Places to Love: Shanghai
It’s the most populous city in the world, and full of juxtapositions. Both overwhelming and charming; foreign and familiar; ancient and on the cutting edge of modern innovation. There is a certain mystique about the Far East, and Shanghai is the perfect place to experience it. On this episode, I visit the ancient water town of Fengjing, soak up the Art Deco architecture along the historic Bund, shop at an iconic knife and scissor shop on Nanjing Road, learn the art of paper cutting, and much more. Here’s why Shanghai is a place to love.
PLACES AND STORIES TO LOVE
Breakfast of Champions, Shanghai-style
In a city as overwhelming as Shanghai, it’s hard to know where to dig in. I say start with breakfast. I had the pleasure experiencing the most important meal of the day Shanghai style with Jamie Barys. A Tennessee native, Barys moved to China in 2007 and fell in love with their culinary culture. I joined her for a Shanghai Street Eats Breakfast tour.
Navigating a street food situation can feel a little overwhelming, especially in a place like China where budging in line is quite common. A guide who can explain the ropes (and suggest what to order) makes all the difference. Barys took me to a fantastic dumpling stand, where we sampled black sesame dumplings and baozi, a steamed vegetarian bun with bok choy and tofu.
She also introduced me to jianbing, essentially a Chinese-style flour crepe topped with a cracked egg, pickled mustard, green onion, cilantro, savory soybean paste and chili oil. It all gets wrapped around a fried wonton cracker, making it a delicious package of contrasting flavors and textures. Other favorite breakfast items include pot stickers, perfectly fried on the bottom and steamed on top.
IF YOU GO
The Chinese never, ever eat with their hands. Not even hamburgers! They’ll give you a pass as a foreigner, but will be quite impressed with you even attempt to eat with chopsticks. Try it! What have you got to lose?
Tour groups meet near Shaanxi Rd (South) Metro.
Your exact tour meeting point will be emailed upon booking.
Learn to Cha-Cha in China
Park culture is notably different in Shanghai. You know that old expression, “Dance like no one is watching”? The Chinese take that to a whole new level. Throughout Shanghai, you’ll find many older residents dancing at both dawn and dusk in many local parks. I joined in at Fuxing Park, a beautiful green space in the French Concession, though this really does happen throughout the city. It’s regarded as an important element in a healthy lifestyle and serves a great way to socialize, breathe in the fresh air and exercise. All are welcome to join in the fun, and you’ll often stumble upon someone teaching the art of cha-cha or waltz.
IF YOU GO
An audience is always welcome, but be warned: Chinese are quite friendly and aren’t shy about asking strangers to dance.
516 Fuxing Middle Rd
Shanghai Shi, China
Exploring the French Concession
Yes, Shanghai may be the most populous city in the world, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find leafy, tranquil streets. I love wandering through the French Concession, a neighborhood that’s 170 years old. During the 1800s, Britain, France, and the United States occupied territories in Shanghai, known as concessions. The French Concession hit its stride in the 1920s and 30s, as a popular spot for artists, revolutionaries, and intellectuals.
The area is known for darling cafes, coffee shops, breweries, boutiques and galleries. It’s also home to Tian Zi Fang, a fun, bustling area known for arts, crafts and shopping. ShouBai Cultural & Art Co is one of the most interesting galleries in the area. Paper was invented in China, so it’s only fitting that an entire art form arose from cutting it. I met with Lucy Li, a third generation paper cutter who creates incredible art and teaches workshops. Learn more about her family business here.
IF YOU GO
The site of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is now preserved as a museum. Located in Xintiandi, on Xingye Road, the museum showcases the history of China, the city of Shanghai, and the events surrounding the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party.
First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party Museum
76 Xingye Road
Soak in the architecture along the Bund
Shanghai’s history is complicated, to say the least. That’s precisely why ex-pat Pat Cranley co-founded Historic Shanghai. Since 1998, this community group aims to preserve Shanghai’s unique history by raising awareness, and appreciation, of the city’s remarkable heritage and cultural history.
On my walking tour with Cranley, we explored the Bund River and its impressive architecture. In the first half of the 20th Century, businesses want to make a statement, sparing no expense when it came to architecture and design. This is especially apparent with the Art Deco-style building that now houses the iconic Peace Hotel.
Then, after what was essentially a 40 year freeze on development, the city catapulted into the modern day with impressive skyscrapers. The city’s first modern building, the Oriental Pearl Tower, was erected in 1994, and the entire modern skyline is newer than that. This may be the fastest rate of growth in human history, and it’s absolutely mind-boggling to learn about.
The Shanghai Pudong Development Bank is worth mentioning. Built in the early 1920s, this six-floor neo-classical building served as an impressive showpiece. Imported Carrera marble, stunning mosaics—including one of Cornucopia, the goddess of plenty, were intended to exude wealth and power. Nearly 100 years later, it still delivers.
Get up close and personal with China’s oldest brand.
In the states, brands like Pendelton or Red Wing Boots constitute as heritage brands. In China, a 100-year-old business is a newbie. Just look at Shanghai’s Hangzhou Zhang Xiaoquan Company. Founded in 1663, this company is the owns the earliest Chinese trademark for its signature products: scissors and knives.
I love to feature local shopping on Places to Love, and you’re not going to find another shopping experience quite like this in the states. Asian countries take great pride in their knives. Whenever I’m in Asia, I always buy them. They make for great gifts! The Chinese are all about the cleaver. I know what you’re thinking, and no, they’re not just for butchers and horror films. A good cleaver is actually quite versatile and lighter than you think. At $22, the one I selected is a steal!
IF YOU GO
Don’t be shy—try a few knives out! You’d be surprised at how different a knife may feel in your hand versus what you’d expect from it just by looking at it.
No. 490, East Nanjing Road
Travel to the past in Fengjing.
About an hour southwest of Shanghai, you’ll find the ancient water town of Fengjing. Though a handful of canal towns exist near Shanghai, Fengjing remains the best-preserved and largest. 52 bridges connect the city over serene waterways, including the Zhihe Bridge, built over 700 years ago. Sure, it’s a little touristy, but it gives you an idea of what things looked like in ancient times. Part of the magic is getting on a boat and floating through the canals, soaking up the atmosphere.
IF YOU GO
In addition to its canals, Fengjing is also known for its vibrant, farming-inspired folk art.
Take G60 Shanghai–Kunming Expressway roughly 70 miles southwest from Shanghai. There’s also city bus, train and private tour transportation available.
Enjoy a jazz session at the Peace Hotel
You may not think of Shanghai as a hub for great live jazz. However, in the 1920s, the Peace Hotel was the place for live jazz in Asia. I had the great pleasure of meeting with Jingyu Zhang, the longtime piano player with the hotel’s Old Jazz Band. Most of the bandmates have been playing together since the 1980s. Their average age? 82. Seeing a show here is a fun way to experience part of Shanghai’s lore, and a must when visiting.
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20 Nanjing Road East
TEL + 86 21 6138 6888