Exploring Shanghai’s Hidden Gems Through The Eyes Of Four Middle Eastern Women Living There

BY Harper's BAZAAR Arabia / Feb 27 2019 / 14:31 PM

The ultimate travel guide to one of China's most populous cities

Exploring Shanghai’s Hidden Gems Through The Eyes Of Four Middle Eastern Women Living There
Sebastian Boettcher

Driving west along Shanghai’s Yan’an Road, the majestic Cathay Hotel appears over the horizon capped by an emerald copper turret that wouldn’t look out of place in Manhattan. It’s one of several buildings constructed over a century ago in a kaleidoscope of architectural styles, which have become monuments to the grandeur of another era. Yet few today are aware that the Art Deco buildings lining the Bund also shed light on the city’s links to the Middle East, as most were built by prominent Iraqi families who lead the city’s business and social circles at the turn of the last century. Families such as the Hardoons, Ezras and Kadoories first came to Shanghai from Baghdad, by way of Bombay, as far back as the 1800s to build their fortunes in the trade of silk, tea, silver and cotton; eventually moving on to banking and real-estate.

Leading this community was Sir Victor Sassoon, the city’s wealthiest businessman at the time. In 1923, the Cambridge educated Victor arrived in Shanghai and set about transforming its landscape into a Paris of the East. Today his legacy lives on in the real estate he left behind, such as the Cathay Cinema, Hamilton Building, Metropole Hotel and his most famous property the Cathay Hotel (known today as the Fairmont Peace Hotel). He would remain in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation until he left for good in 1941, officially transferring the hotel’s ownership to China’s municipal government in 1952. Today, almost 66 years later, Bazaar explores a new generation of Middle Eastern women contributing to Shanghai’s reputation as the cosmopolitan center of Asia.

Corinne Tehini: Lebanese Designer & Trend Developer at H&M

“I was 22 at the time and got hired by a Canadian apparel company to work with their production team in Guangzhou as a senior designer and product developer. I learnt a tremendous amount while there overseeing a design team of five,” says Beirut-born Corinne Tehini, who moved to Shanghai in 2009 to pursue a masters in fashion business and retail at the China branch of Polimoda, the Florence-based fashion school. “I ended up staying in Shanghai because I met my Italian husband here, and now I consider it our home and where we’re raising our two kids,” says the designer, who today works as a product and trend developer for H&M in Shanghai, where she has observed its fashion scene evolve over the last decade. She points to a number of homegrown multi-brand boutiques and concept stores, which have sprung up in colonial-era villas and storefronts in the former French Concession.

“There’s a new generation of Chinese designers who are creating beautiful modern pieces using artisanal fabrics like crisp linens and hand-embroidered velvets, which can’t be found in the mass-market,” says Corinne, while walking down a tree lined street towards Dong Liang, arguably Shanghai’s most influential fashion emporium, which carries some of her favorite local brands. Among them is Uma Wang, a graduate of Central St. Martins, who is known for her elegantly draped dresses and floor-sweeping coats cut from antique-like textiles in muted tones. “Even though she uses inventive cuts and textured fabrics, you never feel like a fashion victim in her clothes because there is something effortless about them,” says Corinne, while looking at herself in a mirror wearing a floor-length dress by the Chinese designer.

Laura Geagea: Lebanese-Canadian Filmmaker and Producer

Shortly after graduating from University of Montreal in 2008, Laura Geagea moved to China to enroll in a six-month language course at Fudan University in Shanghai and soon fell in love with the city. In 2015, she was hired as an executive producer at The Sweet Shop, a film production company where she oversees its clients in Mainland China, Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. “Before 1949, most Chinese films were made in Shanghai as it was the center of filmmaking in China and the Far East,” says the expat, noting that in addition to the Shanghai Film Festival, the city continues to serve as a backdrop for movies from around the world. “The Hollywood production, She, was filmed here with Scarlet Johansson. So it’s not unusual to come across a film crew setting up to shoot a scene on the street,” says Laura, who prefers to get around the city on her scooter.

On this particular day, she hails a taxi for the hour drive to Chedun Film Park, a sprawling outdoor film studio located on the city’s outskirts. Inside, an entire cityscape has been recreated, modeled on the old Shanghai of the 1920s and ‘30s when it was known as the Paris of the East. “It’s like walking through a time machine, because it’s filled with working tram-cars and a replica of the famous Nanjing Road from that period. It’s also an opportunity to experience what the city looked like before many of its historic Art Deco mansions, cafes, theaters and department stores were torn down to make way for new construction,” she adds, noting that studios like Chedun now serve as a physical record of the older pockets of the city that no longer exist.

Nasim Sehat: Iranian Architect, Artist & Concept Designer

On a rainy Saturday morning, Nasim Sehat has chosen to defy the elements in a colorful smock dress by a local Shanghai designer. When asked to point out some of her favorite buildings in the city, the Tehran-born architect points to the most curious architectural relic one could imagine. “The Shanghai Municipal Council Abbatoir is a stunning backdrop for a photo-shoot. It was built in 1933 and served as the city’s main slaughterhouse, complete with hidden stairways and shadowy corners that wouldn’t look out of place in a Hitchcock film,” says Nasim as she walks towards the building, a Gotham-Deco achievement in concrete, glass and steel.

“The entire building was constructed around a central atrium that lets in natural light. There’s an M.C. Escher quality to the space, with its spider web of interconnectingstaircases, ramps and bridges that were designed to efficiently guide the flow of thousands of workers and millions of cattle,” notes the architect, as she makes her way along one of the 26 air bridges, designed with varying widths to accommodate the different sizes of livestock that passed through the building. Now simply called 1933, this architectural landmark has undergone a renovation after years of abandonment and today serves as a creative hub for homegrown fashion boutiques, restaurants, artist studios, galleries and design startups. “It’s a great place to walk through because you never know if you’re going to come upon a wedding party, a pop-up market or an impromptu social gathering,” notes the Iranian expat, who moved to Shanghai in 2013 shortly after graduating with a Masters in Architecture from the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in Barcelona.

Hanady Awada: Lebanese-American Historian & Food Writer

“Although Shanghai has some amazing restaurants and chefs, don’t be afraid to sample the street food which is a culinary experience in itself. Just look for the vendor with the longest line of locals and you’ll know you’re in for a treat,” says Hanady Awada on a foggy Shanghai morning. It’s 6 a.m. and she’s in search of breakfast as she walks by a bustling market of street vendors, each specializing in a local delicacy. She stops at one stall where an egg is being cracked over a flat wok, and spread with a knife into a thin crepe that’s stuffed with an aromatic paste of herbs and fermented pickles. But on this particular day, Hanady has a craving of a different kind and continues on through the winding cobblestone streets of the former French Concession, ducking into a non-descript alley to reach her destination.

“If there is one local dish that people shouldn’t miss while here it’s the Muslim noodles,” says the Lebanese-American expat who has called Shanghai home for three and half years. Stopping in front of a window overlooking the street, she orders a bowl of fresh-made fluffy noodles swimming in a fragrant broth, while observing a small team of men and women skillfully stretching the dough into delicate stands by hand. “It’s an amazing scene to watch, almost like a choreographed ballet, which you wouldn’t expect to find here,” says Hanady, noting that there are a handful of similar establishments dotted throughout the Concession. “The Shanghaies take their noodles very seriously and I love coming here because the Muslim community makes the most delicious variety, and it’s guaranteed to be clean and fresh,” adds the Lebanese-American, who was tapped by Shanghai Family Magazine to become the publication’s food writer, where she now covers the city’s culinary scene for the expat community.

Photography by Sebastian Boettcher

Read Alex Aubry’s full interview in the October 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia.