Shanghai is home to countess tearooms where exquisite teas have been expertly steeped in the Eastern tradition for hundreds of years. But in the historic heart of the city, English style afternoon teas are all the rage in the high-end hotels that line The Bund. In 2018, I photographed afternoon tea at the Art Deco Fairmont Peace Hotel for TeaTime magazine. A year later, I was back to experience the tea service a few blocks away at The Waldorf Astoria.
The embankment, or bund, alongside the Huangpu River is where, a century ago, trading ships from around the world docked to load tea and other goods bound for such ports as New York, London, or Buenos Aires. This was the portal into China for many Westerners. To accommodate the boom in trade, banks built impressive headquarters and fine hotels sprang up along the riverside.
Many of those handsome colonial buildings still line Zhongshan East Road, the Wall Street of Shanghai. Even a copy of lower Manhattan’s iconic stock market bull can be found pawing the pavement here.
On the opposite side of the Huangpu River, an incredible building boom has erupted over the past two decades as skyscrapers, office buildings, and shopping malls cluster around the new World Financial Center. Pudong, a former marshland, is now home to a skyline as recognizable – and illuminated – as lower Manhattan. This is the new face of China.
On my most recent trip, I stayed at the 88-story Grand Hyatt which was dwarfed by two giant commercial buildings that reached even higher into the clouds.
I was in town for only two nights and had the perfect vantage point from my hotel window to watch as platoons of uniformed workers prepared for the New Year’s Eve celebration. Every sidewalk was pressure washed and barriers were erected to direct the millions of revelers who would gather here in a few days. Pudong hosts the Chinese equivalent of a “Times Square ball drop” – only larger – and including flocks of choreographed lighted drones that dance across the river skyline.
While the city was busily shopping to the tunes of carols still playing in the stores now five days after Christmas, I retreated to the sedate setting of the historic Waldorf Astoria Hotel where I could sip tea and watch both the river and an unending stream of tourists flow past my window.
Built in 1911, the former Shanghai Club is one of the few remaining heritage structures in Shanghai. This neo-classical architectural gem has been painstakingly restored to house the Waldorf Astoria, one of the great hotels of China.
A new edition on the back serves as the main entrance to the hotel when you arrive by taxi, but the original front portion is home to one of the grandest settings for afternoon tea to be found in this area of Asia. In a property of this size, I needed a staff member to escort me through the hotel to my table at the grand Salon de Ville.
I was always a fan of the original Waldorf Astoria in New York City. I photographed the tea service there when writing The Great Tea Rooms of America. Sadly, that hotel, now owned by a Chinese conglomerate, is closed for renovations.
This Shanghai edition is even more grand than its New York namesake, with beautiful appointments and polished service by staff – often in tails – who accommodate every guest’s wishes.
I arrived for the first Sunday seating at 1:30 and leisurely people-watched as other guests filled the room over the afternoon. The tea menu included all the usual selections. I decided to keep it local by ordering a Keemun from neighboring Anhui Province.
Upon arrival of my silver teapot, the server immediately filled my cup with a too pale brew. The tea leaves had only been in water a minute or so. I halted the waiter in mid-pour and poured the weak tea back into the pot as he left.
I was reminded of a similar incident at Claridge’s in 2014 when Jane Pettigrew and I encountered a weak pour of Darjeeling. In order to protect Claridge’s reputation, we had a little instructional chat with the waiter – who was soon replaced by the head server when the manager looked over and recognized Jane. The rest of our three hour teatime was stellar and included free champagne and gift sets of Claridge’s tea mugs. It’s good to have afternoon tea with the author of The World of Tea atlas!
My enjoyment of the tea tray began with a quartet of sandwiches and savories. The layered cucumber sandwich was topped with perfectly sliced cucumbers while the smoked salmon round was just the right size for true finger food. A delicious miniature shrimp roll and petite quiche completed the course.
Now, onto the scones with strawberry jam and cream!
Two scones and three helpings of strawberry jam later, I was ready to tuck into the desserts. The centerpiece was a stacked arrangement of orange balls topped with a chocolate sign that read FRAGILE. I decided to put that away until the end and went immediately to a tiered chocolate-mocha sponge. I then patiently made my way through the raspberry tart, a marzipan square, and a fragrant pumpkin mango sponge.
The Waldorf Astoria pastry chefs are masters at creating perfectly-proportioned morsels that enchant the soul without overwhelming the tummy – an idea I’ve taught my tea students for years. No one item should ever overwhelm the experience, which is why I waited to attack the largest dessert on the tray.
I disassembled the orange puff folly and found a citrus pudding in the middle. Let’s just say this whimsical dessert was mostly meant to delight the eye.
I left the Waldorf Astoria tea table with a sweet memory of an afternoon well-spent in one of the world’s most fascinating cities. Like London, there will be more delights to nibble during future visits. But, on this last Sunday afternoon of 2019, I decided to do as people here have been doing for over a century. I would walk away the calories with another leisurely stroll along the Bund.
Photos by Bruce Richardson.
More from The Tea Maestro about China…
Read Bruce Richardson’s photo-essay Exploring the Tea Culture of Shanghai and Hangzhou in the July/August 2019 edition of TeaTime magazine.