Shanghai, 2014. In one of the world’s fastest-growing and most populous cities, spotting “the real China” can be tough. Gentrification is pushing out traditional lifestyles, replacing night markets and local shops with high-rises, shopping malls, and fancy hotels. Areas that still exude the old Shanghai’s atmosphere have become few and far between in the center and locals are aware that they, too, might soon be forced out towards the suburbs. Against this background, Jiangxi Road remains one of those rare gems still bustling with life, brimming with food stalls that dish up delicacies from all corners of the country. Students, pensioners, and professionals alike flock here at lunchtime or after work for a steaming hot pot or quick dumpling to go. Only two streets down, construction on a new apartment complex is in full swing – laying the groundwork for yet another complete architectural overhaul of the area. Once complete, it is just a matter of time until chain restaurants and high-end retail will replace Jiangxi Road’s remaining small soup kitchens and fruit stalls.

Just a few minutes’ walk away, the Embankment Building – originally built in the 1930s and located on Bei Souzhou Lu – proves that urban development does not have to follow this particular route. Combining the best of both worlds, the somewhat run-down housing complex near Shanghai’s busy Bund waterfront might not seem very unusual. One of many old-fashioned residential buildings, it houses more than 2,000 people: The smallest available unit, at € 80 a month, only has room for a single bed, yet offers shared bathroom and kitchen facilities on each floor. Most of the residents are Chinese migrant workers, many of whom came to Shanghai from different parts of the country in search of a job and a better life.

Yet while it might not be obvious at first sight, there is something odd about this building. Somewhere between chunky window grills, exposed pipes, and children’s games in the hallway, a few lacquered doors on the upper floors of the 10-story building gleam like gateways to a different world; a world of luxury and charm. Boasting panoramic views, bespoke design, and fancy Japanese toilets, the rooms behind these doors are part of Chai Living, a new accommodation concept with a focus on exclusive long and short-term stays in a historic and traditional Chinese environment.

The mastermind behind the project is Tucho Iglesias, a 31-year-old Spaniard who arrived on business in 2006 – and ended up staying for good. Iglesias started by buying an apartment in the building, redesigned by himself from scratch, and turning it into a modern oasis of calm amidst this busy Asian metropolis. Bit by bit, he has since purchased a total of twenty units, invariably inhabiting his latest project before the next unit comes into play. Each of the rooms is based on a different theme, ranging from calligraphy and porcelain to crystal. On request, visitors can enjoy a fresh daily breakfast delivery and – thanks to co-operations with 72 of the area’s finest restaurants – even the city’s best cuisine in the comfort of their custom beds.

Thus aligning progress and tradition, Chai Living offers new perspectives – and shows that progress can bring people together instead of tearing the city apart.

Header image: Jessie Null
All other images: Katja Hentschel