Shanghai report

An extremely long post on what I did in Shanghai, which then digresses into an analysis of Chinese population trends, the environment, health and brand positioning. You have been warned…

Got back from Shanghai last night. We did more interesting things during this trip as we knew more locals and other friends who have been working in Shanghai for a while.
So we didn’t join the touristy crowds, or pay exorbitant fees. Someone wanted to charge us several hundred bucks to take us to Hangzhou on a day trip. We paid 130 yuan each for return train tickets to Hangzhou instead. Had lunch at the new Crystal Jade (a Singapore-born restaurant that’s gone far), surrounded by a lovely Chinese garden near the lake, walked around a bit and then took the evening train home. It was a decent 2 hour ride back and forth, with absolutely no (other) tourists in sight. Just lots of families, old folks, young lovers.
Every few years I return to China and things are just getting better and better. The standard of English has gone up tremendously. Our bellhop was obviously trying to practice his English on us, striking up a long conversation full of questions that they probably taught him in language class.
Of course, clean toilets are still to be treasured, and spitting is still common, especially in the less developed areas. One of our taxi drivers spat out of his window while waiting at a red light. There are signs telling you not to spit or smoke in certain areas, and to wear seat belts, but nobody seems to enforce the rules.
Shanghai’s cosmopolitan areas are growing in stature. We stayed in Xintiandi, an up-and-coming yuppie area with a vibrant nightlife. We had our first dinner in Din Tai Fung, then admired the clever Dutch designs brought in by lifestyle shop, Simply Life. We had another lunch at a classy French restaurant at the Bund, where our hostess knew the chefs and we had a splurge of appetisers and desserts.
We went to the local market where imitation goods (factory overruns at best) were being sold – right below big red banners written in poor English, proclaiming that Intellectual Property rights were to be respected. Which shows there is a big difference in saying something, and actually doing it.
A Singaporean friend showed us how to haggle, Shanghai-style. Here’s how it works: The shopkeeper will quote you something exorbitant (even if it doesn’t seem expensive to you, pretend that it is, because they probably are trying to fleece you). You express shock, and suddenly lose all interest in the goods you were handling. You walk out of the shop purposefully.
Before you can walk three paces, they will shout after you, calling out a lower price. However, you still don’t look satisfied (even if the drop in price is rather significant). You ask for even less than that. The shopkeeper expresses dismay. If you’re buying in bulk (as we were), he could voice his suspicion that you’re actually a trader yourself, and you’re going to re-sell these goods, so why should he give you such a good price anyway (this really happened to us).
So you walk away again. Maybe you have to walk a little further this time (which I did). They will call you back again, offering the goods at an even lower price. You haggle for a while, then eventually settle for a fraction of the original price.
This happened again at another, more touristy market (sorry, really bad with names and will fill them in one day). The shopkeeper’s asking price dropped from 210 yuan to 100 yuan, the moment we turned our backs (we were hoping for 40 yuan, which was how much we paid for the same item a few years ago). Inflation, I suppose.
Despite the flourishing of Shanghai’s economy, there are a few areas of concern. Firstly, there are too many smokers. I’m told that lung cancer is the biggest killer there. Turn a corner, and you’ll find a smoker. And there are probably more smokers around who just don’t happen to be smoking at the moment. Nobody seems to mind; and it isn’t banned in restaurants either.
Tied in with this, is the general poor quality of air. It was hazy every day – something you’d miss if you came from, say, Perth or somewhere in the Mediterranean, where there are lovely, clear blue skies. On our way to the airport, not too far from the city centre, I learnt why – there were factories relentlessly churning out gallons of white smoke. The Government has to relocate them away from the commercial and residential areas. Also, less people use bicycles now, preferring scooters, taxis or their own automobiles.
Thanks to this, and the general dryness of the air, I became increasingly phlegmatic and started to understand why so many people were spitting! Ecology certainly works full cycle, doesn’t it! Personal hygiene standards MUST be improved, considering how other parts of China are subject to new bouts of bird flu.
Another area of concern for not just Shanghai but the whole of China, are the rise of the ‘Little Emperors’. These are quite literally the spoils of the one-child policy, pampered by doting parents and grandparents. We saw one such example on the way to Hangzhou. The toddler was overweight, and snacked constantly on junk food which his grandparents provided. The family was fighting for the right to carry him, and every squeal of displeasure was met with undivided attention from the adults.
Oh, and the majority of young children I saw were boys. Today, we have China brides. A generation from now, we could have China grooms!
There are lots of extremities. The local lifestyle is still very low-cost, but branded goods are more expensive in Shanghai than in Singapore. In Hangzhou, there are showrooms for Ferrari, Porsche and Maserati (and the first Georgio Armani boutique in China, I hear). But the back alleys of Shanghai still look unchanged, teeming with local life.
CNN had a special feature on – what else but – China. An area I’m interested in, is the ambition of Chinese brands to go global. The analysis was that Chinese companies were used to doing business by controlling the distribution channels. But in a global, Western-dominated market, the formula hasn’t been working out. American companies spend US$400 on advertising per customer, whereas Chinese companies spend a paltry US$4. The Chinese have already got low-cost goods production down to pat, but they haven’t done the same yet for brand positioning.
A Chinese business magazine wrote that Chinese companies are recognising the ‘OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) trap’ of declining margins, and are trying to move into the brand market instead, but recent case studies show it may take years for efforts to come to fruition.
That’s big-picture analysis. Down on the ground, we experienced a minor incident which also showed that some locals have yet to understand what moves the rest of the world. In the French restaurant, our chef-friend discovered that his complimentary dessert marshmallows were not being served at all. Apparently, even though the local staff were ordered to serve this to all patrons, they did not comply. As a result, the marshmallows were kept until they had to be thrown away. The French restaurant/management wanted to create an ‘experience’ that people could not forget, but the waiters didn’t understand what that was all about.
I’m thinking too much, and aw geeze, I’m now 27 years old. Overall, I had a pretty good time in Shanghai and I must say we Chinese (or people of Chinese descent) have much to be proud of – and possibly even more to be proud of in future. No society is perfect; no country is Utopian, and Shanghai is really the New York of the East.


  1. kar

    Hey, did u go to the Yu-Yuan Gardens for xiao long pao ?
    I also stayed at the Xin Tian Di area, very nice ! Did u dine at T8 ??

  2. James

    I have never been to Shanghai. I know it is a growing city. As you commented on the service industry like restaurants, the people still do not know the importance of service. Cleanliness and personal hygeine was not observed. I would never eat salad, drink coffee with milk or eat sushi in China. I had waiters threw the plates on the the table when I was in Xian, hotel staff left the luggage in the lobby for hours… that was a 5-star hotel. Illegal DVD’s and CD’s were everywhere. I heard that you can but Star War III now on DVD.

  3. wil@theblackjournal

    Hi! I stumbled onto VANTAN from Zeldman’s blog (I think) and am liking it. I’m a sucker for nice looking sites. Good articles as well in here.
    I just moved to Shanghai just two months ago so it’s nice to see this post of yours. Will be linking the article. 😉 Cheers!

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