Shanghai Social Diary: Shopping in Shanghai

You can still observe the traditional ways of life in Shanghai, in these lane houses, but perhaps not for long.

Come to Shanghai in fall or spring, I warn my friends, but not in the summer! The heat and humidity make Shanghai summers a special misery. You can’t wait to go home and take a refreshing shower. One day this August, the temperature soared to 104 F with 91 percent humidity.

After having spent the last two summers sweltering, I have learned my lesson. I’m heading to San Francisco for the summer, after attending the World Cup finals in South Africa.

I’m not the only one who’ll be getting out of town. Most of the expat community leave town once the schools let out, and even the locals try to schedule their vacations during this time.


In San Francisco, I look forward to catching up with all my friends, including a few I saw in Shanghai, such as Susan and Fred Dunlevy.

I also saw some of my New York friends, including Joe Fuchs and Sheila O’Malley Fuchs and her sister Noreen Louthan, who docked in Shanghai during their Seabourne cruise around China.

For a unique Shanghai experience, Susan Dunlevy and I visited the bohemian neighborhood Tian Zi Fang at Taikang Lu. My friends call it Taikang Lu as it’s easier to pronounce.

With each group, I spent time exploring the bohemian neighborhood Tian Zi Fang at Taikang Lu (Lu translates to street in Chinese). The fashion crowd, yuppies, tourists, and locals all love this trendy neighborhood, which many compare to New York’s Soho—something of a village within the city.

Shanghai’s traditional neighborhood are called lilong, or mazes of lanes and row houses fashioned from England’s terrace housing. Shikumen houses (stone-gated houses) line the cobblestone pedestrian lanes and are the main attractions as they’ve been turned into boutiques, galleries, and cafes.

Meandering through the maze of narrow lanes, you realize what makes Shanghai fascinating is two worlds that co-exist. It’s where old Shanghai meets the 21st century and the east meets west.

Behind the facades of these buildings, another world exists. The yuppies, fashionistas, tourists and locals all love this trendy, village-like neighborhood, a respite from Shanghai’s hustle and bustle.

The “gateway” opens into life from another era. The lilong neighborhood is filled with shikumen, or stone-gated row houses, that line the narrow cobblestone lanes.

When I first visited Shanghai in 1979, much of the city looked this way, but the people were wearing Mao suits.

Susan and I wandered through the maze of narrow pedestrian alleyways, where you find small boutiques and (mercifully) no chain stories.

Steps away from a fashion-forward boutique, you might see ladies doing traditional embroidery, clothing hung on lines, and the neighbors riding their bicycles.

Long-time residents play with their grandchildren while nearby tourists from all over the world shop for fashion’s newest styles and dine in cafés offering international cuisine.

Mahjong, which is played everywhere, often attracts spectators.

Shikumen translates as “stone-gated door.”

An authentic house like this may become another boutique tomorrow.

Susan and I met Brazilian Max Lau, owner of Ficcare, a family business that sells handmade Brazilian hair accessories in Shanghai and New York (at Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman).

“Who’d have thought we’d do so well selling in China?!” exclaimed Max. In China, there’s a rising market for high-end goods.

Several doors away, Max also owns Tales by Pave, a gallery that sells Oriental art. He’s one of many international entrepreneurs who are tapping into the tremendous business opportunities in China.

I often watched this gentleman taking his caged bird out for the daily airing, but recently I was chagrined to see he’s put out a plate for donations.

The Tian Zi Fang (Taikang Lu) area is home to many studios, galleries, and workshops that feature the work of painters, photographers and craftspeople.

My favorite boutique, Woo Cashmere, stocks the softest, highest-quality cashmere scarves and shawls in yummy colors and beautiful designs.

Sheila O’Malley stocked up on cashmere in many shades of green. (Well, of course! She’s Irish!)

Beauty services too.

Nowadays, every kind of international cuisine is available in Shanghai—from ice cream and pizza to Thai and Indian food—and even bagels.

In Tian Zi Fang, we spent the entire afternoon browsing the many tempting shops with a wide range of goods, from clothing to art.

My daughter, Stephanie Lawrence, had fun looking for the fashion of local designers. She discovered clothes that were one-of-a kind that
she wouldn’t see in the U.S.

Stephanie Lawrence and Alixe Laughlin found bagful of gifts for friends on their shopping expedition.


When I first visited Shanghai in 1979, much of the city looked like this neighborhood, although most people were still dressed in their Mao jacket uniform. That uniform has now been replaced with a new uniform—the ubiquitous blue jeans.

In the two years I’ve lived in Shanghai, I’ve seen the transformation of Tian Zi Fang as one by one these traditional local houses have been adapted to contemporary use, such as shops and cafés.

The co-existence of the old and the new and the east and the west, is what makes Shanghai fascinating.

In the several years I’ve lived in Shanghai, I’ve seen the Taikang Lu area transformed. One by one the houses, where locals have lived for years, have been converted to modern uses.

We’re hoping that the powers that be will recognize that the quaintness and vitality of this “Old Shanghai” neighborhood is what draws the crowds—local and international. And, it’s what gives Shanghai its unique character.

Perhaps seeing the success of this restored neighborhood will be an incentive to preserve more of its past heritage rather than razing them and replacing them with office towers and shopping malls.

The developers have razed much, as you can see. When “Old Shanghai” is replaced with too many modern shopping malls and towering office complexes, the city begins to lose much of its cherished character and heritage.

Locals and tourists are hoping that Shanghai city officials will recognize that the quaintness and vitality of neighborhoods, such as Tian Zi Fang, is what makes Shanghai unique and preserve more.

A visit to a local farmer’s market.

Traditional Chinese snacks stands still exist.

Next door, we noted the creeping Western influence.


Exhausted from making all those shopping choices, we needed lunch. Shelia, Noreen and I headed to lunch at one of my favorite neighborhood eateries, Origin Café.

While Chinese food is delicious, it’s generally a hot meal. We Americans occasionally like our light lunches of salads, sandwiches, pastas, fruit drinks and smoothies—all of which you can find here.

After more shopping, we ended the afternoon at Kommune Café, a popular hangout. We were lucky to find a seat to rest, sip our cappuccinos and people-watch.

The Origin Café is hidden within a maze of alleys that even I sometimes have to ask for directions.

In the upstairs sunny dining area, we sat by the window, so we could watch the street activity below.

At Kommune Café, Noreen and I were happy to take a break in the always crowded outdoor courtyard.

We sipped cappuccinos and watched the international mix of people stroll by.

In case you forget where you are, the tiles will remind you.


I knew Shelia and Noreen would also love my absolute favorite boutique: Shiatzy Chen with its flagship located on the Bund, the promenade that runs along the river.

Shiatzy Chen offers the most luxurious and distinctive silk fabrics, many with extraordinary embroidery and detail. Recently she showed her goods at Fashion Week in Paris (Darn! I’d wanted to keep her my very own secret!).

I love to show visitors the sights and view from the Bund, the famous promenade along the Huangpu River.

Now recently renovated, the Bund draws even larger crowds than in the past.

Flowers have been planted everywhere, even above street level.

I always take friends to the exclusive, exquisite boutique Shiatzy Chen’s flagship on the Bund.

Shiatzy Chen produces the most luxurious silk fabrics I’ve ever seen, often with unique Chinese embroidery and intricate couture detail.

Shelia Fuchs was happy when she found the perfect dress.

My friends and I would have bought more if we’d found more dresses in our size as even their large was too small for many westerners.


On another day, Susan and I visited the atelier of our fashion designer friend Han Feng. She lives in the Grosvenor House, built in the 1930s, considered to be a very chic address.

Han Feng was working on the outfit that Susan planned to wear to the New York Central Park Conservancy’s spring luncheon. “We’ll stop for 10 or 20 minutes,” Susan said—but I knew we’d never get out that quickly!

The lobby of Grosvenor House suggests the grandeur of the décor throughout the building, which offers first-rate amenities and services and is home to many prominent individuals.

Going to Han Feng’s studio is like dropping in at a tea or cocktail party. The place is generally abuzz with activity and alive with people coming and going.

The day of our visit was typical: A Chinese television crew was coming to interview and film Han Feng and we were in between the lights, cameras and action.

A fabulous cook, Han Feng greeted us with cookies adapted from Martha Stewart’s cookbook.

Personal Shopper Francine Martin brought clients searching for unique gifts, and they scooped up vividly colored organza evening wraps.

After her TV interview, Han Feng immediately resumed work on a fitting. Few people can juggle their professional and social demands so adroitly.

In Shanghai, Susan Dunlevy bought the custom-designed hat she would wear to the popular annual luncheon for the New York Central Park Conservancy.

If you need more tailoring, they finish it while you’re there.

The tailors cut and fabricate Han Feng’s custom designs on the spot in her atelier.

The television crew selected the pieces that they would highlight from Han Feng’s collection.

Though we couldn’t understand Han Feng’s Chinese-language TV interview, we enjoyed being in on the action.

After her TV interview, Han Feng immediately resumed work on a fitting. Few people can juggle their professional and social demands so adroitly.

Susan’s tunic-and-pants outfit with matching hat were made from antique fabric Han Feng had discovered on her recent trip to India.

She handled the interview beautifully.

It wasn’t easy to decide! But finally I chose a custom-tailored jacket and a black evening coat decorated with Han Feng’s signature rosettes.

As the Grosvenor House doorman opens the doors for us, we’re intrigued with the lovely art deco touches and geometric design.


Afterward, we finished the day at Maison de Thé, which Susan introduced me to. The teahouse is in a restored 1930’s townhouse that is so well designed, we speculated—correctly, as it turned out—that the owner was French.

Yet another decision for the day: which of the 70 premier French and Chinese teas—black tea, green tea, white tea, Oolong, Pu ‘er or Fujian—should we choose?

It was lovely to end the day of shopping, exploring and eating in this endlessly stimulating city with a soothing cup of tea before we headed home.

We park in the alley lined with the traditional lane houses.

Susan and I stopped at the airy, charming tearoom at Maison de Thé in a restored 1930’s French Concession lane house.

We nibbled biscuits and sipped Longjing green tea from Hangzhou and Pu’er fermented tea from Yunnan in the second floor light and airy tea room.

Colorful 1920’s Chinese tea and biscuit tins line the shelves at the Maison de Thé. For gifts, we purchase fresh Chinese tea in porcelain tea containers.

Heading home at the end of the day.


Photographs by Jeanne Lawrence.

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