Back to blog index

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 5 Light Your Tree!

Seriously, I thought I would be struggling to come up with 25 Christmas ideas for this blog series. But that was before I fully appreciated the lengths people will go to in order to bring a little of their home’s Christmas traditions to their adopted country, China.  Take today, for example.  We have a wonderful German friend, (with an equally wonderful Australian wife), who just happens to be the general manager of The Longemont Hotel in Jing’an.    He invited our children to the hotel today to help light their enormous Christmas tree, a great privilege and one eagerly taken up by the girls and their two friends.  In the lobby was the biggest, sparkliest Christmas tree ever, with Christmas lights hung from all the balconies and staircases. It looked spectacular. In the lobby cafe sat a giant gingerbread house covered in sugar snow, big enough to walk inside, and warm, spiced gluhwein was being served by Santa’s helpers. Really, I could have been in Frankfurt.
Before the lighting of the tree, The Longemont staff choir sang Christmas carols in English. They came from far-flung Wuhan, and Sichuan, where Christmas is unheard of and un-celebrated. Recently arrived in Shanghai to start their hospitality training at the hotel, none of them can actually speak English. Can you imagine singing five songs in Chinese in front of a crowd of Chinese speakers with your boss looking on? Like being naked in public. I’m sure I’ve had a nightmare along those lines…. They did an amazing job, and finished with Edelweiss. Not a dry eye in the house.
Then Santa popped up, but he was ever such a Chinese Santa, way too skinny, with glasses, and a slight problem with his whiskers getting up his nose. He did try a few ‘hohohos’ but he had a soft gentle voice and it just didn’t quite sound right. So he rang his bell and handed out gifts to the children in the crowd, then felt a little awkward and went to hang out at the concierge desk, which is probably where he usually works.

What followed was an incredible lunch together, with the table decorated surprisingly with gumnuts. Gumnuts! Can you imagine? We snatched them up and smelled the wonderful eucalyptus smell, brought in a shoebox all the way from Brisbane to Shanghai by the manager’s wife. We would often use them to decorate the Christmas tree or the table at home. So we went home having had a little touch of Australia, and Germany, in Shanghai. 

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 4 Hunt for a Tree

Where do you find a genuine Christmas tree amongst 20 million people who don’t celebrate Christmas? Last year, determined to have a real, living Christmas tree for the first time ever, I travelled to furtherest Pudong, to a giant indoor plant nursery to buy the only vaguely Nordic looking potted tree they had. It was green, it was spiky, but it only barely passed muster as a Christmas tree. Two tiny Chinese delivery men heaved it up to our second floor living room, where it died, lonely and neglected, about five months later. It was too heavy for even four strapping western men to move, so I had to hack it up, branch by branch, and take it on bits to the rubbish bins. Not good.
This year I was determined to do better, and I had much better intel. The Hongqiao Bird and Flower market had finally cottoned on to what we have known all along. That Christmas is a really, really good opportunity to make money if you’re selling the right thing. And they are! Firs! Spruce! Pines! Rows and rows of them in pots. Real, live, living, breathing Christmas trees. I walked through the doors and just breathed deeply on the Christmas smell.
I asked the first vendor how much. 450 kuai, she said. About $40 for an 8ft tree. Not bad, but something about them looked not quite right…..the lower branches were dried out and kind of…dead looking. Hmmm. The second venor offered the same size for only 300 kuai. Great price, but hers looked even sadder and more dried out. The prices were much the same all along the row until I got to the last shop. She was selling short, squat, but very green and healthy looking trees for ….wait for it…….880 kuai!!
No way! I told her. I can get one next door for 300!! 
Then this is where it got interesting. And intriguing.  What she told me, in a mix of English, Chinese, Shanghainese and sign langage, was that the trees in the others stores were FAKE. 
They are not, I said, Come on…..I broke off a small branch from the next door shop to prove it. 
No, no, no! Not real! She insisted. Then she drew her hand quickly across the front of her neck and made a sound like a buzz saw. Not real! CUT!!
Ah hah. The other trees were indeed real, but had just been lopped off and stuck in a pot to simulate a living Christmas tree. If I bought one of the cheap ones, she said, it would be DEAD before Christmas. Well, I wasn’t going to fall for that particular caper.
I sighed. I chose the healthiest looking one. I paid 880 kuai. It got delivered this morning with this note attached to a branch. It probably says ‘A sucker paid 880 kuai for this tree’ I grumbled to my husband.    
Actually, he said, it’s our address. Oh.
Hongqiao Bird and Flower market
(Hongqiao Hua Shi)
718 Hongjing Lu, near Hongsong Lu. 

虹井路718号, 近红松路. 

Open daily 9am – 6pm

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 3 A Christmas Story

 Imagine this. You are seven years old, and in your short life you have already moved from your countryside home to the city so your parents can find work in a factory, or shop, or labouring. Your parents, hoping for a better life, have discovered that city life is harsh, and that the local people call you ‘wai di ren’ – outside place people, outsiders, strangers. You live in the poorest suburbs of Shanghai, and go to school at special ‘migrant schools’, dreadfully lacking in resources. You learn in a classroom with a bare concrete floor, without heating, and your teachers manage with the barest of equipment – a blackboard, chalk, and a few well-thumbed books. You have never owned your own pencils, and you certainly have never had someone give you toys.

But this isn’t a sad story. Today I give you an inspiring true Christmas story of real joy, as you can see from these happy faces. Seven years ago a foreigner living here started a programme called The Giving Tree, as a way of bringing practical help to these ‘outsider’ children in the way of a bag full of warm winter clothes, books, pencils and toys every winter. International schools help out by distributing the bags to school families, who then buy items to fill them – usually a new coat, sturdy shoes or boots, a warm hat, school supplies, and toys. Each bag is marked with the name, age, height, weight and shoe size of the child who will receive them, so that everything will fit.

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to go along to the school where our bags were being distributed in a ceremony involving 400 children.

Welcome to Yu Hai Xue Xiao. Its poetic name, the Cloud Sea Little School, is at odds with the dirt road leading to the very rudimentary classrooms and concrete playground.

Inside the classrooms, the children are brushed and polished and wearing their best, best clothes and their red ‘young pioneer’ scarves in preparation for our visit. They’re doing their best not to be distracted by the rows of Giving Tree bags lined up at the front of the classroom. A bell sounds, and everyone races outside for assembly to line up, smallest to biggest.

The children are buzzing with excitement and find it very difficult to stand still and listen to the Principal’s speech. This is Yun Hai School’s first year as Giving Tree recipients, and all the children know is that the arrival of those exciting red and white bags has something to do with us foreigners. Then our principal explains that her students’ families have filled these bags with gifts for the children, because we are guests in their country, and we want to show how much we appreciate living here. There is a stampede back to the classrooms when the Principal says it is time for the bags to be given out.

There is fever pitch excitement back in the Grade 2 classroom as Teacher calls out the names of each of her fifty seven-year-olds. It is clearly an agony waiting for your name to be called, and the chidren sit tense and expectant, eyes wide and hands clasped.
One by one, they come to the front of the room and receive their bags. Some stride with great energy and proudly say ‘Sank yoo!’ as their teacher has taught them, others shuffle shyly to the desk, barely able to make eye contact, then shuffle shyly back again and hide the bag under their chairs, perhaps fearful that someone will take it away again.
Finally only a few children are left, among them this little girl, and her expectation is palpable. Is it me next? she wonders. No, someone else’s turn. It must be me next! I’m the last one! 
At last the teacher points her way and her million watt smile can be seen from space. It’s me! It’s me!
I expect her to return to her desk and rip open the toys, like every child I know. But something unexpected happens. In the top of the bag she finds a card, hand-made by one of the children at our school, with a wish written in Chinese. She looks at it for a very long time, smiling to herself, then looks at the paper butterfly on the front, and reads it again, marvelling that some child she has never met has made a card for her. Around her, the same thing is happening at every desk. I have tears in my eyes. 

The room erupts then, as the kids delve deep into their bags and to their wonderment find toys, pencil cases, pens and books. The noise and excitement is intense as fifty seven-year olds squeal,laugh and shout together. I watch the reactions around the room. One little girl has been given a jigsaw puzzle. Clearly, she has never seen one before and has no idea what this plastic wrapped box is, with a pretty picture on the front. It doesn’t occur to her to open the wrapping and look inside, beacuse she thinks the box is the present. Even when it is explained to her she doesn’t want to take the plastic wrapping off. Nearby, her friend has been given a rubik’s cube in clear plastic packaging. She doesn’t take the packaging off either. I ask the teacher if they have been told to leave everything in their packets. No! she says, surprised. It’s just that they haven’t seen toys in packaging before. I’m stunned. 

I notice a quiet girl in one corner. She has her bag on her lap and she is taking out the items inside one at a time. She turns the first, a packet of hairclips, over and over in her hands for several minutes, absorbing every detail. She places it carefully back in the bag and takes out the next item, a pen. The same careful consideration. She repeats this with every single item in her bag, only ever taking out one at a time. When the last item is done, she tucks the bag firmly under her desk and sits silently, looking at her hands. I can see she wants to smile, a smile is struggling to pop out, but each time she pulls it back inside, and it’s gone. I think about her all afternoon. 

For the others, though, there is easy joy and the room fills with laughter and smiles. We play some games, I teach my first game of Uno in Chinese, and the children visiting from our school sing Chinese songs they’ve learned, as the whole class joins in the chorus. Something about a cat, I think. Or maybe a rabbit. I’m a bit shaky on my Chinese animal names.

All too soon, it’s time to go. Forty-nine smiles, and one almost-nearly-not-quite-smile, wish us on our way. 

We leave with happy hearts. 

I have found it incredibly difficult to find the right words to write this. It really was a truly joyful experience. When you live in an enormous city, where the gap between those with, and those without seems to widen every day, it can be difficult to know how to help, and where. The Giving Tree was established by someone with exactly that wish – to help out in a very concrete and practical way. So far, bags have been distributed to more than 26,000 Shanghai migrant children, and this winter an incredible 15,000 bags will be filled and delivered.

For information, visit The Giving Tree and see their short film.

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 2 Dog Sneakers

For the second day of Christmas, a pair of dogs in shoes.   Why do dogs in Shanghai wear sneakers? Well have you seen those streets? Filthy. Disgusting. Not even dogs like walking on them barefoot.     And whether it’s due to choice or inbreeding, almost all of Shanghai’s dogs are white, possible the single most impractical colour for a dog to be. Brown, soot or smog coloured woud be way more practical. I’ve even met a white samoyed here who has a shower after every walk. Voluntarily.     What I don’t know is why these two were out without their coats on, when most dogs are fully dressed with matching fitted coat, shoes, and sometimes a hat. By contrast, these two look alarmingly naked, and a bit chilly. I bet they were actually on their way to the coat shop to get matching santa outfits.


25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 1 Five Spice Gingerbread

First of December already! As a special Life on Nanchang Lu Christmas treat I’m sending you on a Chinese Christmas journey for the next 25 days. Every day will be different – sometimes funny, sometimes serious, very often about food; all in all a bit like a typical month for me here in China.  Christmas time is when I miss home the most – for me, it’s the memory of the sun, the heat, the beach and seafood, Christmas the Aussie way. And despite the heat, I make gingerbread every single Christmas without fail, ironically with a snowflake-shaped cookie cutter. In the intense heat I have to freeze the gingerbread dough for an hour between batches so it doesn’t turn into a molten buttery disaster, and carry out the whole process on a slab of super-chilled marble. The heat of the oven can be unbearable when it’s 35 degrees inside the house and I swear that next year, I am bloody well not making gingerbread for Christmas! But I always do……
This year I’m baking it the proper way, in the proper season. It’s cold and rainy outside, so the gingerbread barely needs to be chilled at all in order to keep its shape, and the oven gives the kitchen a wonderful warm cosy feel. This is my favourite, and very easy gingerbread recipe, with the addition of Chinese Five Spice rather than mixed spice. Five spice is an intoxicating mixture of ground star-anise, cloves, cassia, sichuan pepper and fennel seeds with the exact proportions of each spice designed to keep yin and yang in balance. It’s used predominately in Chinese savoury dishes, but I find it works very successfuly in sweet dishes too – poached pears, spiced cumquats, and spicy fruit cake. It gives the gingerbread more depth of flavour, and don’t worry, the sichuan pepper is aromatic rather than hot when used in these small quantities.

Five Spice Gingerbread

  • 125g butter
  • 1/4 cup soft brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup golden syrup
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 1/2cups plain flour
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon bicarb of soda

  • 200g icing sugar
  • juice of half a lemon
  • water

  • preheat oven to 180C
  • cream together butter, sugar and golden syrup
  • add egg and beat well
  • add dry ingredients and mix well
  • turn onto a floured surface and knead until smooth
  • wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30minutes
  • roll out dough to to 4mm thickness and cut into desired shape with a cookie cutter
  • bake on trays lined with baking paper for 12 minutes or until golden
  • cool for five minutes before icing

For Glaze
  • mix together icing sugar and lemon juice until glaze has a runny consistency
  • add water if necessary to achieve desired consistency
  • drizzle over cookies
  • relax! have a cuppa! eat! 

Merry Xmax!

Merry Christmas to all of you! Although Christmas in Shanghai is often all about rampant commercialism (as opposed to the West where it’s about………….hohoho rampant commercialism!) the sentiment is still understood, even if occasionally lost in translation. A chinese friend sent us this message today –

I hope all of us have a happy day and also have a delicious dinner tonight!
Then i wish our company will have a great future.
At last i wish happiness to all of family members have healthy bodys,then we could do more work and make more money!
hehe,It is just play a joke !but i could try more hard for corpration,learn more knowedge,to learn more from you!
Make an extra affort,all of us , for corpration and also for us!

So healthy bodys and happy dinners to all of you, with love from Shanghai!