A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, when China was a newly minted republic and Shanghai was still Hong Kong in the north, the commercial capital's elite built a summer retreat atop a bamboo-clad mountain called Moganshan.
Mokhan Shan, as they spelled it in the Pinyin of the day, was a mere two days travel by houseboat, barge and sedan chair up countless stone steps to its summit, 700 metres above the plain of northeast Zhejiang. Three hundred stone villas scattered across the upper slopes made up a mini international enclave, where missionaries rubbed shoulders with opium smugglers, and the seniors from the Shanghai American School took on all-comers in an annual tennis tournament that became Wimbledon for China. Chiang Kai-shek, a regular visitor, filled his pockets with sweets for the children he might meet on his afternoon stroll.
During the summers Moganshan hosted house parties, political conferences, boyscout camps, society weddings, swimming races and presidential honeymoons (Chiang again), but above all, with its plentiful spring water, clean air and healthy outdoor lifestyle, Moganshan was the place to recover from the pressures of the hard-dealing, fastpaced, high-risk professional and political life that was the stressful norm in the China of those days, for one and all. It was so good for you, Moganshan, that it couldn't help but become exclusive. It was too good to share. Besides, there wasn't much room. By the time of the Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930s, you needed a major share in a major bank to earn an invitation to joint the exclusive mountain-top community.
By the end of the war, and the civil one that followed, Moganshan was an altogether different place, and it hasn't changed much in the 60 years since. Visit today and you'll stumble into once-grand villas that, after their former owners abandoned them, were used and abused as “recuperation” homes for senior party officials while Moganshan was the “East China Sanatorium”, a perfidy like something out of Milan Kundera. Today they're either derelict, derelicts-in-progress, or crassly renovated state guesthouses, with one or two exceptions. The village has been designated an AAAA-level national resort. Nothing can happen without the highest approval. No change. No development. Some might say that's a good thing.
If genteel decay with socialist characteristics – Downton Abbey hosts Fidel Castro's 90th birthday, for example – is how you like it, so be it. Welcome to a world of wasted opportunity. Bamboo is not the new sugarcane.
Indeed, there are many who say it is not a good thing, though there's little they can do about it. They are the new Shanghai elite, thoroughly modern and international, looking for a place two hours by car – there's been a road to the top since the '50s – from the city where they can escape the pressures of the hard-dealing…need we repeat?
Luckily for them, someone has done something about it. All too aware that to attempt a revival of a foreign-owned hotel on the top of the mountain would be impossible in this day and age, Christophe Peres – a 46-year-old Frenchman, raised in Tahiti to French hotelier parents, and more recently a successful Shanghai property entrepreneur following a career in brand management in Japan, Hong Kong and Korea – had the simple and brilliant idea to build a modern version of an exclusive Moganshan hotel on the very edge of the AAAAs. He broke ground in October 2007.
In 2012, after a painstaking construction process, Le Passage Mokhan Shan – note the tip of le chapeau to the glorious past – opened to the discerning public. Peres has created a hotel that defies category, set in 20 hectares of mature tea plantation, and surrounded by ridges of bamboo and pine trees. As it's too grand to be boutique – the 28 (soon to be 43) rooms range in size from 740 to 1,200 square feet, and the reception areas are vast and high ceilinged – yet too independent and idiosyncratic to be flagship hotel, a stay at Le Passage is akin to attending a party in a country house.
Peres and his Hong Kong British wife Pauline, assisted by their maître de maison Andrew Geng from Taiwan, pay personal attention to every guest. The kitchens create meals from local produce such as wild boar, supplemented by fine foods imported from around the world. The menu is decided according to season, the taste of the guests and, perhaps most importantly, Peres's well-practiced assessment of what suits the occasion. He'll tear up the wine list and take guests on a personal tour of his prestigiously stocked cellar. For a digestif there'll be eau de vie de poire – “poire Pauline” – made from local pears in the hotel's brass stills.
Since opening, Le Passage has been quick to establish a reputation in and around Shanghai as the place not only for a luxurious long weekend with friends and family, but as the new “in” spot for anniversaries, birthdays, black-tie dinners – whatever excuse for high living and fine dining. The regular guests have given the hotel yet another category. It feels like you're staying in an oldschool country club. You'll rub shoulders with top executives, bankers, municipal mayors and A-listers from all walks of life.
Physical activity or wellness therapy is old school, too. There's a heated salt-water swimming pool, a hot tub, and endless walks in the hills through the tea and bamboo. Peres and his teenage sons lead guests on gentle bike rides every weekend. A spa and gym are planned for the near future, as is a “dog hotel” for guests who wish to bring Fido.
It's an irony, deliberate perhaps, that Peres has created a thoroughly modern version of Moganshan, while reviving the exclusive resort's original, outdated name. From certain angles, beside the swimming pool for example, you could imagine yourself standing in a sepia photograph of the old place in the 1920s. Peres hasn't recreated the grass tennis courts, but his regular guests – his members in all but name – have been lobbying, just as the residents up the hill submitted their requests to the Mokhan Shan Summer Resort Association's Committee 100 years ago.
Meanwhile, up the hill today, that grand old dame, the faded, neglected jewel that's the original summer resort of Moganshan, rots gently away. The central government refuses to hand the village back to the county who governed it with the foreigners in its heyday. The ageing and tiny local population hold onto their rooms in vast villas until they go down the hill to live out their last days with their children, who “inherit” their legacy and barely use it. The government doesn't maintain the villas because it dares not reclaim them from the tenant families, while the tenants themselves can't afford to – and besides, they don't own them.
One day, though it's unlikely, Moganshan might again be the Chamonix of China, as it was 100 years ago. In the meantime, as is so often the case in the mainland, an individual has seen the potential, taken the initiative and shown the way. Who knows where Le Passage might lead?