Shanghai Recommendations for First Time Visitors

Shanghai was home for six years. The glory years. I originally wrote this as an email for a colleague on the eve of her first visit to Shanghai back in 2010. Several others have since taken the same list and come back with positive feedback, so it appears that these beacons of brilliance continue to shine.

1. Morning Shanghai

The best Shanghainese restaurant in Shanghai. It has two outlets, one providing an underground Shikumen experience in Xujiahui, the other taking pride of place on the fringes of the bund. The latter, its interior a throwback to 1920s Shanghai opulence, is situated inside the Astor Hotel, built in 1846 and situated next to the historic old Shanghai bridge. Make sure they give you the Chinese food menu. Do not miss the deep fried mandarin fish with sweet and sour sauce, or the preserved veg/bean curd rolls. Enjoy the velvet and the chandeliers.

2. Taikang Rd: Kommune Cafe / Shopping / Art / Other Goodness

Taikang Rd is home to the largest of Shanghai’s happening artsy districts and also housed my old business. By the time I had left in 2009, it was halfway through a massive transformation that brought an influx of new retailers, restauranteurs and business hopefuls. Though its lost a bit of its raw charm, don’t miss this place. Make sure to stop by the Kommune Cafe – a Taikang Rd establishment owned by a close mate and still the best cafe in the district (nay, city!).

3. Lost Heaven

Excellent Yunnan-style cuisine in a venue with a soothing, dark ambience. Located in the French Concession, this place is always packed, so book ahead. It always satisfied. Some of the best food you’ll find anywhere.

4. Vue Bar

This bar sits 30-odd stories up the Hyatt on The Bund hotel. It has sweeping, priceless views across old and new Shanghai. If you go to Morning Shanghai restaurant (above), then go to Vue before or after, as it’s a few minutes walk away. On every trip back to Shanghai since I left, I have re-visited this place to gaze and reminisce.

5. Glamour Bar

Another must do. Owned by a Melburnian and now an establishment venue, Glamour Bar has an old Shanghai vibe, excellent bar, and fabulous views across the Huangpu river. It is the sister of the famous “M on the Bund” restaurant upstairs (or downstairs?) in the same building. Visiting Australian dignitaries often eat/have  events at M, but I never rated it higher than the restaurants mentioned above. Many others would, though…

6. Park Hyatt lobby bar

Why? Because everyone deserves to have a drink 400+ metres above Shanghai. On a clear day/night, the views and perspective will take you to a higher place. A few floors up in the same building, there’s a glass-floored attraction that’s meant to be rather decent.

7. Yu Garden (old buildings, tea, souvenirs, restaurants)

Go for the sights, a tea ceremony and “Shanghai xiao long bao” (steamed pork dumpling with soup inside). For the latter, find the restaurant at the top floor of the building in the middle (by the pond). It gets very, very busy here, but is definitely worth a visit. However, if it’s raining, I’d recommend staying away, only because you’ll have a hard time finding a taxi out of there.

8. East Nanjing Rd / Nanjing Rd pedestrian street

Why? Because it is super crazy, super big, and so super busy that it’ll simultaneously amaze and annoy you. Go at night for extra dazzle. Start at the bund near the Peace Hotel and keep going until you hit People’s Square. It’s everything good and bad about New Shanghai in a thirty-minute stroll.

9. Barbarossa

If you do the above stroll, keep going along Nanjing Rd until you see People’s Park on the left. Barbarossa is a bar/restaurant suitable for singles, couples, families who want to eat/drink/dance/whatever. It’s everything to everyone and one of the few versatile venues I’ve seen that actually works. It is set amongst a small lake, trees, museums, skyscrapers and old Shanghai folks playing cards.

10. Dragonfly massage

You’ll be walking around and you’ll need a massage. Dragonfly caters mainly for expats/discerning (soft) locals but they pack a decent massage in a very soothing environment. You could also chance it at any of the other many massage places around, but if you want a safe bet, head to DragonFly and tell the masseuse to go as hard/soft as required. Don’t leave Shanghai without having a massage – here or elsewhere. Family tip: Avoid the places that masquerade as hairdressing salons…

Finally, some notes on transport…

Taxis – Ubiquitous and very cheap. If you have a choice, stick to the Dazhong/light blue, Qiansheng/green, or Jinjiang/white taxis (in that order). Most drivers don’t speak English, so get your venues transcribed in Chinese. There’s also an English help line – or there was before/during the Expo, which you can call on demand.

Metro – Efficient but usually chockers. Worth a go to observe the shenanigans alone. Also ubiquitous and very cheap.

Maglev – You’ll need to take the Line 2 metro to Longyang Rd station and then interchange, or taxi to Longyang Rd station and follow the signs to the maglev. Fourteen minutes to the airport? Do it.

Google-CN Biffo / Small Business Perspective (Part 1 of X)

Note: I sat on this post for a while. It then went hurtling out of control towards 3000 words. Risking the post remaining in ‘draft’ mode for eternity, here’s part 1 of X of an X-part rant…

Oooeeee 1.3 billion people!

Profits await the occasional foreign entrepreneur in China, but not without sacrifice and some turns of a blind eye.

In the first few weeks of doing business in China, I confirmed that I’d need to put up, shut up, or leave. Of course, I was well briefed on this prior to first visiting the country, but youthfully believed it worthy of a boundary test anyway.

A close friend organised a meeting with members of the Communist Party Youth League at a leading Shanghai university. We discussed Australia-China relations, debunked each others’ cultural myths, and skirted – but nevertheless acknowledged – some of the more sensitive topics of the day. While most of those present were happy and willing to engage in the discussion, there was one member present who, with smiles masking his intent, reminded me on a few occasions where I was, thank you very much, and the acceptable limits of public discussion for an individual who wanted to live in China.

Though I ran small businesses in China, the general corporate rules applied across the board. There are a raft of regulations to be complied with, some of which go against the grain of ‘Western’ norms. Google, nor any business really, was exempt from these. I am not going to dissect Google’s exit from China at all, as it’s been adequately covered to a level I couldn’t achieve gracefully. Google it instead 🙂

For a primer, check out these great perspectives and narratives on the situation and its major stakeholders. No, I am not going to look at whether Google should have stayed in China. I applaud the fact that they will not be, and relate to some of their sentiment.

Whatever, man.

The pragmatist in me has no problem with the Chinese government’s policy of censoring information. I’m not a Chinese citizen. Those who are will change the system when it becomes necessary to do so.

China’s extended crackdown on mainly foreign-based social Internet sites in 2009 annoyed and frustrated many expats including myself, but also riled some of the country’s intellectual progressives. Whether that action and future moves likes it will, over time, create some catalyst for change, we’ll just have to wait and see. Don’t expect it anytime soon.

Chinese netizens have been said to be the greatest losers in Google’s decision to quit China, but the Chinese Internet community is savvy enough to quietly organise ways and means to get the information they want. They’ve done it for years and will continue to do so. Separately, there is also a concern about Baidu monopolising China’s search market. This also seems a flawed argument. On the contrary, it provides a huge market opportunity for a raft of competitors (Tencent, Sina, Microsoft, anyone?), not to mention the upstarts and copycats that may well now spawn. Google will take a commercial hit, sure, but the Chinese Government lost this battle. Not only was there a significant loss of face, with one of the world’s most well-recognised brands extending their proverbial middle finger, it also seemed to show an ultimate lack of confidence in the country’s business practices and environment. This is something a foreign business just does not do.  Not publicly, anyway.

Small business and the threshold of tolerance

In the course of doing business in China, I and other small business owners tolerated all sorts of random information-control-related rubbish, several of which I will list in a follow-up post. There is not much room to whinge, granted, as every foreign business owner operates in China by choice. We would bitch and moan amongst ourselves nevertheless, and this co-counselling helped many in the small business community maintain some perspective and control of their emotions in a tough operating atmosphere.

Over the years, I came to know many foreign peers running businesses in China. For those of us who went through the hassle of incorporating Chinese corporate entities and maintaining a local payroll, there was a common bond. We would often meet – sometimes officially through chambers of commerce and other business groups, but mostly casually over a beer or three – to discuss the wide range of problems and annoyances we all continually faced. Many of those problems, naturally, had to do with THE DARN SYSTEM. Uncertainty about antiquated labour laws, accounting rules that evolved faster than accountants could handle, and regular surprise regulations that had to be complied with last week, all contributed to an unpredictable environment for a small business. For those who hung around for at least a few years, this environment became an accepted and expected cost of doing business in China. Dealing with randomness became standard operating procedure.

The 2009 crackdown, however, did have a marked impact on how we conducted business (the unreliability of Google Docs being just one of many problems), and on how we communicated with the outside world. Despite the many business storms weathered over prior years, this was the point when my passionate entrepreneurial zeal in China started to wane. Together with frequent perspective-polarising trips to Hong Kong throughout 2009, I started to question why I was in China, and what level of regulation I would be willing to tolerate to keep leading a business there.

<To be continued>

Coming to a rear-end near you

I won’t explore the puns of the subject. Make of it what you will.

Yes. “SUREN” is coming to a butt near you. Make of that what you will, too. See www.suren.com.cn.

The creativity machine of the Middle Kingdom is at work again. It’s not difficult to see which company they are ripping off, too (if you’ve been living in an igloo or North Korea for the past 50 years, see www.levi.com).

So my name’s hanging off Chinese arses everywhere. I’m trying to figure out whether that’s a good or bad thing, or whether there’s some symbolism in all this. Or, perhaps, whether someone, somewhere, is doing all this just to piss me off.

I wouldn’t it put it past someone, somewhere.