There’s no better way to understand how East meets West than by visiting Yongfoo Elite, an 18-year-old club-restaurant in the heart of Shanghai’s former French Concession.
Tucked away on a winding road in the former residence of the British consul general, Yongfoo Elite became the favorite hangout for fashion insiders and cultural elites in the early days.
Its era-bumping courtyard consists of a Chinese-style garden, a contemporary glass house and a 1930s Spanish-style house. One is teleported to a scene in an Eileen Chang novel, or perhaps a Wang Kar-wai film set.
The storied location has been featured in glossy magazines and served as a backdrop for the Pirelli calendar in 2008.
Yongfoo Elite is the brainchild of Xingzheng Wang, a 69-year-old native of Shanghai who gained success as one of the country’s first menswear designers in the 80s. His brand Sha-Er-Wei, later Jun Long, became one of the first Chinese brands to enter department stores. In the 90s, he had more than 30 doors across the country.
But as impulsive as a fashion personality can be, Wang didn’t like fashion in the 90s, abruptly closed his brand and set his sights on the restaurant business. Yongfoo Elite was his third venture and became his life’s work.
During Shanghai’s initial two-month COVID-19 lockdown, Wang continued to renovate the space, adding ancient stone decorations and knocking down half the walls, aiming to make it look somewhat unfashionable.
He also launched a new fine dining venture in Yongfoo Elite, perhaps on a whim, to explore his newfound interest in fusion cuisine.
To spearhead this new experiment, Wang hired Noma-trained Chinese chef Chang Liu, who orchestrated a menu that includes dishes such as Shanghai-style oil cake with caviar and Wagyu beef with Shanghai greens, and ends with a high note with a soy sauce ice cream.
Wang likened his new project to an investigation of Chinese and Western cultures, a culture embedded in the psyche of Shanghai.
“Shanghai has always been known for its petit bourgeois sensibility – the key word being petit. It never took a chance to grow,” says Wang. “After New China was established, it flourished in what we call the Shanghai ‘Haipai’ style. It welcomes all things foreign and new, then it transforms it culturally to become something more local.”
Wang notes the new consumer attraction to a more “aesthetic” dining experience, “and frankly, Chinese cuisine is moving more slowly in that sense.”
“Shared at a round table, often cooked over an open flame, Chinese cuisine can be said to be less civilized, but has a certain otherworldly appeal. Chinese cooking usually goes for a grand feast. Mentally, he sticks to a family-oriented conscience.”
After earning a Michelin star for his Chinese restaurant serving Shanghainese cuisine, Wang went on to break down the two cooking styles, which have taken equal prominence at Yongfoo Elite recently. “In practice, we talk a lot about the ‘techniques’ of Chinese cooking, but rarely about the ‘art’ of cooking,” adds Wang. “But Western cuisine has become a feast for the five senses, for individual pleasures.”
Although his friend, the prominent novelist Jin Yucheng, has asked Wang to start writing a biography, he prefers to spend more time working on Yongfoo Elite.
One major change was the transformation of the Caixiang Study, the private sitting area, into an expanded section of the “Keep It Quiet” bar. A study has traditionally been a space to peer into the mind of the creator, but here, one can gain a glimpse of Wang’s interior design process. Drawing on his favorite fashion design techniques, such as collage or grafting, Wang plastered bar tables with vintage Italian fabric, overhead lights encased in an oddly shaped metal cage, and exposed more walls to show layers of colorful decay. He got rid of a Ming Dynasty monastic bed, but kept a set of 60s Gucci sofas, with plans to add more vintage furniture to make the space comfortable.
This is all meant to be a little messy. “I like to design a space like I used to design clothes—there might be seven or eight different aesthetics involved, but then I break their boundaries,” says Wang.
He calls Yongfoo Elite a work of “cross-pollination” of different styles, much like the open mic events he likes to host, where performance artists, ethnic musicians and poets come and improvise as they please. But there is an appeal to Eastern naturalistic principles at the core of his work. Wang is embellishing the idea of ”fair bit,” leaving room for unplanned quietness, a rarity in Shanghai’s growing social media-driven cafe and bistro space.
Pointing to an exposed column in the center of the seating area, Wang says it was designed by artisans, which meant stopping workers halfway through because he liked the layers of exposed architecture.
Wang says his design “is more of a lifestyle configuration than a holistic design concept.” He does not like to be called a businessman and rejects commercial rules. Instead, he is free to do his own thing.
“This is something that people with a lot of money won’t and can’t build. It’s about reflecting my own personal reality, rather than following anything external,” he says.
Wang says a place like Yongfoo Elite will likely never happen again, and he says the government has agreed to preserve it as a cultural institution after he retires. “It started as a crazy idea, but when the idea came, I just let myself go all the way.”