The Spirit of Shanghai

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The Spirit of Shanghai
While Shanghai careers headlong into megacity modernity, old traditions still survive and give the city an alluring, exotic flavor. Enjoy centuries-old Chinese opera, join the locals practicing tai chi, or explore flower markets and water towns.
By Emily Chu, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by age fotostock
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    Traditional Chinese Performances
    The famous Zhujiajiao water town is a picturesque place to visit during the day, and on warm summer evenings offers something else: outdoor Chinese opera performances. Kunqu opera is centuries old and has been recognized by UNESCO for its cultural significance; the elaborate makeup and costumes and the distinctive lyrical styles are incredible to experience in person. Back in the main city, Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe performs at Huxi Theater. Balancing acts, plate twirling, silk rope hanging, and other acrobatic feats will leave you in awe.
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    Pearls, Antiques, and Tea
    Aside from high-end malls selling common brands, markets around Shanghai offer a more unique shopping experience. The pearl market just outside Yùyuán Garden will baffle even the most decisive shopper. The market offers a wide selection of rings, necklaces, and other accessories made from wild and cultured pearls in hues that range from gray to pink to purple. The South Bund Notions Market has stall after stall selling haberdashery items. From rare thread to buttons to ribbons to beads, it's paradise for crafters and DIY enthusiasts. Finally, the multi-story Tianshan Tea City has over 150 vendors selling tea leaves and tea-making tools. No matter which market you are patronizing, be prepared to bargain hard for your purchase.
    Photo by Sari Gustafsson/age fotostock
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    Flower Markets and Beyond
    The Flower, Bird, Fish, and Insect Market south of People’s Square provides a different type of market experience. This block of shops and stalls sells live merchandise and is accompanied by a symphony of croaks, gurgles, and chirps. For those seeking beauty in bloom, the Cao’an Flower and Bird Market sells fresh domestic and imported flowers. Sellers are keen on bulk sales but you can also buy single stems or bouquets at discounted prices. The three-story Caojiadu Market in Changning district offers many varieties of potted plants and flowers, gardening tools, and artificial flowers. Remember to haggle hard at these markets, or bring along a local friend to help you.
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    Community Life in Public Spaces
    Visiting Shanghai’s parks is the best way to experience the strong sense of community in the city. Each morning, locals of all ages congregate at Fuxing Park to practice the traditional martial arts form of tai chi. (Another popular spot is on the Bund waterfront.) Swerve, bend, and turn along with the crowd as they perform this ancient art of stress relief and overall wellness. In the evening, the park comes alive with speakers blasting music for public ballroom and line dancing. It's a popular form of post-dinner exercise, so by all means, join in! People’s Park, however, hosts the most fascinating scene of all: Masses of parents wielding signs with information about their single children, in a bid to find them a dance partner—for life.
    Photo by Bruno Perousse/age fotostock
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    Escape to the Water Towns
    When the frantic pace of city life becomes overwhelming, escape to one of the nearby water towns for a change of pace. Take Metro Line 9 to the Qibao Old Town and explore the ancient village’s lanes, alleys, and canals. Watch a shadow play or a cricket fight. You will also find one of the most famous food streets in Shanghai here, so don’t leave without trying a hai tang gao (red bean–filled rice cake). A 30-minute speed train from Shanghai will take you to the scenic town of Xitang in the Zhejiang province. Stroll along the canals and stone bridges and enjoy its tranquillity. The final scene of Mission Impossible 3 was filmed here, though you may want to think twice before reenacting it.
    Photo by Justin Ventura
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    Eat Your Way around China
    A visit to Shanghai means discovering more than just one part of China—at least when it comes to food. Xibo’s menu comes from Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, and offers signature dishes like mutton skewers and knife-cut noodles, along with recipes using vegetables imported from Xinjiang and cooked with fragrant spices. Try the flavorful Big Plate Chicken and wash it down with delicious Xinjiang black beer. Lost Heaven Yunnan Folk Cuisine’s two locations offer enchanting atmospheric décor in homage to its tribal roots. The Gaoyao Road location is situated in a former multi-story home, whereas the Bund outlet offers a gorgeous terrace that's perfect for al fresco drinks in the summer. Try the tea leaf salad.
    Photo courtesy of Xibo
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    Relax and Rejuvenate at the Spa
    One of Shanghai's affordable luxuries is a visit to the spa. The Dragonfly chain of spas operates under international standards and is popular for its oil massages, facials, and manicures and pedicures. The Subconscious Day Spa’s soothing, airy décor forms an oasis above Fumin Road. Its ultra-relaxing hot stone massage is a perfect treat, and yoga lovers flock to its classes. Local treatments are by far the cheapest option in Shanghai, and the skilled masseurs at Jingbin Blindman's Massage Parlour near the Hilton Hotel in Jing’an offer invigorating massages and reflexology sessions at reasonable prices. Green Massage, near Xintiandi, is also great for traditional Chinese massages.
    Photo courtesy of Subconscious Day Spa
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    Old Neighborhoods Repurposed
    Shanghai’s efforts to preserve its history amid the fast urban growth have centered on redeveloping neighborhoods into distinctive entertainment enclaves. Tianzifang on Taikang Road is a renovated residential area popular among artists. Visitors can mingle with locals in the district's cafés, galleries, studios, shops, and fresh market. Near Huaihai Road is Xintiandi, an area of reconstituted mid-19th-century shikumen, or “stone gate” houses. Its narrow alleys are filled with shops, restaurants, and a mall. Xintiandi remains one of the most popular attractions for both locals and tourists; visit the Shikumen Open House Museum in the North Block to find out more about its history.
    Photo by Justin Ventura
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    Local Street Eats
    Take a bite of Shanghai’s favorite street food. For breakfast, try jianbing (crepe, egg, and cracker filling) or sticky rice rolls with pork floss. Guotie (pot stickers) can be found on Fuxing Middle Road; these pork-filled dumplings with ginger, sesame oil, and shaoxing wine have a crisp base compared to their soup-cooked cousins. Equally satisfying are baozi, soft steamed buns stuffed with chicken, pork, or greens. Yang’s Fry Dumplings serves traditional Shanghai shangjian—hollow buns filled with hot soup and pork, and worth the line. Also, try malatang on Nanchang Road: Choose your vegetables, fish balls, tofu, noodles, and more, which are then cooked in a spicy or clear broth.
    Photo by Atlantide S.D.F./age fotostock
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    Historic Architecture along the Bund
    The Bund is Shanghai’s most beautiful visual reminder of the city's dramatic past, with architectural styles such as Gothic, baroque, Romanesque, classical, and Renaissance all represented. The Fairmont Peace Hotel, once the Sassoon House, was built for real estate magnate Victor Sassoon in the 1920s. It was also later used as the headquarters for revolutionary Communist forces, the Gang of Four, during the Cultural Revolution. You’ll hear chimes coming from the clock tower of No. 13, the Shanghai Customs House, which is considered to be one of the Bund’s icons. Nearby at Nos. 3 and 5 are the former Union Bank and Nissin Building; nowadays, they are home to some of city’s best-loved restaurants and bars.
    Photo by Fumio Okada/age fotostock
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