Back to blog index

Dongtai Lu Antique Market

I could quite happily go ferretting around antique markets every weekend of my life. An ideal Sunday for me  would consist of early morning coffee at Baker and Spice on Anfu Lu, then a cycle through the old town to the Ghost Market , followed by noodles on 
FangBang Lu, then a really thorough going-over at the Dongtai Lu 
Antique Market.
Of course, there aren’t that many real bargains to be had, but the fun is in the searching, and the haggling. There are plenty of ‘new’ antiques too, easy to spot because every second stall has the exact same genuine ming dynasty celadon bowl, actually made last week in Ningbo and buried in a mixture of soil and ash for an instant lived-in look. 

You’ve got to bargain real hard, and at the same time pretend you couldn’t care less whether you walked away with that Chairman Mao teaset or not. It works best if you have two people involved in the transaction, a double act like Laurel and Hardy. Or Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott. Here’s how to get the best price possible.

Kevin: (in fluent mandarin) Excuse me laoban, how much for this delightful Communist-era knick-knack?

Laoban: 6 million kuai. Very cheap! Best quality, only one in Shanghai!

Tony: He’s ripping you off mate. Walk away.

Kevin: I can see it’s well-made…..

Laoban: How much you pay? Verrrry cheaper for you. How much? How much?

Tony: Mate, there’s one over there for 50 kuai!
Laoban: OKOKOKOK, you friend, give you verry cheaper price. 5 million kuai. 

Tony: What the…..?!

Kevin: Yes, things are a bit tight this week, there hasn’t been much GST coming in since Fiona left the country….. OK, how about 3 kuai?

Laoban: OK, 3 million kuai. Very good price.

Tony: Not 3 million kuai! Three kuai! Quick, walk away! Walk away!

Kevin: How about four? Four kuai?

Tony: Mate, that was just insulting. Keep walking!
Laoban: (as they walk away) OK 2 million!……OK OK 5000!……Wait mister! 400!…….. Wait! Last price! 130! …………Friend! 20! 

Tony: (turning back) 5 kuai. Final price.

Laoban: OK OK. 5 kuai.

Kevin: Thanks, Tony. That was extremely impressive.

Tony: It’s all in the walk away, mate. It’s all in the walk away.

Soap Memories

I have lots of little everyday shopping adventures in Shanghai. I never know whether the grocery item I just bought is actually what I thought it was, until I get it home. So there are a lot of random grocery surprises to keep me on my toes, like the time I poured natural yoghurt (from what appeared to be a blue and white milk carton) into my cup of tea. 

Yesterday I stocked up on soap, but the local store had run out of Hazeline, the brand I usually get, and these brightly coloured boxes caught my eye. I’ve always been a sucker for good packaging. Even better,the brand was called Shanghai Yaozao – local! At only 2.2 yuan each (30cents) I bought four.

When I took it out of the box this morning though, two things struck me. Firstly, the rather alarming fluorescent pink colour, and secondly the unmistakeable smell of carbolic. That strong, tarry, medicinal smell took me straight back to my great-grandmother’s laundry in the tiny town of Warwick, Australia, and the big cake of yellow soap she used to wash her hands with after gardening or tending to the chickens. Or, apparently, to wash my mother’s mouth out with, after she had said something really terrible like ‘bugger’. She died many years ago at the age of 103 and I haven’t thought about that laundry in more than 20 years.

Isn’t it funny how smells can be so evocative of something so far away in time and place?

Shanghai’s Best Xiǎolóngbāo

Xiǎolóngbāo are synonymous with Shanghai in the minds of most foodies. These little steamed meat and soup-filled dumplings are often the first thing that Shanghainese living overseas want to eat when they make a pilgrimage home. Certainly they will always be the first thing I’d be wanting to eat on my return. 

Why? They are certainly tasty, with a filling made from pork (usually) with or without the addition of crab meat or crab roe, and seasoned with a little ginger and shaoxing wine. But the minor miracle lies in their creation and construction – these seemingly delicate, semi-transparent skins hold not only the delicious meat but a big mouthful of fragrant soup too.I have written previously about making Xiǎolóngbāo  if you want to know more.

And how do you eat them? Firstly place a few slivers of ginger on your spoon, and pour some excellent dark vinegar into a small dish. Now ever so carefully lift one out of the steamer basket by its top knot, as this is the strongest part. Poorly made xiǎolóngbāo will come apart at this point, and there will be soup everywhere, including on your new dress. Dip it into the vinegar then rest it on your spoon. What you do next depends on the temperature of the xiǎolóngbāo. If still very hot, nibble a small hole in the top to release the steam, then suck out the soup and eat the rest. Personally, I like to wait until they are just slightly less hot and slurp the whole thing off my spoon intact. Then, when I bite, hot soup pours into my mouth and down my throat, almost, but not quite, scalding it. OK, scalding it many times, but you have to suffer a little to achieve food nirvana.

I think the best xiǎolóngbāo in Shanghai are to be found at Din Tai Fung (several locations, including Xintiandi and Yu Gardens). Foodies will be rolling in their graves because Din Tai Fung is actually from Taiwan, not Shanghai. But you know what? I’ve eaten around 300 of their xiǎolóngbāo. Every single one tasted great. Their restaurants are impeccably clean, and their service is excellent. Other places may beat them on price but cannot match them for consistency. Let me know your favourite Shanghai xiǎolóngbāo restaurant!

Häagen-Dazs Panda Mania

Need a little pick-me-up after a day spent schlepping around Shanghai’s markets? Now that the weather is warming up you can drop into the new Häagen-Dazs store at Xintiandi, opposite the
The new place is very fancy, with chandeliers, mock-croc covered tables and velvet banquettes in shades of chocolate, vanilla and coffee, and seats about 100 more people than before. Eating ice-cream in China is really for those privileged enough to afford it, and as a result you feel like you have stepped into a 5-star restaurant rather than an ice-cream bar. Dozens of waiters and waitresses bustle around, pouring glasses of complimentary iced water and handing out the velvet-covered menus. Yes, there is a menu, about 20 pages long, with all sorts of ice-cream extravaganzas. In the past I’ve had the pleasure of a plate of sushi and sashimi shaped ice-cream, chocolate-covered ice-cream mooncakes, and during the Shanghai Tennis Open a  series of tennis ball and racquet shaped icecreams.
Today’s special though, was really special – a Panda Deluxe for 78 yuan (about $12.50). As I sat enjoying it, I noticed a Buddhist nun in pale grey robes at the next table talking on her mobile phone and drinking coffee. Meanwhile, outside next to the fountain, a giant live blue Haibo (the Expo mascot) was being assaulted by several small Chinese children. Worth every cent.

Helpful Shanghai Road Signs

Shanghai has some unique street signs, not that anyone except me pays any attention to them.  Like this one – a handy reminder that school children should run across the road at 30km/h whenever there is a break in the traffic.
Watch out for falling workmen!
Don’t terminate anyone’s employment…
Like anyone pays attention to this one. It might as well say ‘Spitting Compulsory’

Be careful of hammers, pliers and hands falling from above….(thanks to Sandy H for this photo)

And please remember while you are waiting to run across the road, don’t let off any random fireworks!

For more crazy Shanghai happenings, read about 
Crocodile Wars  and Laundry Wars 

My New Birdcage

Chinese birdcages are so beautiful. Each one is like a tiny palace, intricately constructed by hand. I’ve always wanted one, so I grabbed the chance today to visit the Bird and Flower Market on Wanhangdu Lu. I don’t know why, but in Shanghai there are no Bird Markets selling only birds, and no Flower Markets selling only flowers. Only Bird and Flower Markets. Another Chinese puzzle.

The birdcage shops are a wonderland for bird-lovers – beautifully carved perches, hand painted porcelain seed and water bowls and the cages – shaped like pagodas, lanterns or square, each one has exquisite details. Mine has little hand-carved birds in a pale-coloured wood decorating it.

Of course, they are tiny palaces, but tiny prisons too. Every time I’m out walking and hear beautiful birdsong, I look up to see a nightingale, an oriole or a jackdaw hopping around in a cramped cage. So rest assured, I have no intention of having a real bird in my cage. I just love it because it’s so beautifully made. 

Crocodile Wars

OK, so everyone knows the French sportswear brand Lacoste, right? Those ice-cream coloured polo-shirts? 
Chinese people love Lacoste. Like really love it, to the point of obsession. It’s quite common to see couples in matching pink polos, cute little green crocodile on the pocket, just hanging around outside the shop in order to absorb the cool European vibe.

Lacoste have obviously been too successful though, and have managed to spawn an entire industry of (apparently) legal rip-offs. So now for every Lacoste store, there are approximately fifty rip-off merchants selling much the same stuff, only cheaper. Copyright infringement? Are you kidding? This is CHINA. 

Here’s a tour of the ‘competitors’

Firstly, we have ‘Crocodile’. Not very imaginative, but probably the top of the bunch, and ‘SINCE 1982’ lends an air of credibility. If it’s true that is.

Secondly, my personal favourite, Clio Coddle. 
Say it fast. Faster. Now with a Chinese accent. Geddit?

Things must be on the up and up for these guys, because they just opened this very fancy branch in Beijing.
Lastly for the fake crocodile shops with totally random names. These are at the low end.

The NuomanDiEYu ‘France Crocodilian Shirt Group Limited’ wins hands down for the most obscure, apparently meaningless and totally unconvincing name, with random use of capitals. But you know what? They sell a truckload of polo shirts. 

First Mangosteens

This week the first mangosteens of the season have appeared in the fruit shops and the wet market  – a sure sign that the weather is warming up and summer might appear eventually. 

Mangosteens (shānzhú 山竹) are a most amazing fruit – the outside is black-purple and hard like a seed. Trying to cut it open with a knife is fraught with danger! But if you feel the outside very carefully you will find one or two softer spots in the hard skin that allow you to pull off a small piece and gain access to the inside. 

And inside – wow! The purple skin is lined with soft crimson cushioning, to protect the delicate creamy flesh. Mangosteen tastes like nothing else in the world – custard apple with hints of strawberry, pear and pineapple. Sublime.

Shanghai Street Food #4 Langzhou Lāmiàn 拉面

This is Number 4 in the Shanghai Street Food series. I’m working my way through all of Shanghai’s street foods, one by one. Enjoy a taste of all of them!

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup

All over Shanghai are dozens of hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving Langzhou hand-pulled noodles. These are some of the best cheap eats in Shanghai, and hugely popular. Lā means ‘to pull’ and miàn means ‘noodle’. When you see them being made you’ll understand why. The restaurants are run by ethnic Chinese Hui muslims, identifiable from afar by their crisp white cotton caps.

My favourite Langzhou lamian restaurant is on Fangbang Lu in the Old City, nearby Luxiangyuan Lu.  For 12 yuan ($2) you can watch as your noodles are made to order before your eyes. Firstly, the noodle maker kneads and stretches the dough, then rolls it into a solid length. Now he pulls it to a full span of his arms, twists it together and pulls again, over and over. As the noodles get thinner and more numerous he slaps them hard on his steel workbench to help separate them. Once finished, he slides open the window above his workbench and literally tosses them out into a bubbling pot of aromatic broth in which they will be cooked. 

These are bowls of niu rou lamian – a tasty beef broth with noodles, slices of fresh beef, coriander, and shallots.
Alternatively, try dāo xīao mìan 刀削麵, hand-cut noodles – these are made from a slab of dough wrapped round a wooden rolling pin, then deftly sliced off into the pot using a device that looks like a potato peeler. The noodles are thicker and shorter and have a fantastic texture. 

These little restaurants exemplify one of the most incredible things about Shanghai – without leaving the city you can try specialist and local foods from all over China, cooked by people from those provinces, and enjoyed by everyone.

Shanghai Qibao Water Town

Want to visit a water town while you’re in Shanghai? Don’t have time to get to Tongli or Zhujiajiao? Visit Qibao instead! It’s an ancient water town that was once, long, long ago, miles from Shanghai; but is now surrounded on all sides by its sprawling western suburbs. But it’s so easy to get to you can see it in the morning and whizz back to People’s Square by early afternoon. And if you half-close your eyes you can see just the pretty canals and bridges, and squint out the high-rise apartment blocks in the background.

Once there, you can sip oolong tea overlooking a canal, eat some delicious snacks including those from one of Shanghai’s most famous chòu dòufu 臭豆腐 (stinky tofu) vendors. Hold your nose while you eat it!

There isn’t much serenity to be had on a weekend – a weekday morning will be your best bet for peace and quiet. And Chinese national holidays? Avoid the place like the plague, unless you’re trying to cure your agoraphobia with repeated exposure to really intense crowds.

There are occasional quiet spots to be had. Have your photo taken sitting in a pavilion in front of the realistic mountain scene mural. Try not to include the apartment windows. 
Or peer into the little alleyways, where you will often find a more peaceful scene. 

So how to get there?  From People’s Square subway station take Line 2 to Xujiahui station (5 stops), then change to Line 9. From here it’s 6 stops to Qibao. Once outside the station follow the crowd, the entrance is about 200m away.