Shanghai Skyline

By Brian Spencer

Because I’m a writer who writes about travel, and because travel writers are supposed to write travel lists, today we bring you a riveting list of randomness concerning Shanghai, China, a quaint little boomtown of 24 million plus.

1 – Shanghai holds its weight well. Aside from “that’s an impressive loogie” and “damn, dude clears a mean throat,” here’s the single most common thought that bounced around in my head as we explored Shanghai: “where is everybody?”

It’s hard to believe that there’s nearly 25 million people living in greater metropolitan Shanghai, that it’s China’s most-populated city, and that Shanghai proper is the world’s most-populated city. I was expecting Shibuya-style crosswalks and heaving Bangkok-style sidewalks; I wasn’t expecting most areas, save for the Bund promenade, to feel so spacious and easily navigable. Granted, as you may have heard it’s a big fucking city with some massive — and massively depressing — housing blocks, particularly on the outskirts, so there’s ample room to pack ‘em in.

Still, when you think of the world’s other heaving cities — your Istanbul, Jakarta, Tokyo, or Bangkok — Shanghai, in many ways, somehow often felt comparatively sleepy.

2 – Not all craft beer is brewed equal. Though Beijing is somewhat surprisingly at the center of China’s nascent craft beer scene, Shanghai too is home to a number of microbreweries, the best of which is undisputedly Boxing Cat Brewery, which opened in 2008 and now has two central locations (Fuxing Road > Sinan Mansions). Seasonal beers are mixed in on tap with six signature brews, my favorite of which is the Donkey Punch Porter, a well-balanced ale brewed with cacao and ancho peppers. Kevin Revolinski is also on board, and has some great photos to boot.

Unfortunately I give a miss to Shanghai Brewery, though if I lived in Shanghai (not sure I’d want that) I’m sure it’d be a place to which I often returned. It’s not that the beers are bad; it’s just that they’re generally on the safe, unexciting side, the Shanghainese equivalent of Singapore’s Archipelago Brewery. If you have the time and curiosity, it’s worth stopping in for a pint or two, but if you’re short on time, do your craft-beer boozing at Boxing Cat,  at one of the three branches for Belgian beer bar Kaiba or, if you’re stuck in Pudong, at Kerry Hotel’s microbrewery The Brew.

Boxing Cat Brewery Tap List

3 – Jing ‘an Park is the people-watching park. People’s Park is the green space you’re most likely to visit, but Jing ‘an Park is the one you should visit, particularly around 1pm on a sunny weekday afternoon. Find an open bench on the shady, pretty central path that leads to Jing ‘an Temple across the street, sit, and wait. Perhaps you’ll see old women walking backwards, one of whom might be wearing an inside-out sweater that’s on backwards; or maybe small children in crotchless jammies pissing and pooping on the sidewalk; or women in mismatching pairs of flesh-colored nylon socks, the de rigueur fashion trend among Shanghai’s over-40 set.

It’s hard to describe, but I very much like the oddball Jing ‘an Park vibe.

Related: A Journey Beyond Sight and Sound in Shanghai

4 – Look both ways before you cross the road. Roll your eyes and scoff at this piddling piece of advice if you’d like, but one of the first life lessons we learn is particularly prescient in Shanghai, where motorists and motorcyclists often treat green lights that turn red as either a five-second warning, or a cue to fuck it-and-gun-it. In many ways the city has a lazy, laid-back kinda feel, particularly in the French Quarter, but traffic deaths are quite common, and it’s easy to see why.

Those of us fortunate to have extensively traveled and/or lived in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, won’t be startled or surprised by the traffic flow in Shanghai; in fact, the “madness factor” pales in comparison to places like Saigon or Bangkok. Still, the unspoken rules of the road that make crossing the streets of Saigon and Bangkok relatively mild affairs, at least once you’ve picked up on said rules, didn’t seem to have the same uniformity in Shanghai.

Be careful, even if you don’t hear anything — unlike in Southeast Asia, where motorbike motors roar, in Shanghai the motorbikes are largely powered by battery and almost completely silent.

Shanghainese Buns

5 - Be wary of the “rustic chic” whitie restaurants. By this I mean to say that if you have a taste for authentic Sichuan cuisine served in an authentic Sichuan restaurant packed with locals, only to find yourself  in a trendy neighborhood, at a stylish joint with craft beers on the menu, surrounded by dickheads with popped collars blubbering loudly in that uniquely American abroad way, maybe don’t go through with it.

No big revelation here, but it’s usually not a good sign when a restaurant supposedly specializing in local foods is completely populated by tourists and expat turds, even if your guidebook swears “the food is the real stuff, prepared by a busy Sichuan kitchen crew to ensure no Shanghainese sweetness creeps into the peppercorn onslaught.”  Full disclosure: I’m very white, was very much a Shanghai tourist, and am very much an expat (Singapore); hopefully I’m not a turd.

Such was the case at Sichuan Citizen, which served, to borrow from The Comic Book Guy, the “Worst Sichuan Ever!” Think fresh greens drowning in pastey, flavorless sesame sauce; lotus root gasping for breath in an ocean of chili oil; egg-wrapped bean curd doused in the type of sweet and sour sauce you get in those packets from hole-in-the-wall American-Chinese takeout; Sichuan-style shrimp more starchy than shrimpy; and, the coup de grâce, tofu hot plate — the kind meant to be served bubbling hot — served lukewarm on a cast-iron hot plate covered in tin foil.

The fuck? Skip it.

Instead stay in the same vicinity-ish and head to Polo (271 Fumin Rd., French Quarter), an old-school Shanghai mainstay where “rustic chic” ambience is substituted for “garish ostentatiousness.” Bright lights, tacky decor, polished furnishings, huge space, it’s perfect and it’s local and the food is stellar. Try the fried bean curd skin rolls stuffed with enoki mushrooms; braised and sweetened wheat gluten salad; and wheat gluten hot pot. Actually, try anything that sounds good because it likely will be.

I’m a douchebag pescetarian, but do have it on good authority that Polo’s pork buns are flawless: white sesame seared on the bottom, dash of black sesame and chives on top, and stuffed with tender, juicy pork. Order a big bottle or two of Tsingtao, and keep in mind that like the food itself, portions are authentically Shanghainese — enough for two or three to share.

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.