What do I ned to know about Shanghai?
May 29, 2012 6:22 AM   Subscribe

I may be going to Shanghai for a couple of weeks later this year. I do not speak the language, my partner has food allergies. What preparations can I make?

I'm thinking of any code of etiquette that might not be obvious (I'm a Brit). What are good places to photograph and/or walk about? Any must-sees? How do I navigate street food? My partner (who will be working) is allergic to both garlic and MSG, how does she cope? Recommendations for background reading about the city and recent Chinese history would also be appreciated.
posted by epo to Travel & Transportation around Shanghai, China (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Proofread it lots of times except, it seems, for the title, "need"!
posted by epo at 6:24 AM on May 29, 2012

Walking around: Nanjing Road (especially at night, when it's all lit up). Shanghai Old Town is fun as well. The biggest thing I had to get over when I visited a few years ago was haggling for souvenirs. Language isn't much of a problem - there's usually just enough English to get by on the parts of the merchants, and even if not, you can pass a calculator back and forth with the offer/counter offer price punched in. I got used to it. Offer half of what they're asking and move around from there. Do this in the street stalls, but not, say, in the gift shop of the Shangai Museum (also great fun).

As a single male walking alone, I was constantly bombarded with come-ons from what I can only assume were prostitutes and so on. This was a little disconcerting at first, but a 'no thanks' usually sent them on their way. I felt perfectly safe wandering the side streets day or night and just taking in as much of the off-the-main-road flavor as I could (I had no car, so if I didn't walk, I wasn't going anywhere).

Finally, you will likely be approached for a couple of local scams - the 'art gallery' scan, whereby 'students' try to get you into a gallery to see works by their master, which turn out to be low-quality/overpriced knock offs, and the 'tea ceremony' scam, where you get pulled into a tea house, served some tea and light snacks and then walloped with a gigantic bill. Avoid both.

I had a great time, even if I was working most of the time I was there. Given the chance, I'd certainly go back.
posted by jquinby at 6:40 AM on May 29, 2012

Re: allergies, these cards come up here from time to time. I avoided street food (a team that had preceded me was not careful and gotten pretty sick with some sketchy fare), but ate very well in the nicer restaurants. Don't miss the dumplings - I had them at Din Tai Fung and they were out of this world.
posted by jquinby at 6:46 AM on May 29, 2012

Your British etiquette will be fine, though overly polite. No one else will be saying please, thank you, or excuse me.

There isn't as much street food in Shanghai as in some other Asian cities. In the mornings, you'll find various types of bread, crepe-like wraps, and warm soy milk. Plain breads should cost less than 1rmb, the wraps (蛋饼) are around 2rmb, and come with your choice of cruller (油条) or another type of crispy fried thing (脆饼). There are several different kinds of dumplings -- steamed, fried, thick-skinned, thin-skinned -- and they're all pretty good, but xiaolong bao (小笼包) and shengjian (生煎包) are Shanghai specialties. At night, the bbq lamb skewers and fried noodle carts come out, but they're usually not very good, to be honest. The best place for hole-in-the-wall late-night dining is Shouning Rd (寿宁路). Look for the busiest places, and point to the raw ingredients you want them to cook for you.

As far as sightseeing, I can't think of anything "undiscovered" that you won't find in any guidebook. The Bund, the old city, Yuyuan, bicycle (or sidecar motorcycle) tours of the former French Concession, Dongtai Lu antiques market, Qipu Lu fake clothing market ...

I can't offer any advice on the food allergy problem, except to suggest she eat only foods she prepares herself. Garlic and MSG will be virtually impossible to avoid at restaurants.

On preview: Din Tai Fung has the best xiaolong in Shanghai.
posted by twisted mister at 7:04 AM on May 29, 2012

We recently went to Thailand and my wife has food allergies. We asked here and someone provided the full translation in Thai for her allergies. Took a screenshot on my phone and used that to show servers at restaurants.
posted by dripdripdrop at 9:29 AM on May 29, 2012

The challenge that you face is that in most street food vendors and even most restaurants the food will all be made in the same pot, wok, or griddle that is, if you are lucky, scraped but not cleaned in between servings. How allergic is your partner? (I traveled with a vegan and her goal of a whole day with no meat in the food and no hair in the food was never attained.)

I highly recommend a tour for you while your partner is working - a day tour, a weekend tour, an out of town tour (the fishing villages are lovely or Hang Zhou and Su Zhou) - with an experienced tour guide in the beginning of your trip. The tour guide can help you to write down in characters what ever you want to say (May I take your picture? We are allergic to MSG and garlic! (and yes "WE" because if one dish is without MSG or garlic then your partner can eat that one) and other phrases that you realize you need on the street) that you can use in the future, take you to places efficiently with beautiful things to photograph and help you to navigate some great places and food to go to after the tour. Your hotel concierge should also be able to help but you can ask the tour guide to show you how to ask questions, how to bargain, and how to separate the crap from the good stuff, what restaurants are safest and then have them watch you and give you pointers.

The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition may be what you are looking for recent and future history and orientation. Go to the Shanghai Museum - it is amazing and you get some old stuff that is just photographs in other museums.
posted by mutt.cyberspace at 5:12 PM on May 29, 2012

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