There’s nothing like one of your favorite hotel chains contacting you, asking if you’d like to come visit…and then telling you they want you to stay with them in a country you never had any intention of visiting because it kind of scared the living daylights out of you………
but that’s exactly what happened when the Four Seasons asked if I wanted to come have an Extraordinary Experience with them in Shanghai.
And boy am I glad they did because now that I HAVE been to China, I can’t for the life of me figure out what I was ever afraid of.
But just what is an Extraordinary Experience? Read on to find out!
The Extraordinary Experience, in the case of the Puxi property, is a one-of-a-kind personalized tour with Chinese photographer Gang Feng Wang. Called the “Extraordinary Experience Shikumen Photography Walking Tour”. You might never have heard of him as you read this, and that in itself is sad because he has one of the most beautiful portfolios of any photographer working today. His gift for portraiture is something that’s humbling for another working photographer like me, bringing faces and emotions and moments to life in a way that leaps from paper and screen alike. Though Wang lives and works in Shanghai, his work has largely concentrated on rural China where he has built a masterwork of images portraying everyday life and the people who are a part of it in China’s rural environs. Many places still lack electricity and many faces captured by his camera are dirt-smudged and worn. Incredibly, the happiness and the joy in so many of the faces in his images rival anything I’ve felt on some of my happiest days growing up in a privileged Western world.
So that man, the talented Wang Gang Feng as they say in Shanghai where the family name comes before the first name — was my tour guide through the Shikumen of the former English Concession. We met in the lobby of the hotel with two other women, both employees of the Four Seasons. (One of them, Vivian, would become the biggest reason I ended up really liking China.) Essentially, I had three chaperones and my fear that I was quickly losing anyway, evaporated the rest of the way as they all smiled at me and asked if I was ready to go explore. I said, yes and we left the lobby for a less than 5 minute stroll down the sidewalk next to a busy road filled with morning traffic before ducking into a break in a wall that I would have missed if I had been on my own. And then, as if a switch had been flipped, we were in another world. Gone were the steel, glass and concrete skyscrapers of the world outside the wall, of modern Shanghai and in their place was a sight from another time. Specifically, many other times.
The former British Concession is, as the name suggests, an area that was built by the occupying British in what is now Shanghai during an almost 100 year occupation of what came to be known as the Shanghai International Settlement. America, France and Britain all once had concessions in Shanghai but only the French and British areas still hold on to the name Former _______ or ______ Concession. (I hope I am getting that all right, I love history but it can be difficult to make it all out sometimes.) As the cultures are different, so are the particulars of the areas of the city that still bear these names. While the former French Concession area really did remind me of parts of Paris, the British area does without a doubt bear the marks that so many former colonized places do. There’s a formality and grandeur to the Shikumen of the British Concession that is just instantly recognizable as British. (Getting the picture yet, and I can show you of course too!) The word Shikumen itself refers to the building style of these structures that were once single family homes and which now sleep as many as 200 people. The word can be broken down into 3 parts: Shi, Ku, and Men. Separated out, they mean stone, arch and gate respectively.
Wang knows the Shikumen so well because he has lived and worked there for decades. His studio is still in the Shikumen and I was able to see it. As well as the photos he has displayed in the hallway outside the front door. Beautiful photos that would have made me cry if I wasn’t trying to be so fiercely in control of my emotions in front of my stoic Chinese hosts.
Also because he lives and works in the same spaces he conducts the tour, he has an unprecedented access to the interior spaces, not just the lanes and exteriors. He has personal relationships with the inhabitants of this historic area and they let him bring his uber small tour groups into their homes. I was perhaps half a dozen homes in my time with Wang and Vivian. Every one was slightly different and every time we entered another, my appreciation for the area grew. It’s not perfect and neither is its history of occupation. But it is beautiful all the same, as are the people who call it home today.
You can really learn something about a country, by going inside the homes of its citizens. This isn’t something I get to do on every trip. But I find that whenever I am able to, I leave with a far more profound appreciation for a culture than if I am not able to.
Does that sound extraordinary?
It was to me!
Yet the experience wasn’t over.
I also was able to have my first ever acupuncture treatment in the Spa at Four Seasons Shanghai and I enjoyed Tai Chi + a Qi Balancing massage just before bed one evening. The latter of which gave me the best night’s rest of my trip and the aforementioned which left me feeling 10 pounds lighter and an untold number of pounds less stressed. The pool with its terrific view of Shanghai is where I spent several hours of my free time, and then too in the locker room where double jacuzzi tubs, a steam room and a relaxation area that had suites like a first class airplane…it was hard to stay away from!The food at Four Seasons Shanghai was also extraordinary. Of course I’ve had Chinese food in America being a NYer. But I’d never had anything the likes of which I enjoyed with Vivian at the hotel’s Si Ji Xuan restaurant where I was able to try traditional Dim Sum, Crispy Duck rolled in Paper Thin Pancakes, Fried Rice, Steamed Broccoli and a Mango Soup that was to die for. Perfect dessert/palate cleanser.
Then there was breakfast. ZOMG. I am craving it every morning now that I am back in NYC. Steamed and fried dumplings, soup, all kinds of fried doughs but best of all: Bean Curd. I was afraid to try it but Vivian ate with me my first morning and politely insisted I try it. I am SO glad she did. It’s served with many different ingredients so you can choose to garnish it any way you’d like. I chose to add: chili, ginger, egg, chives, soy sauce and Chinese vinegar. And I wanted to lick my bowl after every time I ate it. It was that good.
My room also came with access to the Executive Club on the 37th floor which was a wonderful place for a respite away from the hustle of the city’s streets after I’d been sightseeing. Or a place to enjoy a nice view with my morning coffee before sightseeing. Or the place I enjoyed the occasional happy hour before heading back out for the evening. It was a very nice perk that I made great use of. And the staff all knew me by name and had seen my Instagram account. Which was very sweet.
Vivian and I also enjoyed drinks in the Lobby Lounge, or an afternoon espresso (which was as good as in Italy). Live piano music often accompanied this, which I really loved. The soloists that performed were so talented!
My room was, as Four Seasons rooms always are, superbly comfortable with a bed I did not want to get out of some mornings. Not even because of jet lag but purely because of comfort. The room also featured several different arrangements of fresh flowers which were refreshed or changed out more than once during my stay to ensure maximum beauty. This is one of my very favorite things about the Four Seasons brand, because fresh flowers are one of my most loved luxuries in life. Flowers make me more happy merely by their presence alone.
So that I could see what it was like, I also had dinner one evening over at Four Seasons Pudong. On the other side of the river from Puxi, Pudong has a very different feel. It is more modern, the streets are wider and more crowded with cars, the buildings are taller and the general design is just more modern than Puxi. Neither are bad or good. They are each what they are, and together they are the two halves which comprise the whole that is modern Shanghai. The two Four Seasons properties likewise, present different parts of the Four Seasons brand and I loved that I was able to experience both.
My meal at Four Seasons Pudong was in their main floor dining room where the French chef who presides served the most wonderful, creamy, delicious mashed potatoes I’ve had in longer than I can remember and a superb roast chicken with Asian steamed vegetables. Plus a savory pumpkin soup that was so yummy in my tummy. It was all delectable.
When it came time to leave and Vivian rode with me to the airport (BMW service complimentary of the hotel both ways), I was sad. I went from being afraid of China, to being afraid to leave. I worried that the bubble would burst and I’d never be able to properly explain to people how and why I fell for China. Or at least, Shanghai. Now, instead of wanting to avoid the country, I want to return, and experience more of it. I have the Four Seasons and their truly Extraordinary Experience to thank for that.
Oh, and this is Vivian, myself and Gang Feng Wang during our Shikumen tour.
My trip to Shanghai was sponsored by the Four Seasons but I had a choice in whether to write about it or not and I chose to because I really did enjoy it as much as I’ve stated above. All words, opinions and photos are mine and mine alone. Except in the case of the photo of myself, Vivian and Gang Feng which is courtesy Four Seasons Shanghai Puxi.