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Chinese Etiquette 101

Touring Shanghai with etiquette experts will have you haggling, slurping and tippling like a local.

The classic Yuyuan Garden

The classic Yuyuan Garden, finished in 1577 during the Ming Dynasty, remains a favourite hangout spot.

The noodles appear as if by magic. Pull, fold, pull, fold, twist goes the white-jacketed cook, and the block of dough in his hands begins to lengthen and separate into fat strands. I’m crammed into the tiny kitchen of Henan La Mian Guan with the half-dozen or so twentysomething family members who run this hole-in-the-wall lamian restaurant in Shanghai’s former French Concession. A cauldron of broth is tucked beside the flour-covered stainless-steel worktop. Pull, twist, thwack, thwack goes the cook. The noodles get thinner and thinner until he’s holding a neatly folded skein that he tosses into the boiling broth.

I follow my guide, local food critic and etiquette guru Lawrence Lo, to a tiny table on the sidewalk. We sit down in the shade of a hundred-year-old platane (plane tree), an oddly naked-looking tree imported en masse by the French when they controlled this eight-kilometre swath of the city in the early part of the last century. On the street, Rolls-Royces and trailer-bikes full of flowers or chicken-feather dusting mops jostle for space, and vendors hawk roasted chicken feet and steam buns for 1.5 RMB (about 30 cents) apiece. “I fell in love with this chaos when I first visited Shanghai in the late 1990s,” says Lo, who now runs an etiquette consultancy here that helps Western companies navigate Chinese business culture. Along with some local friends, he’s agreed to help me avoid embarrassing social gaffes during my stay in Shanghai.

The bicycle: still a popular mode of transport

Even with China’s exponential growth in car ownership, pedal power is still a popular mode of transport.

My first lesson begins when a smiling waitress delivers two warms bowls of cōngyóu bànmiàn, noodles fried in oil and topped with caramelized scallions. I snap apart my wooden chopsticks and pull a slick cluster of noodles to my mouth. They’re deliciously chewy and rich. I slurp, and I slurp. “It’s perfectly polite and shows you’re enjoying your food,” Lo says encouragingly. That first bite is still dangling from my mouth when the waitress returns with a bowl of broth spiced with a pinch of curry powder, fresh cilantro and scallions, followed by a schnitzel-thin breaded pork chop. The dishes come one on top of the other, leaving little time for conversation. “In China, mealtimes are for appreciating the food,” says Lo.

Table Manners

Traditional Chinese dinners are served family-style, with platters of food being placed on a giant Lazy Susan. Meals move fast since everything comes in quick succession. “Going to a banquet is all about stuffing yourself silly,” says Lo.

Don’t start eating until your host, or the table’s highest-ranking guest, picks up his or her chopsticks. At a family dinner, that generally means the oldest male present.
Your host usually orders the food ahead of time so you never see the prices, and sends an underling to settle the bill at the end of the night. If you pay, your host loses face.

Toast your host. For greatest face, walk over to their seat, praise their hospitality and raise your glass,  making sure to clink the rim below your superior’s – a sign of deference and respect.

Usually there’s no tipping, as the extra cash goes to the owners, not the servers. If you want to reward good service, just round up the tab.

Between slurps, he tells me that Shanghai’s population has more than doubled, to 24 million, in less than three decades. Back then, the Pudong district – a futuristic formation of skyscrapers east of where we sit, across the Huangpu River – was a rice paddy. Now it’s China’s financial nexus and a magnet for foreign capital as well as for rural Chinese in search of higher-paying jobs. Manhattan-priced apartments and bespoke-suited financiers rub up against bunk-bed-jammed tin shacks and the labourers who occupy them. Despite the disparities, people are united by a deeply rooted culture steeped in hierarchy, superstition and a concept called “face” – a mix of reputation, honour and social standing, the winning and losing of which is a fundamental preoccupation. “Appearance is very important here,” says Lo.

A shop-keeper displays her wares at the South Bund Fabric Market

A shop-keeper displays her wares at the South Bund Fabric Market.

I realize I’ve made a small breach in etiquette when Lo reaches for a slice of pork, flipping his chopsticks around so as not to touch the communal food with the ends he’s had in his mouth – a lesson in table manners he learned from his grandmother. “And never clean your plate,” he adds. “That’s a sure way to lose face for your host since he’ll assume he hasn’t ordered enough food.” I reluctantly leave a few noodle shards and a slice of pork on the table.

Haggling is the basis for most retail transactions in Shanghai. Almost everywhere I go, I notice there are no prices on display, and unless you’re in a fancier shop in tourist districts like Tianzifang, Xintiandi or the Bund, everything is up for negotiation. “You’ve got to bargain hard,” Lo instructs me.

handpulled noodles piled high at Henan La Mian Guan

Handpulled noodles piled high at Henan La Mian Guan.

It takes a few days before I work up the nerve to enter into my first serious haggle. I’ve hooked up with Canadian expat Paul Cherry, who moved here three years ago when his wife was named managing director of Toronto-based B+H Architects’ Shanghai outpost. With their two children busy with high school and university, Cherry spends his days exploring the city, volunteering, coaching a high school baseball team and hanging out with a group of “trailing husbands” who call themselves the Guy Tais (a play on tai tais, slang for wealthy Chinese housewives). We’re wandering through the South Bund Fabric Market, a three-storey warren of tailor shops crammed with bolts of fabric: delicate embroidered silk, soft pinstriped wool, pastel-coloured cashmere, garish polyester. Dresses, suits and trench coats dangle from wire hangers, showing off each tailor’s skills. “You like Lululemons?” a seamstress calls out as I walk by one shop; another casually displays a bowl full of designer labels.

The Huangpu River

The Nanpu Bridge is one of the city’s main ways to get across the Huangpu River.

“Because of the city’s 30-percent sales tax, it’s far cheaper to have clothes custom-made than to buy them at the mall – if you’re willing to haggle,” says Cherry. (He certainly is, often toting a shirt he loves and bargaining to have it recreated in fresh fabric.) He gives me a primer on haggle etiquette. First rule: Don’t make eye contact unless you’re ready to deal. If you are, ask for the price and then counter with 10 percent. Don’t worry about the language gap; most shopkeepers have big calculators to pass back and forth as you negotiate. Walk away at least once. If they follow you, you’ve got them.

Market street food

Left to right: On Shanghai’s streets, transport bikes and Rolls-Royces roll along fender to fender; hit the Julu Road market for fresh fruits and veggies.

The game begins when I pause to admire a tiny red silk qipao, a high-necked embroidered dress that would absolutely thrill my three-year-old daughter, and a black changshan for my six-year-old son. Within seconds, the shopkeeper sidles up and tosses out a price for the pair: 1,100 RMB, about $225. It’s an absurd amount of money for two tiny pieces of clothing, silk or not. No way, I tell her, shaking my head. But I linger, and she presses on: “How much do you want to pay?” I panic. “Um, 450?” But wait, that’s $90 – still far too high.

That’s when Cherry swoops in. I tell him the original price, and he laughs brashly. “No, no, no – 110 RMB,” he says with the ease of someone who’s done this often. “Are you crazy?” the shopkeeper practically shouts. We start to walk away and she follows us. I end up paying 120 RMB (about $25) and leave her muttering behind us. I can’t help grinning: According to a couple of locals I’d talked to, it’s not a good deal if you don’t leave an angry shopkeeper behind you.

Yuyuan Garden

Yuyuan Garden invites tourists and businessmen alike to take a stroll.

Between the honking cars, the street hawkers and the pounding of jackhammers that signals yet another tower springing up into the sky, there aren’t many quiet nooks in Shanghai. But when I step into the dim, cool Chang Neng Tea Shop, the noise evaporates. Tea accompanies virtually every meal here, and a lot of business gets done over the ritualistic pouring and sipping of lcha in shops like this. The owner hunches on a stool behind a huge polished-wood bench fitted with a drain. She brings out tiny porcelain cups, sets an electric kettle to boil and spoons cedar-green leaves into a pot. She “washes” the freshly picked tea with boiling water and dumps it over our cups to warm them. Then she douses the leaves again – the so-called “first flush” – and pours almost instantly. The scalding hot, pale yellow tea tastes like spring grass. The better the tea, the more flushes you get. We go a respectable five rounds before I head back into the heat.

Business Etiquette

Since a meal is not for talking business, don’t be surprised if the honcho invites you to a tea room, a massage parlour (seriously, just for a massage) or a karaoke bar to talk turkey. “Even if you can’t sing, do it anyway to give your host face,” says Lo.

The business-card exchange has ritualistic importance. The senior official will offer his or hers first, with both hands and a slight bow. Accept it likewise and marvel at it before stowing it in a business-card holder. (Don’t simply shove it in your back pocket or wallet.) If you do a lot of business in China, have a card printed with simplified Chinese characters on one side and offer it Chinese-side up.

As for dress code, both men and women can’t go wrong with a suit. But never wear a black tie; it’s considered unlucky. Lo suggests trying red as it’s an auspicious colour. Some Chinese women might show up at business meetings dressed rather provocatively. “Just don’t blink an eye,” says Lo.

I’m girding myself for dinner with Lo later tonight. It will be a very different meal from our noodle-slurping frenzy at Henan La Mian Guan and one that will feature a far more potent beverage than green tea. “At a business dinner,” Lo has warned me, “either you start drinking and you get drunk – as in, you drink until you fall over – or you don’t start drinking and you stay sober.”

A noddle puller gets into the swing of things.

A noodle puller gets into the swing of things.

We meet at Yi Long Court, a Cantonese restaurant at the Peninsula Shanghai hotel. We’re ushered into the Chefs’ Table, a private dining room booked nightly for business dinners and dominated by a round, stainless-steel table fitted with a giant Lazy Susan. A pair of windows looks onto the kitchen, where chef Jacky Zhang will stir-fry and grill us an eight-course feast (eight being one of the luckiest numbers in Chinese numerology). Our host is Cecilia Lui, a director at the hotel and Lo’s friend and compatriot from Hong Kong. Dining etiquette dictates that the alpha be seated facing the door, to watch for new arrivals, with the guest of honour to the right. But Lui wants me to have an unfettered view of both the window and a large-screen TV that hangs on the wall, broadcasting an up-close feed of the chef.

Lui has pulled off a face double whammy – giving me the place of honour but also showing off the hotel’s immaculate kitchen and sophisticated Western-style plating. There’s no rapid-fire Chinese service tonight; nor are the tumblers filled with the more customary baijiu sorghum liquor. Instead, my delicately etched crystal wineglasses are filled with a Bordeaux and a white Burgundy, and topped up after every sip by Yi Long’s stealthy servers. At a typical business dinner, there might be a toast every couple of minutes, with everyone expected to take a drink. Then there’s ganbei, colloquially translated as “bottoms up.” If someone hits you with a ganbei, you have no choice but to slug back whatever’s in your glass. “To stay sober but not lose face,” says Lui, “high-level business officials will sometimes bring a designated drinker to accept toasts on their behalf.”

A man wheels his cardboard-recycling bike through downtown Shanghai.

A man wheels his cardboard-recycling bike through downtown Shanghai.

I’m a bit woozy – but still upright, face intact – by the time we finish all eight courses, including plump river shrimp (a Shanghainese specialty), grouper floating in rich lobster broth and crispy Australian scallops with sweet, deep-fried milk. But despite all the great food, it’s lamian I can’t stop thinking about. So on my last day in the city, I send a message to Lo asking for directions to Henan La Mian Guan. He happens to be in the neighbourhood and offers to take me there. But when we arrive, it’s been gutted for renovation. (Things change fast in Shanghai.) Instead, we weave our way down the sidewalk to a grubby, subterranean shop where a noodle puller is flouring a worktop laden with hunks of fresh dough. Lo puts in our order, and within minutes, two bowls of cōngyóu bànmiàn arrive at our table, followed by steaming broth, a plate of freshly steamed dumplings and a large bottle of Tsingtao. I begin to slurp.

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