Friday, January 18, 2013

Things to Do in Shanghai: Shopping (or Browsing)

Some lament Shanghai as not being a very cultural city.  While I hope to refute that with future posts about some of the great cultural activities to do here, I'm possibly going to reinforce it by focusing first on shopping.  The reality is, shopping is a big part of both life and tourism here and more abundant than art museums, opera or major historical attractions.  And, even if you aren't a big shopper (my souvenirs tend to be photos), you'd be missing out if you did not at least indulge in some browsing in Shanghai.

So, where to go for the Shanghai shopping experience?

There are many international stores, high end merchandisers, and fancy shops dotted throughout the city.  You can find many on Huahai Lu and can also browse tiny shops and cafes throughout the Former French Concession.  There are malls everywhere, including many metro stations (during winter, especially, I like hopping off the metro at People's Square and getting lost amongst the two malls that run underground there, where you can get your nails done, get a haircut and buy just about anything).  In many of the high end malls, you'll find some of the most peaceful spots in all of Shanghai as bargain hunters know better than to be lured by luxe.  The real bargains and fun browsing can be found at:

The fake markets
I personally love the shops at the Science and Technology metro stop (ahhh...the convenience of shopping without ever leaving the metro).  I'm not really caught up in brand names...and you have to decide what your ethics are on that whole thing.  However, this little den of tiny shops does have a lot of treasures for bargain hunters...and when you need gifts or practical items, you can spend an afternoon here and walk away with a lot for a little.  I also like that there are some different areas here, such as several rows of tailors/fabric shops and a pearl/jewelry area.  I got a beautiful coat made for a very reasonable price (after bargaining) and was extremely pleased with the quality.  This is a great place for windbreakers, winter coats, clothing and various small items...from belts to iphone cases to gifts.  We purchased four winter coats (including two hefty down coats), each priced between 300-400 RMB ($45-65).  Depending on your negotiation skills and how set you are on a particular item or brand, prices will run the gamut.

Great for: jackets, coats, belts and bags.  Also, try the tailor section for handmade items--from shirts and suits to coats and Chinese dresses.

Han City is the large fake market area on the Puxi side of town, conveniently located on Nanjing Rd.  Though I have not been to this one, it should be similarly jam-packed with fakes of all types.

Word of warning/bargaining tips: This is not shopping for the faint of heart--and browsing requires caution.  If you don't seriously want to consider buying something, don't get caught looking too closely.  Show any interest and you will be hounded.  You have to have a strong will (and sometimes actual strength, as vendors will literally chase you down, grab your arms, etc.).  I have occasionally looked at something and decided it was not the type I wanted, but the vendors think that is all part of the bargaining experience so they are determined that if they negotiate you will eventually buy it anyway.

On the other hand, keep this in mind when bargaining.  The opening price will be significantly more than you should pay.  I find it best to know how much I really want something and have a price in my mind (a bargain price--remember, these are fake goods and it's all cash, no returns or help if a zipper breaks or something--the whole point here is to get something for a very good price).  From the original price offered, you may want to counter with as low as 10% of that, maybe with a willingness to go up to 30%.  But, I find it all depends on what it is and my feelings toward wanting the item (and the ridiculousness of the vendor's starting point).  For example, we bought some funny souvenirs at the holidays--things that we did not need to get and were more novelty than anything else--for those we wouldn't go much above the 10% of what they asked (and got it--in all but one case, in which we went to the neighboring vendor and got it for the price we wanted).
A sampling of the wares: handmade coat from a local tailor
The fabric markets
The South Bund fabric market is the most well known, housing hundreds of tailors who can make you anything from a custom suit to shirts, dresses, coats and household items.  Quality varies widely, so if you know someone who can give you a recommendation, that is most helpful.  We got a recommendation from a friend who had business shirts made in the South Bund market and was very pleased--and the price is great!  I also had good luck with the coat I had made, which was simply luck of the draw, though I did look at what she had on display (and bargained hard enough that I would not have been devastated by a bad outcome).  Now, I have seen her quality and will be returning.  (P.S.  You'll make lots of "special friends", getting "special prices" with reminders to come back and get more items soon--the only reason you're getting such a deal is because "now we're friends" and you'll return or "not many customers now, so best price".)

There is also a smaller fabric market called the Shi Liu Pu Cloth Market and as mentioned, many tailors also in the Science and Technology "mall".  The tailors are especially good at copying an item you have or even modifying something (making a dress shorter, taking an item in, etc.).  You can also see what their specialty item is--best to stick with what they know.  Tailors may need a couple days to a week to complete an item, so if your time is short and you want custom items, make the fabric market a first stop.  There really are treasures to be had for great prices--if you shop wisely, bargain well and ask for corrections if something is not right.  Generally, you agree to a price and put down a deposit (such as half) and pay the remainder upon pickup/approval.  Many tailors have some basic English and you can generally manage to communicate through a purchase even if your Chinese is non-existent.

Great for: men's shirts, suits, copies of favorite items, coats.  Also, if you sew or do projects, you can find some great buttons, trims and fabrics.  Interestingly, in the South Bund area, there are also numerous fabrics and tailors on back streets.  My guess is this is where you'd get the real bargains, but I'm not sure about the logistics of the dealings.  I just like walking down the streets looking at large piles of bunting, all types of fabrics in tiny storefronts and tables, alongside live chickens running around, people having their lunches, neighborhood markets, etc.

Dong Tai Lu Antiques Market

This is a Shanghai must-do browsing experience--and one of my favorites as it is right around the corner from home and fun to wander through any time.  If you're a true antique aficionado, the items may or may not be legit.  You'll find everything from large Buddha statues, art deco items, old phones and leather suitcases to jewelry, t-shirts and trinkets.

Small booths line the streets and there are additional shops and warehouse areas behind the booths (I don't know about the use of the word "market"'s more "antique streets").  This is a fun place to add some quirky decoration to your home, such as old rotary dial telephones, propaganda items and assorted "tchotkes".  But, as mentioned, beware when it comes to looking at/for high end legit antiques.  There probably are some real treasures, but I'd be leery about shelling out big bucks.

Here is the listing on Smart Shanghai for how to get to Dong Tai Lu.

Across the street, you can find the Flower and Bird Market.  I don't know if this one has a name, but it is on the east side of Xizang Nan Lu (the main street from which you enter the antiques area above).  Many days, you'll see big crowds out buying things from vendors on the streets in front of it.
Browsing the streets outside the flower and bird market.  Vendors and storefronts sell every type of accessory for your bird you could imagine, along with other little treasures (many of which I have still not figured out).
You enter in to the little lanes of the market to find all sorts of living creatures.  Birds, of course, and flowers/plants--but also a lot of insects, frogs, and every type of pet accessory as well.  It's another must-do browsing experience (unless birds and insect noises will give you nightmares).  There is apparently also a Hongqiao Bird and Flower Market which also contains various housewares.
Peeking in to the lanes of the bird and flower market on Xizang Nan Lu
As with anywhere I go, I also enjoy checking out supermarkets and food markets (including little fruit stands and local shops).  In China, check out the wet markets, which sell all manner of foods.  They will typically have fish, poultry, meat, fruits and veggies.

It is a world apart from your sanitized western grocery store experience and well worth a look, even if you aren't up to buying.  Wet markets can be found in most neighborhoods throughout Shanghai and as far as browsing goes, hitting the streets here for a good, long walk is the best way to browse, shop and "absorb".

One of my favorite "browsing" experiences is just hitting the streets of my neighborhood to watch the commerce and daily activity, duck in a few little shops and check out the street vendors.  On different days, we have vendors selling gloves, hats, apples, kiwis, hot foods (my favorite are the roasting sweet potatoes!)--and even a seamstress with her sewing machine set up on the sidewalk.

Oh--and one final note--Ikea.  Yes, the ubiquitous furniture and housewares spot, and a handy resource for expats as an easy way to stock up your apartment--but with a Chinese twist.  The twist being the people, who love hanging out there.  On a Saturday or holiday (we arrived during National Holiday week), the store will be jam-packed with families enjoying a lounge on the couches, children playing and lying in the beds and general wall-to-wall people.  Ikea is exactly as you know it (with the usual restaurant, which is also packed), but it has now become an extended living room for thousands of locals.  If you're in a hurry to get some practical shopping done, pick a weekday.  If you want to get the true local experience, go on a Saturday or holiday and hang with the masses.

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