By Jeninne Lee-St. John
Photographed by Dave Tacon
Apr 1, 2018
MODERN SHANGHAI’S BEST EXAMPLE of the architectural as political is surely the shikumen. The word literally translates to “stone gate,” but references a type of laneway housing here that in its lifespan has hosted a cultural and economic rollercoaster of residents, depending on the political winds. If you’ve been to Shanghai, you’ve probably strolled the best-known shikumen revitalization projects, the fancy shopping and eating district Xintiandi and its aspiring-hipster cousin Tianzifang. On a leafy street in the former French Concession is an unassuming stone archway cut into a brick façade that leads to a different kind of shikumen compound, this one a tourist-traffic-free haven that has settled serenely its latest role: the plush, homey Capella Shanghai, Jian Ye Li.
The architectural style was pioneered in the mid-1800s in Shanghai’s foreign concessions, a mix of European and American factory towns and rural Chinese country homes. Oriented south and organized according to other feng shui principles, two- and three-story shikumen appealed to wealthy expats and locals, who lived in them and bought them as investments to rent to the masses of Chinese workers then streaming into the city. Set along a series of narrow lanes (called “longtang” or “lilong”), the townhouses shared walls but each had its own front garden cocooned behind an often ornate shikumen—giving the neighborhoods their name. The result was a cozy inner sanctum surrounded by a lively outer ecosystem.
But chaos is hard to contain. Renters began subletting rooms to students, artists and scholars—including dissident Communists who had found among the increasingly warren-like neighborhoods safe places to convene. When the Western powers left China in the 1940s, the Party packed the shikumen further, installing multiple families into each unit, sometimes in the same room, sometimes adding new floors between the original ones. It’s not hard to imagine how quality of life deteriorated in such tight quarters.
Yet, despite obvious hardships, these gated enclaves were also vibrant communities. So it’s little surprise that as one of the few caretakers left of shikumen—by some estimates, 4 million people lived in lilong through the 1950s, with government housing policies from the 1990s winnowing that number to around 200,000 today—Capella feels driven to preserve the shared neighborhood feel while modernizing the structures, creating senses of peace and privacy while also fulfilling their mission as a communal space. Regenerating the inner sanctum (adding indoor plumbing, for a start) while preserving the outer ecosystem (keeping sections open for public events). It’s an urban corollary of the fairytale preservation project Amanyangyun has pulled off 30 minutes outside of Shanghai (see my review of that mind-blowing new Aman here).
Along Capella’s 22 mews are 55 vertical suites, of one to three bedrooms, encased behind gated gardens. First built by a French developer in the 1930s for expats and traders, they were given new interiors by renowned Indonesian designer Jaya Ibrahim in his last project before he died. The ground floor holds a study and powder room, up a flight is the den and bar; it’s half a flight up to the bedroom, and another half to the Acqua di Parma toiletry–stocked bathroom. If you’re lucky enough to be in Shanghai on a rare sunny day, your brick roof deck is lovely for morning tea.
People who tend to forget their keys should look on the bright side: running up and down your stairwell will be the easiest 10,000 steps per day you ever achieved. Certainly, I felt the history and prime location of the compact space was worth the tradeoff in convenience. I would’ve enjoyed a monthly lease. (Note to self: next time take a longer sabbatical and stay in one of their 40 serviced residences.)
In fact, major props to Capella for managing to weave that sense of high-end relaxation throughout. Entering is like plunging into a secret garden, with further treasures and greater peace hidden the deeper you go. Running the length of the property at the end of each alley is a peaceful park space filled with sculptures and greenery. The spa, also in a series of refitted shikumen houses, has managed to ensconce among its multi-level treatment suites a salt room, a therapy pool and two flotation tanks. The main building has a light-filled library where it’s a pleasure to sit and sip tea and partake of the fresh pastries and canapés available all day. Normally I want to hustle out of the hotel lobby; here I want to linger. But it would be a waste not to take advantage of this prime location.
Carve out some time to just get lost in the winding, tree-lined boulevards the French left behind. You’ll be ecstatic to stumble upon holes-in-the wall like the fresh-dumpling doorway manned by a husband-and-wife team at 102 Goa’an Road. At little local eatery Jesse, the braised pork is a must-order. Some of the city’s most popular bars and restaurants are within a 20-minute walk, such as pioneering microbrew-pub Boxing Cat and their beautiful-people dining spin-off Liquid Laundry; Mr. Willis—imagine if your favorite comfort-food chef invited you to his enchantingly lit apartment for dinner; and the bubbly fueled, binge-worthy brunch hotspot Bull and Claw.
Capella’s on-site dining is fully of a piece with this neighborhood vibe, and it’s spectacular. Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire, whose windows overlook the courtyard and the restored water tower that used to supply the residents here, has the pleasantly unstuffy feel that is perfect for a fancy champagne high tea or a casual-chic bistro dinner. Executive chef Romain Chapel turns out cocotte of meaty, succulent frogs poulette and a Dover sole meuniere sautéed with orange butter whose incredible lightness is balanced by its mushroom and txistorra sausage stuffing.
After dislodging myself from the gin-forward bar, I wander back to the hotel, under the archway, past the water tower. I buzz myself in through the lilong fence then, after a saunter down the mew, into my shikumen gate. Heading up my mini flights of stairs, it feels nothing so much like entering a hotel as returning to a how-did-they-pull-that-off Airbnb. It feels like returning home.
capellahotels.com; villas from RMB4,500.