She wanted for all contributing artists to connect with the cafe through a creative channel. I had initially contemplated a series of street stories around SPRMRKT’s neighborhood including McCallum Street and the adjacent Telok Ayer Street. It may be the heart of Singapore’s Central Business District, but its history is far more significant and a reflection of the strong immigrant roots of my young country. Singapore’s founder Sir Stamford Raffles had designated the area as a Chinese district in 1820s which served also as a docking bay for the boats of early immigrants. It was home to many existing Chinese clans and associations, the most prominent being the Hokkien Huay Kuan (Association) which is opposite the Thian Hock Keng Temple.
Alas, time was scarce and I had to return to work in Shanghai. Thus, Sue-shan and I came up with an idea of featuring a selection of Shanghai’s more popular but creative cafes, ones that made me think of SPRMRKT as a concept retail space.
For two weekends, I dragged friends from one cafe to another around the former French Concession area and along the Bund. The entire project was taken, processed and scribbled on an Iphone, and I thought it embodied perfectly the casual and instant culture that cafes bring. Back in Singapore, Sue-shan printed up the photos and set up small installations on the shelf of SPRMRKT, pairing each photo with everyday cafe items, enhancing our collaboartion.
For those in Shanghai, I thought I’d share with you some of the cafes, what do you think?
Less of a museum but an innovative art gallery that is located in an imposing 1930s Art Deco building at the north end of Shanghai’s Bund, which formerly housed the historic Royal Asiatic Society. RAM presents innovative works from some of China’s biggest contemporary artists including Cai Guo Ciang, whose “Peasant Da Vincis” installation served as a wonderful contrast to Shanghai’s “coming out” party as host of the World Expo in 2010.
On the top floor of RAM sits the café. The interior is a rectangle room that peers into a hollowed space where the installation can be viewed. Outside, the terrace space is generous and looks out to the Bund and the surrounding beautiful heritage European architecture.
Unfortunately, RAM’s café’s offering is disappointing, with coffee and tea served in disposable paper cups and uninspiring peanuts and biscuits. It’s a shame curators don’t pay as much attention to the retail space as they do to the wonderful artwork. Calling SPRMRKT’s owners to turn things around! The café could certainly do with a spruced up menu, good service and a creative retail gallery to really liven up RAM.
Momi Café (by the Bund) on Fuzhou Lu
(Update: The cafe by the Bund has closed. You can visit the larger and newer location by Xintiandi. Details here.)
Part of a modest chain, Momi Café has two outlets in Shanghai but also Suzhou, Xitang and Wuxi. Momi prides itself in its handmade milk tea but also a wide selection of coffees from all over the world. The café is also a bookstore specializing in travel, art and literature. But what makes it so popular with young Chinese is the giant collection of notecards from local designers ranging from the cute to the whimsical. Patrons are encouraged to pen a postcard to send to friends and families, but also to oneself through the “Mailbox to the Future” where shopkeepers will post the notes at a designated date.
The Momi Café on Fuzhou Road, intersecting the Bund, is not as fancy as its other outlets, a little cramped with tables and chairs facing a wall of notecards and books. Nevertheless, the spirit of Momi Café as a catch all for youth, creativity and exploration is something that reminds me of SPRMRKT.
The Waterhouse at South Bund in Cool Docks
The Waterhouse is a boutique hotel owned by a Singaporean lawyer-turned-hotelier, Lok Lik Peng, who turned the old Shanghai dockyard warehouse into a deconstructed and funky space. Floors are concrete, walls are stark white but punctuated by exposed brick, and rusting metal parts. The design team prides itself in using recycled materials to give it a stylish yet modern feel. If I had to distill it into a few words, I’d say “industrial shabby chic”. In many ways, I felt SPRMKRT’s decor has echoes of Waterhouse’s design aspirations.
I enjoy Sunday lunches at Table No. 1, apparently Shanghai’s first gastro bar that is headed by Jason Atherton who has also set up shop in Singapore. But the best part of an afternoon at the Waterhouse is a coffee by the lobby bar (no name). And not just any coffee, Kyoto slow drip coffee that is filtered through a giant chemistry apparatus that removes the bite and acidity of regular coffee. If I feel decadent, I’d have a refreshing cocktail concocted from the colorful and ample bar. Tourists do not visit south of the Bund in droves, which is why space is such a luxury at the Waterhouse.
Ginger by the Park on Xinguo Lu
A two storey café nestled behind a small park in the French Concession on Xingguo Road where you can see older gents playing chess or enjoying the shade with their caged birds. The décor is cozy with warm hues, and filled with Southeast Asian-inspired artifacts. Food is fresh and the cuisine carries influences from across Southeast Asia, Japan and the Mediterranean. Oh yes, the owner and manager are Malaysian and Singaporean who lead the way with friendly and efficient service, a clean environment and dedication to quality fare. It’s not easy to get three for three in Shanghai, which is what sets Ginger apart. Does it remind you of a certain café in Singapore?
The Cottage Café on Taojiang Lu
Nestled along a leafy Taojiang Road in a small German-styled brick house that was built in 1927, the Cottage Café is a vintage paradise perfect for young Chinese and tourists alike.
Opened by Mike Liu from Wuhan, or “Old Mike” as he is common known, the café’s shelves are lined with toys, knick-knacks, posters and photos, many of which he collected in his travels. Vintage maps, old photographs and even a poster of Chairman Mao hang on the walls, reminding you that yes, you’re still in China. The walls and shelves are a retail gallery in itself because almost everything is for sale. The second floor has a portioned off balcony that overlooks a small garden. Old restored furniture, a broken down piano, guitar and radio are just some items jammed into corners of the café.
The Cottage Café’s exterior is hugely popular with young couples taking wedding photographs, and many like to pose on the rustic wooden bench outside the parlour bay window.
Song Fang Maison de Thé on Yongjia Lu
Song Fang is a tea saloon specializing in Chinese and French teas and was opened in 2007 by a Parisian, Florence Samson. Located in the French Concession, the shop takes up three floors. The first is a retail shop filled with Song Fang’s proletariat-blue tea canisters while guests can lounge with tea and cakes on the second and third floors.
The layout is simple and elegant; wicker chairs and sofas are upholstered in bright colors reminiscent of rustic peasant clothing. East and west blends carefully at every turn; one can enjoy softly piped music from Edith Piaf while purveying a large collection of antique Chinese biscuit tins and peasant art.
The tea ware varies: Chinese tea from China’s famous tea-growing provinces including Fujian and Yunnan is set up in a traditional tray with small claypots and individual cups. While French-origin tea grown around China, India and Sri Lanka, is served in a traditional tea pot and cup, to better enjoy the wafting aromas of vanilla and lavender.