Shanghai, Artlessly Edgy

The Shanghai of today bears little resemblance to the fishing village it once was. Yes, up until 1842, this sprawling metropolis was still a fishing village! At the time, few would’ve imagined a transformation so rapid was even achievable.

Situated on the Yangzi Jiang (Yangtze River) delta, the settlement began to flourish when it was turned into a treaty port by the British at the conclusion of the First Opium War (1839-1842). Foreigners poured in and autonomous concessions independent of Chinese law were carved up by the British, French and Americans. By 1943, at the height of WWII, Shanghai’s century as a treaty port had come to a close. However, the legacy of this gilded age still remains in the city’s colonial architecture, and perhaps, its culture of openness or receptiveness to change.

Shanghai, once referred to as the Paris of the East, is synonymous with the futuristic and fashionable; the city is often associated with the skyscraper forest that is Pudong, or The Bund, the city’s iconic collection of Art Deco buildings along the Huangpu River. Whatever the label – metropolis, global financial hub, mega city – this city of 23 mil continues to hurtle through the 21st century at breakneck speed.

But beyond the flash of the city’s commercial renaissance, Shanghai is edgy – an urban centre with a vibrant culture that is more than just business. On a recent visit to the city – my first – I discovered a slice of what the city has to offer.


Located in the Boashan district, about an hour from Pudong, the Shanghai Museum of Glass is unlike any other in the city. Dedicated solely to the beauty and appreciation of glass, this museum takes visitors through a labyrinthine display that explores the origins of glass, its varied uses, and its place in ancient history and modern times.

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Perfect Girl Redux by American artist Miles Van Rensselaer is among the contemporary glass sculptures exhibited at Shanghai Museum of Glass. The sculpture is composed of individually cast bronze components and clear blown glass that symbolise the intangible and tangible qualities of the perfect girl. Photography: Nicky Almasy.

The brainchild of Zhang Lin, its president and chairman, the museum is a fantastical ode to glass inspired by Zhang’s passion to “share the limitless possibilities of glass” with others. From its sleek exterior, constructed out of glass shipped from Germany, to the fancy Murano-glass chandeliers that hang from its ceilings, this space that sits on the site of a former glass factory, strives to encourage industry innovation while celebrating the versatility of glass.

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Glassblowing classes at the Shanghai Museum of Glass help visitors understand the glassblowing process. Here, molten glass is dipped into a container filled with multi-coloured glass grains, in a process that will add a variety of hues to the finished glass piece. Photography: Nicky Almasy.

The museum is divided into four main sections; the first offers an introduction to glass, the second charts the history of glass through the ancient world and China, the third displays the versatility and use of glass in our daily lives, and the final section is devoted to contemporary glass sculptures.

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An expert glassblower shapes the mouth of a vase during a glassblowing class at the Shanghai Museum of Glass. Photography: Nicky Almasy.

There is much to explore in the museum complex, a collection of restored factory buildings. Among the exhibits in its two-storey main building are ancient glass ornaments such as hairpins worn by Chinese noble women during the Song Dynasty (960-1279AD), as well as contemporary glassworks sculpted by local and international artists. My favourite piece among the museum’s impressive treasures was a pair of angel wings, constructed from thousands of miniature glass tubes by Chinese artist Shelly Xue.

The piece, inspired by the birth of Xue’s daughter took 15 months from conceptualisation to completion, and on display are notes that detail its painstaking construction, as well as CCTV footage which reveals how a couple of careless museum-goers damaged a section of one wing. Originally christened Angel is Waiting, this glass sculpture is now poignantly entitled Broken.

The museum complex also houses a smaller glass museum for children that features interactive displays which encourage play and learning; a museum shop; a restaurant and café; as well as a demonstration space where glass-blowing classes are held. The more daring can even choose to have a body part cast in glass at the glass casting workshop!


Off Taikang Lu (Taikang Road) and on the fringe of the French Concession (the former French settlement), is Tianzifang, a warren of trendy cafés, restaurants, boutiques, souvenir stores and art studios. Here, visitors will find shikumen, buildings that combine Western and Chinese elements that first came about in the 1860s. Many of these shikumen now host quirky hole-in-the-walls.

Formerly a working-class neighbourhood, the area was revitalised in the late 1990s when artists – painters and photographers among them – moved in and set up their studios.

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Tianzifang, a maze of alleys, home to fashionable boutiques, trendy restaurants and curio shops, is a joy to explore, even on a rainy day! Photography: Nicky Almasy.

Navigating Tianzifang’s maze of alleys (don’t worry maps are available) is well worth the effort as visitors will uncover a treasure trove of unique finds including antiques, original artwork, and one of a kind collectibles. This is the place to head to for a spot of people-watching (though avoid the weekends and holidays when out-of-towners crowd its lanes).

The neighbourhood, while slightly touristy, is still home to Shanghainese families who inhabit the upper floors of some of the buildings. Amid the gastro pubs and cafés that populate Tianzifang, visitors will also find bamboo poles strung with laundry poking out from second-storey dwellings – a respite from the sterile environment of Shanghai’s ultra-modern malls!

Whether you’re looking for an immaculately tailored qipao (body-hugging traditional Shanghainese dress) or vintage posters to decorate your home, this is the place to score pretty paraphernalia!


China’s tallest building and the world’s second-highest, behind only the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the 632-metre Shanghai Tower soars into the clouds dwarfing its closest competitor, the 492-metre-high Shanghai World Financial Center. Slated to open soon, the 121-storey building in the heart of the city’s Lujiazui Finance and Trade Zone is the masterpiece of San Francisco-based design firm Gensler.

Situated in Pudong on the east bank of the Huangpu River, Lujiazui exemplifies China’s rapid economic rise and urban expansion. Home to the other-worldly Oriental Pearl Tower, and the pagoda-like Jinmao Tower, incidentally the third tallest structure in mainland China, Lujiazui with its line-up of upscale hotels, sparkling malls and towering skyscrapers is the epitome of modern Shanghai.

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The 632-metre-high Shanghai Tower soars above its neighbours in Pudong, and dominates the Shanghai skyline. Photography: Nicky Almasy.

The Shanghai Tower, however, symbolises the city’s future. Its sleek design that twists skywards is more than just a flashy façade. The asymmetrical form, tapering profile and rounded corners of the building were designed to withstand Shanghai’s typhoon-force winds. Innovative eco features include a glass skin on the outer layer of the building that admits maximum daylight reducing the need for artificial lighting, and 270 wind turbines built into the façade that will soon power exterior lighting. Inspired by the courtyards and parks of Shanghai, designers created vertical or sky gardens within the building. In fact, one third of the site is dedicated to green spaces. A self-contained ‘city’, the tower consists of nine vertical zones, each 12 to 15 storeys high. When it opens to the public, this building that showcases cutting-edge sustainable design is bound to be a showstopper!


Conceptualised by Shanghai-based French chef Paul Pairet in 2012, and touted to be the first of its kind in the world, Ultraviolet has to be experienced to be believed. Ultraviolet is not your typical restaurant, and for Pairet, it was a labour of love that took 15 years to realise. The chef de cuisine at Shanghai’s acclaimed Mr & Mrs Bund, Pairet, had, for years, dreamed about opening a multisensorial space where the enjoyment of food was an immersive experience.

This single table restaurant only seats 10 diners per night, and its location is hush-hush. To keep everything under wraps, guests are not provided with the restaurant’s address. Instead, they’re asked to assemble at Mr & Mrs Bund, where a minibus will whisk them to the restaurant.

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At cutting-edge restaurant, Ultraviolet, diners are whisked on a multi-sensorial culinary adventure. Each course is accompanied by images, scents and sounds that enhance the dining experience. Photography: Nicky Almasy

Once they arrive at the undisclosed location, guests are ushered into an antechamber, where violet mood lighting and what sounds like the amplified beating of a heart set the stage for an unforgettable meal. A door opens, and guests are led into a second room, before yet another door finally reveals the dining room, a space that is part conference room-part theatre.

Once they are seated, the walls of the room transform into a 360-degree video screen, and the projected imagery – of hurtling toward the core of the earth – simulates the feeling of downward travel. The screen projection moves faster and faster and soon, diners find themselves in another realm – outer space. The extraordinary trip, is of course only a simulation, yet one so real that many guests actually believe they have been transported into a subterranean chamber. And, that is just the beginning of the show.

The HD walls broadcast images to accompany every course, and the dining experience is enhanced with music from surround-sound speakers, high-tech lighting, and scent diffusers. Each of the courses is accompanied by its own special visuals, sounds and scents.

The entire meal encompasses 20-something courses served over a leisurely four hours. For Lobster Essential, a course of steamed lobster, diners are transported to the beach, with the sounds of crashing waves, the cries of sea gulls and the salty scent of seawater enhancing the experience. When Fish ‘Tupperware’, a dish that reminds Pairet of childhood picnics comes to the table, diners eat in a ‘meadow’ while a nostalgic French tune plays on the radio. Even the dining table is carpeted in artificial turf to recreate the atmosphere of a picnic!

The dining experience is not merely theatrics – the food is meticulously prepared and exquisite, and diners are able to take their time and enjoy each course. Pairet’s objective when he set up Ultraviolet was to deliver a multi-sensory dining experience unfettered by the constraints of typical restaurants, and to enhance the appreciation of food through our senses and emotions. Reservations can only be made online, but be warned, seats are sold out months in advance!

Ultraviolet currently has two menus – the original, UVA, and a newer version UVB. Both menus offer distinctive dining experiences that elevate the appreciation of food, and fortify Pairet’s theory of ‘psycho taste’, the idea that food can trigger emotions.


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Artist Xu Dong Ping poses with one of his paintings in a gallery at M50, an enclave for artists. Photography: Nicky Almasy

A sprinkling of creative spaces, art galleries and art museums nurture urban Shanghai’s burgeoning interest in modern art. Among these artistic attractions are two noteworthy entries: Redtown, located along Huahai Xi Lu, and M50, an art district on Moganshan Lu.

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A man walks past graffiti that decorates the walls along Shanghai’s Moganshan Lu, a former industrial area that now houses a collection of contemporary art galleries and studios 10 Tongue-in-cheek contemporary paintings by artist Sun Zhezheng at a gallery in M50. Photography: Nicky Almasy

Redtown is a collection of red brick buildings along Shanghai’s Huahai Xi Lu. These former buildings of the Shanghai No. 10 Steel Factory now house an outdoor art and sculpture park, several art galleries, and a warehouse-turned-sculpture museum. Redtown’s original tenant, Shanghai Sculpture Space opened its doors in 2005 to rave reviews. Here, an ever-changing rotation of avant-garde sculptures crafted by Chinese and international artists are exhibited throughout the year. Best of all – admission is free!

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A metal sculpture exhibited in Redtown’s Shanghai Sculpture Space. Photography: Nicky Almasy.

While sculptures decorate Redtown’s outdoor and indoor spaces, M50, an artists’ enclave along Suzhou Creek, is home to a community of artists. Situated within industrial buildings dating back to the 1930s, M50 is one of Shanghai’s earliest contemporary art enclaves, and among its most progressive. Artists began moving into the once derelict district in the year 2000, transforming its formerly industrial spaces into studios and design workshops. Today, M50 hosts over 100 galleries and studios including top-billed ShangART, where the works of some of China’s most illustrious contemporary artists are exhibited. Whether you’re a serious collector or just looking for a contemporary Chinese art piece to take home, M50 is your best bet.

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Tongue-in-cheek contemporary paintings by artist Sun Zhezheng at a gallery in M50. Photography: Nicky Almasy.


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Quirky sculptures on display at Cheng Lin Art Center, an art gallery in Shanghai’s M50 art enclave. Photography: Nicky Almasy.

In Shanghai, kitsch and commercialism coexist in harmony, resulting in an interesting study of contrasts. While Shanghai’s ever-changing landscape symbolises the city’s progressive march toward the future, the blueprint for its success lies in its culture of embracing change.


Shop for uniquely Shanghainese keepsakes at these fashion-forward outlets.


Established in 2006, this Shanghai-based fashion label stocks clothing, handmade jewellery and ceramics inspired by China’s minority groups. The brand’s collection of attire includes tunics fashioned from natural materials such as hemp and pure cotton.


Coloured using a starch-resist method and indigo dye, blue and white Nankeen fabric is China’s equivalent of batik. On sunny days, visitors to the Nankeen Exhibition Hall on Changle Road will be greeted by bolts of the fabric billowing in the wind. Inside, informative displays offer insight into the history and development of the fabric, while an on-site shop stocks selections for home. LANE 637, 24 CHANGLE LU


This store celebrates Scotswoman and designer Sarah Armstrong’s love affair with Shanghai with a variety of knick-knacks including tea towels, bone china mugs, melamine trays, aprons and tote bags that feature her quirky designs. Highlights include a pair of bao (dumpling)- inspired salt and pepper shakers, and mah-jong tile-patterned cufflinks.


Combines ultra-modern designs with the millennia-old tradition of Chinese ceramics. One of Shanghai’s leading ceramic makers, with stores in Singapore and New York, Spin is known for minimalist designs that blend form with function. From dinnerware to vases, the range here will simply take your breath away!

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Shanghai from various deastinations. Go to for details.

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