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SmartShanghai's Special Dispatch From: Xintiandi

Life in Shanghai's most happening district during the Special Period.
Last updated: 2020-02-15
Photos: Brandon McGhee
In which we put on our masks and go outside to see how the city is dealing with the outbreak period.

Been smelling a lot of bleach lately. Walking past the open doors of DR Bar, where Xintiandi's founding architect Ben Wood himself supposedly goes for martinis, I detected the faint odor of disinfectant. The atmosphere around most of the places near the tourist trap’s central fountain was sterile, downcast and a little pleading.

Reduced squads of staff at places like Boxing Cat, Paulaner and Green & Safe spent much of their afternoon haunting the doorways, eagerly sizing up the few pedestrians, mostly just out to stretch their legs anyways.

Xintiandi, like the rest of the city, was a shadow of its former self on Thursday night. Perhaps a dozen people were out strolling through its lanes. Short of the Bund, it's also the most happening place in town. The retail and urban planning experiment, around for close to twenty years, has managed to keep its doors cracked open just a peep throughout the, ehm, "Special Period." If there were any tourists left in town, this might be one of the only places left to visit.

Not that there are. Hotel managers these days measure their occupancy not in percent but in the number of rooms. A grand old hotel off The Bund apparently has less than five of its 200+ rooms booked. Others are lucky to have a dozen. “It’s going to get worse", the GM of a downtown five-star hotel told me.

I spent several hours in Xintiandi, watching an empty afternoon creep into a rainy evening, taking the temperature of the place and, in some ways, the city.

Xintiandi took my temperature at least half a dozen times in return. Holding steady at 35.6 degrees.

What did I see? The pinched look on a restaurant manager's face as he stalked near the fountain, menu in hand. A handful of middle-aged cigar smokers lounging on the patio of Paulaner, carrying on with pretzels and sausages as if all is right with the world, minus the southeast Asian cover band. A woman walked by, livestreaming her day in the empty district to a homebound audience.

In Polux, I watched the 5pm staff temperature check and a flurry of suppressed panic over a misread figure. The eatery, so popular when it opened that it sold out of food and had to close, sat empty (though they had fully booked a reduced number of tables for Valentine's). Shake Shack fared slightly better, as customers hurried past the temperature gun to collect takeout orders. Even during the Special Period, Shake Shack doesn't do delivery.

Some people willing to give Xintiandi the benefit of the doubt quip that it's so successful because old people think it feels young, young people think it feels old, westerners think it feels Chinese and Chinese think it feels Western. After nearly five hours there, the only feeling I got was a palpable sense of boredom tinged with anxiety.

That's basically the city’s retail industry, as of early February 2020 ,when confirmed coronavirus cases have climbed well past 65,000 and there’s little sign in Shanghai that things are heading back to normal. The few restaurants, bars and shops that can navigate the bureaucracy deftly enough to stay open are now as worried about losing money as they are about hosting an infected customer or having a sick employee. Losing money—one operator of two popular western restaurants, not in Xintiandi, told us he expects to lose 400,000rmb this month alone—is a slow death by finances that might not become evident for some places until spring or summer.

But you're shit out of luck if yours was the place where someone got infected.

Outside of Boxing Cat, where I stopped for a beer, the brewery’s cat statue still has a mask on. Chest puffed out, gloves ready for a fight, eyes a little crossed (punchdrunk?), an irreverent superhero for the Special Period. I asked the staff if it was okay to sit or if they were only doing takeaway. "We're open," the staff said, "but it's day by day."