[Designers on Design]: Song Yuxin on Yu Ba Xian
Yea, yea, yea, the food's gotta taste good, the service has to be sparkling, the prices have to be cheaper than Carl's Jr and its got to work for both a first date and a business meeting. But too often, what we miss out when talking about restaurants and bars is the interior design — how it came to be and what it's trying to say. In this series, SmartShanghai speaks to the designers who build things nice enough to eat in.
This is Song Yuxin.
He has a magic touch with restaurants. He built up a huge buzz around a Cantonese restaurant named Long Feng Lou when he opened it on Julu Lu a few years back. Then he did it again when with Maurya, named after the Sanskrit word for a peacock and decorated with Indian motifs (not that anyone made the connection). They are in fancy locations and are surprisingly true to the way Sichuan food is cooked in Sichuan; they are also really popular.
But Song’s most ambitious — and most expensive — project to date has been Yu Ba Xian, which means something like "The Honorary Eight Immortals", as in, the customers are honorary gods (in English, that’s lost, and it’s just called Sense 8). After a career in advertising, Song spent years collecting Chinoiserie around Europe, from the 17th and 18th centuries, when the continent was China-crazy and incorporating or recreating all kinds of Chinese designs. He has warehouses full of the stuff, as well as Chinese antiques from all over the country, and he’s used them as the base to create a mixed-up and entirely unique, holy-shit-this-restaurant-looks-amazing space where T8 once traded. From the glass flowers on the tables to antique and newly commissioned embroidery to the team of temple painters who lived in the space for months while hand-painting doors and a secret “China Room” on the second floor, Song says the place cost him RMB 20 million to build and decorate. Not counting the price of his personal artwork.
As he gets set to open a new branch in Hongqiao, I got him to walk me through the Xintiandi location, which has a month-long waiting list for reservations, a no walk-ins policy and an Indian door-man in a red Sikh turban, a la colonial Shanghai. The food? It’s Cantonese. Leave that to other people to write about. Yu Ba Xian is pure atmosphere, and a lesson in Chinese restaurant design.
On creating a second Cantonese restaurant after Long Feng Lou:
Song Yuxin: I wanted to recreate a space that can offer the complete experience of a traditional Hong Kong teahouse. Long Feng Lou is in a British-style mansion. So when we did the decoration, we decided to make it a combination of east and west. Gradually, as we were given access to more and better locations, we want to be more Oriental-focused.
On the “story” of the Xintiandi branch’s design:
Song Yuxin: Our first location at Joy City is following the style of Guangdong’s xiguan dawu (西关大屋), the old southern-style Cantonese mansions. Here at Xintiandi, we have the lanehouse background, so the inspiration is Shanghai’s mixed culture. Its roots are Eastern, but there is some Western influence, and some influence from the Forbidden City. Basically, whatever people would have found in China during the Qing dynasty. French art during those times was also heavily influenced by China and Japan — Chinoiserie — and so we have some of that style here as well.
Chopstick holder madames
The Centerpiece lantern of the second floor
Replica of Forbidden City palace lanterns
On the inspiration for the design:
Song Yuxin: The inspiration is not from one architecture style in particular, but all the films I have seen, houses I have visited in Guangzhou, Shunde and Hong Kong. Part of our inspiration comes from the “China rooms” in European palaces or houses. It also borrows from the residences of rich people in northern China.
On trying to make such a mixed bag coherent, in terms of design:
Song Yuxin: The palace lantern is a replica of a piece in the Forbidden City. The centerpiece lantern is from Dongyang. The embroidery is by craftsmen in Suzhou. The painting (on the doors) is by painters who have worked for the Forbidden City. The process to put together so many elements and make them work with each other in the space is painful. We need to give up a lot. But the guideline is Qing dynasty, and we based it on an illusion that this house is left by a rich Shanghainese person, who has traveled all around the country and brought back a large collection of artwork. We actually have a model, Yilong Court at The Peninsula Hotel, which I like a lot, but maybe because it’s a five-star hotel, they cannot put too many elements into the space. I want to enrich it.
The secret “China Room” on the second floor
The walls were painted by hand by a family of temple painters from Hebei, who usually work in Taiwan.
They spent two months painting full-time in this room alone, not to mention all the doors and walls on the ground floor.
On whether the design is meant to authentic or fantasy:
Song Yuxin: Both. The emerald green table cloth, for example, is tailored in Hong Kong, because no factory in mainland China now makes such a thick, fine tablecloth now. But that’s what we need to recreate the feel of an old teahouse. The umbrellas outside, the design is originally from Sichuan and Fujian, but they don’t make them there anymore – it’s too difficult. So we had to get them from Japan, who copied the Chinese design and still produces them.
China via Japan
On replicas and antiques:
Song Yuxin: Most of the pieces you see that are one-of-a-kind are antiques. Pieces like lanterns and umbrellas that we need more than one of are replicas, and many of them took more than a year to make. The glass or gem flowers, for example, are all antiques. The one on the first floor, I paid 15,000 rmb for. No one needs to know the price to enjoy them but they are not cheap. Look how many there are – there’s almost one glass flower on every table and they are all different and all antique.
Fine taste in fake flowers
On managing his collection:
Song Yuxin: I have more than one warehouse. I have dozens of buyers searching for antiques all over the world for me. I store things at home, at offices, at my warehouses. When the restaurant first opened, there were actually more pieces here. But as our business gets better, I have to take things out to make space for the customers.
The ground floor with its signature terrazzo and heavy green tablecloths
On what impression he wants to leave on his customers:
Song Yuxin: The first floor is similar to what we tried to create at Joy City, with heavy gilded painting and carving. The second floor, after setting the stage on the first floor, is designed to create an atmosphere of grandeur, kind of like the feel of the Imperial Palace.
The staircase and a massive antique piece of embroidered silk, too large to be covered in glass
On celebrating the fine traditions of premium Chinese residences:
Song Yuxin: We separate the space into four sections, with the staircase in the middle. We also put large jade and Taihu stones at the entrance, which are common in Chinese imperial gardens. Look at this one (he holds up a flashlight to the jade). See how it lights up?
On the wall at the end, there is a large antique embroidery with the Eight Immortals. The size of it suggests it’s from a rich person’s house; common people didn’t have ceilings that high. I want to let more Chinese people know what a premium and traditional Chinese residence should look like. You barely find this stuff even at tourist spots in China. I think what I am doing is just returning the antique pieces to where they belong.
Expensive embroidery. The center panel is antique, bought at auction for 150,000rmb. The panels on either side with the Eight Immortals are new and were commissioned from Suzhou craftsman at 400,000rmb. Each.
Details. Details. Each piece took 4-5 craftsmen a year to make.
It’s all in the details.
On whether the diners understand the layers of design:
Song Yuxin: Not really. Only a small amount do. People from northern China and those familiar with the Forbidden City might recognize some things. Cantonese might find it familiar but would probably be shocked by the bold, contrasting colors.
On why he invested so much in design:
Song Yuxin: I am a foodie, and it’s both my hobby and job to learn about how restaurants are run. Gradually, I discovered running a restaurant, successfully, is very much like marketing a car, what I used to do as an ad person. It’s not only about food. For a restaurant, it’s also about the target customer of the location, what is missing in the area.
The average cost per head at Joy City is upwards of 200 rmb, here it’s 500 rmb. Why do we invest so much on interiors? Because that’s what Xintiandi people want and they are willing to pay to dine in such an environment. Running a restaurant is not only selling food, it’s a package.