Shanghai Social Diary: Old Town, Yu Yuan Garden & Bazaar, Kee Club

A garden view of the stunning contrast between ancient and modern architecture, a juxtaposition of old and new that is common in Shanghai. (The Grand Hyatt and Shanghai World Financial Center, both located in Pudong, the financial district.)

When friends come to Shanghai, I always take them to the Old City and the Yu Yuan Gardens and Bazaar. Even though the area is a bit touristy, the mix of original, historic buildings among the reconstructed ones gives you a feeling for Shanghai’s past; and it’s an enjoyable place to spend time. One of my other favorite spots is the Kee Club, where friends and I hosted a party before everyone left town for the holidays.


The Yu Yuan Bazaar is something of a theme park. My guests always go here to shop for “Made in China” souvenirs–chopsticks, silk robes, fans, and jade jewelry–and to enjoy the snacks.

A view of the Old City and the Yu Yuan Bazaar.

It’s always crowded here, since it’s popular not only with tourists but also with locals, who come with their families to eat, shop and stroll.

Though you can buy many of the same goods in New York and San Francisco, it’s fun to shop for them here, on location, in the country where they’re made.

Emperors used specially carved seals called “chops” to “sign” their documents, and today local craftsmen will carve a personalized chop for you while you wait.

These candied fruit on a stick as snacks look tasty and a convenient way to eat while walking around.

In this candy store, you can sample the goods before you decide what to buy.

Fast food, Chinese-style, consists of baskets of steamed dumplings of many varieties, generically called “dim sum” (Cantonese for “small bites”).


In the Old City area, my favorite place to stop for lunch is the Nan Xiang Steamed Bun Restaurant. It is known for its Xiao Long Bao dumplings, a delicious Shanghai specialty often called “soup dumplings.”

The exterior of Nan Xiang Steamed Bun Restaurant.

Tourists and locals are always in line for take-out, but I prefer to be served in the restaurant on the second floor, though the dumplings cost more there.

Since the restaurant is air-conditioned, our group—my daughter Stephanie Lawrence, my San Francisco friend Carolyn Chandler and her daughter Samantha DuVall—didn’t mind waiting for a seat.

Chefs roll delicate dumpling skins very thin by hand and wrap them around juicy pork, pork and crab roe, or vegetable fillings. Then they’re steamed and served to you right from the baskets.

I learned how to pick up a dumpling with my chopstick, put it in a spoon, bite off the top part, and then slurp out the tasty broth—the best part!

In the north, noodles are popular, but Shanghai is known for its dumplings.

Chinese menus generally have pictures to help you decide what to order.

But I always look to see what my neighbors have ordered to get inspirations for new dishes to try.

We tried a lot of other small dishes in addition to the soup dumplings, which you dip in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, and/or fresh ginger.

If you can’t figure out how to eat the soup dumplings, you can order another type, then cheat and sip the soup broth through a straw.

Just as in the US, China has a food inspection system. The results are posted in Chinese and English. I like the graphics, which make everything really clear!


After lunch, I suggested we get away from the crowds and head directly to the Yu Yuan Gardens. Built in the Ming Dynasty (about 1550) by a government official, they took eighteen years to create. The garden is small, but it has all the elements of the Souzhou-style garden: lakes, forest, grottoes, and pavilions.

The gardens are a tranquil Chinese painting come to life, filled with pavilions whose eaves turn toward the heavens, winding walkways, bamboo forests, arched bridges, carp-filed ponds and rock gardens.

The delightful Yu Garden is one of the few remnants of the past that still exist in the city.

Carolyn Chandler and Samantha DuVall were visiting from San Francisco.

Alixe Laughlin of New York City also visited with us.

This magnificent ceiling in one of the garden pavilions rivals any that I’ve seen in the great cathedrals of Western Europe.

Despite the crowds, the five acres of the park offer many nooks for quiet contemplation.


The Hu Xin Ting Tea House, built as a merchant guildhall in l784, was the model for the familiar blue-and-white willow design common on English porcelain. It’s a perfect spot to enjoy a cup of Chinese tea and rest after shopping in the Yu Yuan Bazaar.

The zigzag design of Jiu Qu Qiao, the bridge leading to the teahouse, was meant to keep away the evil spirits, who according to Chinese lore travel only in a straight line.

The upstairs room is quieter and larger, with wonderful views of the action below.

We sat in the upstairs room to have our tea, even though it costs more there.

Samantha DuVall sampled the homemade green tea ice cream.

Quail eggs were brought to the table to accompany the tea.

Samantha enjoyed shopping for gifts in the teashop that sells such varieties as black, green, oolong, jasmine, and chrysanthemum tea.

From the large selection, we chose some of the flower teas. They are natural, caffeine-free, and beautiful to watch as they open up in the teapot.


In the narrow alleys in the oldest part of Shanghai, the street life is much as it has been for centuries. In the labyrinth of narrow lanes, I never fail to see something new and intriguing.

Unfortunately, right outside the back doors of the Yu Yuan Gardens, historic buildings have been razed and replaced by a generic mall that could be anywhere in the world.

While China is understandably interested in modernizing, it pays a cost—a loss of the feeling of community and the unique quality of street life.


How global our social networks are nowadays! Not long ago I had drinks with several friends from the U.S. on the terrace of Shanghai’s exclusive, private members KEE Club. We decided it would be the ideal venue to jointly host a party before everyone left town for the holidays.

The KEE Club Shanghai is a branch of Hong Kong’s exclusive private members club of the same name.

Centrally located in Shanghai, the KEE Club is housed in the historic “Twin Villas” that date from the 1920s.

The Villas have been restored and the Club has been decorated to resemble a private home reminiscent of a European salon.

The club offers fine dining and several intimate private entertaining spaces.

The KEE Club is located on the top floors of the Villas.

Our party setup included lots of juices as well as liquor, since the Chinese are just beginning to adopt the Western custom of drinking cocktails.


My co-hosts included Barry and Etran McComic, whom I’ve known since I lived in La Jolla, California. They now live in Shanghai half the year, seeking investment opportunities. Barry is an attorney, and Etran advises Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University on fundraising. Their daughter Cristina will enter Fudan University Law School in Shanghai this fall.

Ben Wood, the fourth host, hails from Boston. Since completing the redevelopment of the Xintiandi neighborhood with real estate honcho Vincent Lo, preserving much of old Shanghai, he has left his mark in projects all over China and is in high demand for his talent.

Our merged party guest list was a wonderful mix of local Shanghainese and “expats” —non-natives presently living here—who represent the art, business, and academic worlds.

The adventurous kindred souls bonded quickly, swapping tales of the pleasures and challenges we’ve encountered in our new world.

Hosts Etran and Barry McComic with Nancy Merrill.

Hosts Jeanne Lawrence and Ben Wood with our guests Loletta and Vincent Lo.

Artists Jian-Jun Zhang and Barbara Edelstein with Shelly Lim.

Kenneth and Robyn Joseph, visiting from NYC.

Jeanne Lawrence, Elisabeth de Gramont, Laurette Slawson Hartigan, and Will Plummer.

Dr. Maobin Zhang and Ben Wood.

Chuk-Kwan Ting and Eliza Xu.

Belinda Bao of L’Oreal and Etran McComic.

Barry McComic and Mina Choi Hanbury-Tenison, author of the spicy book Shanghai Girls: Uncensored & Unsentimental.

Vincent Yan (VP at Jaguar Land Rover China) and Kevin Li (DT Capital).

Shelly Lim, Annie Wang, and Nancy Merrill, producer of “Nancy Merrill’s Eye on Shanghai.”

Lily Han (Representative for Medical City in Beijing), philanthropist Jack Lu, and Frank Li.

JFK Miller, Etran McComic, and Ned Kelly.

Barry McComic with David Mao (Managing partner of Shanghai Pioneer law firm).

Annie Wang and her father Yongan Wang with Stewart Beck and Kim Beck.

Dr. Maobin Zhang, Jack Lu, Lily Han, James Zhu, and Lisa Mu.

He Fang of Ford Motor Co Asia, Professor Derrick Zhang of Jiao Tong University, Alan Paau from NY’s Cornell University, and Etran McComic.

Friend, Annie Wang, Andrea Mingfai Chu, and opera singer Ying Huang.

Elizabeth de Gramont and Will Plummer, Americans whose chance meeting in a Shanghai office elevator led to their marriage in France last summer.

Jeanne Lawrence and Lara Farrar of W Magazine and Shanghai Daily.

Barry McComic and Andrea Mingfai Chu, author of the stunning book Shanghai Interiors, which shows how to incorporate Chinese design into your home.

Cecille DeVillers.

Founder and creative director Alison Mary Ching Yeung of Mary Ching shoes.

Cecile DeVillers, Yann Debelle de Montby, and fashion designer Han Feng.

Barry McComic, Melody Guo (Law firm H&Y) and Zhong Ming.

Editor-in-Chief JFK Miller and Deputy Editor Ned Kelly of That’s Shanghai magazine.

The party continued on the veranda that overlooks the garden.


Photographs by Jeanne Lawrence.

*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.

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