A day in Shanghai


Travel is at the heart of OKA’s design process and exploration is woven into every creation. The East is rife with opportunities to make new discoveries in ancient cities and the history of the Orient inspires and influences our modern designs. Shanghai is one of our favourite destinations and for a short time it was also the place one OKA writer called home. Spend the day with her and explore this bustling metropolis, also known as the Paris of the East.

Shanghai is a city of colossal proportions and with over 24 million people, it’s the world’s largest. The tangle of tower blocks and motorways span out in every direction, as far as the eye can see, even from the hair-raising heights of the Shanghai Tower which looms over the Huangpu river at 128 storeys. It is a city where skyscrapers seem to burst out of the ground and grow right before your eyes, like sunflowers stretching towards the sky. For all of its chaos, constant hum of traffic and the stifling air that hangs heavily with humidity, Shanghai has a magnetic vibrancy that needs to be felt to be believed. In part, this is due to the rapid urbanisation of China which has brought almost 500 million people from the countryside into the cities over the last three decades. Shanghai itself has become home to 10 million rural migrants, manifesting itself into a megacity where the sense of possibility is as endless as its skyline.

Early in the morning, the streets of Shanghai spring to life, despite never truly having slept. You’ll wake to rickety bicycles as they rumble across cracked concrete, calling out their sing-song requests for scrap metal. Your phone will bleep with a warning: ‘unhealthy air quality for sensitive groups’. The roaring horns of mopeds as they mount pavements and careen past pedestrians is never far away. Most days will begin in this manner, roused from bleary-eyed rest by the buzzing urgency of Shanghai’s 24 million residents. But as the saying goes: if you can’t beat them, join them…

Breakfast on-the-go is the preferred way to start the day in any metropolis. You’ll find Shanghai is no different, as you choke down a breakfast dumpling on the metro whilst being unceremoniously compressed by the city’s 9 million daily commuters. Most street food options are 5RMB (less than £1) and as for choosing, there’s no line or logic to follow since everything is virtually unrecognisable to the untrained Western eye. This will become a recurring theme of Chinese dining. After much dedicated research, shengjianbao (shallow-fried dumplings) arose as a personal favourite; cooked 200 at a time and stuffed full of Chinese delicacies they come highly recommended by the locals. If you find one with a nice, crisp bottom then you’ve hit the Shanghainese breakfast jackpot.

After surfacing from the metro, with some serious consideration as to whether you are now suffering from the bends, you’ll be welcomed by the tree-lined streets of the French Concession. These verdant boulevards play host to a number of elegant cafes, refined restaurants and boutique wine bars (the latter will remedy all manner of transport-related trauma). Allow a little time to lose yourself in the web of interlaced alleys with plenty of hidden treasures to be discovered. I once stumbled across a minuscule, treehouse-style cafe above a bookshop which I was never able to find again, perhaps you’ll have more luck.

If the commonplace lunch of chicken feet doesn’t appeal, frankly, I don’t blame you. Malls have a variety of culinary options to pick from, not to mention an abundance of shops. K11 is a breathtaking building which takes the Shanghai shopping (ahem, lunch) experience to an entirely new level, 61 floors to be exact. The skyscraper not only has a shop and restaurant for every taste, it also hosts a permanent collection of art allowing you to mix culture with leisure in various multi-dimensional spaces. Even without said collections, shopping in Shanghai is an art form in itself. The malls are incomparably well-designed, often featuring sprawling slabs of white marble, illuminated by colourful lighting to showcase the array of designer stores. Shop assistants stand at every concession ready to assist you, so all you need to concern yourself with is how much room you have left in your suitcase for shopping (I mean stomach…for lunch).

The Yuyuan Gardens are located in the Old City of Shanghai where the classical architecture is set against a skyline of futuristic skyscrapers, making a striking contrast between modern and traditional china. Composed of six scenic areas, you walk through one garden into the next, each featuring a new and pleasant surprise from exquisite pavilions with brightly-blossoming trees to elaborate rockeries towering above glassy pools of water. The Yuyuan Garden was originally created as the private garden of the Pan family during the Ming Dynasty and at the time, was one of the most extensive and prestigious of its kind. As you wander through, be sure to look for the hidden detailing and minute carvings, as it is in them that you’ll find the garden’s true wonder.

After working up an appetite for dinner, there’s no better place than Xintiandi (shin-ti-en-di). This affluent area hosts an array of beautiful 1920s architectural buildings masking the modern interiors of boutique bars and upmarket restaurants. For an authentic Chinese dinner, head to YangFang restaurant where you can experience a traditional hot pot. Similar to the Western fondue, you sit around a large bowl of boiling, soupy water and add herbs, fresh chilli and other flavours to your taste. A variety of platters arrive, piled with vegetables, seafood and meat, all of which will be completely unrecognisable except for the odd tentacle here and broccoli stem there. Pick at random (because you have no other choice) and place in the pot to cook. Take a lucky dip with your chopsticks and prepare for each mouthful to be a possibly pleasant surprise. If you happen to be a fussy eater, you can take the edge off your concerns (and anything else for that matter) with the Chinese drink of choice, a highly alcoholic liquor called Baijiu. Five billion litres were drunk in 2017 alone, equating to rather a lot of Westerners attempting hot pot.

The markets of Tianzifang, also known as Lane 210, are perfect for a post-dinner stroll. At sunset, the crowds die down whilst the shadows play across the authentic stonework buildings. Hundreds of twinkling fairy lights are strung between the trees, illuminating the stalls below. Tianzifang is comprised of winding alleyways and hidden enclaves with vibrant bars, restaurants and art shops. Originally a residential area, the markets were renovated from homes that are still intact and true to the authentic features of ‘Shikumen’ architecture, literally meaning ‘stone doors’. It was in this area that prominent white-collar members of society would reside, making these Shanghainese lanes feel as if you have stepped back in time, only with a few more novelty tourist shops.

This last stop is really worth saving your energy for. If you’ve never been to The Bund, it’s best to see it for the first time when the night falls and the electric lights turn on to reveal a riverside illuminated by a haze of technicolour skyscrapers. For a martini with a view (assuming your first taste of Baijiu was also your last) Bar Rouge is the obvious choice. The first time I stepped out onto their outdoor terrace my breath was taken away by the panoramic views across the river to The Bund’s defining features: The Oriental Pearl Tower, The Shanghai Tower and The World Financial Centre (also known as The Bottle Opener). Each building catapults up over one hundred stories into Shanghai’s starless skies, lit only by a rainbow of luminous lasers. It’s truly a sight to behold and one which encompasses the spirit of a city which is as mesmerising as it is limitless.