It seems like every other day there's another fantastic 5-star opening in Shanghai. On the Bund, the last month alone has seen both the Fairmont Peace Hotel and the Waldorf Astoria Club join the Peninsula Shanghai, crowding an already arresting historical area with a trio of new crown jewels. However, despite the indisputable pedigree of these top international brands drawn to the city by glamor, prestige and money, it's Shanghai's quiet lanes that are attracting some of the most interesting newcomers.
Much like the process of photosynthesis that allows Xuhui's plane trees to bring fresh air to the winding French Concession streets, the flood of money that courses through Shanghai's financial sector is filtering down through a new generation of artisans and entrepreneurs, producing a wealth of new galleries, restaurants, boutiques and designer hotels. Among these is the Magnolia Bed & Breakfast, an unprepossessing five-room pocket of quiet respite and perfectly balanced design.
Hostess and co-owner Miranda Yao delivers a personal touch no 5-star concierge could provide with her warm hospitality, ample personal recommendations and attention to detail—not to mention an authentic Shanghai experience, grounded in both Yao family tradition and the Magnolia's own vibrant neighborhood. I sat down with Miranda recently to chat about her Magnolia B&B venture, the experience she's gained since opening, and what guests can expect while lodging in the unencumbered beauty of the Magnolia's clever and highly functional rooms (bathrooms feature full-length revolving mirrors doubling as shelving on the rear side).
Opening a Shanghai Bed & Breakfast
Stephan Larose: You've said your guests bring you a wealth of memorable experiences. Could you share one of those experiences with us?
Miranda Yao: There was a couple from Germany, a talented video designer who produced the Saudi Arabia and State Grid pavilion videos [ed. note: from the Expo 2010 Shanghai China] and his artistically inclined wife. They invited me to join them at a modern dance premier in Shanghai by a local modern dance group performing at a German modern dance festival. I was really amazed by it, I thought modern dance in China was more theater and less dance. All you hear about is Jin Xing and other big names, I had no idea these small talented groups even existed in China.
After the performance, we had some excited conversations about it and got hungry. I asked the couple what they wanted to eat and they replied that they wanted to try something new. So I brought them to a hot pot restaurant. They were so amazed by the way we do hot pot. We went to a very authentic street side Shanghai-style hot pot on Wulumuqi Road (Wūlǔmùqí Lù, 乌鲁木齐路), just a little place with six tables—really, very local type of hot pot, very cheap.
The woman was eight months pregnant, so I thought her very brave to take such a big trip. A little worried about her, I told her to make sure everything was cooked thoroughly because they had to get up early the next morning and catch their 11-hour flight back to Germany. I didn't want anything going wrong. But she wasn't scared at all. They had no problem with anything. It was a very special experience for me, we all became great friends. We talked so long that we only got back to the hotel at 2:00 a.m.
SL: That's pretty interesting. this German couple showed you something new about your own city!
MY: (Laughs) Yeah, I loved it!
SL: So what inspired you to start this hotel?
MY: It started in 2003. My husband and I wanted to start a little hotel. We didn't know there was already such a thing as a B&B, we just wanted to create a place where we were hosting guests and providing very personalized services and my husband the chef would take care of the food. I would get to play good host. We couldn't find a place in our price range, but in 2008 the economy dipped and our real estate agent found this place and we got a good deal. The minute I walked in here I really felt good. We didn't have a very solid business plan, we just really felt like we could make it happen. We were very brave but pretty naïve (laughs).
SL: So this place is all heart and dream?
MY: All heart and dream, definitely. We took a year with the renovations and design and started to receive guests at the end of 2009; the Shanghai Expo helped a lot. But if you want to really trace the inspiration back to its source, it goes to my father. He used to have a hotel with a restaurant, so I've known the ins and outs of managing a hotel since my youth. I know you have to wake up very early in the morning and in the middle of the night to tend to guest requests. That's something I was always ready for. That hotel wasn't fancy, just 10-12 rooms, and his restaurant was known for a xiaolongbao recipe he bought and improved himself. The recipe is still so secret he won't give it to me! Anyways, as I got older I realized I didn't want to work in front of a computer all my life, I was much more attracted to the role of playing host for people.
SL: So your father was very much a host at heart, did that have an influence on you?
MY: In terms of providing that type of intimacy between the owner and the guest, I do get a huge influence from him. In terms of interior design, location, we've got a totally different ideas. But my dad had lots of regulars, my dad knew what was happening in their lives, they were really good friends. There was even a man named Mr. Wu who lived there for what seemed like forever. He was always there, he was almost family, he'd even come to our home and have lunch with us. So I guess I inherited that part of my dad's way with people, always keeping his heart open. I find my love for the guests comes really naturally because it is just so rewarding.
SL: What would you say are the Magnolia's most distinct features?
MY: Most people choose us because our location is very good. They often email me because they don't want to go to a regular hotel, they want something different. Here you are neighbors with real locals. We have the real community around us and this is what gets them excited. This type of experience is what we wanted to offer. Private, comfortable rooms with easy access to the places they want to go, good information, better than what a big hotel concierge would tell you—for example a good yoga studio. I doubt the concierge would know about that, but I'm a modern woman in Shanghai, and I try to help as much as I can.
If guests need any professional medical care, I can bring them to the right place, help them translate from English to Chinese. We want to take extra good care of our guests. We have a map of the neighborhood we give out at check in, we give personal recommendations for restaurants, massage places, the nearest swimming pool. We tell people where the closest pharmacy is. We give our guests tools to do things independently. I give guests my personal phone number and give them a hotel cell phone for them to use in Shanghai. Anytime they have a problem, they can call me.
We try to make sure that anything we promise, we can deliver. I'm very hands on, I come every morning at breakfast and I answer questions for the guests as they get ready for their day. I found out that we need to offer basic laundry from these little morning Q&A sessions, so now we do that.