China: Shanghai temptations

By Kirsty Wynn

Art Deco delights, juicy dumplings and split bottom pants ... despite the smog there is still plenty to see in Shanghai discovers Kirsty Wynn.

Parents try to find their unmarried children the perfect mate at the Marriage Market in Shanghai's People's Square. Photo / Kirsty Wynn
Parents try to find their unmarried children the perfect mate at the Marriage Market in Shanghai's People's Square. Photo / Kirsty Wynn

Warnings not to eat street food in China are ignored as I bite into my first Jianbing - or breakfast pancake - on a street corner in Shanghai.

Thoughts of traveller's belly vanish as the hot crepe bursts with flavour. Just moments earlier we watched as the popular snack - layered with soybean paste, egg, coriander and a crispy wonton slice - was fried on a hot plate above an old beaten drum. The mix of sweet and salty with the crunch of the won ton - or youtiao - is irresistible. It's no surprise they sell out every day.

You can't go to Shanghai without being tempted by the street food. It's cheap, looks and smells delicious and is everywhere. To avoid extended time over the squat toilet take care to find a vendor with high turnover, good hygiene and clean oil.

Specialist companies with local knowledge such as Untour Shanghai know the best vendors and offer walking food tours and an all inclusive price.

If street food isn't your thing there are plenty of other options in the sprawling city of 23 million. The French Concession, which was occupied and governed by the French until 1941, offers beautiful pastries, tartlets and coffee as well as high end French cuisine.

A cafe in the French Concession of Shanghai. Photo / Kirsty Wynn
A cafe in the French Concession of Shanghai. Photo / Kirsty Wynn

On our first day in Shanghai we take in hidden villas and beautiful buildings on streets lined with Plane trees. The area, known as the Paris of the East, is popular with expats who are drawn to the trendy cafes, bars and restaurants.

You could spend hours exploring alleyways where locals string washing between rows of character filled terraced houses. Getting around is easy. From the airport, the Shanghai Maglev Train is an experience in itself. The magnetic levitation train reaches a top speed of 435km/h and has the title of the world's fastest train.

Once in the city, the Shanghai metro is a cheap and efficient way to navigate the huge city and place-names are in English, due to the World Expo in 2010.

Another way to see the highlights of the city is by vintage sidecar. The Insiders Group operate tours around Shanghai which give local knowledge on "off the beaten track" attractions such as an Art Deco slaughterhouse built in 1933 converted into
a luxury mall.

If the budget allows, hiring a car with a private driver is ideal. When we visited this spring temperatures were in the mid-30s so hopping into an air-conditioned car was cool comfort. They can be found on the internet, can be hired by the day or hour and have room for shopping bags.

We visited the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art centre for an insight into the Maoist period and the push behind the Cultural Revolution. The centre, in the basement of a residential complex, is tricky to find, but well worth the effort. The posters are privately owned and there are reprints and original items for sale.

A trip to the Urban Planning Museum gives an appreciation of the size of the city by way of a 1/500th scale model, which takes an entire floor. Unlike the real Shanghai, there is no smog to restrict the view.

In a city where living conditions are cramped, the beautifully maintained parks give welcome relief - and are hugely popular with families. We stroll around People's Park and watch men play cards and women dance to music - provided free by the government.

The park is also home to the popular Marriage Market. Hundreds of match-making parents stand around chatting and comparing photos and details (including measurements) of their offspring.

There are serious agencies with plenty of suitors on their books but for the most part the market is a great social occasion for good-humoured parents to natter.

Famished after our walk in the park it's dumpling time. We go to Yang's Dumplings where skilled staff prepare work-of-art dumplings. Each dumpling has at least18 folds and is bursting with tasty soup and traditional pork filling. The dumplings are fried, then steamed and served with vinegar and chilli on the side.

We have a quick lesson on how to avoid burns to the face from the soup filling and then polish off at least four dumplings each.

The key is to hold the dumpling with chopsticks while nibbling a hole in the top to let out some steam. Balancing the dumpling on a spoon helps catch any soup that may escape. When the soup cools it can be slurped out and the dumpling eaten. All that for around $1 per person.

Dumplings from popular chain Yang's Dumplings in Shanghai. Photo / Kirsty Wynn
Dumplings from popular chain Yang's Dumplings in Shanghai. Photo / Kirsty Wynn

A massage at Zen in the French Concession is next. You may need to book but for $20 you get an hour of traditional Chinese massage that will not disappoint. Dark wood floors, white plaster walls, water features and candles throughout set the scene for complete bliss.

After a quick shower at the very grand Swissotel - five star luxury for around $156 a night - we take in cocktails and dinner at French eatery Mr and Mrs Bund.

The bars and restaurants along the Huangpu River have a grandstand view of the neon-lit Pudong Skyline. Despite the smog that hangs over Shanghai, there is still plenty to see from the rooftop bar of this award-winning restaurant.

From the giant spheres of the Pearl Tower to the building that looks like a giant bottle opener to the thousands of local tourists who flock to the Bund Boardwalk each night, the view is fantastic.

It is here we have possibly the best cocktail invented. The Lemon Tart Martini. Think vodka-laced lemon meringue pie in a glass. The food is equally tasty. The Meuniere truffle bread and the complementary tuna mousse with garlic crostini were my favourites.
The style, service and view at Mr and Mrs Bund is unbeatable and, at around $50 for a three-course meal, it is great value.

Back at the Swissotel Grand I discover emergency torches and gas masks in the bedside drawers - beautifully presented in black velvet pouches with fancy embroidery. I am relieved to discover these are in case of fire - not wartime attack.

The next morning starts with the crunchy, salty, sweetness of the Jianbing pancake before we visit Xiangyang Park to watch locals practise Tai Chi. Our host points out the split-bottom pants - or kaidangku - worn by Chinese babies and toddlers. Instead of nappies, the kaidangku pants allow the mother to hold her child over whatever bin or gutter happens to be handy when nature calls.

Some think the practice is unhygienic and uncivilised but it saves the already polluted city from millions of nappies each day.

A trip to Shanghai would not be complete without a spot of shopping. The city has something for every taste and budget, from marbled designer stores selling real Louis Vuitton to the fakes market selling "real Louis Vuitton".

We start at the Dongtai Lu Antiques market with art-deco lamps, little wooden stools and China plates and move on to the infamous 580 Fakes market where we try our hand at haggling - with varying success. There are some bargains, some rip-offs but bartering is done in good spirit with a laugh had on both sides.

To barter well, give yourself plenty of time to have a look around before showing interest in anything. Check the quality first, then start the bartering process.

Prescription glasses and designer shades are a great bargain at the market with glasses made up in 10 minutes for $40 (just take your prescription with you).

For tailor-made clothing, the South Bund Fabric market has every style and fabric you can imagine. It can be overwhelming but if you go in with a set idea and top price you will not be disappointed.

Back home and inspired by the cocktails of the Bund I stock up on duty-free. A mishap on the airport's tiled floor sees a bottle of liquor pour into the bottom of the carrier bag.

A worker jokes we should grab some straws to drink the bag of booze - it's hardly a Lemon Tart Martini but it's not a bad idea.

Kirsty Wynn travelled to Shanghai courtesy of Air New Zealand.

- Herald on Sunday

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