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The Beijing Dynasty

2006-10-01 | Forbes Life

If China is the Wild West of the Far East, Shanghai is its Dodge City, the frontier capital of risk-taking, a town electric with ambition, awed by its own progress, the good-explosive economy, burgeoning art scene, sophisticated nightlife- and the bad- grueling traffic jams, foul air.  As Axel Aylwen, an Oxford-educated Englishman who conducts high-end tours of Southeast Asia and China, puts it, "Shanghai is the ultimate buss, the ultimate city growing before your eyes."

Indeed, Shanghai's skyline of disparate skyscrapers appears to have been plopped down like a giant erector set in the midst of this ancient Chinese village where Prada has usurped pagodas and Ralph Lauren is king- make that Emperor.  Besotted by all things Western (except, of course, democracy), Shanghai's streets teem with Carrie Bradshaw wannabes, fashion forward girls proudly parading their designer jeans, stiletto boots, leather bomber jackets.  Thanks to bootlegged copies of  Sex and the City, Sarah Jessica Parker and Manolo Blahnik are both big stars in this cult-of-personality society obsessed with labels- wearing them, eating, owning, driving them- whether genuine or not.

In fact, you can even design your own Shanghai's Fabric Market, a stadium-like building housing hundreds of stalls piled high with bolts of beautiful, top-grade fabric (most notably delicious Chinese cashmere).  With a tailor in residence (if not several), armed with tape measure and calculator, vendors are more than willing to ship up anything you want, if not that day then overnight.  (Meticulous measurements are taken on the spot).

I, for instance, finally got the long, red cashmere coat I'd always fancied, fully lined and beautifully tailored, for an unbelievable $90.  Adding three cashmere blazers at $50 a clip, two pairs of pants, a skirt and a cocktail dress with a matching jacket- all made and delivered in 24 hours- my bill came to a princely $600.

LIVING IN SHANGHAI IS LIKE TRAVELING, declares Shelley Lim, an interior decorator who divides her time between Shanghai and San Francisco.  You never know who you're going to meet.  In fact, networking is the citywide pastime.  Your calling card?  Don't leave home without it; shopkeepers to ambassadors, everyone wants yours, insists you them theirs.  In the street, friendly Chinese students, recognizing an American, stop eager to practice their English, overflowing with curiosity about New York, Los Angeles, South Beach.  The only thing left that are similar to 1979, observed my traveling companion, Christy Ferer, marveling over Shanghai's total makeover since her last visit, are the desire to speak English and a fascination with Western culture.  Which paid off when Ferer, CEO of Vidicom, a New York based multimedia company specializing in embedding corporate and product messages in editorial content, snagged a meeting with Channel Young, a regional lifestyle TV channel with 30 million viewers.  Through she went into the Shanghai conversation with no expectations, Ferer found Channel Young executives enthusiastic about collaborating to provide TV footage of the Paris, Milan and New York fashion shows.  "What's fascinating," she said," is that in China even a medium-sized entrepreneur like myself can do business on a scale I couldn't have imagined."

But then what's millions to us in billions to them.  This is a country, after all, where a 'neighborhood' boasts 200,000 people, and there are 350 million cell phone users- a bonanza for phone companies when each of China's three, weeklong national holidays roll around.  "Because people call their families during vacations," explained one Beijing media executive, "phone companies rake in millions of dollars in extra calls per year."  As Americans might put it, he laughs, Eat your heart out, Cingular.

Local entrepreneurs often get started courtesy of the Shanghai Labor Bureau, whose Small Credits Program grants loans exclusively for young people opening their own businesses, though none would call it altruism.  The government subsidizes nothing.  They get a cut of everything, explained one businesswoman, wryly describing China's communist-run/ capitalist-happy economy as dictator capitalism.  (A similar term about a similar government bubbled up in Hanoi: Vietnam, said one CEO, is commercial communism.)

Nowhere is Shanghai's expansion more evident than along the Bund, two choice stretches of real estate flanking either side of the Huangpu River.  Two years ago, the Chinese government- owned of a spate of European-style buildings elegant enough to rival Avenue Foch- finally opened them up to the public, albeit for commercial use only.  One result is Bund 18, one of Shanghai's hottest destinations, home to a slew of international banks and one of the priciest malls on the planet, with a string of high-end boutiques, like Cartier, selling Western luxury goods at a whopping 25 percent markup over out-of-China prices. 

Fifteen months ago Bund 18- and China- got one of its first indisputably world-class restaurants, Sens & Bund, the brainchild of Frances's celebrity chefs, the Pourcel twins, Jacques and Laurent.  Featuring a French chef, its sleek chrome interior, dripping in red Venetian glass, makes it Shanghais chicest restaurant.  Though fans of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who opened in Bund 5 a year earlier, might dispute that.) One flight up from Sens & Bund (and another Pourcel production) is the preferred hangout for Shanghais upwardly mobile: the sexy, sophisticated Rouge Bar.  Bathed in scarlet light with a spacious terrace overlooking the river, Rouge Bar, after then, is a human traffic jam, particularly during summer, when patrons vie for balcony face time.  Bund 18s commercial success has spilled across the river to the Pudong district, where apartments sold so fast they ran out of space and land.  Ten years ago this was all swampland, muses Aylwen.  Now it looks like New York with all those high-rises.  Among the first on the Pudong block was journalist and businesswoman Yue-Sai Kan, who picked up 7,000 square feet with river views for the exorbitant- for Shanghai- price of 700 bucks a square foot.)  Her second apartment, a sleek penthouse on chic Nanjing West Road, came in at $500 a square foot.)  Pudong renters, meanwhile, can expect to shell out around $7500 a month for a swank 3,000 square feet.  Kan isnt the only dame making it- and spending it- in Shanghai these days, but she was certainly among the first.  In a country where an estimated one fifth of all entrepreneurs are female, the self-made Yue-Sai Kan is a rock star to businesswomen like Susie Wang Min and Zhuang Yong (an Olympic swimming gold medalist), whose wildly successful billboard company, Tulip Media, has attracted the biggest player in the field, Frances J.C> Decaux, as a partner.  To Yue-Sai Kan, her career path was practically a DNA imperative.  The Chinese, as she puts it, are born entrepreneurs.  She ought to know.  When her television series made her face known to millions of Chinese women, Kan turned her attention to theirs, creating a cosmetics line for Asian skin so successful it was snapped up by LOreal.  When she was unable to find a doll with Asian features for an American friends daughter, Kan came up with the Chinese Barbie.  Possibly among the richest women in China, Kan is also one of the most famous: Government research, she claims, shows that 95 percent of the countrys 1.3 billion people recognize her name. 

Needless to say, when Kan flicks her lacquered fingernail in the wind to see which way its blowing, people pay attention, especially venture capitalist types like the one who sat to my right one evening in a simple Shanghai restaurant.  Following a lavish, outdoor Lacoste fashion show, eight of us enjoyed the most basic of Chinese fare-hot pot, dipping chinks of meat and chicken into a pot of boiling stock in the center of the table- none with more zeal then Kan.  I could eat like this every day of the week, she laughed, chopsticks poised.  

The venture capitalist's appetites, meanwhile, ran more to business than food.  Earmarking media and lifestyle as the hottest places to park dollars in today's Chinese economy, he clearly saw Yue-Sai Kan as the ultimate hybrid.  She wouldn't disagree.  In fact, according to Yue-Sai- whose latest book, Chinese Gentleman¬ (she's had four prior bestsellers), tackles proper etiquette-it's high time couth caught up with cash in the New China.  And shes just the gal for the job.  The Chinese are just beginning to have disposable income and everyone wants the same thing: Fu-Gui- literally money and style, she said.  They either want to renovate their home or buy a new one.  But through the money is there, the style isn't which is why known brands do so well here.  People think that buying them is buying taste.  Which the glamorous Kan certainly has.  Her hair, clothes and homes are slavishly chronicled in the Chinese media; her new Beijing apartment already graces a magazine cover.  And what she has, she wants everyone else to have, too (albeit at a price).  Now that the world is watching us, it's time for refinement.  What the Chinese need is an arbier of taste.  A Martha perhaps?  She smiled.  An outsider can't do it, but I believe I can.  In fact, I can do a lot in China if I have a great partner.  You do!  The venture capitalist was halfway out of his chair.  The World of Yue-Sai!  Count me in for $15 million. Welcome to Shanghai.

Nothing, of course, reflects a citys energy more than its art.  And in Shanghai, pop art is popping, particularly in the Suzhou Creek are, Shanghais Soho, an enclave of bunkerlike buildings where galleries cohabitate with artists' studios (shrewd buyers bypass the galleries

altogether to deal directly with artists in their lairs).

To ferret out new talent, Art Scene recently sponsored a competition only open to artists after 1970. Entries ran from the haunting- the winners ink-on-paper of a traditional Chinese landscape- to the merry, a jump-off-the-wall oil of an insouciant pink pig plunked in the middle of a flower field, both of which (along with two other oils) were snapped up by Ferer, an avid contemporary art collector: There's a lightheartedness to art here; they'll do a collage and put it in a Coke bottle.  Which was just the kind of thing she found at hp ShanghART gallery, whose owner, Lorenz Helbling, helped jump-start Shanghai's now-exciting art market 11 years ago and his gallery was the first from China to participate in the international art fairs.  For a fraction of the price she would pay for a comparable work elsewhere, Ferer picked up a notable painting by Xue Song, whose work was featured in last springs Sotherby's, New York sale of contemporary Asian art, as well as a black-and-white photo of tenement apartments shot by Xiang Liqing, whose photographs have started to show up in Europe and the U.S.

IF SHANGHAI IS NEW YORK, BEIJING IS WASHINGTON with its slower pace, wide, sweeping boulevards and governmental red tape.  Shanghai is very commercial and has very little bureaucracy, says Yue-Sai Kan.  But Beijing has a lot of people's {mothers-in-law}.  The government is into everything. You need connections everywhere in China but especially there.  These days, of course, Beijing is feverishly preparing for its official debut as the world's newest superpower: the 2008 Olympic Games.  To help keep mission in mind, the Chinese government has put up a large, digital clock just off Tiananmen Swuare, counting down the hours and minutes until the Olympic torch is lit, hoping, no doubt, it will also light a fire under any citizen needing to get his act in gear.  Esepcially the spitters.  For centuries Chinese men have done in public what is best relegated to the private, including spitting.  And when it comes to hurling saliva, the Chinese male is his own gold medalist.  Each hearty, fulsome and, alas, frequent emission is accompanied by a loud, guttural rasping cough that en masse can create a virtual cacophony in outdoor venues like Panjiayuan Market, Beijing's soccer-field-long week-end flea market.

Aylwen chalks up this egregious lack of restraint to politics.  Impeccable manners used to play an important role in Chinese culture, he says.  But since 1949 China has been a country in chaos.  With the Red Brigade, the Cultural Revolution, people were too busy fighting to save their homes, their lives, to engage in niceties.  IT became every man for himself.  Not to mention every pedestrian, if he's to avoid getting caught in the spit-fire, as it were.  The last thing the government wants during the Olympics, adds Aylwen, is spittle on American shoes.  To prevent such an international faux pas, the government has once again taken the country's manners in hand.  Ten years ago, a drive was instigated aimed at getting Chinese men to stop spitting in the streets.  And now, the pressure's on again- much to the delight of Wrigley, who, at $40 million a year, pumps more dough into advertising in China than any other American company, largely in the hope, according to one Bejing advertising honcho, that gum will take up where spitting leaves off.

In a country where a buck stretches from here to Miami Beach and markets stay open all night long, Beijing, like Shanghai, is pig heaven for the dedicated shopper.  All that's necessary to uncover extraordinary treasures- pearls, cashmere, crystal, silk, lacquer, clothes- at even more extraordinary prices is stamina and the negotiation skills of a Condoleezza Rice.  (In this part of the world, vigorous discussion over price is expected every time out.)

For pearls, the place to go in Beijing is called, not surprisingly, the Pearl Market, a multistoried mall affair with three floors devoted to the best pearls at the best prices.  For legendary Chiense silk, the Silk Market offers gorgeous handmade bedding, ties, scarves, jackets, dresses and pajamas, as well as a roomful of magnificent raw silk- all at rock-bottom prices. 

The absolute must stop, however, is the aforementioned Panjiayuan Market- known to locals as the Dirty Market- where every Saturday and

Sunday 3,000 mini-entrepreneurs set up shop in an open-air courtyard.  Art antiques, furniture, Cultural Revolution kitsch (Mao, Mao, everywhere), maps, ivory chess sets, ropes of raw turquoise, coral, amber, massive stone Buddhas, tiny snuff boxes, you name it )and even if you cant), its here.  The prices start unbelievably low and dip even more so when the haggling starts.  NO matter what the item, a vendors first quote is invariably 100 yuen.  (Dollars arent accepted and English is scarce, two minor drawbacks.)  Chomping at the flea market bit, I hit Panjiayuan at 7 a.m.; eight hours later, with snow falling, I was still at it.

By the time I dragged myself- and my packages- back to the hotel, the sublime Peninsula Beijing, our elegant, marble-encrusted refuge of Western creature comforts, I was wiped out, a fatigue that vanished once I joined friends for dinner in the old part of Beijing: the trendy Hou Hai Lake district.  There, in smoky, sexy Nuage, settled into antique rickshaw chairs surrounding a wooden table, we worked our way through course after savory course of stellar Vietnamese and Thai fare. 

As I reluctantly prepared to leave China, the sorrow of departure was tempered by what I knew would be the graciousness of the exit.  Unlike New York's dreaded Kennedy airport, whose hostility dares foreigners to set foot in America, China's airports are big, immaculate, beautifully lit, efficiently run and mercifully user-friendly.  Even with customs you can be in and out in 30 minutes.  But then the Chinese have long understood that in a journey of a thousand miles, the first- and last- step is often the hardest.  OS they simply make it easy, even desirable to come, go and, most importantly, to return.


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