Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 14, 2017
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Shanghai Surprise

THE PEARL OF THE ORIENT RECLAIMS ITS REPUTATION FOR OPULENCE

Mark DeCocinis revved up his Dhang Jiang 750cc motorcycle, an exact replica of the 1938 BMW R-71, waved at the sidecar and said, "Hop in." Minutes later, we were riding around a ring road toward the Bund. As general manager of the 564-room Portman Ritz-Carlton, which has just completed a $US30 million refurbishment, DeCocinis never tires of giving the hotel's VIP guests a rare view of Shanghai and initiating them into China's biggest metropolis. When we stopped at a light, facing dozens of bicyclists, he boasted, "Shanghai has seven million bicycles, but none are as fast as mine."

Personal service is one thing, but making guests feel esteemed while unravelling ubiquitous red tape is another, and the Ritz-Carlton and DeCocinis do it in style. A hotel concierge greeted my group at Hongqiao International Airport and whisked us through tedious customs lines. We caught a few breaths of humid Shanghai air before being escorted

to an air-conditioned Mercedes van, complete with servants proffering hot towels and cool champagne. A police escort facilitated our way through rush-hour turmoil. After a lavish greeting by Chinese opera singers bearing flowers, we each retreated to our suites. I couldn't help but notice that the fluffy white bath towels and robe, embroidered with the distinctive Ritz-Carlton lion logo, also had TS stitched onto them -- my initials! Since many of the hotel's frequent guests prefer using their own towels and robe, the hotel offers a service that monograms and stores them for exclusive use.

By the time I hopped into the spiffy sidecar, I was already overly impressed with this place. As we neared the commercial area known as the Bund or waitan, as the Shanghainese call the Huangpu River waterfront, DeCocinis shouted over the breeze, "this is where it all started." A checkered past

Shanghai was a fishing village until the Opium War of 1842, when the Treaty of Nanking opened the port to foreign trade and the British, French, Americans and Japanese established a trade presence here. Foreign concessions thrived as each developed trade rules and architecture specific to their culture. Eventually all of the areas merged and became the International Settlement. As Western-style buildings sprouted along the Bund, Shanghai earned the moniker Paris of the East. But by the 1940s, a wicked reputation wrought by gangsters twisted the title to Whore of the Orient.

When Mao rolled in with the Communist troops in 1949, most foreigners fled and the city fell into decline. In 1966, Shanghai led the Cultural Revolution and in the 1990s, Shanghai -- an autonomous municipality running its own affairs -- emerged as China's strongest economic, financial and industrial city. Today the Chinese refer to Shanghai as the Pearl of the Orient and apparently the history and terror of the revolutionary days are water under the bridge.

"Shanghai means City on the Sea," DeCocinis shouted over honking horns. "Locals call it the dragon's head because it's upstream of the Yangtze River, which is the main trade route to major silk and tea-producing regions." Waigaoqiao harbour is one of the world's largest ports. Commercial Freedoms

Turning on the Bund, we could see on our left a stunning view of Puxi, old Shanghai and across the Huangpu River on our right, Pudong or New Shanghai. In the 12 years since my last visit, the area has transformed dramatically. The Bund is now a gleaming row of sandblasted, neo classical, art deco, art nouveau and modern buildings and evokes Shanghai's former opulence. After its 1990 designation as a Special Free Trade Zone, Pudong, which was once a slip of wasted paddy-fields, has blossomed into an eclectic city. Previously accessible only by ferry, it now has two cable bridges, a tunnel and transit system as well as its own airport. As we spun alongside the wide riverside promenade, I gaped incredulously at the skyline. Pudong, which means "east of river", exemplifies Shanghai's renaissance. The 88-storey Jinmao building boasts the new 555-room Grand Hyatt Hotel, stacked between the 55th and 87th floors. While the Stock Exchange is Asia's largest building, the 468-metre Oriental Pearl TV tower dominates the scene as the China's new icon. Pudong, now as large as old Shanghai, even has a golf course.

As we turned off the Bund and rode through the side streets, it became evident that Shanghai has vigorously shed vestiges of its derelict past. Huangpu Park, at the edge of the Bund, has taken down the signs that once forbade entry to "dogs and Chinese." The numerous stores in the area are evidence of Shanghai's commercial freedom. 12 years ago, foreigners were restricted to using Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs) in a government emporium, the Friendship Store. Today it is still a reliable source for authentic Chinese silks, jade, arts and crafts. International designer boutiques on Nanking Road, Huaihai Lu and at the Shanghai Centre (which encompasses the Portman Ritz-Carlton along with Ferragamo, Cerruti and Cartier) have helped turned the city into China's shopping mecca.

Shanghai's Old Town is scrubbed clean and even the alleyways, lined with bird, flower and fish booths, are kept tidy. I sensed local pride as I milled about the historic YuYuan garden, built in 1577, the Jade Buddha Temple, built in 1882, the former home of Dr Sun Yat-sen, leader of the 1911 revolution, and even the old Ohel Moshe Synagogue, founded in 1927 by European refugees.

People's Square, the political and cultural heart of Shanghai, sits on a pristine expanse of land which was once a revolutionary parade ground. It is an architectural showcase bustling with visitors. Also known as Renmin Square, the area is bordered by several new structures, including Municipal Hall, the Shanghai History Museum, the Shanghai Museum and the Shanghai Opera or Grand Theatre House with its crystalline exterior and arcing roof. Separation Anxiety Back at the hotel, there was barely enough time to sip champagne and eat chocolate-dipped berries while soaking in my fragrant, butler-drawn bath (really!) before slipping down to the Ritz-Carlton Jazz Bar. It too, denotes a new Shanghai, having replaced the Jazz Bar at the Peace Hotel as the chic place to be. Today the city is alive with Manhattan-style bars, European bistros and jazz clubs.

By the end of my stay, literally spoiled by The Portman Ritz-Carlton's VIP treatment, I began worrying about the future. When would I again taste such exquisite Asian food as served in these restaurants or have a butler-drawn bath?

 

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