The taxi driver missed the entrance

The taxi driver missed the entrance to the hotel, he pulled over and checked his GPS. I noticed the discreet sign, displaying a large and small star, above an alleyway some way behind us and asked the driver to return. The driver told me the area was private property but I insisted we try, we circled the block and turned into the driveway. I knew we had arrived.

A tall man wearing a long overcoat

A tall man wearing a long overcoat turned as he heard the taxi approach. Despite the blustery wind the doorman stood upright in the driveway as though expecting me. I paid the driver, the doorman opened the door and in Mandarin, respectfully said “welcome home madam”. He invited me into the lobby, assuring me he would take care of my luggage. I stepped past the carmine doors into the warmth of the lobby and was quickly greeted by Joe, one of the hotel’s Culturists. The traditional attire and Chinoiserie were a masterful blend of old and new and gave a luxurious initial impression. It was my first encounter of the brand and I was already liking the Capella Shanghai, Jian Ye Li.

Another Culturist showed me to my room

Another Culturist showed me to my room, explaining the property’s history and I mentioned that as a child my grandmother had lived in a shikumen; a Shanghainese-style townhouse. The Capella Shanghai, Jian Ye Li is located in a cultural preservation zone and consists of fifty-five elegantly refurbished townhouses set in one of the largest clusters of shikumen in the city. They are built closely together in rows and can only be accessed by narrow lanes. One shikumen typically accommodated three or more families. Each family inhabited one section of the house and the kitchen and bathroom were communal, the living conditions were often harsh as many of the tenants were poor migrant labourers. As a result, a shikumen was nearly always crowded and chaotic.

We passed through the stone doorway

We passed through the stone doorway; Shikumen literally means ‘gate framed by stone’. The heavy green door silently swung open and I was politely invited to step into the private courtyard. We arrived at another door seconds later and just as I stepped into this inner sanctuary, the employee said with an evident mixture of warmth and pride, “welcome home”. A stark departure from its humble beginnings, the shikumen had been refurbished with luxury in mind; the lighting was soft and inviting, the carpet deep and plush. Paintings of pale peach blossoms set against a malachite background conspicuously hung on the walls. Toiletries decorated with images of 1930s Shanghainese ladies were present in the marble bathrooms and a vase of budding peonies was placed on the night stand. All gave an unmistakeable sense of place. Gazing out into the quiet courtyard, I reminded myself the entire house had likely been home to three or more families in the past, none of whom would have had the level of luxurious comfort I was privileged to enjoy.
I had been awake for twenty hours and my rumbling stomach reminded me it was time for dinner, a short stroll through a leafy alleyway led me to the restaurant. With its beautiful mosaic tiles and crystal chandelier, the restaurant lobby transported me back to the golden days of grand Shanghai. I shunned the elevator in favour of the wooden stairs leading to the three-star Michelin restaurant, Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire. I was escorted past the adjoining bar; its dark and seductive atmosphere reminiscent of a bygone era. I imagined banking tycoons, triad bosses and titans of industry deal-making and power-broking over cigars and cognac.

After a restful night’s sleep

After a restful night’s sleep, I set off to explore the neighbourhood. The hotel is located within the former French Concession, a leisurely stroll to The Bund with its iconic views. The popular eating and entertainment district, Xingtiandi, and the arts and crafts enclave, Tianzifang, are both nearby. One moment I could be in the thick of things, the next I could return to the peace and exclusivity of my townhouse.
It was drizzling when I returned by taxi that evening. The doorman recognized me and respectfully greeted me. With several bags in hand, I reciprocated and made a dash for my townhouse. I heard his voice softly calling and turned to see him running after me. “It’s raining madam, please use this umbrella”. He saw my hands were full, quickly opened the umbrella and matched my pace as we walked. He patiently held my bags as I looked for my key. Before departing he said those two words that were starting to really mean something to me “welcome home”.

I dined in the comfort of my shikumen

I dined in the comfort of my shikumen that evening and as my dinner was cleared the waitress noticed I had caught a cold; she thoughtfully offered to prepare some fresh ginger tea. The following morning at breakfast, a cheerful waiter asked if I was feeling better and once again offered the Asian cure-all of hot ginger tea. I declined, explaining I preferred ginger soup with rice dumplings. We joked about our parents’ remedies and how almost every herbal concoction we were obliged to ingest featured ginger.

On my last night at turndown a farewell

On my last night at turndown a farewell gift of a woven Chinese knot had been placed in my room. Traditionally woven from a single length of rope, the Chinese knot is rich in symbolism and is usually given when parting for good luck. A Chinese knot can also mean to meet again, as in Mandarin the word ‘re-sew’ has the same pronunciation as ‘reunite’. The Chinese knot sums up my stay at the Capella Shanghai, Jian Ye Li. The touches of kindness, the discreet and sincere service and the elegant surroundings made me feel welcome and at home. I hope with all my heart to return one day.