A city that suits - at a bargain price

Craig Platt has reservations, but can't resist getting a suit tailor-made at a bargain price.

I had no intention of purchasing a suit. I don't wear suits. I, after all, work in travel journalism – an industry where the typical uniform involves quick-dry pants, hiking boots and fraying, dirty shirts.

But for this price, I couldn't resist.

We had arrived at Shanghai's Lu Jiang Bang (AKA South Bund Fabric Market) for a brief tour with our guide, Spencer. The building is more like a shopping centre than a market, but every store inside houses a tailor.

Having heard horror stories of suits purchased in Vietnam and Indonesia falling apart after a couple of wears, I was wary of any bargains the market might offer.

But Spencer, a former Texan who has called Shanghai home for 15 years, espoused the virtues of the city's tailors.

"They've been doing this for over 100 years, y'all," he said, still carrying a strong southern drawl after all this time. "Every two years I'll come here and get a completely new wardrobe made up."

And the price for a tailor-made, wool-cashmere-blend suit? A little over $US100. I'm sold.

I get measured, choose my fabric and design and hand over a deposit. The suit will be delivered to my hotel the following evening. Simple.

Shanghai's tailors have a somewhat legendary status throughout Asia. As Spencer pointed out, they've been at it for more than a century, ever since Europeans began setting up trading concessions on the banks of mainland China.

While every modern style of suit, shirt or jacket can be made at Lu Jiang Bang, there is still a sense of old-world charm to the process. It's Savile Row at Hoi An prices.

Shanghai is a city that is undergoing a huge resurgence. At the height of communism, the city fell into disrepair – its reputation as a centre of capitalism and Western vice was an embarrassment to the dominant political attitude.

No more. Shanghai is once again a world city, home to 25 million and sparkling with spectacular new buildings, fancy restaurants and a huge middle and upper-class population. The impressive Pudong district, now probably the most recognisable image of the city, didn't exist 15 years ago. Its skyscrapers, including the tallest building in mainland China, have all sprung up at a rapid pace.

And, of course, there was last year's World Expo. Attended by a record-breaking 72 million visitors, the Expo was Shanghai's effort at matching the hype and success of Beijing's Olympics. Despite closing in October last year, visitors can still get a taste of the event, with several of the most striking pavilions set to remain open to the public indefinitely.

But the resurgence of the city has also meant a resurgence of pride in the city's less recent history.

The French quarter's tightly packed brick buildings are no longer run-down homes – they have been restored and now house art studios, galleries, jewellery and designer homewares. The former French barracks has become a beautifully landscaped park, where locals engage in Tai Chi or play chequers.

Elsewhere, the Bund, the famous strip that follows the Huangpu River, has also been undergoing renovation. Once decrepit Gothic, Baroque and Art Deco buildings now house stores for some of the world's most expensive luxury brands – it's window shopping only for the likes of me. The renovation work is still continuing, the workers looking out across the river to new Shanghai and the modern skyscrapers of the Pudong district opposite.

Another luxury brand new to town is Langham Hotels, who recently took over a classic art deco building in the centre of town. The Langham Yangtze Boutique Shanghai is different to many of the other hotels in town. It aligns itself with the bygone era of the Bund rather than the modern, giant skyscrapers of the Pudong district (which is where the city's two Hyatts are located, inside two of the tallest skyscrapers).

Built in 1934, the building maintains its old-world charm, with striking art deco features both inside and out. The interior was extensively renovated before its reopening in May 2009, with the number of rooms reduced from 200 to 96, giving it a truly boutique feel. Ironically for a building that's now dwarfed by the gleaming skyscrapers surrounding it, the nine-storey Yangtze Boutique was once touted as 'the third largest hotel in the Far East'.

Famed Chinese pop Yao Lee was a resident of the hotel in the '40s, and her memory is honoured nightly with a resident singer performing Yao's hit Rose Rose I Love You.

But while Shanghai's old buildings are now dominated by luxury goods and accommodations, art galleries and antiques, there are still places you can find a more traditional taste of China.

The Dongtai Lu antiques and curio market offers all sorts of trash and treasure (much of it feature the visage of Mao Zedong). Posters and old advertisements from the communist era onward make for cute kitsch, but they're not the genuine articles. Spencer explains the posters, clocks, statuettes and toys have been made recently, then deliberately scuffed and damaged to give the appearance of age.

Tourists are likely to get ripped off here unless you're prepared to drive a hard bargain (though, at the end of the day, you may find yourself pointlessly squabbling over just a dollar or two).

I pick up a large Mao alarm clock, an ancient-looking map of 19th-century Shanghai (which the seller initially tries to pass off as genuine – I opt for another stall where the same item is a fraction of the price) and a cute poster of a Chinese girl astride a bicycle, which I later realise is a cigarette advertisement.

Those were my souvenirs, but what about my big purchase, the suit?

Several months on from my visit and I've had occasion to wear it several times. So far it is holding up well. And with its elegant finishing touches (the tailor embroided my initials on the inside jacket pocket) and the tailored fit, it might just be the best suit I've ever owned. And the cheapest.

The writer travelled as a guest of Langham Hotels.


Getting there

Air China flies direct to Shanghai from Sydney and Melbourne. Qantas flies Sydney to Shanghai direct. Singapore Airlines flies to Shanghai via Singapore, Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong, Malaysia Airlines via Kuala Lumpur.

Staying there

The five-star Langham Yangtze Boutique Shanghai has rooms starting from around 1000 yuan ($A157) per night for two adults. 740 Hankou Road (Near Yunnan Road), Shanghai 200001. Phone (+86) 21 6080 0800


Touring there

Spencer M. Doddington's Luxury Concierge China service runs private guiding services including half-day, full-day or tailor-made itineraries. See http://luxuryconciergechina.com for details.

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