I have worked at the Peninsula Hotel Chicago for three and half years now, and since my start there I have wanted to participate in their Cross Exposure Program. Every year, they send a group of employees to our Shanghai property for two weeks to learn what they can in their respective departments. After a couple attempts, this year was finally my year. Our group of 8 left the US on February 7 and embarked on a fourteen hour flight from Chicago O’Hare to Shanghai Pu Dong. Two ZzzQuils, a glass of nondescript red wine, and countless naps later, we arrived. A crew from the hotel was there to greet us as we dragged our tired selves out of the customs area. They bunched us together, threw a banner in front of us and took our picture first thing. Needless to say, it was not our cutest picture of the trip. It was early evening when we arrived, and after they hustled us into the van that would take us to the hotel, they passed around sliced fruit and water. We played getting to know you games with the HR team and had a quick Mandarin lesson as we made our way to our home for the next two weeks. We were greeted by a slew of Peninsula Shanghai employees when we arrived, and were whisked up to one of the hotel suites for a tour and given our room keys. We all decided to eat in the Lobby Restaurant as a group for dinner and parted ways to get ready in our separate rooms. Paula, a lovely server from our Shanghai Terrace restaurant back in Chicago, was to be my roommate, and it was a match made in shared living space heaven. Our gorgeous room on the seventh floor overlooked the front drive and the 100+ red lanterns that hung above it to celebrate the upcoming Chinese New Year. Once we had both showered and unpacked a little, we made our way down to the Lobby and sat down to enjoy a beautiful dinner set to the sounds of a live jazz band playing in the back of the restaurant. The prices on the menu brought by the dapper wait staff caused quite the commotion until we remembered to make the conversion from Chinese RMB to US dollars (6RMB = $1, roughly). We marveled at the high ceilings and the fabulous floral arrangements in the restaurant as we ate our meals. I ordered the Spicy Laksa Noodles, and it, like the décor around me, did not disappoint. The spicy broth was filled with vermicelli, clams, fried tofu balls, fish cakes and prawns, with the heads on of course. I refused to use the fork I was given, opting for the chopsticks instead; because, when in Shanghai…right? This resulted in a very slow dinner for me, but every bite was worth the struggle to get it into my mouth. After we had all enjoyed our meals, we made our way up to Claudia and Lisa’s room to celebrate Lisa’s birthday. The wonderful hotel staff had sent up a pink birthday cake with strawberry filling, complete with candles. We sang “Happy Birthday” and gobbled up our separate pieces and parted ways to put our jet-lagged selves to bed. Paula and I both passed out quickly, only to wake up again at 3:00 am with no hopes of falling back to sleep. Paula and I had a late night snack, then each pretended to sleep for the next few hours until it was late enough to get up and get ready for our first full day at the Peninsula Shanghai.
- Our first day began with breakfast in the employee cafeteria, Jiang Pan, with the HR team. The breakfast was a noodle soup, steamed Bao, eggs, and coffee. After we ate, we were brought up to the morning meeting with the heads of all of the departments, including the Hotel Manager and the General Manager. The report between them all was light and entertaining while still maintaining a business-like demeanor, which was quite refreshing compared to our meetings back home. Our group was introduced and we were welcomed warmly. After the meeting, we followed Charmaine through the maze-like hallways and staircases to the uniform room, where we received our chef coats for our Dim Sum class. The Yi Long Court (the Shanghainese restaurant on property) kitchen was immaculate. The chefs talked us through what we were making, which was two kinds of steamed shrimp dumplings. He showed us how to make them, and we clumsily tried to copy his movements. Needless to say, ours did not look as pretty. We each made our own basket full and the chef steamed them for us while we sat down at the Chef’s Table in the back of the kitchen. There, we enjoyed our homemade dumplings and listened to the itinerary for the rest of the day. We changed back into our normal clothes, and received a full tour of the hotel, the Peninsula residences (which were beautiful and cost more than my life), and the country club property next door that the Peninsula manages. The highlights include the magnificent view from the roof of the skyline, touring the huge Peninsula Suite, and Salon De Ning. Salon De Ning is a Speakeasy style lounge in the basement level of the hotel. It is guarded by King Kong and requires a password for entry. Inside, there are four themed private dining rooms and unique décor that make it a beautiful place to have a cocktail. We had lunch in one of the private dining rooms in Yi Long Court. It was a multi-course affair, including julienne veggie salad with raw salmon (a New Year’s specialty), dim sum combination plate, sweet and sour soup, pan-fried bass, sautéed greens, beef fried rice, and mango pudding. It was so good and SO FILLING. After lunch, we changed into our street clothes and went out into the city for a “Cultural Experience”. It was kept a secret until we arrived at a tea house in the French Concession area. There we had paper cutting and Chinese Opera mask painting classes with the masters. The mask painting master had an adorable habit of dipping his paint brush into different people’s tea glasses instead of the designated water. It made the class much more entertaining because he never seemed to notice what he was doing. Most of us took the subway to Tianzifang after the class to enjoy the hip market there. It is a labyrinth of shops, food vendors and bars that was amazing to explore. We took a cab back to the hotel, which was very hard to do as the cabs do not like to stop for foreigners after a certain time of night. We stopped at the Bund (basically a river walk, with a marvelous view of the Pu Dong skyline) to do some sightseeing. The view during the daytime is beautiful, but at night it is breath-taking. We ended our first day at a bar across the street from the hotel, and then crashed into our separate beds.
- The next day, Tuesday, was our first day in our separate departments. I met everyone in the Guest Relations department and at the Front Desk during the daily morning briefings. I shadowed Michael, my Shanghai counterpart, for most of the day. Towards the end of the day, my colleagues gave some great advice for where to go and what to eat while we were in town, along with enough maps to wallpaper my hotel room. They let me out a little early so I was able to meet up with the rest of the gang to go out and explore. We decided to walk along Nanjing Road (also known has the Pedestrian Walkway), which would be the equivalent to our Michigan Avenue, but much grander. It was lined in neon lights and storefronts, most of which we have in the states. We wandered around and tried to find a place to eat while fighting through the crowds. We wound up at a restaurant on a random corner, where no one spoke English and the chili sauce was served in teapots. We ordered noodle soups and dumplings and Suntory (a Japanese Beer). We took our time eating, savoring the new cuisine and discussing our separate days. It seemed most of us were doing a lot of observing, but liked what we saw. We meandered back to the hotel, enjoying the sights and the people watching. A few of us decided to get another drink, and asked a few of the hotel staff for suggestions. They pointed us south along the Bund to a bar called Unico. The buildings along the Bund are very unique from the rest in the city, stemming more from European architecture than Asian; it was a beautiful, yet chilly, walk. The bar was on the second floor and live music poured through the door to welcome us. It was Latin night, which meant Salsa dancing and mojitos (muy delicioso). We danced and drank and enjoyed the crowd for a while, before we headed back home. I fell asleep as soon as I tucked myself in.
- Paula and I decided to take advantage of our complimentary room service meal and ordered breakfast the next morning. We sat in our robes and ate like queens before we had to get ready for work. During this shift, I was able to view the suites in the hotel which left me starry-eyed and dreaming of bigger, better living arrangements. We also spent a lot of the day working on amenities for the guests, which included monogrammed pillowcases and shoe trees. I had lunch with Paula and Lucia, one of the Guest Relations Coordinators, in the employee cafeteria, and the food was pretty delicious. The day moved forward with more tours and dinner suggestions from the staff. I ran up to my room to get ready as soon as I was able, and met up with the rest of the group to go to an area called Xintiandi for dinner. This was the first time we navigated our way on the subway by ourselves, and we were surprisingly successful! The area is very new and reminded me of Southern California, with its twinkly lights and dining al fresco. We were ordered to try a dumpling restaurant called Din Tai Fung, which was located upstairs in a mall, as most great restaurants in Shanghai are. Technically, it was a Taiwanese restaurant, but they served Shanghainese-style cuisine. Most of us ordered a Tsing Tao to start with, as became our tradition for the duration of the trip. We also ordered many different dishes to try, mostly consisting of a variety of dumplings. The food was amazing; my personal favorite was the pork & crab XiaoLongBao (soup dumpling). After we collectively gobbled ever last bit down we needed to sit still for a while to calm our full stomachs. We paid our check, then wandered along the cobblestone paths that went through the beautiful neighborhood. We popped in and out of stores, then decided to sit outside and have a cocktail. The bar was called Kabb, which is where I had my first Singapore Sling and enjoyed it very much. After a fruitless search for taxis, we hopped back onto the subway towards the hotel. Walking back to the hotel that evening and taking in the city at night made me feel so incredibly grateful to be there.
- The next day I started a little earlier at work, in order to leave early to go on a Shanghai city tour that the concierge set up for us. We had a small lunch break between our mini work shift and our tour, so I and my two front desk teammates went to a dumpling shop close to the hotel to eat. One of the wonderful concierge team called ahead and ordered for us, so we got all the most delicious items off the menu. It was a short walk to Yang’s Dumplings, and there was a line out the door, so we knew it was good. We had to fight to get a table, but it was completely worth it. The pan-fried soup dumplings were so, so good. I have never heard my normally mild-mannered colleague be so forceful as to ask for the last one of the plate we shared. It was the first words that were spoken since we began eating. We also had the mung bean noodle and curry beef soup, garnished with cilantro; I’m salivating just thinking of it. We were in heaven, and we went back a few times after that to relive the experience. We made our way back to the hotel food drunk and in respectful silence to meet our tour guide for the day (and the next day), Grace. We took a private van first to Yu Garden, which is a very well-known tourist destination in Shanghai. The garden is surrounded by a promenade of vendors selling all kinds of souvenirs. Grace briskly led us to the zigzag bridge that brings visitors to the entry of the garden.
It hangs above a pond filled with ducks, turtles and coy fish. The bridge is zigzag shaped to better keep out spirits who would be confused by the twists and turns. This is also the reason the doorways are raised up, to keep out the said to be knee-less and sinister spirits. All gardens in China must have four elements: plants, rocks, water and buildings, per the rules of Feng Shui. It would not be an understatement to say that the Chinese are superstitious. The buildings within the garden were built in the traditional style (as were the buildings in the surrounding promenade), and were preserved very well. Grace led us through the garden and described the importance of each area. Even during this time of year, with no blooms, the grounds were gorgeous. There were many ponds throughout, laced with white and gold coy fish and sparkling underneath small manmade bridges. Grace was patient with us as we took far too many pictures, and soon led us to a teahouse within the garden. There, we had a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. After the tea, we piled back into the van and were driven to the Confucius Temple, which is a popular spot for students to pray for wisdom. And to volunteer it turns out, as our tour guide there was a college student. She referred to Confucius as a “God of Culture”. The temple within the grounds was small, and lined with stone walls etched with his teachings. The trees surrounding the temple were covered in small, yellow paper squares tied with red ribbon, which were explained to us as people’s wishes. You had to donate to make a wish, but of course we did it. I won’t give away my wish, but I can tell you that was a wish for wisdom, as is customary in this temple. The temple grounds contained original buildings, though most had to be rebuilt and replicated after the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s.
Our next stop of the tour was Xintiandi, which of course we had already seen, so Grace rushed through that part. We ended at the Bund, right by the hotel, where she explained about the buildings in the skyline and the Monument to the People’s Heroes. When we returned to the hotel, we reconvened with the group and decided to go back to Yu Garden for dinner. As great as it was during the day, it was twice as pretty at night. All of the buildings were lined in lights, and the decorations for Chinese New Year made it very festive. It was almost reminiscent of a suburban neighborhood during Christmastime, only much more beautiful. We wandered around and had soup dumplings so big that they plopped a straw in the middle to slurp out the insides. We went back to the hotel neighborhood to meet up with the staff of Yi Long Court for their holiday party, and were directed to a restaurant off of Nanjing Road called, Memory. As soon as we sat at our table, food and drinks came at us in a constant stream. There was no respite from the plates of chicken feet, whole prawns, stinky tofu, jellyfish, frog, dumplings, spring rolls…and so many other things. And of course there was beer and wine and baijiu, a Chinese liquor that looks and tastes like lighter fluid. We enjoyed the food and the company and finally meandered back home, half drunk and sleepy but with full and happy bellies.
- The next day, slightly hungover, I worked another half day to enjoy a second city tour in the afternoon. Our destination was Zhujiajiao, an old water town on the fringe of Shanghai. This time there was an additional member of our group that was able to come along, as well as a hotel guest, a New Zealander named Chanel. It took us almost an hour to get to the water town, but once we were there it was straight to business. Grace got our entry tickets and we headed straight into one of the gardens in the area. This garden had less ponds and many more rock formations, including a very large, nature-made rock tunnel. There was a beautiful gazebo in the center, where they still performed plays every Saturday. There was a small shop within the garden that sold overpriced, hand-stitched art work and small trinkets. Standing in the doorway to this shop was a little girl. Lisa and I tried to greet her with our broken Chinese (“NEE HOW!”) and she just stared us down. After our second attempt, she angrily screamed at us and stomped inside. Then, out she came with a hammer and nails and various other tools and plunked down to start hammering nails into the outside of the shop. Cute kid. From there, we made our way out of the garden and into a gondola on the river. The gondola was propelled by a man and a wooden oar on the back. We cruised down the river and gawked at the beautiful scenery. It was a slightly warm but hazy day, and the river was still as we glided towards the other side of town. Once there, we were given some “free time” to take pictures and shop through the market. There wasn’t anything unique in this market, all trinkets and souvenirs that we’d seen before, but we still enjoyed browsing all the same. We met Grace at our planned meeting spot and walked to the van. From there we drove to a silk museum, and most of us fell asleep on the way. We walked up to the museum in a sleepy daze, and I tried not to yawn through the presentation on how silkworms do their magic. It was very interesting, but being a tourist is hard work. After the first part of their teaching was through, the women who worked at the museum opened up a door behind them to reveal a warehouse of silk bedding. They showed us how they layer the spun silk into said bedding and then allowed us to look around. After part of our group made some purchases, they opened another door to a silk clothing store, where I found a very cute little dress for my niece. It was a pretty exhausting day of tourism, so when we returned to the hotel, I plunked into the tub and watched “Pretty Woman”. After I pampered myself, I met up with the group to go out to dinner. We walked to a restaurant called Yuxin Chuan Cai, which was recommended by our tour guide. This restaurant specialized in spicy dishes, and it did not disappoint. We ordered many different dishes to share, the highlights of which were the crispy, smoked duck with plum sauce and the Szechuan green beans. We brought some food and wine home for Paula (she wasn’t able to join us due to her work schedule) and called it an early night after a few glasses of wine.
- The following day, our first day off, a few of us met in the lobby to go to the Oriental Pearl TV tower. Because it is on the Pudong side of the river, we took the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel to get there. We were told it was meant for children, but we couldn’t resist. It was like a Disney ride, with colorful, flashing lights on all sides of the underground tram. The Oriental Pearl was a short walk from the exit of the Sightseeing Tunnel, and it was a beautiful day to wander. You have to pay to access virtually every aspect of the Oriental Pearl, which we did because…why not? We waited in line to go to the top, and went up in a crowded elevator at ear-popping speed. The outlook area had a 360 degree view of hazy, beautiful Shanghai. We moved down to the glass-floor observation deck, which was equal parts amazing and terrifying. The level below this was an arcade, complete with a small roller coaster. We didn’t partake in the festivities here, but marveled at it all as we moved through towards the elevator back to ground level. Of course there were shops there, so we browsed and picked up a few souvenirs along the way. After exiting, we walked up to the elevated, circular walkway above the street, which provided another excellent, and more intimate, view of the city. The walkway led us to the subway, which we took to Tianzifang, the area we visited on our first night. Finding the market there on our own proved to be a small challenge, but we pushed through. There was more shopping to be had, plus dinner at the Modern Toilet Café. It was a novelty to be there, and it was an interesting concept, but the food (mostly American-style) was nothing to write home about. However, I did enjoy that our drinks were served in toilet mugs and our French fries were piled into a small claw-footed tub. We enjoyed getting lost in the zig-zagging paths that wound through the food vendors and stores. Paula and I were happy to find the home of the giant, swirly ice cream cones we kept seeing, and each got a strawberry mango twist. After tiring of the endless circles we were walking in, we took a cab back to the hotel to drop off our shopping bags and headed back out to the bright lights of Nanjing Road. We did some more shopping, specifically in Innisfree and Etude House, which we can only buy online in the States. We stopped by a random restaurant after being bullied inside by locals to get some snacks before heading back towards the hotel to find the rest of our group. We found them at the club close to our home base, called Muse. We were bored there on a weekday, but it turned out that it was the place to be on a Saturday. We danced and drank wasabi flavored cocktails, took in the crowd with their over-sized blue glow sticks and watched the go-go dancers standing on their pedestals. It was a fun night.