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Vagabond Journey

The Sobering Experience of Partying With China’s Rich

Take a look at what the nightlife of China’s 1% is really like.

The wooden table had a red tablecloth over it and a glass plate over the tablecloth. The chairs were made of heavy polished wood.

“How fancy,” Rachel said.

We were eating on the second floor of a tiny restaurant on the street level. Once you enter, there is a creaky staircase going up a meter or two to the second floor and another few steps going down to a first floor crowded with about six tables. Anywhere else, the chairs at such a restaurant would be plastic stools, but this was Shanghai.

Outside, the sky was gray and dull, covered with smog. Even the three super tall skyscrapers in Pudong — Jinmao, the World Financial Center, and the nearly complete Shanghai Tower — were invisible from Huangpu, on the other side of the river.

Inside there were cracks and scratches on the corners of the wall and floor. The pictures of food on the wall were faded and askew.

Upon the table were three dishes: mapo tofu, kou shui chicken (chicken in a spicy sauce), and green beans with peppers and mincemeat. The mapo tofu, although not quite as biting and mouth numbing as the authentic dish, was spicier than the bland mess that is usually served in Shanghai. Mapo tofu comes from the spicy southwestern province of Sichuan. Shanghai people prefer their food sweet.

At the table on the other side of the room less than 10 meters away, a group of friends were talking loudly. One man was bragging about how he “didn’t even need to know English to get by in America!” Even though KFC in America has no pictures on its menu, he was still able to order, he told his friends, who knew none the better.

Rachel, who was able to speak English and yet still got by in America while studying abroad for four years, asked me if I heard what they were saying. She asked me to guess what province they were from. Judging by the look on her face and her tone of voice, I guessed Anhui, the less developed province next to Shanghai. After I guessed correctly, Rachel said they started to pretend they weren’t from Anhui. (Anhui, in English, is still called “Anhui”.)

When a girl started cursing at her boyfriend and joked about stabbing everyone in the room, Rachel decided it was time to go.

We were planning on going to a bar on the Bund that night with her roommates and friends. Even though we were nine subway stops away from the apartment where we would meet, we decided to walk.

Zhaozhou Road was lined with trees and tables of small restaurants. A long line had formed outside of one that was serving fried breadsticks and soy milk — breakfast food—at night. A block of houses on the left were marked for demolition. One of the half-knocked down houses had clothes hanging to dry in the window. We kept walking down the street until we got to Fuxing Road.

Fuxing Road is wide and developed. You couldn’t walk down the side of the road like we had been doing on the narrow Zhaozhou Road. Cars were going by all the time.

While we were crossing the street, a car began to turn in the right lane. I was already in the road, and the pedestrian signal was green. I kept walking. The car kept going. I was almost across the street. The car slowed down but kept going, keeping as close to the curb as possible. I was close enough to touch it. I pushed its side mirror in as it went by.

After turning the corner, the driver stopped to fix his mirror. Rachel and I ran across the street to a row of brick houses. Some of them had the years of construction engraved on them. They weren’t too old, having been built in the early 1900’s. Through a curved street, we entered the Sinan Mansions entertainment district.

Banners affixed to street lights heralded this place as a leisure paradise. There weren’t many people there. Rachel and I were alone walking down the stone street, except for the cold metal statues of upper class Chinese in Qing dynasty clothes. There were people inside the X Bistro, the Boxing Cat Brewery, La Tapas, and other restaurants, but they weren’t packed.

One statue grabbed our attention. It wasn’t an aristocratic Chinese but an aristocratic Scottish man with a cane. The plaque below it read: “8898 km. The distance from Cardhu, Scotland to Shanghai: Keep Walking.”

Inside the first floor of the Johnnie Walker House were large bottles with Chinese designs engraved in them. There were vintage bottles of Johnnie Walker in display cases and information about Johnnie Walker. It was a small museum. A man with a wrinkled face greeted us and invited us to take the elevator upstairs. Inside the elevator, a hat and cane were tethered to the wall. Upon arriving on floor three, we meandered towards the middle of an empty room filled with a golden yellow glow. Wine glasses were affixed to the ceiling at varying heights, creating a wave effect.

Conversation emanated from a room at the end of the hall, and we caught a glimpse of some people at a table in the back. In a moment, a man in a suit greeted us. “What are you doing here?” he asked. I answered by asking if this was a bar. He responded in the affirmative and then directed us to the elevator. As he accompanied us down, we made small talk about how nice the bar was. After leaving, we kept walking through the Sinan Mansions, passing by Haagen-Dasz, California Pizza Kitchen, and Uokura.

“Why is no one here? If I was rich, I would drink at that restaurant every day,” she said, pointing to a lounge inside a boutique hotel.

“Because they kicked all their customers out,” I joked.

“That villager on the first floor thought that just because you have a foreign face we could go to the third floor.”

On the corner of Sinan Road, down the street from us was the former residence of Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, and a hotel with villas that cost tens of thousands of yuan per night. By that time it was 10:30, and we needed to get there soon, so we hailed a cab. We stopped at 7/11, and I grabbed a few bottles of Qingdao and some crappy Chinese liquor for pre-gaming. We all met at Rachel’s new apartment, and I drank a glass of the 14 yuan liquor with her French friends before we left for Bund 22, a 6-story building built by an English banking company in 1906.

On floor four, there was a big crowd outside of Cirque Le Soir right when we got out of the elevator. The crowd appeared to be about 60 percent foreigners, most of them decked out in trendy fashions, a few with button down shirts opened to bare chests. Groups pushed to the front, trying to clear the cluster in the middle of the blocked hall. 175 years after the First Opium War, it looked as if the Age of Imperialism had never ended. We were told that there would be a one hour wait. That’s what you get for arriving at the Bund at 11:30.

We got into cabs and went to a dance bar on Hengshan Road. After paying a 100 yuan cover charge, we walked down into a dark empty room. White clothes glowed under the black lights. The 50 yuan cocktails tasted like they were half water. Some of us split and went to M2, where Chinese high rollers drink whisky and tea while playing dice.

I went up to the bar, pushed my way to the front, and asked for a Qingdao.

“We don’t have Qingdao,” the bartender said.

It was Shanghai, after all.

Filed under: China, Travel Stories

About the Author:

Mitchell Blatt is the editor of map magazine and the lead author of the Panda Guides Hong Kong guidebook. Download his ebook about traveling in rural Guizhou here. has written 15 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Mitch Blatt is currently in: Nanjing, ChinaMap

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