One Night in Shanghai

The Night Out Begins

Standing on the Bund is always incredible. On the opposite side of the Huangpu River Shanghai’s skyline is forever extending, each new building reaching higher than the next and each trying to blend the old with the new, the modern with the traditional. The Jinmao, shaped like bamboo, which had bragging rights as Shanghai’s tallest building for a few years is now dwarfed by a giant bottle opener and a twisting, spiraling behemoth which is yet to be completed.

This seemed like the logical place to start our Shanghai adventure. Three of my friends came to visit from South Africa and this was our starting point, the kick off to our China escapade. It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and the only thing more noticeable than the Pudong skyline are the throngs of people crowding the boardwalk trying to get the perfect picture with all the buildings in the background. Smiling faces, index and middle fingers held up next to their faces as they pose for the thousandth photo. My friends gawk at the Chinese tourists just as much as they do at the buildings. Tourism and crowds of this scale is something that they haven’t experienced and soon I can see the effects of crowds taking its toll on them. The pushing and shoving, the loud talking and occasional pointing which is part of crowded China was getting to them.

I decided it was time to move on, to go somewhere else, and to have a cold beer somewhere – anywhere that wasn’t here.

The Hipster Bar

We hailed a taxi and I instructed the driver to head to Yongkang road. It’s the first place that sprung to mind and a welcome reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Saturday afternoon Shanghai. It’s nestled in the heart of the French concession, an area favoured by Expats because of the colonial architecture and high concentration of western styled cafes, bars and restaurants. They guys enjoyed the scenery of the Bund but I knew what they really wanted. Shanghai’s night life is much vaunted and you could do anything and go anywhere, from the sleazy to the swanky, from the cheap to the luxurious. This is what they wanted to see.

The taxi stopped at the junction of Yongkang Road and Xiangyang South road. Yongkang road is not a long road, but both sides are lined with an eclectic mix of bars and restaurants. There’s the token Irish pub that serves Guinness and all day breakfasts with blood pudding, a couple of American bars selling sliders and Craft beers, a French Café hawking ales and croquet monsieurs, a Japanese place with the all the sake and sushi you could manage, and a few cocktail bars.

As we turn onto Yongkang road we are met with a sea of people. It’s almost as crowded as the Bund, the only difference being most of the people here are not Chinese. The sunny spring weather has brought expat Shanghai out of hibernation. I guide my friends through the sea of people to the Rooster, a small bar that sells beers on tap and some imported bottled beer. We order a couple of pints and take a few big gulps. The cold pint goes down well. I’m about to take another big gulp when one of my friends comments on the high proportion of well-trimmed, bearded men on the street. I lift my gaze and look out over the street. The setting afternoon sun glare suddenly brings it all into focus. There are so many well-trimmed beards and people wearing off-beat thrift store clothes, making some sort of fashion statement. Then there is the array of electric scooters. Some are pimped out, there are a few mat black ones, some have big fuck off wheels, like they were ready for off-road travel, some have huge handlebars, like a tiny Harley might, and yet they are all electric scooters. It dawns on me and on my friends. It was like a slap in the face with a locally grown organic fish. We all share a look and start laughing. Hipsters have descended on Yongkang Road, or they have always been here. We were drowning in a sea of hipsters. We continue drinking our pints, laughing in the setting sun and admiring the impressive array of beards and fashion on display. We drink our pints but we’ve had about as much hipster as anyone can take for one day. It’s time to move on.

The Jazz Bar

We grab a couple of road beers and jump in a taxi. Peace Hotel, at Nanjing East Road and Zhongshan East Road I instruct the taxi driver. The Peace Hotel has a jazz bar where the musicians’ average age is about 80 years old. They play Jazz from years gone by, reminiscent of 1930’s Shanghai. We drink our beers in the taxi, laugh ostentatiously at our own horrible jokes and the plight of the hipster. The taxi driver doesn’t bat an eyelid, but keeps driving, our furor nothing new or exciting for this driver who has seen it all.

We pay the driver his fare, about $6, and make our way into the jazz bar at the Peace Hotel. Sweet cigar smoke embraces us as we enter the bar. Most of the tables are taken but we find our way to the back of the bar where a table awaits the four of us. Drinks are expensive here. $15 dollars for a cocktail or a single malt whisky, $10 for a pint plus 15% service charge. We order a round of a Single malt whiskey from Islay. This would be the most extravagant and expensive of our nights’ drinks but prove to be well worth it.

Not long after the drinks arrive, six senior citizens make their way into the bar and start messing around with the different instruments. Within a few minutes we get whisked away to 1930’s Shanghai with the swing of old school jazz and the sweet scent of cigar smoke. The band of old men plays one awesome song after another and we get carried away. We order one single malt Whisky after the other, we smoke up a fat cigar each, we listen to the music, we talk, and we laugh.

A few hours and about $250 later we stumble out of the Peace Hotel and into another taxi. Its night time in Shanghai and there are many places to be had.

The Pirate Bar

“Yongfu Road!” I instruct the driver. We speed our way through the streets of Shanghai, the underside of the overpasses are lit up in bright blue and the skyscrapers are shining beacons of capitalism taken hold of China. We appreciate the backdrop to our adventure and regret not getting more road beers for our short road trip to our next destination, the Rhumerie Bounty.

We stumble into this pirate themed rum bar and grab a small table. The poison they pedal here are many different flavored rums. Today’s selection seems to be rose, cherry, ginger, honey, vanilla and lychee. We start off with Cherry. The rum arrives with 4 big shot glasses, a bowl of shaved ice and a flagon of red cherry rum. The shaved ice and rum gets thrust into glasses and then our hands. We cheers to the gods and down the hatch it goes. It’s sweet but strong and goes down surprisingly easy. Another and then another. After the Cherry we sample the Ginger, the Rose and another which I can’t remember. The smoky interior, loud music, and intoxicated company mix well and it’s not long before we drunkenly express our love for each other. Bromance has never been stronger between four men.

We stumble out of the Rhumerie Bounty and straight up the stairs to the Apartment. The Apartment is not my place of residence, but rather a two room lounge – one with dance music and another with more relaxed music and a lounge feel. For the state we are in we decide the dance option will be the better suited for us. It’s all a bit of a blur. Music is playing; we are dancing, drinks in one hand and cigarette in the other on a crowded dance floor, equally crowded by foreign and Chinese partygoers. It seems a little mundane after the charming Peace Hotel and the intoxicating Rhumerie. We could be anywhere in the word, in any lounge bar, dancing away. It was time to move on, to find something more exciting, something that Shanghai is renowned for.

The Streetside Bar

Just outside the Rhummery we notice a man with a corner bar. This bar is not a building made of brick and mortar. It’s a table, on the sidewalk. He has many different bottles on display and a menu chalked out on a blackboard. $3 for a Jack and coke? Yes please, and make it four. We just paid almost $15 dollars for the same drink in the Apartment. We sip our drinks and praise the man for his delicious and well-priced drinks. Through a drunken conversation we find out he works in an office from Monday to Friday and then spends Friday and Saturday evenings catering to the esteemed clientele of Yongfu Road. We order another one, this time for the taxi ride to our next destination.

There are many swanky places in Shanghai, and also many not so glamorous establishments. Some of these “other” establishments go by many names, but the least glamorous and most accurate is “prostitute bar”. They are everywhere in Shanghai, hidden in plain view, feeding the needs of the horny drunk foreigner most of the time, and one of the most welcoming is located on Nanyang Road in Jing’an.

The Prostitute Bar

The taxi driver pulls up to the steps of the bar and from the outside it looks pretty ordinary, only a sign which states the name of the place – Manhattan – and one man dressed in black at the entrance. We enter the room, not knowing what was waiting on the other side.

At first glance it is just another club, the latest dance hits from around the world playing, tables to one side and a dance floor where the human mating ritual begins. We make our way to the bar and order a round of Jack and Cokes. It’s too late to change to anything else now. $10 a drink – normal Shanghai prices. We stand at the bar and examine our new surroundings. Western guys fill the room and girls of different Asian nationalities keep them company. It’s not too long before a couple of attractive girls make eye contact and, smiling, dance on closer to where we are. All I can think is how awesome we are. Barely five minutes in the club and already girls are all over us.

In our drunken state we fail to see what’s really going on. Our libido is fuelled and blinded by alcohol and the only thing that makes sense to us is that hot girls are giving us attention.

Two of my friends get dragged off to the dance floor, smiling and high-fiving. Another girl has snuck up next to me and was grinding against me. She didn’t say much, just hello. After a few minutes of grinding I was asked if I was looking for a good time. This struck me as a strange question as I was already having a good time. It was quite obvious as I was laughing loudly and generally enjoying hanging out with my friends. My reply that I was already having a good time did not impress her as she slid across the dance floor, looking for someone else to grind against. After another drink a second girl, who calls herself Lily, introduced herself. She was Chinese, from Suzhou, 30 minutes away by train.

She didn’t grind up against me but struck up a conversation. It didn’t take her long before she also asked me whether I was looking for a good time. Only $150 would guarantee me a good time. I thanked her for her offer but turned her down. I offered to buy her a drink which she accepted as an incentive to keep chatting.

She comes to this bar from Thursday to Saturday. The rest of the week she hangs out with friends and likes to frequent coffee shops. Business is tough for her because the guys in here prefer Vietnamese, Thai and Filipino girls. Surprising that guys in China prefer to go to an establishment like this and then prefer the company of non-Chinese girls. She shrugs and says it just the way things are in this bar.

Every 5 to ten minutes an intoxicated western guy leads out a pretty young Asian girl, but the club does not seem to empty out. New guys keep coming in and in my intoxicated state I’m sure I saw some of the girls come back who left not very long ago.

I sober up a little bit and realize just how sad a state of affairs it really is. Drunken expats pawing at working girls, the girls feigning interest as guys try their best moves on the company for hire. In this club a guy will never strike out, the girl will never shoot you down, as long as you have the money to back up your intent. Maybe that’s the appeal but my stomach turns and rumbles. We didn’t have dinner and it was time to satisfy the drunken hunger that has enveloped me.

I drag the guys away from the girls with the promise of food. Street food is what we want and there just happens to be all night street food near where I live.

The Only Way To End the Night

Zhongtan Road has some fantastic street food, and at 3am there are fewer places that do it better or with more variety. We cross a bridge over a creek and approach a giant residential area known as Zhonyuan Liangwanchen. Smoke from the portable BBQ’s tell us where to stop. We sit at first small table fitted with even smaller chairs and order a round of beers, sticks of beef, potato, beans, tofu, an eggplant and some fried noodles. The food is spicy but delicious, and as we wash it down with a warm local beer we recall some of the events of the evening. We drink beer and eat food until the first sign of the sunrise appears over Shaghai’s skyline. It’s a sobering signal that the night has come to an end. We’ve have had our fun, and we have barely scratched the surface.