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The Tremendous Story of M on the Bund

A big, long, insightful conversation with M’s Michelle Garnaut ahead of their closing on February 15
2022-01-26 12:00:00

Shanghai is losing a sizable and irreplaceable chunk of its personality on February 15, with the closure of M on the Bund and Glam after 23 years of operations at No. 5 on the Bund. More than just a restaurant-slash-bar, M, Glamour Bar, and Glam served at this city's cultural ground zero, hosting in world class literary, arts, and cultural events, fundraisers and gatherings — intimate large parties, pink fringed soirees, and classic booze-ups for this city's most lovely and terrific people, and those flying in to be with them.

But yes it's a restaurant. Speaking to that side of things, a meal on the terrace at M on the Bund is the best part of the Shanghai experience distilled to its spirit: there you are in a room full of interesting people from around the world that you haven't met yet, boats against the current, sipping and nibbling on delicious things and contemplating the river — feeling like you're all part of something exciting and fearless that the world hasn't seen before.

SmartShanghai sat down with M's owner, the always creative, funny, and passionate Michelle Garneau, for some coffee and these tasty, little sausage latke things. We had a nice, long chat about the Shanghai International Literary Festival, and Shanghai before, with, and without M on the Bund.


Looking Back on Lit Fest

SmSh: To start, I thought we could talk about the Shanghai International Literary Festival. Because it seems like we shan't see another event like that... in our lifetime?

Michelle Garnaut: Yes. There are two things that everyone wants to talk about: One, why are you closing? Two, is it political or can we talk about Lit Fest. [Laughs.]

Yeah. Yeah, we can talk about it.

SmSh: What are the thoughts and emotions that come to you when you think about it now, now that you're a couple years removed from it?

MG: Well, you know, I think it was fantastic. I mean, it was just brilliant. And I loved it as much as anybody when it wasn't driving me crazy. Yeah.

But I think the thing that many people don't see is, basically, our fundamental basis: Our business is a restaurant. And because we had a successful restaurant that was able to operate and cover all its operation costs and make enough money, I was able to indulge in other things that I liked doing.

Things that were definitely not profitable. And were definitely a lot of work. You know, so Lit Fest falls into that category for me. It was about fun and being a part of a community and fitting in with a larger community and supporting one's community.

M's Shanghai International Literary Festival 2019

SmSh: At what point did you realize that the Lit Fests were going to have to go away for a while?

MG: I think it just came to a point that when I'm going to have a 2020 Festival organized, there was nobody here. I wasn't here and the person organizing wasn't here either. So, of course, you know, the gang knows what they're doing but it wouldn't have had a sort of heart and soul.

And then nobody could get in anyway, right?

And then I think it's just been too hard. Of course, it's an international festival but we could have maybe done something. I thought about doing something last November. But at that time, by then, I knew that I was probably making this decision [to close M on the Bund and Glam].

And then I thought, "Do I really need to do this in my last couple of months of having to deal with everything anyway?"

So, for me, Lit Fest in 2020 was just not possible. And then by 2021 It was pretty obvious, right?

Which is a shame. Yeah...

M on the Bund 1999

SmSh: You mentioned the community aspect as a focus for you. During the Lit Fest were you seeing a community clash and / or come together? Were you seeing the conversations happen that you wanted in inspire?

MG: For me, I think if you don't leave it and participate in a community like, what's your point? Why are you here? If people are only going to come to you because it's their birthday or something, you know, you're their favorite restaurant and they love whatever they love about it...

...It's just.. what else? What else you doing? Why else are you there?

Having this unique space, it was just this was the sort of engine that was able to fire for all the other things we were able to do — whether they were not-for-profit events or fundraisers for other people or literary festival or music or talks.

I've had a ton of people come out of the woodwork saying, "Oh, I met you at this event, because you did this."

And, you know, so I mean, that's the joy, really. That's the thing that I think was special. I went to a couple of big literary festivals around the world and I just felt like I was back in university sitting in a boring, bloody lecture.

Being 20 people in a room, it's like, "Okay, we're taking two questions. And please walk down to the microphone like this."

So, yes, the spontaneous conversation was always a pleasant surprise — the moments you weren't expecting.

SmSh: What was the red tape like? Flying in all these writers...

MG: Well, the red tape was only one part of it.

But was it really the biggest? No, I think it's the logistics of the whole thing, where you've got people coming from maybe 20 different countries. They're all paranoid about China, right? And none of them, really sort of, couldn't even understand how to fill out this form.

On top of that, the schools and the sponsors, both consumers and partners, the media, who were also partners, and then we had hotels and consulates. And then we had audiences. And then we had ticket sales. I mean, it's, yeah, a full festival of stuff with 10 people doing it in under a year...

Early days...

SmSh: You've hosted in some real household names... Amy Tan, John Ralston Saul, Jan Morris, Shirley Hazzard, Simpson's creator Matt Groening — Man Booker Prize winners John Banville, Kiran Desai, Allan Hollinghurst, Thomas Keneally — this me doing a segue to asking about Gore Vidal.

Basically, I must hear the Gore Vidal story...

MG: Yeah! Well. I told that story the other day to the FCC but I'm happy to tell you again.

Michelle and Gore...

SmSh: I'm happy to hear it. I was at his talk, back in whenever year that was. I brought my copy of Myra Breckinridge for him to sign but I chickened out. I've carried that book around forever.

MG: Oh, really? Well, it's too late now.

SmSh: He must have been either really lovely or really difficult — can only be one or the other. Do you remember he had a manservant with him that looked like a full-on Steven Seagal? What great taste in menservants...

MG: Magnus! Magnus, Magnus. Actually, he was really interesting also, but he was this big, strong guy and his mother was Japanese and his father was German or his father was Japanese — some weird combination. And also he [Vidal] had another very good looking guy — he was the last secretary. He was the secretary, sort of putting together a book on the final years of Gore Vidal. But he was Filipino. Super, pretty, gorgeous boy, beautiful, strange person. The three of them, it was like a skit.

So, anyways, I went to meet Gore Vidal at the airport — and I said to him, I never went to meet anyone at the airport, I never went to meet my own mother at the airport — but, yeah, I got there, and he came out in his wheelchair with Magnus and the other one.

And he looked around and said, like, "Where is everybody? Where are all the people?"

"Well, it's just me."

And this leads to one of my funniest moments. Everyone always wants to talk about the restaurant but we're going to talk about this.

SmSh: I most definitely want to talk about this.

MG: So, he said, "Well, where is everybody?"

And I'm like, "Well... everybody is me. I'm here right now."

And he said, "And you are...who?"

I said, "I'm Michelle."

He looks around like, ‘Oh, okay, dear.'

And he's looking around for the important person, you know? Who is the important person that's supposed to be here.

I said, "I'm from the restaurant and I actually organize... I am the organizer and the convener of a literary festival."

And we were there waiting for a while like that. Waiting for our car. There was so much traffic and it was cold. But we had to wait for another car to accommodate his wheelchair. Five lanes of traffic all backed up.

And he says, "I have just have come back from Cuba, dear..."

I said, "Oh, have you!"

He says, "Yes. And in Cuba. President Castro came to meet me."

"Did he! Oh, that's lovely," I said. "Actually... as it happens, Hu Jintao is at the airport...but he's definitely not here to meet you."

SmSh: [Laughs.] Surely, he appreciated the banter...

MG: Hu Jintao was actually at the airport too, so that's a funny story. Later on, we sat down at the bar at the Weston or wherever, and I asked him what he would like to do while he's here.

And he says [affects a slinky Gore Vidal-esque drawl]: "I'd like to visit Chinese prison."

SmSh: [Laughs.] Think there's only one way he would have been able to do that...

MG: He was here for like 12 days. I mean, I nearly went mad. By the end of it he was alright...

But I want to say one thing about literary festival. For me I enjoyed the talks and also the branches you didn't know about some topic. New discoveries. Things I had no idea about. I also loved all the kids' things we had.

But then I also met people, and I became friends with them and read their works, and got to know writers and I've kept in touch with people.

The Bund and Early Days

Opening Weekend 1999, Shanghai

SmSh: So, what was the Bund like when you first came here?

MG: Empty. Just... empty.

SmSh: You must have had a front row seat for that massive expansion of Pudong?

MG: Well, it's a fallacy that there was nothing there. There was always something but it wan't much. It was always higher over here [on the Puxi side]. There was virtually no new builds anywhere though... well, the Hilton was built in '86.

And I remember coming back from Hong Kong with Bruno, who used to run the restaurant, and saying, "Well it's really easy to find your way around Shanghai because you can always see the Hilton."

You could see for miles. But in '86 to '95 there was an explosion.

By the time 2000 came around there were things there — the Jin Mao Tower and so on. It opened around the same time as the airport in Pudong. There was a lot under plan at that point.

M on the Bund's 5th Anniversary

SmSh: But the Bund as a food and beverage destination was non-existent?

MG: Completely. Well, we were there at the Peace Hotel. But the general consensus — the sort of known opinion — was you had to be in a triangle between the Portman, and the Hilton, and the Garden Hotel. And you could not be more than five minutes outside that triangle. And that was the, you know, the gospel at the time.

And then I remember looking and being on The Bund — you know, we're at the Peace Hotel in '96. And I just thought, ‘no one's gonna come'. There was still the boardwalk, so to speak, and lots of people but they weren't our customers.

But then I remember talking to people who were saying, "Those people who don't think anything is going to happen on the Pudong side just don't get how China works."

And there was a new airport there.

That was key. One of them was a guy who built the stock exchange design. He was an architect. And he actually said, you know, because he worked with the government for the stock exchange and he knew the plans .

And he said that, you know, "The center of Shanghai, will not remain like this for much longer — at least for some people."

SmSh: And that was in anticipating what was to come? I know you were already coming from M on the Fringe in Hong Kong. Is that why you wanted to come here?

MG: Well, I think opening this place was a challenge. I think the reason that I that I did it was, first of all, I love a challenge. And, you know, it seemed to me in '90 — we opened in '89. In Hong Kong, it really seemed to me by the mid ‘90s, that, you know, the future of Hong Kong, and the future of all of it was in China. And if you couldn't really see that, then it's probably best to go. And a lot of people left, of course...

SmSh: During the handover, you mean.

MG: Yeah, during the handover. It was just sort of crazy before the handover. Because it was so much sort of, like, negative talk of what was to come. And also we were all getting so sick of the question, "You live in Hong Kong what's gonna happen? What's gonna happen?"

SmSh: Kind of like, "Oh, what's going to happen in China in 2022? What's going to happen next?"

MG: Everybody wants to know! Oh, I couldn't tell you! I can just say there's going be no M on the Bund!

SmSh: What was it about the Bund area that sort of drew you to it? Cultural history and cache? Architecture?

MG: When we were at the Peace Hotel underneath the tower on the top floor, really underneath the second from the top because that's the floor with a little balcony. So, it was those corner windows with the sun shining on them. That's where we were and we had like six windows. Anyway, when we were there, there were all these horrible bruised curtains.

And I kept saying, "Please, can you take them away and clean them."

They were like, "No, no, they were cleaned five years ago."

So, just before we opened, I cleaned all the windows myself. And just before we opened, I went and pulled all of these curtains down. It was so much trouble. I spent all my time in trouble.

And we're like, "Wow, guys, this view was here the whole time."

Like it reverberates out there.

"THE WHITE PARTY" Shanghai 2006

SmSh: Do you remember coming into No. 5 on the Bund for the first time?

MG: It was the end of '97 and we'd been through the handover. It was around Chinese New Year. I came up just after that. I first started looking at places in '98. The original lobby was really beautiful. I begged them not to change it. When I came I had to walk up the staircase 7 flights because there was no elevator and the space was just a concrete box on top of the roof — you know, it was basically an addition on the roof.

You walked in it was just this enormous space that was just empty — a concrete block with no windows. So, I walked out on this little, you know, this terrace, which was all completely broken and overgrown at your feet.

And it was like...

SmSh: Inspiration strikes?

MG: This is pretty impressive. This is pretty interesting, you know? I was with a friend from Australia.

And she was like, "Oh my God, just sign now."

I said no, "Sally, you don't understand. It's really complicated."

So, anyway, what I did was called a couple of people...

I think it was this real feeling of, like, this is just a place ready to explode. And I've been coming to Shanghai for 15 years. So, I felt all of the changes and I was thought it was the moment. This is what the future is — the future is in China.

SmSh: What was the reception like when you opened up?

MG: Packed. Absolutely packed. People couldn't even open the doors there were so many people waiting to get inside. Nobody made reservations in those days. And also, there were like three magazines, and they had nothing else to write about.

SmSh: [Laughs.]

MG: Back then everything was much more straightforward. It was a much easier environment to sort of spread out a message about things. But I think what was really interesting was nobody recognized reservations, and people would drive like from Hongqiao and not be able to get a table. And then would turn around drive back. Traffic was terrible.

What was that highway? It's since disappeared.

I mean, I've watched highways come and go...

You can't express it. I mean, you yourself have lived here for long enough to experience it. Even in the last 10 years... I mean, every 10 years — the changes! They've just been exponentially astronomical, astronomically exponential. Every single five-year span — radical, radical changes.

So many funny stories of watching them paint the highway, and then watching a garden appear outside the house where I lived, you know. There was a dead block and horrible thing across the road, then they just build a wall and put a garden. You know, you came down the highway and there was a wall and a garden. Garden City. Genius smoke and mirrors.

I mean, it was it was so different.

SmSh: What was it like like putting together the food menu? Sourcing ingredients and components for a Western menu?

MG: It was very interesting. Oh, we did things, like we had to smuggle. I had to carry, like, vanilla beans and coffee crystals and things like that. It wasn't as difficult as people thought. We had suppliers in Hong Kong who would basically send things that we just couldn't get, like coffee crystals.

Thinking about how we couldn't get coffee... look at it today.

But for the first menus, I remember. I remember listening to people for two or three years: "You know, you've got to have pizza, you've got to have this, you've got to have, you know, buffalo wings."

I'm not going to Shanghai to open a goddamn pizza place! [Laughs.]

That didn't work. Somebody else can do it. You know, at the beginning, I sort of tried to listen to all these different things.

And in the end, I thought, ‘No, it just has to be what it is. It has to be an elegant, good restaurant that's still egalitarian. And it has to be affordable enough that people can afford to come here. But it has to be fancy enough, you know. It has to be new enough and has to be something that's really an experience.'

M GLAM opening party...

Glamour Years

SmSh: Fast forwarding a few years, you open Glamour Bar in the floor below you. In the ‘00s it seemed like Glamour Bar really coincided with a certain — I'm trying not to say the word "era"...

MG: Yeah. Right. So we had this space. And we had that space. We'd started doing the Glamour Room and Glamour Bar. We could manage that capacity. Knock down the kitchen, put it back, change the toilets, did all of that. Made all those changes and stayed open the whole time.

And then that was really, you know... we did cabaret, we did poetry, we did chamber music, we started writing, you know, we started with readings.

At the outset I thought, you know, we just needed more nightclubs and things along here [The Bund]. If you remember. And I thought, you know, none of these places are really done very elegantly and done well enough where you've got really good quality of cocktails when you're not worried about fake booze. And so I thought, let's do something. Let's do it. And then the space downstairs came up.

Glamour bar was hip from the beginning. It was a nightmare from the beginning.

SmSh: It was very hip, I thought. The music was never what you would call mainstream. Hip DJs for sure. Well focused. With "forward thinking", niche sort of music, but music that was in step with what was going on in Western clubs at the time...

MG: Yeah, but that was also Ellen [Turner, manager Glamour Bar], who, you know, basically, she drove it. And I love Ellen. And we're still good friends. As long as it's all under control. It's fine. And you do what you think is right.

Because actually, already by that time, I was nearly 50. You know, it's like, I'm not the clientele. You know, yeah, I can go down there. But I'm not going to be the person sitting there every night entertaining.

So, I think, you know, Glamour Bar in its heyday. And actually, it even survived through 2008 and 2009. And the whole Bund was under construction for the Expo. And I think it's still had, it's still actually, you know, had a decent amount of clients and customers and a decent turnover. But when when we had new landlords come in, they tripled the rent. With the rent three times what you're paying, it just doesn't make sense.

So, that was when we decided to sort of consolidate and change.

"THE PINK PARTY" Glamour Bar 2009

Business and Legacies

SmSh: The phrase "end of an era" gets thrown around a lot...

MG: [Laughs.]

SmSh: Is there are a specific era of M, Glam, and Glamour Bar that you would point to and say, ‘this collection of years was really our time'? Was there a high watermark?

MG: I mean, the high watermark would be points where there was also a low watermark because it was, you know, there was so much insecurity and so much going on.

I mean, we managed in our 22 full years of business. And as we go into our 23rd year to have profitable years for 20 of those years. The only two years that haven't been profitable have been the last two, you know. So for me, I mean, we'll get onto that, I'm sure, but, you know, for me the decision to not keep operating was really a financial decision. And it's also that, that, you know, to go forward, and basically to do five more years, which is what the rental contract would have been. I just can't see right in this environment right now.

Because two years ago we did sign a new 7-year contract, and even then I sat my team down I said to all of them, "Right guys, are you sure this is what you want to keep doing? You sure you want to keep doing this? Because I can tell you I just bought a house in France and I'm not going to be hanging around."

And you know, we've been here a long time. My team. Chef and Sam, who has worked with me for years, and Matthew who's running the restaurant — the key the four five key people have all been here for, well, more than 10 years. And some all 23.

At the time they were like, "Of course, boss. Of course."

SmSh: Well, that sounds heartening...

MG: It's always been I've looked at it, you know, as can really we make enough money to make very much money? I'm not sure. But I know we can make enough money to cover all the cost and pay everybody and do everything.

We need to turn over 35 million a year to do that.

And I know we can do that even with the ups and the downs and the quiet times. I know we could do that no problem.

But then COVID hit.

And I thought — and hoped — it would be under control really quickly. Of course, China's under control.

It was the rest of the world that was the problem.

SmSh: So, it's being cut off from the rest of the world thats the issue?

MG: The backbone of The Bund is really the locals with the international people — whether they're tourists, or foreigners, or guests, or family, or, or Chinese families coming back from abroad, or French Chinese people coming back to visit their family, or business people who come six times a year because part of their lives are here.

SmSh: Yeah, people always discuss current expats leaving and not enough people moving in but not these whole other categories of people with different situations that depend on open borders...

MG: You know, I remember talking to people saying, "Where have you been? I haven't seen you in five months."

And they're saying, "Oh, I've just been home in Bangkok."

And it's like, what you don't even live here?

"No, no, no. I live in Bangkok."

So, all that's been so displaced, right? It sort of was this international melting pot. And local melting pot. So, that's what's changed. And I think, I think partly, it's also the there's no neighborhood around here. Yeah, that's a fact. Yeah, no, we tried to do take-away for a while. And I was in Hong Kong when I couldn't even get back here.

And I was like, "Personally, I think it's a real waste of time."

And they were like, "But we have to do something, we have to do something."

I said, "Okay, give it a try. Give it a try."

But of course it was a waste of time. There's nobody around here that is going to order food. And when you order food on take-away, you want something that's close.

Yeah, we need to make 35 million a year to break even. And ship. We're not anywhere near how we're gonna manage the entire thing.

SmSh: How about the restaurants in Beijing and Hong Kong?

MG: We are really lucky that in, in my 33 years of business — Beijing was a challenge. Financially, it was a challenge. But that's also because it was too big. And it was in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong location. So I really can't really blame anybody else about that. At the end of the day, I still think if it was smaller and in the right location it would still be there. — But in all of the years that I've been in business, even with Beijing, we managed to make a profit. Even covering the losses, and we managed to make a profit, and we made losses in Beijing every single year. Hong Kong always made a small profit. It's a small restaurant. Yeah, but it always made a profit.

Shanghai has actually been the, you know, the goose that laid the golden egg. But five more years? In this environment?

It's time to make the right financial decision.

Shanghai Glamour Bar 2006

Looking Forward

SmSh: What will you miss most about running this business?

MG: Sometimes I walk in, and there's sort of some family with grandma and grandpa. And then there's a couple of bratty little kids. And there's like four generations of people. And they're all totally local. And there's chaos happening on the table. I sort of think I just love that. That's sort of lack of pretension. I mean, that's one part of it.

I think it's awesome to have somewhere that that I can control where I have dinner. Yeah, yeah, that's definitely a plus.

For me, I spent 18 months here in Shanghai for the last 18 months. I never spent more than a month in Shanghai. And actually, it's been great. I don't know anywhere else that would rather have been okay, truly. I definitely had no intention of being in Melbourne and have been locked down for 200 days. We sort of have a free life. We can do what we want. So I, honestly, can say, truly, that I can't really imagine anywhere else I would rather have been.

Mahjong Social Club 2021

SmSh: What's next? I hear you're moving to Hong Kong or...?

MG: I mean, basically, don't we all wish we could just go to Hong Kong? Yeah, we all wish that we could actually, we all wish that we could move more freely. But sadly, we can't. For the time being.

I have a friend and she says that "plan" is a four-letter word. I think that's such a funny thing. Plan. There's a four letter word. It's impossible to plan anything.

My plan is to go back down to Hong Kong because I have a home in Hong Kong. And actually, my home base is Hong Kong, and haven't been there for 18 months, I've been living in somebody else's house.

And bragging if I say I have three houses around the world, because that really sounds like bragging to live in any. But that's not true. Because I've just sold a place in Australia, I just decided that it was nothing but a headache.

So, I bought this tiny little house in France. The funniest story about that is that I bought it in the middle of 2019 with my intention of like, "Hey, guys, you're going to run the restaurant, I'll pop in every now and again. Spend a month here. I'll organize it first, though."

But anyway, so all of those plans went to hell in a hand basket. But I bought this house. It's 83-square-meters. So, you know, when I say a boring, modest house, I truly mean yeah, it's tiny. It's super cute. Two years down the line, it's been around being renovated, it's still not finished.

Okay, so that's sort of my side project. So I'd really like to go and get that project done.

But actually, you know, when people say, what are you going to do? And, like, we have got a few ideas. There's a few tricks up that sleeve yet. So I think actually, for me, I don't want to have to work in the same way where I'm the one, you know, fully responsible.

SmSh: Yes, I'm also always looking for that angle.

MG: And I'll miss those China moments every day. And of course, you get them every single day. I appreciate that.

SmSh: I think that's it... unless there's anything else you'd like to discuss? I think you've offered some wonderful insights... really interesting.

MG: Yes, exactly. [Laughs.]


M on the Bund and Glam are open until February 15. Call ahead for reservations.