Paramount Club was the hippest dancing hall in old Shanghai. The main hall had a big orchestra playing jazz and twist tunes for the enjoyment of the dancing crowd. Taxi girls, romance and gangsters in the corners, Paramount had it all. Fortunately, the building survived until today, having kept it’s tower and a big part of its style. It is still a landmark of Shanghai. The top floor or the building still hosts a broadway style musical. It is far from broadway’s quality but one can have diner in style there, while watching a live musical. It’s not what it used to be, but the old lady still manages to keep up appareances. Going to the paramount show is one of those old Shanghai moments that I affectionate so much.
The outside of the building has more or less kept it’s original shape and inside was also preserved in original state… until recently. This is the much talked about renovation of the Paramount. I had heard about it and ended up one night there. Having seen the original I was expecting the worse… and the worse it is. Some Taiwanese investor spread a large amount of money on this venerable old lady and just turned it into a disaster. The entrance has been transformed with bad design, not to mention the chandeliers (cheap copies Philippe Starck’s Bar Rouge ones). This is supposed to impress… it probably does impress peasants from the countryside, but Paramount’s lobby is very far to be the most elegant or the most original of Shanghai’s bars. The entrance is bad enough, but the main room is the worst. If you like nightclubs in second and third tiers cities in China… you will feel right at home in the new Paramount. There is not one single fixture from the old room that can be recognized. Everything has been done to destroy or cover the old walls. The same club in any brand new shopping center or 1970’s concrete building could have been built the same way. Forget the original parquet, the balconies and the charm of this old lady.
The worst is not even there. Where Bar Rouge designers managed to hide the age and create a hype and highly original place without the old colonial atmosphere of places like Glamour Bar, Face or Lounge 18. Muse or Muse2 (ex Wynn’s win) designers did the same in another genre, and all those places definitely have an originality and an atmosphere. One may not like them all, but they are memorable. Paramount is memorable for it’s dullness. I am sure that the new owner spent millions to redecorate it, but it does not get anywhere near the fine establishments mentioned above. Paramount clearly remind me of clubs I visited in Chengdu or in Guilin… not of Shanghai’s cream of the crop. The worst is probably the sound that was so bad in the building. Please somebody teach them how to set their sound system properly.
I have read a number of articles flattering this new club… we must not have been to the same place… or the articles were written after a few free boozes generously offered by the club owner. The saddest part of the story is not that some Taiwanese entrepreneur spent a lot of money on creating something that is just bad. This could have been done anywhere, without destroying one of the few remaining Shanghai’s old icons. At the time when parts of the old Shanghai are used to create a great mix of the old and the new, Paramount’s owners just did not get anywhere near that.
I had this book stored on my shelf since I bought it a few months ago. Winter coming, bad weather and renewed interest kind of melted together pushing me to open it again. “Building Shanghai” looks at first like of those coffee table books, that you look at every now and then and you leave around just to look nice when people come and visit you. This book is really nice to look at, but it’s also much more than that. It’s a history of Shanghai from an architectural point of view. With several maps of the old Shanghai compared with the new one, I was able to locate quite a number of buildings I had noticed in the street and know about their history and architectural style. What is more fascinating is to look at some of those photograph, and to realize that I passed some great buildings every day without notice them… as they have been covered or altered with terrible expansions or additions that make impossible to recognize anymore.
As much as I am appalled by the current destruction of Shanghai architectural heritage, I also have to admit that destroying grand building a few years old to replace them by something even grander has always been part of the Shanghai history, and that some buildings that we revere today as antics were horrible creations mixing very diverse kind of styles in Frankenstein-like creation. Similarly in the old and new Shanghai, architects are pushed over the limits by landlord willing to deliver a message with their buildings… but only end up showing how bad tastes they have.
Finally I enjoyed in this book the great love of the authors for the old Shanghai and it’s preservation… as well as the love of Shanghai as a modern city and how to continue it’s expansion while avoiding expending it’s monstrous aspect to much. I’m not sure this has been the priority of Shanghai’s planners until now… but hopefully this attitude is already changing in some districts.
Face Bar is not “in”, it’s not a fashionable location but it is quintessentially part of the Shanghai spirit. Face Bar is located in one of the smaller building of the former Morriss Mansion, now Rui Jin Guest House. The front entrance looks at the park of hotel, and the back entrance is a few steps away from Rue Lafayette (now Fuxing Zhong Lu). Although this building is not the main one of the compound, it’s a large and impressive mansion with 3 floors. I’m not a great fan of the terrace. It’s a cozy place, but as it’s spread out along the alley, the isolation of the tables from each others gives the feeling that you are alone in the world, while letting people at the next table fully comprehend your conversation.
I particularly like Face Bar in the winter at 2 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, drinking high tea in the veranda, looking at sun rays painfully piercing through the clouds. It’s cold outside, but the inside is jut warm enough. Just a little sunshine gives a pre-feeling of the winter. There are not so many people at this time on a lazy Sunday giving the atmosphere a feeling of great intimacy and timelessness. The whole winter gloom suddenly disappears while lying one of the Chinese beds. No need for opium to travel in the comfort of the wooden canopy. The world outside this wooden protection has become just the show that I am spectator of. Time stops while lying on this carpet as magic as the one of Aladdin.
Face Bar also has a restaurant upstairs, serving Thai food. There again, the old walls and old wood give you the feeling that you are on a time travel… to old colonial Asia. Flavors and atmosphere of various Asian countries mix, to create this subtle ambiance. Face Bar also has a third floor in the attic, cozy and charming, with a balcony overlooking the park.
The genius of the architect is to have preserved and used the old building where the bar is located. It has created an establishment that seems somehow straight out of the settlements time, while very contemporary. Like their ancestors in the “Cercle Sportif” of the old Shanghai, today’s expat meet there for drinking a Gin-and-Tonic, chatting with friends, enjoying a cigar and play a game of pool. Under this veranda, the year could be 1920, 1930, 1990 or 2050… it does not really matter. Face Bar is a timeless place, one of those where my mind starts to imagine that I actually live in the old Shanghai.
UPDATE: Face Bar Shanghai as now been closed since late 2008. A new Little Face has opened on Donghu lu in April 2009. Nothing of the grandeur of the old Face Bar, but just enough to help waiting for the opening of a Brand New Face that everyone is missing.
It’s another Sunday, waking up when most of the mornings hour have already vanished. I am thinking of going to brunch, which is just another way of forgetting that breakfast should have happened a few hours ago… when I was still in the first hours of my sleep. I’m looking at time passing so slowly and so fast at the same time, feeling somewhat guilty of this lost morning of free time. I could have used all this time for the many interesting things that have always been planing but never done, instead of staying in my bed, recovering from last night’s dancing and drinking. I’m trying to remember what I did last night. Snapshots of drinks, dance music and happy people come back to my mind. We talked about going to a new club where a famous Dutch DJ was playing last night… instead I ended up in old favorite Bar Rouge.
There is only one bar like this in Shanghai. It opened about 2 years ago along with the restaurant below (Sens & Bund). Brand new design in an old ostentatious building, bringing a team of French managers and skillful bar tenders with them. Management probably initially thought that Bar Rouge would be “The bar of Sens & Bund” … when this very bar has become infinitely more successful than the restaurant below. Some people love it, some people hate it, but everybody in town has been to Bar Rouge at least once… I have long lost count of how many evenings I have enjoyed on the 7th floor of Bund 18 looking at LuJiaZui towers on the other side of the river… or the amount of money I have spent there, that only somewhat equals the amount of bad things people have told me about this place.
Yes! Bar Rouge is the center of attentiong the newly rich foreigners as well as jet setters and posh tourists in Shanghai. Yes! people go there to be seen, much more than to enjoy and everybody seems to try being just something else than what they really are. Yes! Service can be appaling on overcrowded weekends if you don’t know the bar tenders personaly. Yes! prices are astronomical compared to Shanghai bar scene, not to mention the local living standard BUT this is exactly why Bar Rouge is so great. Managers of foreign multinational companies, Russian models looking for a salary complement, new stars of the Chinese Media, winners of the “end of communism” game, foreign trainees looking for a little more of student life, foreign tourists looking for some posh action or maybe a little trouble at half the price of home, entrepreneurs celebrating business successes, Chinese working women willing to become your instant friend for the night, foreign buyers from all nationalities recovering from hours of drive on terrible roads visting factories, a new generation of young Chinese enjoying the fun of parties and nightlife, business visitors shown how much China is a “hardship posting”, foreigners coming to Shanghai to study Chinese and ending in the most foreign place of the city, all of them and many more dress up and enjoy the pure decadence of the this place, the ablaze Champagne bottles, colorful lab tubes in ice, heavy cigar smoke, flamming bar and Formula One style Champagne aboundantly shaken by the beat of the dance music spinned around by excellent DJ’s.
I don’t always want to, but more often than not I find myself ending up in Bar Rouge. There are so many other great places in Shanghai, but going there is somewhat convulsive… there are nights that I just need to go there, because only there can you find this kind of atmosphere. There is true feeling of old Shanghai in this place. Like the Majestic dance hall, the New World and the Paramount in their times Bar Rouge is the place where Shanghai business people show off their success and release from the stress of the intoxicating life of this city. A night spent there makes you feel just how Shanghai is becoming a world city again.
It’s a warm night in Shanghai, and after discussing it many times with friends, I start this blog about Shanghai. There are already many blogs about Shanghai or about the experience of foreigners in China. I will try to add my little original touch to this electronic mess. This blog is dedicated to Shanghai both old and new. By "Old Shanghai", most people understand Shanghai during colonial times, i.e. from the settlement of Shanghai (1842) before the "liberation" of China by the communist party (1st October 1949). By "New Shanghai", I mean the change of the city from sleeping beauty until the opening fast development of the city from the early/mid ninesties. This also includes present times, as Shanghai is still a city in rapid transformation both in its appearance and socially. My fascination and love are for both periods in a different ways, this is why I have tried to share this double passion in the same blog. I hope you will enjoy reading this blog, as much I enjoy living here.