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25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 25 Sheng Dan Kuai Le! 圣诞快乐!

That means Merry Christmas in Chinese! Wherever you are, and however you’re celebrating, I wish you a wonderful and joyful day full of good food and good company.  It’s been an incredibly fun year in Shanghai, and wonderful to meet so many new readers, thank you all for making Life on Nanchang Lu what it is! I love to get your comments and emails, and great to hear how many of you are planning trips to Shanghai in 2011. I’m planning on a short travelling break myself, to Europe, and I look forward to sharing more of Life on Nanchang Lu with you from January 1st. Happy holidays!

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 24 The Year in Pictures

Christmas Eve! There’s a glass of red on the go, a house full of children tucked in bed, and there’s a plate full of the finest non-Chinese cheese Carrefour has to offer.  I’ve been reminiscing about the year that was, and what to write for these final two Christmas posts, and I thought ‘why not just put it in pictures?’ Thinking I could just gather a few favourite photos together and get on with the wrapping…..well, that was four hours ago, and I’ve been engrossed all that time in the memories of the past year….it has been an incredible year, and I’m reminded again of how amazingly interesting and colourful Shanghai is.  So no matter what timezone you’re celebrating Christmas Eve in, have a glass of champagne with me and wait for Santa. In the meantime, here’s a snapshot of Shanghai 2010 in pictures!


Chinese New Year





25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 23 And the Prize for Worst Chinese Santa Goes to….

 It’s not hard to see that these Chinese Santas wouldn’t survive for five minutes when confronted with the average Saturday morning Christmas crowd at a local shopping centre back home. For a start, most of them seem pretty clueless when it comes to dealing with children, one even resorting to putting his empty toy sack over his head to drown out the cries of children desperate for another free toy. Or the fake rubber santa in his fake car – he looks slightly terrifying. Personally, I’m going for the thin and resigned santa, slumped in his chair and utterly defeated by this whole Christmas palaver.

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 22 A Gift From Christmas Past

I was given this little time capsule today by my lovely husband as an early Christmas gift. He found the box in a back stall at the Ghost market, amongst various bits and pieces from Shanghai’s glory days.   Old product boxes are valuable in themselves, and more often than not you pick up an old box to find it empty – they rarely still carry the original item.  But this treasure contained three pairs of pristine, never worn, silk stockings. Finely woven, slippery, and with a reinforced toe, the Hung Nee Sung Hosiery company promises ‘satisfaction to the wearer’ from their ‘hosiery made of the finest material’. I wonder how they survived the austerity of the cultural revolution, no doubt hidden away by someone who had consdered the stockings too precious to wear.


25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 21 Rich Creamy Chocolate Fudge

Chocolate fudge is one of those essential Christmas sweets that every cook has a favourite recipe for. This fudge gets made every year at around this time and lasts about as long as it takes to put a ribbon around a box of it. The thing I like about this recipe is that it doesn’t need fresh cream (which I can’t buy in Shanghai), or glucose syrup (even more impossible) and is so simple kids can make it. The fudge is quite soft, and so I have wrapped pieces of it individually so they don’t stick to one another. It will take you about 15 minutes to make, from start to finish.

Rich Creamy Chocolate Fudge

  • 400g can sweetened condensed milk
  • 100g unsalted butter, cubed
  • 250g (1 1/4 cups, firmly packed) brown sugar
  • 1 tbs golden syrup
  • 100g good-quality dark chocolate, finely chopped

  • Brush a 20cm square pan with a small amount of melted butter to grease, then line with non-stick baking paper
  • Place condensed milk, butter, brown sugar and golden syrup in a heavy based suacepan
  • Heat over low heat until sugar dissolved and buuter melted, and bubbles appear on the surface
  • Add chocolate and stir until smooth and well combined. 
  • Pour immediately into the prepared pan. 
  • Place in the fridge for 1 hour or until firm. 
  • Cut the fudge into squares and wrap in paper
  • Keep in a cool place

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 20 Stuck For a Gift? Give a Hong Bao!

Can’t think what to get someone special for Christmas? Don’t stress, follow Chinese custom and give them a big red hóng bāo 红包, a red envelope filled with cold hard cash. Isn’t it interesting, that we describe cash like this, suggesting it is emotionless and impersonal. Giving cash in China has none of the negative connotations  we ascribe to it, in fact, for most people it’s far preferable to have a hong bao than a gift. I mean, a gift is really risky isn’t it? What if the recipient doesn’t like it?  But everyone likes cash! Giving out hong baos must be the most stress-free way to complete your Christmas shopping, but personally, I’ve found it very difficult to give hong baos – it goes against the western tradition of gift-giving I grew up with and it feels thoughtless and uncaring.  Eventually it took a story about a friend’s Chinese mother-in-law to finally convince me it was OK to give hong baos. Last Christmas he spent ages laboriously making her a hand-made card, to show just how much he respected her and how highly he thought of her. She opened the envelope, pulled out the card, and after looking at it for about a nanosecond went back to the envelope to make sure she hadn’t missed the cash inside it. As his wife explained, she would rather have had a hong bao than a hand-made card any day.

There are a few rules to observe though. Hong baos are appropriate for birthdays, weddings, Chinese New Year, and Christmas, if that’s your thing. Your cash should be in crisp new notes, bank fresh, and whatever denomination you can afford, multiples of four are bad luck (the word for four is similar to the word for death), multiples of eight are really lucky, and rounded numbers are preferable. So 800 yuan would be the perfect gift, but 40 yuan would be like a double slap in the face.

And because next Chinese New Year (peak hong bao giving season) is the Year of the Rabbit, rabbit themed hong baos are popping up everywhere. Whatever design you choose, stuff it with money and then hand it over. Recipient stisfaction guaranteed.

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 19 Bruce and The Rotary Candle Holder

I have a soft spot for Bruce, the Chinese real estate agent who helped us find our lane house. He’s been chasing me for weeks to give me a Christmas gift, a very uncharacteristic thing for a Chinese real estate agent to do. But Bruce is a very uncharacteristic real estate agent. For a start, he has a thing about Australia, a country he’s never visited, giving himself a totally Aussie name, daggy* as it may be, and adopting Australian slang picked up from the young Aussie guys in Shanghai he has befriended Slang in another language is tricky, though, isn’t it? To get the context exactly right? Australians pepper their everyday speech with hundreds of slang phrases, all with varying degrees of profanity, and adjusted subtly to fit the audience. 

My first phone conversation with Bruce showed he still had a ways to go in getting the slang right for the situation. It went something like this:

Bruce: Hi there, what sort of apartment are you looking for?

Fiona: Well, we need three bedrooms and we need some kind of outdoor terrace or balcony.

Bruce: Whoah! Are you Aussie??

Fiona: Umm…yeah, I am.

Bruce: Oh yeah! Coz you Aussies love to barbie**, right?! 

Fiona: Ummm….yeah. We do. We sure love to…..ah……barbie.

Bruce: Got you! You can barbie and get shit-faced***, right! 

Fiona: (trying to remember the last time she could have possibly been shit-faced, and…and….did he really just swear at me??!)….umm…..yeah…..let’s find a lane house perfect for that!

When I later meet Bruce in person, bless him, he looks twelve years old and is very short-sighted. He carries a tennis raquet with him everywhere he goes. Clearly, he has never been shit-faced in his life. I mean, what are those Aussie guys teaching him?

*daggy = uncool
**barbie = barbecue
***shit-faced = drunk to the point of semi-consciousness

Anyway, since then, Bruce pops up from time to time, usually to ask how the barbies are working out. I have never explained how inappropriate the use of ‘shit-faced’ is when describing a family of four, and I feel a little guilty about this failure to disclose, because the next time he says it someone will probably just punch him. 

This week he’s been desperate to give me a Christmas gift, no doubt something his Aussie mates told him would be good public relations with all of his foreign clients. But because gift-giving, and particularly Christmas gift-giving is unfamiliar ground for Chinese people, there are some very Bruce aspects to the whole process.

It starts with an email in November, out of the blue.

Bruce: I want to send u petit Christmas gift. Can you choose any three of these? 
Small notebook in green(bird cage pattan) or blue flower color or Lady Qipao style
 Biz card holder (which color)
Chinese painting (small)
Cup Matt in blue flower(6 piece)
Pepper & salt case on talbe(blue or golden color)
Peony pattern bowl
Small Tea holder
Small cosmetic mirror(blue,purple or green)
Bird book mark(silver,golden,pink)
Cosmetic holder(blue,purple or green)
Small golden angel ornament
Rotary candle holder
I suspect Bruce has cleared out his desk drawers and just listed the contents. It’s all rather bewildering, and what the hell is a rotary candle holder? I forget all about it for a week or two, until Bruce emails the list again. I reply by text, inadvertently sparking a text conversation 28 messages long lasting over 6 days.

Bruce: Decided yet?

Fiona: Notebook would be lovely. thanks Bruce.

Bruce: Got u with thx. How about yr kids?

Fiona: They’re fine, thanks for asking.

Bruce: But what gift fr them?

Fiona: Oh! Happy with anything. Why don’t you choose something?

Bruce: Oh u got me

Fiona: OK, how about the bookmark?

Bruce: Hi silver, gold or pinky bird marker? 

Fiona: umm…..silver (wondering… it a bookmark? or a marker pen?)

(By now, any element of surprise in the gift is totally lost, and I’m losing the will to live. Not only do I have to choose my own piece of Bruce’s desk detritus, but I have to choose the colour too.)

Bruce: Got u! so can send to ur home this week with others?

(Bruce appears very fond of saying ‘got u!’)

Fiona: No worries.

Bruce: Hi can I send to ur home tmr? A notebook, bird marker and rotary silver candle holder?

Fiona: No problem

(Thinking….how the hell did that rotary candle holder get on the list?? I didn’t even ask for it!)

Bruce: Anytime tmr?

Fiona: Anytime.

Bruce: Got u!
By now I have a sinking feeling of impending disappointment. These gifts are going to be major duds, just like the rubbish your bank manager or insurance company sends. And after 28 messages back and forth, any residual surprise factor is totally, utterly destroyed.  
The gifts arrived yesterday,carefully wrapped with price stickers prominently displayed, as is Chinese custom, to show exactly how much was spent. So the small notebook, blue, in Lady Qipao Style is quite cute. And the silver bird marker is nice, and really stylish. And the Rotary Candle Holder? I actually like it because of the little silver reindeer on top that spins around when you light the candle. Very Christmasy.

Now I feel like a total heel….Bruce came all the way to our house, with a gift-wrapped rotary candle holder, and I’ve ungraciously made fun of his Aussie slang and his drawer contents. Shame on me!  Bruce, I owe you an apology….to make up for it I’ll take you out sometime and get you totally shit-faced. Promise.

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 18 A Christmas Shortbread Recipe

These are mooncake molds, for using during mid-autumn festival, but I’ve been thinking for a while now they would make great shortbread molds, giving me some extra mileage out of them at Christmas. These hand-carved molds were bought at Dongtai Lu in Shanghai, but can be picked up cheaply at any antiques market in China for about 40 yuan each (about $7), and after a good wash in soapy water, and an oiling with vegetable oil, they’re good to go. The patterns are beautiful, like the lotus pod with a tiny lucky butterfly, a patterned leaf, and stylised double happiness symbols. This week I had the chance to try them out on my favourite shortbread recipe, but you can also use traditional shortbread molds, butter molds, or simply shape the shortbread freeform. Because this recipe is so easy to make and keeps well,  it’s a great fast and easy gift.

Scottish Shortbread
  • 180g good quality butter
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 180g plain flour
  • 75g rice flour or ground rice (plain flour can be substituted, the ground rice gives the shortbread a traditional gritty texture)

  • Preheat oven to 150C
  • Cream butter and sugar together until light in colour
  • Add flour and ground rice and mix well into a dough
  • Refrigerate dough for 30 mins
  • Using your hands, form dough into a flat patty a little bigger than the size of the mold
  • Press dough down firmly into the mould, them peel away and place on baking sheet
  • Trim edges with a knife
  • Bake for 20-25 mins or until golden (larger shortbreads will take longer than small ones)
  • Sprinkle lightly with extra caster sugar while still warm

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 17 Everything Goes Better With Snow

Is it childish to get ridiculously excited by snow? Coming from
the tropics means I never get to experience falling snow at home, and last winter’s snow in Shangai was a bit underwhelming at best – just a few scattered flakes here and there. But the night before last it really, really snowed. Well, at least for a snow novice like myself it seemed like it was really snowing, but all the hardened New England and Toronto expats just snorted and said ‘You call that snow?? Every year in (insert hometown) it gets 10 feet deep and you have to dig yourself out of the front door every morning.’ OK, I get it.  So yes, it wasn’t much snow, and it arrived late afternoon while I was stuck indoors having a haircut, and as desperately as I wanted to get out and take photos for you I would have looked ridiculous in a cape with clingfilm wrapped round my head. By the morning the snow was almost all gone. But for a short few hours, everything looked so beautiful….snow seems to improve the appearance of almost everything – fire hydrants, phone boxes, bicycles and street lights all look better with a layer of snow. There are, however, some things even snow can’t fix, like the demon car-driving santa and the strange pointy-eared snowman that appeared in my lane with a colander on its head….

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 16 Sweet Potato Advent Calendar

This contraption hands down wins the prize for best street food set-up, ever. It’s a giant, home-made sweet potato roaster, with individual sweet potato compartments for roasting, with the cooked ones kept warm on top. To my eyes it looks just ike the advent calendars we have been opening every day at home, but a big, blackened, rusting, smoking, street food version of an advent calendar.   In winter, roasted sweet potatoes are an understandably popular street food, because they taste good, they’re cheap, and they keep your hands warm as you eat them. In fact, they were the first street food I ever wrote about in my Shanghai Street Food series. Come October, as the air gets crisp and the nights lengthen, the sweet potato vendors wheel out their 44 gallon roasting drums onto street corners and stand around waiting for a sale, hands thrust deep in pockets to keep warm. 
This oven here is completely different to what is normally used by sweet potato sellers, and is obviously a unique invention of its owner – I’m unlikely to see anything like it again. Even better, the whole kit and caboodle can be hitched to a bicycle at the end of the day. A self-contained business on wheels!