Photographs by Algirdas Bakas
A cocktail pioneer shows us a French Concession of tall trees, quiet streets, and classic drinks.
The first impression you have of the French Concession is that it’s quieter and greener than other parts of Shanghai. There are a lot of shops and restaurants, but trees, not sky- scrapers, cover up the sky in some places.
This neighborhood was originally a French settlement. A government policy limited Chinese-style houses and strongly encouraged European architecture. Eventually, the neighborhood started to be called the Paris of the East. There is definitely a Western elegance to the area. I love all of the historic buildings. Many have interesting stories behind them. The Mansion Hotel, for example, was designed by a French architect in the 1930s and was once a gangster’s headquarters and a major center for opium trafficking.
I have worked and consulted at bars all over Shanghai and never thought I’d see the French Concession become a cocktail destination. I spent the past few years at Constellation, which pioneered the area’s chic bar scene. When Constellation opened 13 years ago, there were very few bars in Shanghai—and none in the French Concession—where you could order a serious drink.
At first, the bar felt like a secret among in-the-know cocktail geeks. The neighborhood has a lot of small streets that feel tucked away, and Constellation is easy to miss. My teacher, Kin-San, who owns Constellation, has been a trailblazer of mixology in China. During a visit to Tokyo, he was amazed at how the Japanese concentrated on perfecting one single cocktail. So Constellation has always been very technique driven. I mastered hand-carving ice to generate different textures in a drink, which earned me the nickname “Ice Ninja.”
Today, Constellation is popular with locals, expats, and visitors. Our secret got out. The bar has one of China’s largest whiskey selections and a repertoire of more than 250 classic cocktails. Kin-San has now opened three more outposts of Constellation around the city. But many other good bars have opened in the French Concession over the last few years, so you can do a bar crawl and taste classic cocktails, modern cocktails, and molecular cocktails. I’m around cocktails so much that sometimes I just go to Boxing Cat Brewery and try one of the craft beers they serve on tap.
I like to say the French Concession is where Shanghai culture mixes with the rest of the world. You feel modern culture very strongly, but it’s mixed in with historic beauty. Most visitors come to Shanghai and go to the Bund for the high-end boutiques and fancy restaurants. I think the French Concession feels more authentic. My wife and I often come for dinner and go to places like Le Vin, a small Italian spot. I also like to sit in Xiangyang Park and watch couples dancing or, in the morning, people coming to exercise. Real life happens in this neighborhood.
See Tree Mao’s favorite spots here.
This appeared in the January/February 2015 issue.