Shanghai: By Sidecar

Instead of walking, driving (are you kidding?), taking a bus, or even bicycling, I recently slipped into the sidecar of a vintage-style motorcycle, which whizzed through the web of busy streets to show me the old, and the brave new, aspects of Shanghai, the most western of Chinese cities.

From the Pudong’s panorama of financial towers to the leafy composure of the French Concession, with stops en route, both well-known and not, this is the sort of experience for which the word “exhilarating” was coined. Since I’d been slogging through Shanghai’s heat, I also enjoyed that rarest of commodities: moving air.

Expat Frenchman Thomas Chabrieres launched Shanghai Sideways in 2008, building on his similar service in Beijing. The bikes are replicas of BMWs from the 1930s, each seating two passengers, one in the sidecar and the other behind the driver-cum-tour guide. Groups of two to six are typical, but up to 20 can ride, choosing from set itineraries — top-ten must-sees, shopping and culture, Shanghai by night — or creating their own.

My group ride began with a pack of cycles growling up to the entrance of our hotel, the ultra-sleek, 66-story, but distinctly un-biker-like Le Royal Meridien.

We hopped in and glided into traffic, moving with the flow when it flowed and cutting through the clots when it didn’t. I relished the busy-noisy incomprehensibility of the passing street scenes, wondering, as I always do in Chinese cities, what really goes on behind those hundreds of unfathomable storefronts — buying, selling, eating, making, living?

We headed up the backside of the Bund – the promenade of gorgeous foreign-built landmarks on the Huangpu River — and crossed Suzhou Creek, stopping at the General Post Office. This huge pile with baroque clock tower, more mittel-Europa than East Asia, was designed in the early 1920s by Scottish architects Stewardson and Spence and reborn as a postal museum in 2006.

I found its story of the Chinese postal system surprisingly absorbing. Even better was the roof garden. One usually views this city from the sidewalk — or the top of very tall buildings. But here, five floors up, I could scan skyline, street life, and urban form in happy combination.

To repurpose an old post office is not unusual. But a slaughterhouse? That was our next stop, an ex-abattoir in the nearby Hongkou district. Named 1933 after the year it was built, the square reinforced-concrete bastion with a circular core has gone from dispatching cows to fomenting culture with edgy shops, restaurants, galleries, and exhibition and performance venues.

Photos courtesy of Shanghai Sideways

Its M.C. Escher-like juxtaposition of raw elements — ramps, columns, bridges, spiral staircases — is heaven for photographers. Beholding the brutalism, I wondered: Would 1933 lease, with wit and poetic justice, to a vegetarian restaurant?

Next we rolled onto the northern Bund — past Broadway Mansions, a 1934 high-rise apartment house renovated as a hotel, and the oft-remodeled Astor House (Pujiang) Hotel, part of which dates to 1858. The windy ride heightened my intoxication at viewing both the Pudong’s mad-modern towers across the Huangpu and the Bund’s raffish elegance on our right.

My favorite was the old Sassoon House with its fetching pyramidal tower, which British financier Victor Sassoon built in 1929, tucking into it the Cathay Hotel, the place to stay in those days. In 2010, it became the Fairmont Peace Hotel. Before turning off the Bund, we passed the 1911 Shanghai Club, a Beaux-Arts tart that, no surprise by this point, has been rebranded a Waldorf-Astoria.

As we sped out Huaihai Road, I delighted once more in the din of daily commerce. The most out-of-the-blue sight (but painted searing hot pink) was a huge new Barbie store. East absorbs west with dolls. (Alas, Mattel shuttered the six-story flagship earlier this month, so I guess the twain, in this case, didn’t meet.)

The hubbub receded as we entered the French Concession, its streets lined with London plane trees and the air a bit cooler. The quarter, France’s power zone from 1849 to 1946, now entices the trendoisie to shop, live, and pose.

After stopping briefly at the former residence of Sun Yatsen, who founded the Chinese republic in 1911 and lived his final years in the house, our ride ended on a quiet lane at the James Cohan Gallery.

Inhabiting a crisp 1936 Bauhaus-style villa that deftly incorporates Chinese and Deco detailing, the gallery, a branch of one in New York, exhibits contemporary art from China and the West. I especially liked the serene and spacious garden at the rear, used for sculpture shows and performances.

Shanghai, you brash rebuilder, will you hold on to scenes like this?

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