokesperson for Prada in Shanghai, gesturing at the range of windbreakers, baseball caps, ballet flats and keychains that take pride of place in its Nanjing Road store.
Notably, the only designers virtually invisible at Expo are local Shanghai fashion houses. But then, Expo is not about celebrating local culture – it is about celebrating Shanghai as a world city. Perhaps this is why the city government even tried to ban Shanghai’s most authentic claim to fashion fame: the wearing of pyjamas in the street. You’d never see that in Paris.