Pearl of the Orient, Paris of the East. For a frantic, freewheeling century and a half, Shanghai was the wildest, wealthiest, flashiest city in Asia—the rival of any world capital. Shanghai’s bustling port shipped Chinese silk and porcelain from workshops along the Yangtze River to every corner of the globe. Western visitors were captivated by the crowded, chaotic, yet thoroughly cosmopolitan city. Foreign powers carved out concession zones featuring their own cafés, clubs, police forces, and legions of prostitutes. You can still stroll the charming tree-lined quarters with distinctive French, British, even American estates.
From the early 1800s through the mid-1900s, Shanghai may not have been quite as flamboyant as films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom suggest, but, lacking entry regulations and with few restrictions, this was a wide-open city unlike any in the world. Pioneers from around the globe poured in, creating a uniquely international place, with newspapers and performances in spectacular art deco theaters in a dozen languages. Splendid colonial architecture rose along a riverfront promenade called the Bund that contrasted delightfully with traditional tile-roofed Chinese dwellings, creating a unique fusion of East and West. Food, fashion, and music blended in a similar spirit.
World War II brought an abrupt end to the glory era, and the Communist Party takeover in 1949 introduced decades of austerity. Nowadays, Shanghai is again a world center, with a hyperkinetic skyline of gleaming high-rises, and a buzz factor that cannot be beat. This is all a far cry from the city that greeted 44-year-old lawyer, developer, and avid art collector Handel Lee in 1981.
"Everything seemed so different," says Lee, who was then a student traveling with his mother, who was from Beijing, and his father, who was raised in Shanghai. "It was my first time in China and I remember how crowded it was, and so hot. There were lots of people everywhere, sleeping on the streets. Apartments were so small and basic. Everything was so dark, so dank."
Lee returned to his home near Washington, D.C., and completed his law degree, but frequently visited China. Finally, in 1991, he moved to Beijing to help launch the mainland operation of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, one of the first big international law firms to open up in China. He’s been practicing law in China ever since and is now on the management committee of King & Wood. Yet his key impact in China has been outside the courtroom.
Lee is one of the top patrons of art, music, food, and fashion in China, but his first foray into the complicated world of Shanghai architecture came in 2000. Working with architect Michael Graves, Lee was the driving force behind the redevelopment of Three on the Bund—a seven-story showroom housing Shanghai’s top art galleries and restaurants—helping kick off a building spree that has no end in sight.
How did Three on the Bund come to be?
It really came together by coincidence. The building belonged to some overseas Chinese friends in Indonesia. They had had the building for three years. Originally, they were going to use it for offices. In 1999, I called to wish them a Merry Christmas. When I told them I was looking to open my next art gallery in Shanghai, they told me to have a look [at their building]. I walked in and thought, Wow! Remember, this was the 1990s. Nothing had changed on the Bund since 1949. All the buildings survived, but they were shoe stores, offices, or shuttered. I called them back and said I would love to do something, but I thought we should do it as a complete project, for the whole building, with restaurants, art galleries, and shops dedicated to art and the new standard for what China could be.
The project took several years and reportedly cost over $50 million. Critics thought you were crazy and said you would lose your shirt. How do you feel now?
Well, we were the first to do a project on the Bund. Now you look up and down the Bund, and there is so much under way, but when we arrived, we were real pioneers. The real thrill is the impact. With the Bund, we were like the spark that ignited everything. But I feel we were lucky. As overseas Chinese, we had grown up in places where we had the freedom to experience the best of what the world had to offer. All of us grew up with these stories of the rich history of China, of what it had achieved over thousands of years of unbroken civilization. Now, we had a chance to come back and bring the best to China again. All along, what I wanted to do was bring up the standard in Shanghai, and China. I wanted to move people, not only with the art and architecture, but also the food, fashion, and everything else they had been missing out on in recent years.
What other structures on the Bund do you like?
There are a lot of projects, but nothing I’ve seen knocks me out. There is great old architecture everywhere you look, but we’ll have to wait on the new developments, like the big Peninsula hotel project (a refurbishment of the old British consulate, planned to open in 2009), which are coming to the Bund. All of the activity is exciting but we’ll have to see what they do.
What about other architecture around Shanghai—what stands out?
The Jin Mao Tower by SOM. I really like that building. It’s the tallest building in Shanghai (and all of China), but it’s special in its design. It’s so elegant. I love the skin, the exterior, the way it moves and kind of undulates. It’s beautiful. You put that next to Taipei 101 [the recently completed tallest building in the world; Jin Mao is fourth], and you see what is elegant and what is garish. I like looking at it across the river in Pudong, the way it stands above everything else. Inside, it’s pretty cool, too. There’s that enormous atrium in the center, going all the way to the top. That’s unbelievable. I also like the Shanghai Art Museum, which has this fantastic setting along the old racing track, the former British Jockey Club. Now it’s People’s Park, but you can see the race track. It has an international feel, a mix of Western and Chinese influences. And the setting is great, with all these historic and new buildings, and all the open space.
Speaking of art, you’re a celebrated collector of everything from modern to traditional Chinese art to Tibetan art and furniture. Where do you shop?
There’s a lot of great places to buy things on Taikang Lu. That became a very cool art district for a while, but there are also a lot of great designer boutiques, pottery shops, and other creative shops. I like to browse there and have had furniture made there.
Where do you go to hang out?
YY. It’s got a great vibe and great music. Ten years ago, Shanghai was a completely different place; none of what you see now existed. YY used to be the only spark of creativity, with a basement that had the only alternative art and music in the city. The place has changed, but I still like to go to YY, especially late at night.
You’ve brought Shanghai some of its finest restaurants. Do you ever slum it and eat street food?
I love the dim sum in Yanqing Lu. I love the sheng jianbao, incredibly delicious soup dumplings, but made from a dry dough. And the fan tuanzi is fantastic. That’s glutinous rice that has been flattened and stuffed with dried meat and fried, then rolled into a ball.
What about your favorite drink?
Green tea. In China, green tea is the way to go—and a lot of wine.
Ron Gluckman is a native San Franciscan writer who has lived in Asia for 16 years. For the past two years, he's been based in Bangkok, where he relishes the fantastic food, frantic motion, and fusion of old-new, East-West. A regular visitor since the early 1990s, Gluckman thought he knew the Thai capital, until taken in hand by Mason Florence.