Shanghai center
In Shanghai, in Search of Authenticity
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SHANGHAI — Many Americans who move here end up in high-rise buildings surrounded by other expatriates. But Nichol Bradford wanted a more authentic experience. “I wasn’t moving halfway around the world, leaving everything I knew and everyone I loved, to play it safe,” said Ms. Bradford, 38, a video game executive who relocated from Los Angeles in 2008. “I certainly wasn’t going to live in a building that could have been in any other city.”
When she arrived in Shanghai, Ms. Bradford consulted a number of real estate agents, a necessity in a city where no one broker has access to every listing. Instead of conducting an Internet search from thousands of miles away, she said, she talked to “the little realtors on the corners” in the neighborhoods she liked. She settled on the area of Huaihai Lu, a popular shopping street in the city’s former French Concession, where buildings have retained their prewar charm.
“I’ve always liked old buildings,” she said. “I wanted to be in a real neighborhood, with Chinese people.”
After visiting over a dozen apartments, she saw a 900-square-foot one-bedroom in a six-story Art Nouveau Style building. “I swooned,” she said. She rented the apartment for 13,400 renminbi, about $2,000 a month at $0.15 to the renminbi.
Ms. Bradford’s building, called the Young apartments, was designed in 1933. Unlike many older Shanghai apartments, her large one-bedroom, on the top floor with an open kitchen, dining and living area, had not been divided into smaller rooms.
In fact, the apartment is almost loftlike, with high ceilings, hardwood floors, and leaded-glass windows that face east, giving the apartment gorgeous morning light. “I guess I’m a light hound,” said Ms. Bradford, who spends her workdays in an office in the densely packed Pudong district, but works at home on writing projects.
The apartment came furnished, common for Shanghai, but the furniture was mostly dark wood and rattan. “It made the place look smaller than it is,” she said. So she asked the landlord to remove it.
Her original plan was to find replacement furniture herself. But when she went out to buy the first item, a mattress, she said, it took eight hours of searching, “and then I still had to call someone to have them negotiate on the phone” in Chinese.
A Web site called Creative Hunt, an online directory of creative professionals in China, led her to Peter Lam, the owner of Hot Dog Decor, an interior design company in Shanghai, who helped her transform the space into a mix of Hollywood retro, Asian deco and haute bohemian. Mr. Lam, a former advertising executive, calls the style “fem glam.”
For the next six months, the two spent weekends shopping. Mr. Lam, who was born in Malaysia and educated in Wales, speaks perfect English. But on their buying trips, Ms. Bradford said, “Peter did my negotiating in Mandarin, which saved me a great deal of money.”
One problem with the apartment was a lack of closet space, typical for prewar buildings in China. Mr. Lam solved the problem by designing a silver-painted armoire and a bed with giant drawers beneath it. People have walked in and said, ‘Is that where all the magic happens?’ ” said Ms. Bradford, referring to the bed. “I say, ‘Well, no. But it’s where I store a lot of stuff.’ ”
Like the bedroom furniture, nearly every piece in the living room was custom-built to Mr. Lam’s specifications. (The most expensive item, the mirrored dining table, cost the equivalent of $1,500, Ms. Bradford said, adding, “It would have been two or three times that that in the U.S.”) The Lucite chairs around the dining table are among the few store-bought items.
Over all, Ms. Bradford said, she spent about $15,000 to furnish the apartment.
“That includes everything — silk drapes, linens, plates,” she said. It also includes the bedroom’s feather chandelier, known as Bloom, by the Chinese designer Junjie Zhan. “You know sometimes you see something, and you say to yourself, ‘I’ve got to have that,’ Ms. Bradford said.
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