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Shanghai: What to see and do in the Chinese city

Shanghai
Shanghai

Not to be outdone by its northern rival Beijing, whose residents are still smiling about the success of their Olympic Games in 2008, Shanghai is working hard to be a great city and has a lot to offer. Former Shanghai resident Joseph Jones gives the lowdown on Shanghai’s highlights.

How does one get there?

Although none of the budget airlines operate Singapore-Shanghai flights, most of the big carriers do.

Essential Shanghai
Any guidebook will tell you about the main tourist destinations. Instead, here is an inside look at a dynamic city where change is the only constant.

Eat

People from all over China have flocked to Shanghai over the years, bringing their distinctive regional cuisines with them, and the city is one of the best places to sample dishes from almost every province.

A culinary institution, tiny restaurant Di Shui Dong offers the trademark spicy fare of Hunan Province (think Sichuan cuisine, but even hotter!). Everyone raves about the ribs, but the la zi ji, deep-fried, crispy chicken on the bone, is the best in Shanghai. Don’t miss the skewered prawns drenched in minced chillies, the steamed garoupa or the piquant pickled cucumbers.

Another less-known cuisine comes from China’s massive Xinjiang region in the far west. The indigenous Uighur people are Muslim and look more Turkish than Chinese. This is reflected in their food: naan breads, skewered kebabs and minced lamb fried with peppers and rolled up in little steamed flatbreads – these are just some of the dishes to be enjoyed at the Xinjiang Uygur Restaurant.

Cheese? In a Chinese restaurant? Yes, and the small slices of salty, peppery goodness at Yunnan restaurant Southern Barbarian are scrumptious. The cuisine of Yunnan Province is a largely undiscovered treasure: try the grilled fish with chilli and star anise, the garlic-fried broad beans and the chilled tomato and aubergine starter now, before everyone jumps on the gastronomic bandwagon.

• Di Shui Dong
5 Dongping Lu
• Xinjiang Uygur Restaurant
915 Yan’an Zhong Lu
• Southern Barbarian
2/F, Ju’Roshine Life Arts Space
169 Jinxian Lu

Drink

Shanghai has an eclectic nightlife scene to suit all tastes and budgets. The bars, clubs and restaurants in the palatial Art Deco buildings of The Bund (numbers 3, 5 and 18, in particular) are always in vogue. The prices, music and clientele are those of any big European capital, but it’s worth taking a look at the glorious melting-pot of people, from Chinese nouveau riche to Euro-trash-and-glamour.

At the other end of the scale, the bar streets, once a staple of Shanghai nightlife, are being phased out as the government cleans up, but there is a thriving independent music scene. Local rock and reggae bands play most weekend nights at grungy dive bar Logo, while Shelter, a converted bomb shelter reminiscent of the cantina in Star Wars, hosts alternative acts and DJs.

A little-known gem of the Shanghai bar scene is Japanese bar Constellation, small, dimly lit and packed with debonair Japanese expats. Waiters wear bowties and waistcoats and the ice in your potently delicious cocktail is an impeccably hand-chipped sphere. Marvel at the range of obscure Japanese spirits behind the bar, and stay way past your bedtime.

• The Bund (Wai Tan in Chinese)
Numbers 3, 5 and 18
• Logo
13 Xingfu Lu
• Shelter
5 Yongfu Lu
• Constellation
86 Xinle Lu

Shop

The infamous Xiangyang market, a sprawling block of knockoffs and fakes that gave the middle finger to intellectual property rights, has bowed to political pressure and closed. Not that the imitation golf clubs, luggage, bags, watches and clothes have disappeared – rather, they’ve relocated en masse to the Longhua Fashion Market (2465 Longhua Road). Go on weekdays when business is slower and prices are cheaper. Bargain hard: offer a quarter of the initial asking price or even less. Feigning walking away from a negotiation will often help get the price down.

For great fashion bargains, scour the streets around Fuxing, Shaanxi, Changshu and Changle Roads in the French Concession. There are fantastic stand-alone boutiques to be found, often with genuine brands at unbelievably low prices. While the styles may be a little hit and miss – Chinese  tastes tend to run towards the colourful and sparkly – there are some great bargains.

It’s a grey area, but DVDs are unbelievably cheap in China. Don’t buy from the touts on the street; most of the DVD shops will let you test them out first. Try Gaoan Road or Taikang Road.

Dangers and Annoyances

Considering its 18 million inhabitants, Shanghai is an incredibly safe and relatively prosperous city. While you should exercise the usual caution when walking around a metropolis, especially alone or at night, it is not uncommon to stroll through a dark park in the evening and find a couple of old ladies gossiping on a bench.

If you are in a large crowd, particularly along busy shopping streets, be wary of pickpockets. One scam that is prevalent along Nanjing Road and the Bund involves tourists, usually Caucasian males alone or in pairs, being approached by Chinese girls who invite them to a local teahouse. The foreigners are then presented with an enormous bill at the end of the drinks or meal, which the girls typically offer to pay half of (they are then reimbursed by the owners in whose employ they are). You’re advised to politely decline such an invitation.

Useful sites
www.smartshanghai.com – for nightlife and restaurant listings
www.shanghaiexpat.com – the most active expat forum, for if you have a question
www.shanghaiist.com – for recent news and daily events in Shanghai

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