21 Ultimate Gifts: Vine Club
The most coveted vintage might be your own if you acquire this gift from Napa Valley Reserve. The brainchild of Harlan Estate’s Bill Harlan, this invitation-only club in St. Helena, Calif., which opened in May, provides its members with the resources necessary for enjoying the life of the gentleman (or lady) vintner. Participants, all of whom receive lifetime memberships, enjoy the privilege of farming a small plot of prime Napa Valley real estate from the club’s 50 acres planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines; the services of a staff drawn from Harlan Estate to maintain the fields and provide guidance; and access to a 37,000-square-foot storage cave, a winery, and a hospitality complex. Ongoing classes on grape growing, blending, tasting, and food and wine pairings enhance the experience. Members can even package their wine in the bottle size of their choice and mark it with a custom label.
Napa Valley Reserve is offering a premium lifetime membership for one Robb Report reader. It includes access to an entire vineyard block, or 1 acre, of land (a typical membership includes privileges to farm an eighth of an acre), and the first five years’ worth of dues are waived. A maximum total of four barrels, or 100 cases, of wine made primarily from grapes grown on the acre is included. (Most other members receive allotments ranging from a half-barrel to three barrels.) This amount of wine would be granted to you every year for five years. In addition, the membership includes 60 nights’ lodging annually (15 nights per season) for five years at the neighboring Meadowood resort, another benefit not normally made available. You also can elect to share your acre and your wine allotment with as many as three people, who would receive nontransferable co-memberships.
Price: $1,150,000. Contact: Napa Valley Reserve, 707.968.3190, firstname.lastname@example.org. Membership is contingent upon submittal of a formal application and approval by the membership committee and is subject to the rules and regulations of the Napa Valley Reserve, which are contained in its membership plan. The three co-member candidates also must apply and be approved by the committee. Co-members’ dues are covered in the price. The wine cannot be sold, but it may be given away. Members do not own the land, but they receive access privileges to a specific vineyard plot.
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21 Ultimate Gifts: Play Book
Although official records noting his baptism, his marriage, the births of his children, the death of his son, and various sales and business transactions still exist, no writings survive that reveal William Shakespeare’s frame of mind when he drafted his masterpieces. His manuscripts have long since vanished, and he left no memoirs or diaries. Shakespeare’s body of work, therefore, must speak for its author, as it does in the four folios printed during the 17th century, the first of which appeared within a decade of his death in 1616.
The folio, a book format that printers of that era usually reserved for works of distinction, is characterized by its large page size and great cost. This fourth folio, which Argosy Book Store in Manhattan is offering to Robb Report readers, measures 14 inches tall, 9.5 inches wide, and 2.5 inches thick. Copies of Shakespeare’s fourth folio originally appeared in 1685, and fewer than 80 remain in existence. This volume contains all 36 comedies, tragedies, and history plays attributed to Shakespeare, as well as seven plays that the book’s verbose title describes as “Never before Printed in Folio: Viz. Pericles Prince of Tyre. The London Prodigal. The History of Thomas Lord Cromwell. Sir John Oldcastle Lord Cobhans. The Puritan Widow. A Yorkshire Tragedy. The Tragedy of Locrine.” Most modern scholars attribute only Pericles Prince of Tyre to Shakespeare, agreeing that he likely coauthored the comedy.
The 918-page, calfskin leather–bound volume features decorative designs hammered into the leather, stamped on the edges of the covers, and incised on the edges of the pages. Argosy states that while the folio has undergone minor repairs over time, it contains all its original leaves, or pages, and that it is in very good condition.
Price: $185,000. Contact: Argosy Book Store, 212.753.4455, email@example.com.
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21 Ultimate Gifts: Peace Sign
With the goal of creating the world’s most precious pen, artist David Montalto di Fragnito spent two years working with Italian writing instrument manufacturer Montegrappa to produce the Peace Pen. Measuring 6.6 inches long, the pen is made from lead crystal, platinum, and diamonds—a total of 1,259 stones that together weigh more than 48 carats. The facets of the eight-sided platinum barrel and cap are covered alternately in pavé diamonds and Baccarat crystal. A dove, the universal symbol of peace, is engraved on each of the four crystal sides of the pen and on its platinum nib. A crystal dove also sits atop the Baccarat crystal presentation casket, which measures 11 inches long and 7.5 inches wide and is shaped like a baguette-cut diamond.
The pen pictured here will remain with Montegrappa, but the company will accept a single commission from a Robb Report reader. The buyer will have the opportunity to personalize the pen by selecting the width of the nib, the engraving on the clip, and the carat weight of the diamonds. Montegrappa will fly the buyer and a guest to Venice for a two-night stay. During their sojourn, they will visit the Montegrappa headquarters in nearby Bassano del Grappa to take possession of the pen, tour the workshops and the corporate museum, and meet the people who created the Peace Pen. Montegrappa estimates that it will take at least six months to complete and deliver the pen.
Price: Starting at $1 million. Contact: 866.854.1674, www.montegrappa1912.com. Allow at least six months for delivery of the pen.
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21 Ultimate Gifts: War Records
Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, and virtually every other figure who played a major role in the waging of World War II is represented in a collection of historic documents offered by the Kenneth W. Rendell Gallery in New York. The collection contains a World War I–era typewritten manuscript by Churchill in which he states that “to get American troops into Europe . . . fighting where they share our losses . . . seems to me the foundation upon which the life of our state and empire rests.”
Among the MacArthur items is a 1961 letter in which he discusses being relieved of his command by Harry Truman: “The only excuse Mr. Truman could have for his abuse of me is that it should be true or it should be witty. If it is neither the one nor the other, it becomes mere vulgar scurrility.” Also included are documents and other items associated with Truman, Chester Nimitz, George Patton, George Marshall, Omar Bradley, and Joseph Stalin, who, in a handwritten, 1930 letter, critiques his press coverage in the United States: “I read in an American newspaper about the ‘brutal atrocities’ of the Bolsheviks . . . Funny people these American newspaper publishers. It’s just downright comical . . . They make money with this notion of atrocities.”
A signed 1941 document from Adolph Hitler, marked “Secret” and addressing the demands being made on the German armaments industry, is included with a signed formal portrait photo of the Führer in uniform. Even more chilling are a number of maps of southwestern England from 1941 and 1942, which were designed to familiarize the German military with the terrain in advance of a Nazi invasion.
Price: $475,000. Contact: The Kenneth W. Rendell Gallery,
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Robb Report 21 Ultimate Gifts 2004
As has been our holiday tradition over the last two decades, we present our annual Ultimate Gift Guide, a collection of 21 exceptional items and experiences offered exclusively to Robb Report readers. In assembling the guide, we asked the preeminent members of the luxury market to dazzle us with what they could devise. The items on the following pages are those that most delighted us, and we feel certain that anyone on your list this holiday season will find these gifts just as dazzling and delightful.
Our picks are featured in the following 21 articles (Click article title to view):
In the Grand Scheme of Things
Back on Track
Monster of Modena
Town and Country
Jolly Old London
Diamonds du Jour
The High Life
Raising the Bar
The Whole Nine Yards
Journeys: True Lagoons
The first afternoon aboard the megayacht Ti’a Moana, I hop a tender to one of the deserted islets that ring the volcanic island of Bora-Bora. I snorkel through schools of electric blue parrot fish and silver bream in a turquoise cove, then wade ashore past undulating sea cucumbers and black-spined urchins. Pulling on reef shoes, I tramp across a moonscape of sea-hammered coral and shells to the outer shore, where the Pacific curls in long white breakers across the reef, gnawing like a beast at this tiny motu, as Polynesians call these coral atolls.
The universe suddenly seems very large and the spot where I stand quite small. In French Polynesia, land is but a specklike exception to water. The reef defines a frontier between a vast, uncaring ocean on one side and a still and limpid lagoon on the other. A lone channel penetrates this aquatic realm, zigzagging through strands of sandbar and coral reef, and presenting passage for the 226-foot Ti’a Moana.
"I can navigate by color," says Captain Bertrand Beaumont from his vessel’s bridge, where we meet following my day’s diversions. "Bright turquoise means danger, teal is safe but shallow, azure means at least 25 meters." Beaumont has sailed the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the North Sea, but he considers Polynesia’s waters unique. "Never have I seen such a range of blues," he says.
Ti’a Moana, with a draft of less than 8 feet, was built to ply those blues. With Beaumont at the helm, she glides through waters where larger vessels dare not go. (The day I boarded in Bora-Bora, two massive cruise ships sat in the deep channel; I never saw them again.) Apart from the overnight passages between Bora-Bora, Huahine, and Raiatea-Taha’a, our seven-day, six-night cruise aboard Ti’a Moana unfolds in the intimate lagoons of the Leeward Islands.
On board Ti’a Moana, our cruise approaches the intimacy afforded by a private yacht. The five-deck vessel’s restaurant, two bars, and library serve a mere 30 cabins—each about 170 square feet and outfitted with a panoramic window and LCD TV. Many of the 38 crew members are Frenchmen who trained at Paris hotels and Riviera resorts. They abandoned their homeland for the South Seas, a place the ship’s Polynesian crew members have spent their lives exploring.
Gaëtan and Patrick, our tender drivers, wed impassive cool to pilot skills learned as boys on the coves of the Raiatea-Taha’a lagoon. Inscrutable behind their wraparound shades, they know the best place to drift-snorkel past a forest of red, blue, and purple coral, and how to thread the shallows to a hidden beach, where I receive an impromptu Polynesian dance lesson from the ship’s laundress.
One afternoon, Gaëtan and Patrick ferry all of Ti’a Moana’s passengers to a private motu off Taha’a. The family who owns the island prepares for us a feast of coconut bread, roasted taro root, breadfruit, pork, mullet, and chicken with greens and red ginger—all cooked in a deep oven dug into the sand. The patriarch shows us how to make poisson cru, smacking his lips as he stirs lime juice and coconut milk into a vat of raw fish and onion.
Our onboard dishes are no less authentic: tuna carpaccio so fresh it seems to quiver, grilled white tuna with Tahitian vanilla froth, chicken stewed in coconut milk, red ginger soup, and vanilla crème brûlée speckled with freshly scraped seeds. Fishermen tie up on the stern with deliveries for our chef—yellowfin and white tuna, a massive moonfish, a string of reef trout—and, when we make port, our crew loads Ti’a Moana with scores of ladyfinger bananas, coconuts, and fat watermelons.
With T’a Moana anchored off Raiatea, the yacht’s guest liaison, Christophe Castagnoli, takes a group of us ashore to the temple site of Taputapuatea Marae. Descended from the chiefs of Tahiti on his mother’s side, Castagnoli can trace his ancestry to the most daring and capable seafarers in human history. At a time when Europeans were hovering close to their own shores, the ancestors of the Polynesians were voyaging hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles. These pioneers, working east from Papua New Guinea, settled present-day French Polynesia sometime between 200 B.C. and A.D. 400. Their descendants colonized New Zealand to the south, Easter Island to the east, and Hawaii to the north.
Dedicated to Oro, the god of war, Taputapuatea Marae was the religious and political center of the theocratic Maori culture when the first European explorers arrived in the mid-18th century. English missionaries followed in the late 1700s and converted the entire Polynesian population to Christianity within 25 years, a cultural transformation that relegated Taputapuatea to an archaeological curiosity.
Castagnoli leads us across barren plazas of volcanic stone to crumbling double walls made of coral slabs. "When they excavated," he says softly, "the space between the walls was filled with skulls from sacrifices." Polynesian chieftains from as far away as New Zealand voyaged to the marae for ceremonies, and pilgrims continue to make the journey today. At small altars, I find offerings of carvings, stones, shells, coins, fruits, and flower garlands gradually turning to dust.
Legend holds that the great colonizing migrations were staged not far from Taputapuatea at the mouth of the Faaroa, Polynesia’s only navigable river. That same afternoon, we set out in kayaks to paddle up the muddy stream to a private botanical garden with towering Polynesian chestnuts, stands of red and gold ginger, and thickets of porcelain flower shrubs said to be the most expensive cut flowers in the world. Vanilla orchids snake around the trunks of shade trees. Tugging gently on the blossoms, Castagnoli shows us how to hand-pollinate each bloom to produce the plant’s coveted extract.
We do not spend our entire week in remote jungles or on moorings off deserted islands. Since Ti’a Moana went into service in May 2004, the yacht has been making a stir when it docks at the quay of sleepy Fare on Huahine (where I take an excursion to see the island’s blue-eyed eels) and the recently modernized waterfront of Uturoa on Raiatea. Uturoa, the island’s largest town, crouches beneath a 965-foot peak, and a handful of us, packing thermoses of rum punch mixed by the ship’s bartenders, climb to the summit for the sweeping view of the blue lagoons and serrated peaks we have encountered during our weeklong journey aboard Ti’a Moana.
Our South Seas cruise has not included glitzy floor shows or casinos. But nights on Ti’a Moana’s upper deck, spent locating the Southern Cross and watching for shooting stars in the galactic expanse, have hardly been dull. And with her access to the tiny Polynesian motu and lagoons, Ti’a Moana has exposed us to a new universe.
Bora Bora Cruises, 800.780.4014, www.boraboracruises.com
Journeys: True Lagoons: Bliss in the Banyans
A giant banyan tree—symbol of serenity, wisdom, and longevity—grows next to nearly every temple ruin in Polynesia. In erecting its new Marù Spa, a shrine to such virtues, the Bora Bora Lagoon Resort went the ancients one better, placing two of the treatment rooms atop a high canopy of entwined banyans.
Opened in August 2004, the Marù Spa maintains an eclectic menu of specialty massages, baths, and skin treatments based on Asian, European, and Polynesian techniques. The aromatic baths, one of which combines sea salts with heady Tahitian vanilla, prove an effective emollient, but the spa’s most ethereal experience is a Bora-Bora fruit and plant-extract facial administered in the dappled shade of a tree-house treatment room while mynah birds hop from branch to branch outside.
In addition to its treetop quarters, the Marù Spa includes three treatment rooms that face the lagoon. The spa’s main building—made from local woods, bamboo, and stone—blends discreetly into its corner of the Lagoon Resort, which occupies 12 acres on a large motu directly across the channel from Bora-Bora’s rugged twin peaks.
The resort, in conjunction with Bora Bora Cruises, now offers a Motu Miti (Island and Sea) package that consists of four days on land and six aboard Ti’a Moana. The land segment includes a daily couple’s massage at the Marù Spa. For maximum effect, schedule your treatments for late enough in the day to catch the sun setting over the lagoon from your perch atop the banyans.
Bora Bora Lagoon Resort & Spa, 800.860.4095, www.boraboralagoon.com
21st Century City: Squash Courts, Italian Cuisine, and Jazz
For the traveler accustomed to navigating through Europe and South America with a smattering of French, German, and Spanish, the language barrier in Shanghai—as in the rest of China—can be a humbling experience. However, if you are no more conversant in Mandarin than the average Shanghainese is in English, the staff at any of the following three hotels should be able to help you overcome any communication problems and make the most of your time in the city.
The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai
Conveniently situated on Nanjing Xi Lu road, one of the world’s busiest shopping strips, the hotel includes amenities such as squash and racquetball courts and a high-security elevator that President Bush rode in from the underground parking garage directly to his quarters on the 45th floor during his 2001 visit. An especially appealing feature of this hotel is the sheet of water that endlessly cascades over the facade of its lower floors, producing a relaxing white noise in the mezzanine-level bar. For guests who want to immerse themselves in the hurly-burly of Shanghai, general manager Mark DeCocinis might offer a spin through the city in his sidecar-equipped antique motorcycle. The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai, +86.21.6279.8888, www.ritz-carlton.com
For sheer nostalgia, no hotel can compare to this Bund landmark, which comprises two gray, institutional-looking buildings separated by a street. Both buildings were built by one of Shanghai’s most prominent citizens, the opium merchant and financier Victor Sassoon. The older, shorter structure first opened as the Palace Hotel in 1906. The newer, 12-story building opened as the Cathay Hotel in 1929 and was celebrated for its luxury, for its revels, and for hosting such distinguished guests as Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw, and Noël Coward, who completed the play Private Lives while residing at the hotel. Today, with its copper-sheathed, pyramidal roof, the hotel is the most widely known in China. The 380 rooms and suites all have been refurbished to convey a sense of Old Shanghai style. As in the 1920s and 1930s, jazz is a popular drawing card at the hotel; the current troupe of musicians, the Peace Hotel Old Jazz Band, has been playing in the bar since 1980. Peace Hotel, +86.21.6321.6888, www.shanghaipeacehotel.com
Grand Hyatt Shanghai
Best known for its altitude, Pudong’s signature hotel is as handsome as it is high, with an Art Deco theme accented by works of contemporary Chinese art. Of course, when you are at this elevation, you spend a lot of time looking out the windows, and the scenery is spectacular, especially the view of the Bund across the river. Looking up can be as awe-inspiring as looking out when you are seated in the hotel’s atrium, whose vaulting periphery is ribbed by walkways leading to 33 stories of suites and rooms. At the restaurant Canton, specialties include crystal shrimp, hairy crab, and a delicate tofu under exotic sauces. The Shanghainese staff members also urge visitors to try the Italian restaurant, where the Chinese-made noodles, they claim, surpass anything made in Italy. The hotel’s spa features a cascading overflow pool set in a two-story space on the 57th floor. Acrophobes can take comfort in the 88-story height of the Jim Mao Tower that houses the hotel; 88 is a lucky number according to Chinese lore. Grand Hyatt Shanghai, +86.21.5049.1234, www.shanghai.grand.hyatt.com
Feature: 21st Century City
At night, downtown Shanghai is a neon blaze, but all is dark in Fuxing Park, a residential district on the outskirts of the city, where my taxi has stopped. The driver says something in Chinese and points to a gate in a high, stuccoed wall. A dimly lit sign hanging over the gate identifies—in Chinese script and English—the place as the Yongfoo Elite Club. Two burly Chinese chaps stand by the gate, scrutinizing the cab and its passenger. Stepping out warily, I point first to the driver, then to the spot where he has stopped—international sign language for "You wait here a minute while I check this out." He smiles and nods in agreement. But as I move toward the gate, I hear an ominous sound from behind, and, turning, I see the taxi disappear into the darkness. This leaves me with only one thing to do.
The bouncers look me over but do not say a word as I walk past them into a courtyard lit by glowing pools of goldfish. A sprawling colonial-style mansion lies beyond. Oh well, what is the worst that could happen? The place has come highly recommended, or at least I thought it had at the time. "It’s very exclusive, very private," a new acquaintance promised, back at my hotel. "Just like old-time Shanghai."
That sounded promising. In its heyday, this city on the Huangpu River was the world’s most freewheeling and cosmopolitan. Dubbed the Paris of the East, it was more exotic than its namesake, a place crackling with sophistication and adventure. On the other hand, it was also the most notorious, riddled with opium dens and brothels, a place where you watched your drink, lest you be drugged—indeed, shanghaied—and tossed onto a tramp steamer bound for parts unknown. More recently, I was now recalling, anyone found frequenting a club for the elite would have been lined up against a wall, or at the very least, sent off to a farm for reeducation.
Trusting this is no longer so, I pull on the door and step inside, blinking against the light and taking in the scene: the paneled rooms, the opulent furnishings, and the smiling young ladies in high-slit silk cheongsams. If this is not the Shanghai of legend, it will certainly do.
I have come to shanghai to experience the boom, the phenomenon that has restored the city’s bygone luster and transformed it, so its citizens claim, into the First City of the 21st Century. After more than 40 years of a Communist-imposed malaise in Shanghai, comparisons with the city’s past were inevitable.
Strolling through the city early one morning, I was reminded of a story Orson Welles used to tell. For a high school graduation gift, his father had sent him to China, and while he was touring Shanghai with an aunt, their ricksha hit a bump. "The dear lady fell out," Welles would say, "and was never seen again." Nobody familiar with Shanghai—then or now—would refute his tale.
At every turn, a visitor is reminded that this is a city of 20 million people, two and a half times the size of New York and eight times as densely populated. There is a constant din of car horns blaring, traffic cops blowing their whistles, bicycle bells jingling, chickens clucking from bamboo cages heaped on the sidewalks, and merchants beseeching passersby to come into their stores to peruse their wares. Traffic lights are treated as novelties, on a par with holiday decorations. On Hua Hai road, a main artery through the shopping district, green turns to red, but the taxis continue to press forward, a motorized phalanx against the swarms of pedestrians, rickshas, bicycles, and trikes that fill the street. Here and there, frail-looking old men and women somehow push through the melee carrying sacks of beans and rice strung from the ends of poles balanced across their backs.
Every square inch of real estate, it seems, is used for commerce. Side alleys are economic microcosms where hurried Shanghainese can get an open-air haircut; pick up melons and cucumbers; buy underwear, books, and bouquets of flowers; or wolf down a bowl of stir-fry at a folding table. Overhead, like banners at a bazaar, laundry is strung between facing apartment windows to dry in the slanting rays of the sun.
A darker side of the Chinese economy is found in the so-called Fashion Mall, a maze of stands that occupies a full city block. This is no place for the faint of heart, as you have to force your way past the gauntlet of vendors clutching at your sleeve or blocking your way to display their counterfeit fashions, watches, toys, CDs, and electronics.
The real things are available—though at several times the prices—only a short stroll from the counterfeit market in the boutiques by Dior, Armani, Burberry, and Prada. However chic, they are merely the latest iteration of the city’s century-old penchant for fashion. Nearby, too, lies the river teeming with cargo-laden boats that display intricately carved, gold dragon heads at their bows. All of this would appear familiar to someone who had visited Shanghai in the 1920s and ’30s.
But the boom has done more than reawaken the Shanghai of old. To appreciate the New Shanghai, you must stroll to the Bund, the stretch of neoclassical buildings along the western bank of the Huangpu. Here, for a century, the taipans, as the American and European financiers were known, had their banks, clubs, consulates, and hotels. From their porches they could sip their Pimm’s Cups and survey the Western gunboats in the harbor. Farther beyond, the coolies—the term the taipans used to describe the Chinese laborers—tended the rice paddies on Pudong, the sprawl of mud on the opposite river bank, as the natives had done for a thousand years and appeared destined to do for another thousand; the land in Pudong was otherwise worthless and remained so until the close of the 20th century.
Now the rice paddies in Pudong are gone, and in their place stands the world’s most spectacular stretch of real estate. Looming over the jumble of skyscrapers and rhomboids and domes is the rocket-shaped Oriental Pearl TV Tower. More than 1,500 feet tall, the tower contains a space exhibit, a revolving restaurant, and a hotel. Almost as tall is the 1,380-foot-high, pagoda-roofed Jin Mao Tower, home to the Grand Hyatt Shanghai, the world’s highest hotel, according to the Guinness World Records book. The Grand Hyatt’s atrium is a gleaming hive rising from the 56th floor to the Cloud 9 bar and restaurant on the 87th floor. Here, too, is the glitzy, 10-story-high Yaohan mega-mall, Asia’s largest shopping center, where you can buy everything from soy sauce to Volkswagens.
In Pudong the futuristic becomes commonplace. Three dozen times each day a train departs from Pudong International Airport bound for a station in the new financial district 20 miles away. A hum is followed by a slight lurch as the train levitates from its rails and flies, held aloft by magnetic forces, to its destination at 270 mph. The traffic moves almost as fast along Shanghai’s 30,000-seat Formula One track, which was constructed on a bed of polystyrene.
The city’s renaissance is no less evident in such cultural institutions as the stunning new Shanghai Museum. Shaped like a traditional Chinese ding cooking vessel, the museum houses China’s first world-class collection of paintings, sculpture, and ceramics and an unparalleled display of ancient bronzes. Elsewhere in the city, historical landmarks that lay in disrepair for much of the past century have been restored and revitalized. Among these is the Yu Garden, built in 1577 for officials of the Ming Dynasty. It is entered through a series of zigzag bridges arranged according to the principles of feng shui, a practice forbidden under Mao Tse-tung. A serene compound of goldfish ponds and huge, decorative limestone rocks, with carved animals atop pagoda-roofed pavilions, the garden is a haven from the bustling marketplace that surrounds it.
Even more ethereal is the Jade Buddha Temple. Off limits to visitors during the Cultural Revolution—like so many of the country’s treasures—the temple houses two statues of Buddha: One is well over 6 feet tall and carved from white jade studded with jewels, and the second depicts a sleeping Buddha on his way to Nirvana.
Ultimately the real significance of Shanghai’s metamorphosis has less to do with skyscrapers and markets and antiquities than with its political underpinnings. It is one of the great ironies of the 21st century that Shanghai should become the showpiece of Communist China, because its culture is neither communist nor Chinese. Elsewhere in China they speak of a culture 5,000 years old, but Shanghai’s culture is a foreign invention, contrived under the protection of British naval guns in the mid-19th century.
This is not to say that England’s role in the city’s early history was especially heroic. By 1840 the British had become the most reprehensible drug dealers in history. The opium that the British East India Co. purchased in India and sold in China was crippling the country economically and spiritually. In the ensuing Opium War, Chinese junks and muskets proved no match for the modern warships from the West, and by signing the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, China guaranteed British trading rights in the ports of Canton, Ningbo, Foochow, Amoy, and Shanghai.
Before very long, however, the Chinese who had tried to drive the British gunboats from their harbors looked to them for protection from the most rapacious army in Asia’s history: the Taipings. Followers of a religious zealot who styled himself as the Younger Brother of Christ, the Taipings were religious fundamentalists from the south of China opposed to the worldly ways of the ruling Manchu Dynasty. Marching north, they captured Nanking, then Canton, slaughtering 20 million to 30 million of their countrymen as they advanced.
Shanghai’s population swelled, as hundreds of thousands of Chinese, rich and poor, fled to the sheltering British guns. Shanghai’s standing as a sanctuary was cemented when the British commander Charles "Chinese" Gordon dealt the Taipings a conclusive defeat in 1865. Almost overnight a sleepy trading village was transformed into a city of 300,000, while the value of land on the Bund increased from $200 to $50,000 an acre.
The next revolution to descend on Shanghai was industrial. With its cotton and paper mills, shipyards, food-processing plants, canneries and tanneries, waterworks, and 50,000 junks floating in the harbor, this one city had more commerce than the rest of the country. China’s first cars ran on the country’s first paved roads in Shanghai. Here, too, gas, electricity, and running water first appeared in China, as did streetcars and telephones. And the tallest buildings outside the United States were in Shanghai.
By the 1920s, Shanghai had become a city of 3 million, and land on the Bund was worth $1.4 million an acre. Now the taipans enjoyed all of the cultural and recreational luxuries of European and American society, and more: Italian opera and American jazz, British cricket courts and Portuguese jai alai frontons, yacht clubs and cultural salons, white-tie galas with one’s peers and steamy nights locked in the embrace of one’s Eurasian mistress. Luxury liners arrived every day bearing aristocrats and plutocrats from the Old World and the New, all eager to immerse themselves in the mystique of Shanghai.
Some saw the city as the model for a new age, a polyglot Utopia free of income taxes, passports, and visas. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Shanghai took in tens of thousands of white Russians. Later, it was one of the few ports to offer shelter to the Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Freedoms of speech and of the press were guaranteed.
This enlightenment had its limits, of course. While the Chinese merchants and bankers might do business with the taipans, they did not mix socially. This was not a concern on either side of the social barrier; for Chinese intellectuals, Shanghai was a center of freedom and an escape from the rigidity of Chinese culture. Like no other city in the world, Shanghai could be whatever one wanted it to be, the Pearl of the Orient or the Whore of the East. All it took was money.
But while the world gaped at the mansions and hotels of the taipans, a new ideology was taking seed in the city. The house still stands on Xingye Lu and Huangpu Lu where, on July 1, 1921, delegates gathered to form the Chinese Communist Party. However wealthy the city was making some of their countrymen, the Communists saw Shanghai as the embodiment of decadence, the repository of colonialism and capitalism.
When the Communists took over in 1949, a long night fell over the Shanghainese way of life, as the new government set to punishing the city for a century of hedonism. During the Cultural Revolution, thousands of the city’s intellectual and economic leaders were packed off to be reeducated. Those remaining behind to keep the factories running were burdened with the highest taxes in the country while receiving the lowest subsidies for housing and food. Moving to another city was rarely an option, because China’s household registration laws made it virtually impossible to relocate. In 1989, the year of Tiananmen Square, historian Harriet Sergeant wrote, "Communism has covered this city like a sandstorm, burying and preserving. (It) has mummified Shanghai’s appearance in a manner inconceivable to a Westerner. Shopping centers, overpasses, and subways are all missing. So, too, is Shanghai’s spirit."
Shanghai was not alone in its despair. In the 1980s food was scarce, and the country had embarked on a system of rationing. Nobody—not even the Communist Party boss Deng Xiaoping—could deny the obvious: As an economic model, Chinese Communism, with its central planning, was not working. Even so, Shanghai seemed the least likely choice for a new prototype—the Head of the Dragon, Deng called it. He not only adopted the city’s entrepreneurial philosophy but even reinstated Shanghai as the nation’s business capital. In 1991, Deng returned Shanghai’s tax revenues to the city for the first time in a generation, thereby restoring its fiscal autonomy.
Meanwhile, to prime the economic pump, Deng hit upon the scheme of developing Pudong. One after another, bankers and builders advised the Chinese leader that his plan was impossible, that the cost of draining the marshes and bridging the Huangpu and essentially building a whole new city was a pipe dream. But Deng, then in his mid-80s, was keenly aware of his mortality and conscious of his impending legacy. And so the work began.
From 1992 to 1996 the city launched more municipal projects than it had over the previous four decades. Meanwhile, enticed by the Pudong project and Shanghai’s new economic independence, every multinational corporation decided Shanghai was the place to be. In 1993 alone, the city attracted more foreign investment than it had over the preceding 10 years. Once again, the boom was on, and the smell of fast money hung in the air—so much money that China now boasts more millionaires under the age of 40 than any country other than the United States.
For many of Shanghai’s new rich, the question was no longer how to make money, but how to spend it. Nowhere are the riches quite so nouveau as they are in China. Unlike other societies, where either an aristocracy or generations of old money serve as touchstones to taste and refinement, Chinese multimillionaires have no upper class to emulate. Instead, their tastes are the product of mass media. As a survey of Chinese entrepreneurs by the Far Eastern Economic Review indicates, they consider Holiday Inn and Rolex more prestigious brands than Four Seasons and Patek Philippe. This may also explain the habit—popular among some Chinese tycoons—of knocking back some of Bordeaux’s finest vintages in shot glasses or mixing them with Coca-Cola. As increasingly is the case in the United States, cosmetic surgery does not bear any stigma for the modern Shanghai femme fatale. Her surgically rounded eyes and more ample bust are signs of affluence and style-consciousness. "Everyone in Shanghai is trying to reinvent themselves," says Liu Yan, a fortyish currency trader who was educated in the United States. "It’s worse than L.A. They’re all looking for the appropriate milieu; they all want to be seen."
For some of Shanghai’s new rich this means table-hopping at the Peace Hotel on the Bund, once the city’s tallest building, or at Cloud 9 atop the Jin Mao Tower on the opposite bank of the Huangpu. For a more select group, it means socializing at the mansion that was once the epicenter of Shanghai society: the British consulate. Modern-day taipans know it as the Yongfoo Elite Club.
"It took us three years to turn it into what you now see," explains Rudy Butt, the Yongfoo Elite Club’s executive director, as he leads the way through the mansion. "What we offer is something you won’t find at a restaurant or hotel, something more personal." This more personal something, as well as the club’s aura of richesse and indulgence, comes at the reasonable cost—to its target clientele, at least—of 20,000 yuan (about $2,400) in annual dues that members pay to dine at the club. Its wooden-paneled game rooms are furnished with soft leather sofas, and its dining rooms are lit by massive brass chandeliers. The balconies overlook gardens filled with flowers and, at night, illuminated by the goldfish ponds. "This," says Butt, leading the way into a room with an antique opium bed, "is the way Shanghai was. And the way it can be again."
Shanghai has its critics. Some complain that no city with so many Starbucks can have a soul, while the practical-minded ponder the glut of office space on Pudong and shake their heads over what might be in the works: the Bionic Tower, a self-contained, 300-story condo built to house 100,000 residents. Still others fault the city’s resurgence itself, its affluence and progress, saying it is all a facade for a China that does not really exist. This may be so, as the overwhelming majority of the country’s 1.3 billion people still live in abject poverty. For them, the China of levitating trains, soaring skyscrapers, and boulevards crammed with private cars is just a dream. The difference is, a generation ago, these dreams were forbidden; today they are permitted. So if the China seen in Shanghai does not exist, perhaps someday soon it will.
Symposium: Breakfast of Champions
Among travelers, there exists a hierarchical pyramid, somewhat like the food pyramid. At the base are the risk-averse who stay close to their accustomed tastes—the white-bread/brioche group. At the apex (the realm of forbidden sweets on the food pyramid) are the risk-addicted, those for whom a trip is defined by how far they venture into the heart of darkness. Part of the sensory expansion that traveling provides is the taste of new foods, and when journeying to foreign lands, mid-pyramid explorers often can scale higher to sample rare delicacies before losing their toeholds and slipping back to the familiar grains at the bottom.
With that in mind, I anticipated a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur as an opportunity to reach the summit of exoticism, because when it comes to food, the only thing that never crosses these lips is goat cheese. Of course it goes without saying that the abomination called the sun-dried tomato is also off-limits (especially if combined with goat cheese). Oh, and anything with curry in it. And sushi.
It was with this inclusive attitude that I confidently approached the first meal in Kuala Lumpur: breakfast at the hotel. After all, at a JW Marriott, how intimidating could the breakfast buffet be? It was terrifying. First up was nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk and wrapped with a lot of unidentifiable items in a banana leaf, accompanied by fried anchovies and a chili/shrimp paste. Most of the Western guests swarmed around the muesli at another table, choosing to remain safely at the bottom of the pyramid.
Eventually some of us decided to circumvent breakfast and try brunch, and through the insistence of a taxi driver we wound up, alas, at another buffet—this one at a revolving rooftop restaurant. Past the curries and near the corn ice cream, a group was focused on a covered platter of durian, Malaysia’s "king of fruit." The word on this local delicacy is that it tastes like heaven and smells like hell; indeed, its reek is so noxious that it is banned from many KL hotels. "Try that if you dare," challenged the Australian ahead of me.
His taunt ignited defiance, the impetus to rise above a lifelong fealty to white bread and all it stands for. "Why not," I coolly rejoined, feigning indifference before it reached my tongue. Then, through a grimace and a choke, out came the words that would set me free: "I laugh at durian." I was Edmund Hillary atop Everest.
Reveling in rebellion, I left the buffets and hit the streets, ignoring Stateside doctors’ warnings to avoid sidewalk vendors—and desperate for something strong enough to purge the lingering taste of durian. In Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown markets, the exotic fruits such as mangosteen and rambutan were as enjoyable to eat as they were to pronounce. Tandoori chicken beckoned in Little India, laksa (fish soup) near Bintang Walk. At a chaotic sidewalk café, the owner’s "best noodles in town" resembled a similar preparation that held no appeal at 7:30 am, but now, five hours later, the dish tasted fantastic, glistening with globs of plump mushrooms.
Finally, in a bold move, I surrendered to the hawkers’ urgings and tried the street version of nasi lemak, the banana leaf–wrapped concoction from which I had retreated in fear at the hotel. It was spicy enough to blast through the pores of the skin, and with each mouthful I became more convinced that acquiring new tastes is merely a matter of timing. You see, in Malaysia, the time for breakfast is at lunch.