Back to blog index

The Shanghai Watch Factory 上海手表厂

Imagine yourself on a wet Sunday, walking Shanghai’s streets through the kind of persistent rain that, despite an umbrella, works its way in drips into the inside of your jacket and runs across your collarbone.

It was a rainy day like this when I visited the site of what was once the Shanghai Watch Factory (Shanghai Shoubiao Chang 上海手表厂)

The Shanghai Watch Factory was the very first in China, founded in 1958. Watches became important status symbols, one of the ‘Three Bigs’ (san da jian 三大件) necessary for a groom to bring to a marriage. The evolution of the ‘Three Bigs’ over time is a telling narrative on the startling development of China’s market economy and the sophistication of its consumers. In the 1970s the three desirables were a watch, a sewing machine (or radio), and a bicycle. In the 1980s this became a watch, a television, and a refrigerator, and in the 1990s a television, a refrigerator and a car. By the 2000s a wedding in Shanghai was unlikely to proceed unless the groom could deliver a car, an apartment and a computer. Continue reading “The Shanghai Watch Factory 上海手表厂”

Blue Nankeen 蓝印花布

Behind a yellow lane house on Changle Lu is a garden filled with swathes of printed indigo cloth drying gently in the breeze. The house is home to the Shanghai Blue Nankeen Museum, originally just one small dark room dedicated to this traditional indigo nankeen fabric that has its roots in Shanghai. 

A chance visit five years ago to that little museum, where a man with blue-stained hands washed the dyed cloth in large laundry tubs outside in the lane, set me on a long path towards finding the methods behind the making, and the history behind the designs of this wonderful traditional fabric.

The Chinese name for blue nankeen is lan yin hua bu – blue-printed flower cloth, a more poetic name that ties nankeen firmly to its flower-based designs. Other prints are simple and geometric, and despite being centuries old they look surprisingly modern. 

Some near-forgotten designs have colourful stories attached.

Chinese people are fearful of the ‘five evils‘ or ‘wu du 无毒’– five poisonous creatures – the scorpion, snake, centipede, lizard, and the toad. When a woman was pregnant it would be traditional to give her a length of nankeen cloth printed with these five animals as a way of providing protection for the new baby.
Similarly, many Chinese people hanker after a dragon baby, a baby born in the Year of the Dragon for its strength, wisdom, prosperity and courage. At the time of marriage the newlyweds would be given dragon-printed nankeen as a way of wishing they would have a baby born on the dragon’s back.

Unfortunately, as often occurs with traditional crafts, many Chinese people see nankeen as old-fashioned, worn by peasant women. They find it hard to accept its innate, simple blue and white beauty, and the tradition of giving lengths of fabric as wedding or baby gifts no longer exists.

This may change though, as blue nankeen made by hand has been elevated to the status of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ meaning there are concerted efforts to preserve the techniques and history of its production.
Last year in Nantong, several hours north of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province, I met Wu Yuanxin 吴元新, China’s most passionate and well-recognised proponent of the art of blue nankeen, a man who has devoted his life to its preservation and is keen to see it move forward into the future. 

Descended from five generation of of weaving and dyeing artisans hstarted studying the techniques of nankeen design and printing after a brief and unhappy stint in the Chinese military, for which he was – he says – eminently unsuited. In 1997 he opened the Nantong Blue Nankeen Museum and has been honoured by the Chinese Government as a kind of living cultural relic, a Master of Art and a National Craft Master.

“I feel lucky to make a living as an artist” Teacher Wu (as he is respectfully called by all who know him), told me. “Becoming a National Craft Master means a great deal, because now I know the unique art and techniques of nankeen will be passed from generation to generation.”
He teaches young design students at university, some of whom complete internships with him, and has been a guest lecturer at many overseas universities. The traditional techniques he teaches are complex and take years to learn fully, with nuances of temperature, humidity and season contributing to the success or failure of the printing and dyeing process.

I asked about bringing nankeen into the modern age, and whether traditional designs were unchangeable for him. 

“At the core of the heritage of blue nankeen is the technique, this can’t change at all. But the colour, the pattern and the design can all change.” he said. “In fact it’s great to explore contemporary patterns and designs, but nankeen has a history of three thousand years – so often old designs look contemporary today.The critical thing is that for young generations to like it and pay money for it, they must love the design.”

Making Blue Nankeen

A design is hand-drawn on heavy paper, then cut out using a tiny blade.
On the subject of design: “No matter if it’s traditional or contemporary, it has to be rooted in something of weight and importance. I’m not talking only about the outer form or appearance, but the inner spirit. This comes form Chinese culture and history. “
The paper stencils are relatively fragile, so those that will be repeatedly used are heavily oiled to give them longevity.
An oiled stencil
The printing paste is mixed from ground dried soy beans and lime to make a thick, plaster-like paste.
The stencil is laid across a width of unbleached cotton, and the soy-lime paste applied using a broad spatula.

The paste dries over several days into a hard finish in the drying room, hung with hundreds of yards of cloth.

Now the dye master takes a length of fabric into the dye room, where there are two deep vats of indigo dye made from fermented indigo leaves.

He plunges the fabric over and over into the indigo. Because it’s a naturally fermented dye the indigo froths and bubbles and has a curiously earthy smell.

The cloth is removed from the dye length by length using bamboo battens and left to drip dry.

As it dries the initial green-blue hue transforms into a deep purple black, like deepest aubergine. 

The dyeing process is repeated several times to achieve the correct depth of colour, and the fabric dried. 

In the final step Master Wu takes a 60-foot length of fabric and stretches it tightly between bamboo poles.

He scrapes off the hardened soy-lime paste with a cleaver’s edge, to reveal the white resist design beneath. Because the soy-lime paste is poisonous to pests, the fabric was often stored un-scraped until it was required, in order to preserve it.

Faint bleeding of indigo dye around the edges of the design is typical of handmade nankeen and not apparent with machine-printed fabrics.

If you’d like to learn more about blue nankeen you could visit one of these two small museums, both with attached shops. Blue nankeen is often available in souvenir shops in Shanghai but take care – most of this nankeen is machine-printed using commercial dyes. Traditional nankeen has a stiffness and a slightly rough finish, as well as a typical indigo smell. Expect to pay about 60-90RMB ($11-$16) per metre for fabric – anything cheaper than this is unlikely to be handmade.

Shanghai Blue Nankeen Museum
Lane 637, 24 Changle Lu


They no longer make blue nankeen at the museum, which is now a large bright shop with museum exhibits upstairs, but they still hang out the lengths of indigo in the garden every day because it looks so wonderful.

Nantong Blue Nankeen Museum
81 Haodong Luyuan

Nantong City, Jiangsu Province
+86 513 85108771


Guizhou: The Most Overlooked Destination in China (But You Need To Go Now)

Guizhou Province is easily one of China’s undiscovered gems.
As beautiful and as ethnically diverse as Yunnan Province, as uncrowded as Inner Mongolia, and as gifted with natural beauty as Sichuan and Qinghai combined, it’s a wonder Guizhou isn’t over-run with its own popularity.
And yet…hardly anyone ever goes there. 
Lying in the central south of China between Sichuan, Yunnan and Guangxi, Guizhou’s terrain is mountainous and heavily forested, the valleys filled with meandering rivers and clusters of wooden stilt houses. 
The limestone karst peaks are younger, geologically speaking, and less eroded than those in Guilin and Yangshuo, which means that to get from one place to another is enormously challenging as you ascend and descend successions of hairpin winding roads. Straight lines between destinations? There are very, very few of those.
Which might account for the few visitors willing to overcome the necessary obstacles to get there.

The local people are ethnically diverse and overwhelming welcoming – mostly Miao (shown above), but also Dong, Yao, Yi, and Bouyei, Sui and Tujia. The region’s relative poverty and difficulty of access has meant that traditional lifestyles are still practiced in most parts of Guizhou, preserving culture and traditions that might have otherwise been lost with progress. 
Change is coming though – in the last few years tunnels have been burrowed through mountains to allow highways to pass. New roads and a high speed train line are underway as we speak, connecting villages that were previously preserved largely because of their inaccessibility.
You need to go to Guizhou now, while it still has all its charms, and before everyone else realizes what they’re missing out on.
I spent last week in central Guizhou, my fourth trip to the province and part of a project that will see me spending a lot of time in China’s remoter parts over the next year, meeting with traditional craftspeople and artisans who weave, dye, embroider and print fabric, and silversmiths who beat out beautiful things from raw metal. 
I feel extraordinarily lucky to be part of this project – a series of public art works featuring indigenous Chinese textiles and crafts.
Like many of you, I adore anything made by hand with care and love, whether that be a beautiful meal or a piece of embroidered cloth, and the story behind it. 
A lifetime of curiosity and interest in the act of simply making something by hand, in a way that is true to tradition, has led me to this point.
My apologies that things have been a little quiet on this blog – travel is wonderful for the soul, but poses challenges to the blogger, especially in remote areas of China where the internet is patchy.
Over the next two weeks I look forward to bringing you posts about the villages of Guizhou: Shidong and Qingmai, and the large town of Kaili. 
First post tomorrow!

In the meantime, if you’re interested in Guizhou you might enjoy these previous posts:

The Shanghai Fabric Market Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of Fiona’s Guide to Shanghai’s Fabric Market. In Part 1 you can read a step-by-step guide to having something tailor-made and details of five stores I have recommended. Today I’ll cover another five stores.

Shop 374

There are very few tailors in the fabric market who will make simple, unfussy children’s clothes,  so when Shop 374 opened it was long overdue. Catering primarily to girls, they make dresses, tops and skirts in Liberty-style prints, but can also make boys’ shirts in checks or plains, and women’s dresses and tops. Nothing over 200 yuan ($34). Allow 5 days.

Shop 355  Cashmere Haute Couture

I had never worn cashmere knits before coming here, but having them made-to-measure is so reasonable compared with what I would pay in Australia it suddenly seems affordable. For 800-1200 yuan ($130-200), choose a shade from any of the hundred on offer and then browse through the racks of men’s and women’s knitwear to choose a style. Allow 7-10 days.

Shop 160 ‘Ping’

Ping’s shop is a recent discovery, but I wish I had seen past the not-overly-exciting samples outside and taken a look in before now. Ping is a great copyist, and can reproduce practically anything in the way of womenswear, and she also makes fabulous lightweight cotton/silk summer maxi dresses in a flattering tiered bias cut (about 480 yuan, $80) and similar skirts. In the hot weather it’s exactly what you feel like wearing. Allow 5-7 days.

Shop 145 ‘Chinese Style Dress Shop’

Exactly as the name implies, these tailors specialize in everything Chinese – qipaos (cheongsams) with contrasting piped froggings, silk brocade jackets, and Chinese style silk blouses. They are also happy to make their dresses and jackets in children’s sizes. This is still the only shop I’ve come across whose overnight service can be trusted. Usually though, allow 3 days. Prices vary with most items less than 300 yuan ($50). Their brocades can be bought by the metre (45 yuan, $8) and make great cushions.

Shop 195

For tailoring, I find it very helpful to have someone who speaks excellent English to help with subtleties of fit or style. Angela works here with her father, and together they make a great team – one a top-class English speaker and fitter, the other a top-notch tailor. Business suits, business shirts and sports jackets are their specialty, primarily for men, but their womenswear is also excellent. Expect to pay 100 yuan for a shirt ($16), and 600 yuan ($100) up for a suit, depending on the grade of wool suiting chosen. Allow 5-7 days.

The South Bund Soft Spinning Material Market
399 Lujiabang Lu
上海南外轻纺面料市场, 399陆家浜路

Open 10am-6pm seven days

The Shanghai Fabric Market Part 1

This is Part 1 of Fiona’s Guide to the Fabric Market
Fiona’s Guide to the Fabric Market
Need a suit made in 24 hours? Want a copy of your favourite dress made in a different colour? The Fabric Market on Lujiabang Lu, also known as The South Bund Soft Spinning Material Market, is a tailoring mecca. For the price of mid-range off the rack clothes at home, that never quite fit properly, you can have made-to-measure clothes that fit perfectly and in whatever colour or style you like. 

In this guide I’ll tell you which stores to visit, and what to do once you find them. It’s completely subjective, based on the making of some several hundred garments over the past year, for myself and for visitors of all ages, shapes and sizes. There are undoubtedly other gems as yet undiscovered, but this guide is meant as a way to get you started at the fabric market, and once you know the ropes you’ll have more luck at finding those gems for yourself. I’ll cover ten stores in all, five today and five tomorrow.

The lowdown – the ‘market’ is indoors and has three floors, with 60 to 80 tailors on each floor Each tailor’s shop specializes in a particular kind of garment and/or fabric. Some only make business suits, others only shirts, several just work in cashmere, velvet, leather, or denim, and a number of shops make Chinese dresses (qipaos) and jackets. In each store they have 20 to 30 garment styles to choose from, and a range of their own fabrics – from twenty to two hundred rolls or more. It’s an overwhelming experience the first time you go, and more than once I’ve taken visitors there only to have them do a fast lap of the ground floor and walk straight back out again. 

Knowing you will be overcome by choice anxiety, it’s best to have some general idea of what kind of garment you’d like to get made before you go, for example a cashmere coat or a summer dress. Only last month I took a visitor to the fabric market not expecting to buy anything myself, and came away having ordered a reversible cashmere cape. It’s 38 degrees outside! I won’t wear it for months! But this is exactly what happens when you don’t go armed with a plan.

So take a stroll through all three floors, then hone in on whatever interests you. Now you’ve found a store with samples you like the look of.

What happens next?

1. Decide on a style. Pick out the sample you like and try it on. There are no change rooms so this usually happens behind a sheet held up by the store owner to protect your modesty. Many tailors can also copy a garment you provide.  

2. Ask a price and decide on it before going further. Once they’ve measured you up they know you’re hooked and the price goes up. Expect to be able to bargain 10% off the original quoted price.

3. Choose a fabric. If you don’t find one you like in the store, you can usually buy by the metre from any store in the market and bring it back to them, and be charged only for making. Check first with the storekeeper because this is not always possible.

4. Final details of the garment should be decided very specifically, unless you want the garment exactly the same as the sample. Things like necklines, sleeve lengths, looseness of fit, pockets and cuffs should be decided. Check the lining colour and fabric, and specify a different one if you don’t like it. Ask about buttons, and if you prefer provide your own from the Button Shop 231 (see below). 

5. Get measured. This is where every bit of you gets measured and recorded on the order sheet. 

6. Pay a deposit. Generally 50-60% of the total is paid up front, and the remainder on completion. You will be given a copy of the order.

7. Decide on a delivery date. Generally, too fast = shoddy workmanship. The best results come when the store is given adequate time to complete garments. I allow five days for dresses, shirts, skirts and trousers, and seven days for suits and coats. 

8. Collect your garment. Always try it on. Any adjustments needed will be free of charge, but usually take 24 hours, necessitating a return trip. I’ve found adjustments are necessary around 30% of the time, higher with fast turnarounds. Pay the balance once you are happy with the fit and workmanship.

The First Five Stores

Shop 366/367 ‘Shirly’
Shirly has hands down the best cut, fit and workmanship in the market. She specializes in high quality silks and cashmere, and you will pay extra for the fine fabrics and the exquisite details and hand finishes. Her garments are inspired by Marni, Shiatzy Chen and Louis Vuitton. If you need a jewel coloured opera coat, an incredible classic camel cashmere coat, or a dress for a special occasion, Shirly is it. Cashmere coats 1100-1800 yuan ($170-300), depending on cashmere grade chosen. Dresses 700 yuan ($110). Allow 7 days.

Shop 226 specializes in shirts for both men and women. Their cottons are excellent quality and their workmanship is great. I haven’t replaced a single button yet on any of my shirts. Choose a fabric, then select collar and cuff styles from the board. Shirts range from 100 – 150 yuan ($16-25) depending on size and complexity. They will also make any style into a shirt dress for about 150 yuan. Allow five days.

Shop 231 sells buttons, braids, chinese froggings, silk knot buttons, ribbons, elastic and thread. Buy buttons here to replace those provided by the store.  Don’t rely on any English being spoken – the back of their card exclaims, in excruciating Chinglish:

 ‘We with new principle of management and The quality that is more, display more abundant article toward you Grow with fashionable of style, to thank numerous new old The customer continue patronage and support, thanks!’ I think it means they’re glad to have your business……
Shop 303 make mostly skirts and trousers, in relaxed styles, in wool, cotton or linen. They also do a line in pleated woolen tartan skirts, if that’s your thing. Their fits are good, and prices are very reasonable. Less than 200 yuan ($32) for skirts or trousers. Allow 5 days.

Shop 230 ‘Mina’
Mina speaks excellent English, a massive bonus when it comes to honing details of cut or fit. Her store specializes in jackets and coats in cashmere and wool. Last winter Mina made hooded duffel coats for all of us in medium grade cashmere for 650 yuan ($110). They had proper toggles, lovely pockets and were fully lined. She also makes long men’s cashmere coats in classic cuts for around 1100 yuan ($170).
The South Bund Soft Spinning Material Market

上海南外轻纺面料市场, 399陆家浜路

Open 10am-6pm seven days

This is Part 1 of Fiona’s Guide to the Fabric Market, read Part 2 here

Hongqiao International Pearl City

It’s a long way from downtown but there are treasures plenty out west at Hongqiao International Pearl City, known by locals as ‘the Pearl Market’. Don’t be fooled into thinking that pearls are all you’ll find here, because this is three floors of so much more than that.

The first floor and third floor are full of shops selling $10 Converse sneakers, North Face jackets, and Ed Hardy t-shirts. I wonder sometimes how all of these seemingly unrelated items of clothing came to be faked en masse in Shanghai, and who decides what’s next for copyright infringement. Last month it was Goyard bags (Paris price $2000, Shanghai price $14), but in hideous and lurid colours that would make the tasteful French assistants at Goyard wince. This month it’s Cath Kidston knock-offs, and Paul Smith’s new line of sneakers. You need to bargain hard, and leave your intellectual property morals at the door.

The second floor is where the jewellery is. My jaw literally dropped open when I saw this place for the first time – row after row after row of stalls selling pearls, jade, coral, aquamarine, lapis, and turquoise. More stalls selling ready made costume jewellery at prices that will make you regret ever buying the same thing for twenty times the price in your own country. Beads, bracelets, keychains, anklets, drop earrings, chandelier earrings,  fun earrings, serious earrings. 

If pearls are your thing, they are cheaper here than practically anywhere else in the world, and they come in every variety possible – freshwater, South Sea, seed pearls, big fat black pearls. You’ll go nuts.

If you don’t like what you see on display, you can also have something made up for you on the spot, and the only cost will be the price of the raw materials. Choose the beads or pearls you like, choose a pendant to go with it, and wait for five minutes while you have it all put together. Earrings start at 10 kuai (about $1.50) and necklaces at 30 kuai ($4.50).

I can highly recommend seeing Charles and Jennifer at CJ Pearls for fair and reliable prices and great workmanship. I love to take them some piece of old treasure I’ve dug up at the Ghost Market or Dongtai Lu Antiques Market, and seeing what they can transform it into. Last week it was a pair of jade fish (I thought it was a pair of hammerhead sharks when I bought it – but fish are much luckier). Charles drilled a little hole, Jennifer made the necklace to hang it on, and hey presto, a heavy duty jade lucky fish-shark necklace.

Hongqiao International Pearl City, 3721 Hongmei Lu near Yan’an Lu 

The Basket Maker

I find it impossible to resist anything that has been made by hand, particularly if it involves an unusual skill, like shoemaking, or constructing wooden birdcages; or if I can sit and watch someone at work, seeing something unfold piece by piece before my eyes.

Every time I visit Tongli I stand and watch this clever basket-maker. He is about sixty years old, with a little grey hair coming in, but with the hands of a much younger man – fast, deft, and unwavering. He takes a long quiver of split bamboo, and starting at the base he folds and weaves a hexagonal pattern that brings each basket into existence. They are simple household objects, yet true things of beauty – all over Tongli I see his handiwork, holding goose eggs, filled to the brim with vegetables straight from the garden, or overflowing with washing.

Of course I buy several. I take two flat woven bamboo mats, for placing in the tray of my steamer, a basket in which to keep my collection of small Chinese hand-made shoes, and two large, flat woven six-sided trays about a metre across. These are used for drying and preserving vegetables, or drying tea, and they have a 6-pointed bamboo star on their underside as reinforcing. There won’t be a lot of vegetable drying going on in my house in Shanghai, but I buy them anyway. Too beautiful to pass up, the locals think it hilarious that a foreigner has burdened herself with these large unwieldy bamboo trays, as I struggle with them back to the car. I wonder I could make my own dried vegetable pickles….?

This is one of many posts about the water town of Tongli outside Shanghai.
If you enjoyed this you might also enjoy –

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. 

Beijing Hand Made Shoes

When I decided to break my silence and talk about shoes I knew there would be no stopping it. Now I’m going to tell you about the handmade shoes in Beijing. The Nei Lian Sheng store is at the other end of Dazhalan Jie to the dumpling restaurant I visited yesterday. This place has been turning out traditional Chinese cloth shoes since 1853, similar in style and construction to those made by the Moganshan shoemaker

The outside of the store is highly decorated in gold, blue and red, and as you pass through the wide gold-trimmed doors you feel as though you have stepped back in time to an era when retail shopping began. I imagine the interior is laid out in much the same way as it has been for the last hundred years or so, the inside walls lined with shelves of cloth and leather shoes, and the wooden and glass cabinets displaying more of the same. A central island of shelves is surrounded on four sides by more glass cabinets, and these display the shop’s premium shoes made from coloured and embroidered silk.

Of course I had to buy a pair – I chose a simple black traditional design with straps, they are as comfortable as slippers and will be perfect for tramping the streets of Shanghai in summer. 


See how the sole is made from folded layers of fabric, stitched together? And how it is heavily hand-worked with tiny little stitches in hessian thread? How lovely is that?

The Shoemaker

At the base of Moganshan mountain is a small village where my attention was drawn to a tiny shop, an old gentleman visible through the window working a treadle sewing machine. He was making shoes by hand. Only two kinds – canvas, for summer, in black, and corduroy for winter, in black, or red. The plain black shoes had jazzy blue-striped innersoles, and were the only concession to decoration. I bought a canvas pair, and I bet they last longer than my Converse sneakers.