SHANGHAI - It is an overcast day here, but bustling, as always. Flotillas of ocean-going ships and barges ply their way upriver, the hideous yet compelling Oriental Pearl transmission tower looms over the city on the ultra-modern Pudong side of the waterway and heavy earth-moving equipment rumbles along the Bund. on the Puxi side.
I am surveying China's largest city and financial capital from the 7th floor outdoor terrace at M on the Bund, one of Shanghai's most popular restaurants. Opened in January 1999 by Australian-born Michelle Garnout following her success in Hong Kong with M at the Fringe, this sophisticated eatery shows influences from Europe and North Africa. It also boasts some of Shanghai's best views, especially at night, when lights deck the riverfront in a necklace of neon.
The Bund - it's pronounced "bond'', the word is Hindi - is presently a construction site. The riverfront boulevard and companion pedestrian promenade will reopen next year in time for Shanghai Expo 2010, with most motorized traffic directed underground. This will make strolling about that much easier, which is good because walking around this dynamic downtown district is the best way to see it.
My most illuminating walkabout along and near the Bund was with Peter Hibbard, an expat Brit who draws on his academic background as an urban planner to lead tours of the Beaux Arts and Art Deco stone buildings that front a several-block-long stretch of the river. Hibbard bills himself as the Ginger Griffin - griffin being an old word for newcomer to Shanghai and ginger being the color of Hibbard's hair before it turned grey. I spent about three hours with the ultra-informed, chatty Hibbard, who lead me down back alleys and into courtyards, even into grand old mansions now converted into apartment buildings, the wash hanging from windows.
The best part of the tour was poking into the handful of buildings - old banks and offices, some now honeycombed with shops - that were built along the Bund between roughly 1900 and 1935. Once the home of mighty European, American and Japanese companies, they are mostly now inhabited by Chinese firms, including banks. Many have stunning decorative touches such as mosaics, murals, ornate front gates and gold trim. Hibbard (http://gingergriffin.com) knows so much, he sometimes corrects the historical plaques on the old buildings. And he knows so many locals, they barely bother to look up when he leads a tour through their private courtyards, greeting everyone in Chinese. His beautifully illustrated book "The Bund Shanghai: China Faces West'' is a definitive history in English of the Bund and its urban surrounds. The walk I took started at the historic Astor Hotel, passed the old Peace Hotel (nee the Cathay), which is currently being renovated and will open next year as a Fairmont, and ends near the 1921 office tower that houses M on the Bund.
M, for Michelle, is unlike so many restaurants with a view in that it has first-rate food (www.m-restaurantgroup.com), not just a view. My lunch there was Moroccan-tinged, consisting of toothsome spiced lamb in big puff pastries that came with a savory pumpkin soup. I also lunched on a fresh salad of sliced mango, green cilantro and shredded carrots. It isn't especially Chinese and it doesn't come cheap - M on the Bund is a destination restaurant for expats and the expense-account crowd - but the fare is delicious. Down one level is the Glamour Bar, the restaurant's cool, see and be seen nighttime watering hole.
Shanghai's heyday as a capital of cool was in the 1920s and '30s, when this huge port city was considered to be the epitome of sexy, dressy decadence and, well, glamour. As the city began to come out of its communist-induced stupor in the late 1980s and 1990s, it tried to regain its lost allure. Places like the Glamour Bar in Puxi (west side of the river) and the Shangri-la Hotel's design-driven Jade on 36 in Pudong (east side) have brought back some of the glitter, and China's economic surge has invested Shanghai with a newfound prosperity that continues to elude China's poverty-stricken interior. In short, the view from M on the Bund is magnificent, going a long way to resurrect the legend of Shanghai.