Cyrena Lee takes the rapidly growing Shanghai nightlife and breaks it down to her top must-do and avoid-at-all-costs bars, clubs, and drinking spots.
SHANGHAI – When I moved to Shanghai post-graduation to work in advertising, I had no idea what was in store for me. I'd lived in Beijing for a summer before, but Shanghai is an entirely different breed of Chinese city, its history a condensed, jam-packed 30 years of intense growth, capitalism, and foreign invasion. My first day in the office involved sips of Johnny Walker in a haze of cigarette smoke, even though there were clear "NO SMOKING" signs hanging about the modern offices.
An aunt graciously let me live in her vacation apartment complex in the Minhang district, which had a faux-European entrance with pillars and Made in China replicas of Roman statues. I quickly learned that, like any city that's developing at breakneck speed, there's nowhere to go but up and out. So when you're foreign and ready to see the city on your own time zone terms, there is one phrase consistently asked: "We go to party tonight?"
We go. Here's my rundown of the best bars, clubs, and drinking spots:
The best thing about Shanghai nightlife is the sheer variety: drinking wells that just crop up, super gaoji (that's Chinese for high-level, or fancy) clubs with prices that would make a New Yorker look twice, jazz bars, dingy dive bars. They all have that I-don't-care China-squat 'tude.
5 Yongfu Rd., Xuhui district; +86-21-6437-0400
If disaster ever were to strike, I'd want to be at Shelter, located in the basement of 5 Youngfu Lu (near Fuxing Xi Lu), a club that was once a WWII bomb shelter. You might pay a cover at the door, but once you walk down the narrow flight of stairs, it feels like you're Alice in Wonderland, wandering along a giant tunnel that opens up to an enormous, gritty room made of dark stone. The dance floor is usually thumping hard, and you can really work up a sweat and get lost in the frenetic energy. In addition to the hip-hop tracks usually played, there are often electronic dance and drum-and-bass parties. When you need a break, you can lounge in the tunneled rooms adjacent to the madness.
Room 103, 1245 Wuding Xi Rd., Changning district; +86-21-6212-1114
My chain-smoking creative-team colleagues liked to frequent this hidden, laid-back Japanese shochu bar, if that says anything. The playlist is thoroughly considered, the small space is intimate, and conversations are almost a requirement. There is no discernible menu (unless you read Japanese), so you have to strike a conversation with the friendly bartenders to figure out which Japanese booze will suit you best. Westerners tend to go for the barley shochu, which warms the soul as much as the heated toilet seat warms your bum.
The Cotton Club
1428 Huaihai Middle Rd., Xuhui district; +86-21-6437-7110
When my father came to visit, he demanded that I take him to a good jazz bar. So we walked up to the bright neon sign with a cheeky hat that seemed to beckon us in. The place was smoky and fairly crowded, and we were just managed to squeeze onto two plush red bar stools and order decent drinks that were pricer than most bars. The performers were engaging and the audience members responded enthusiastically. This is not your brooding, lonely Murakami-esque quiet jazz bar. It's more fun.
"Bad" is the perfect homophone: These bars are either badass or the scene is not suited your taste, so it leaves a bad one.
24th Floor, 318 Fuzhou Rd., Huangpu district; +86-21-6391-3191
Many tourists are intimately familiar with the skyline of the infamous Bund riverside boardwalk, most likely due to the view from this popular nightclub up on the 24th floor. The panorama is breathtaking — for the Art Deco architecture below and for the dense cigarette smoke produced by a well-dressed, foreign-moneyed crowd of models, bankers, foreigners, and members of the growing upper middle class. Barrier to entry: Look the part, or look somewhere else.
11th Floor, 527 Huaihai Zhong Rd., Luwan district; +86-21-5382-7757
An acquaintance asked to meet me at this popular chain, and I made the mistake of not realizing that there are three of them in the city. I finally ended up at the sports-themed Scoreboard on Huaihai Road and elbowed my way in through sticky floors, pool tables, and masses, the majority of which had their necks craning towards the televised football match. If there is any place that remotely resembles a frat house in China, a Windows bar would be it. At the very least, the bar snacks are tasty.
When I say "ugly," I mean two different kinds: superficially and morally. Though both can be beautiful in their own way.
685 Dingxi Rd., Changning district; +86-21-6294-0547
An underground dive bar, C's is most likely the cheapest bar in town. You wouldn't want to take your parents or anyone with a sensitive constitution who would be put off by loud, noisy music bouncing off heavily graffitied walls or the questionable toilet situation. But C's has an undeniable charm, and it's one of my favorite bars when I need to drink a little too much. Outside, you'll often find a cart selling grilled enoki mushrooms and tofu to soak up the damage. Inside, the bartenders speak English fairly well, and the crowd is easy-going. This is a fun place to squander a night with friends. Especially if you need a break from the ultra-posh, flashy clubs of the foreign investment flavor.
Salon de Ning
Basement of The Peninsula, 32 Zhongshan Dong Yi Rd., Huangpu district; +86-21-2327-2888
Deep in The Peninsula lies Salon de Ning, a rustic and glamorous bar with room themes like India, Hollywood, and a subsea setting. The entrance is guarded by King Kong, and there's good live music on the weekends. On a weekday, stop by for a quiet drink to pretend you're an eccentric, wealthy lady living in colonial-era Shanghai. Then sit back and revel in the beauty of luxury that is reaped from the ancient Chinese land, which turns worlds upside down, quite literally, as evidenced by the bookcases and fireplaces hanging from the ceiling in one room.