Take a Trip to Shanghai at Home

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Make your own dumplings, discover the art of tea drinking and take a virtual stroll through the streets of China’s biggest city.

Your travel plans may have to wait, but with a little creativity, you can imagine you’re anywhere you want to be. As you dream of where your next trip may take you, our Bring Travel Home series will make you feel like you’re exploring another city in the world right now – from the comfort of home.

It’s been several years since my last visit to Shanghai – a lifetime when it comes to how dramatically a place can change in China. Consider that a 57‑storey skyscraper can be built in 19 days while a major highway overpass can be demolished and fully replaced in 43 hours. A Chinese TV drama series I watched recently (more on that later) made me long to return to the city of my mother’s birth – to stroll through the historic foreign settlements, to eat my fill of street food, perhaps catch some “dancing aunties” showing off their moves in a Shanghai park and speaking Shanghainese, the distinctive but declining local dialect.

While you may not be able to feel the breeze come off the Huangpu River as you walk along The Bund, or have your tea served by a tea master or cháyì shī (茶艺师), there are other ways to escape the solitude of the pandemic and immerse yourself in the vibrancy of China’s most populous metropolis.

February 10, 2021
A view of Shanghai's skyscrapers from a busy port
   Photo: Javier Quiroga

Make your own dumplings and “drunken chicken”

From dishes worthy of emperors to an astounding assortment of street foods, the variety of dishes alone in Shanghai is worth travelling for.  Luckily, Shanghai cuisine is also something you can try making at home. It can be hard to find authentic Chinese recipes online that are in English, but The Woks of Life has served me well as an entryway to experimenting with new recipes.

A smiling woman serving steamed dumplings at a food market stall
   Photo: Chantal Lim
A basket of steamed dumplings
   Photo: Jason Leung

You might have had soup dumplings or xiǎolóngbāo (小笼包), but now is your chance to learn how to make them yourself. The wrapper should be thin, delicate and stretchy – anything too thick and doughy, and you are not doing it justice. Sure, you can cheat on the skin and use store‑bought gyoza wrappers to approximate the thinness, but nothing quite matches homemade ones. Some of my favourite variations include those infused with dried scallop in the filling. Another dish I crave is “drunken chicken,” a cold appetizer dish of sliced chicken that’s been soaked for 24 hours in Shaoxing wine. The popular red braised pork belly (hóngshāoròu 红烧肉) is another must‑have indulgence. Serve with rice and a green Chinese vegetable side to balance the richness of the pork.

A tea plant growing in the outdoors
   Photo: Haidan Abdansyakuro

Discover the art of drinking tea

Chinese tea culture is inextricably linked to the country’s history and heritage going back thousands of years. For centuries, teahouses flourished throughout China as a public place of gathering. In Shanghai, the resplendent Húxīntíng Teahouse (湖心亭), located in Yu Garden (Yù Yuán ), has been around for more than 200 years and stands as the oldest teahouse in the city. You can recreate this experience at home (minus all the tourists) and learn about the elaborate and ceremonial nature of tea drinking. Chinese grocery stores generally carry a variety of teas, but if you want something a little more upscale, and don’t live near any Chinese specialty tea stores, you can order online. Bìluóchūn (碧螺春) is a green tea that originates from the neighbouring Jiangsu province. Translated as “green snail spring,” the tea leaf is rolled into a swirl like a snail and harvested in spring.

A row of tea cups ready for taste testing
   Photo: Oriento

Take a virtual walk through the city

The great thing about armchair travelling is you don’t need to worry about things like traffic jams and directions on how to get across town. You can check out The Bund, known locally as Wàitān, a historical district in central Shanghai that runs along the Huangpu River, via Google Earth, a fun tool I like to play around with to visit new places or to show my kids just how vast and wondrous our world is. Google can also take you to the nearby Yu Garden, which was first built in 1559 during the Ming dynasty and was once a decadent 70‑acre private garden. Head west and you will find the Shanghai Museum, which houses over a million cultural relics.

A view of a cloud day at The Bund in Shanghai
   Photo: Ding Lu
A row of tall housing complexes in Shanghai
   Photo: Fierte du Cactus

In a city dominated by skyscrapers, some of the loveliest parts of Shanghai for walking are the tree‑lined streets and alleyways of the former French Concession and Shanghai International Settlement, foreign enclaves once inhabited by the French, British, and Americans, among other foreign residents. This was land governed and occupied by foreign powers during the 19th and early 20th centuries when Western colonialism and imperialism extended its exploitive reach into China. Why not take a proverbial stroll through images and blog posts? Many of the oldest structures are long gone, but a number of the buildings, lane houses (Shíkùmén 石库门), and grand villas built in the early 20th century still stand. Some were long ago partitioned into cramped living quarters that can house as many as 50 families, but in others the incredible architectural details are still intact, while others were torn down to make way for modernity.

A tree with golden hued leaves in Shanghai, China
   Photo: Alvan Nee

Explore Shanghai through its authors

If curling up with a book is your favourite way to immerse yourself in another locale, acclaimed Shanghai‑born author Eileen Chang wrote a number of novels set in the city, including Lust, Caution, a tale of espionage set during the Second World War. (Director Ang Lee later made it into a film.) Old Shanghai ‑ Gangsters in Paradise, a non‑fiction book by Lynn Pan (Pan Ling), delves into the history of the city spanning more than half a century and ending in 1952, just a few years after the People’s Republic of China was formed. Pan also wrote Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars, a cultural exploration of one of the city’s most iconic historical periods.

A sunlit bookstore in Shanghai, China
   Photo: Beazy

For something more sobering, Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng is a compelling autobiography set during the Cultural Revolution that resonated for me on a personal level, having grown up hearing stories about the way the women in my family were persecuted during those tumultuous years. This account of Cheng’s own journey and courage helped me better understand the events that shaped the lives of my own family but is also a powerful and insightful narrative about one of the most turbulent and destructive periods in modern China.

Travel to Shanghai through film

Nothing captures Shanghai quite like seeing the city through the eyes of its people – both real and fictional. For a little bit of history, China’s 2020 blockbuster The Eight Hundred focuses on a group of Chinese soldiers that defended the Sihang warehouse in Shanghai against the invading Japanese army in 1937. Shot in IMAX, the film became the highest‑grossing film in the world last year, pulling in US$461.3 million. But it wasn’t before adjustments were made to the film. It was pulled at the eleventh hour from the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2019 amid controversy over the heroic depiction of the Kuomintang forces, who were defeated more than a decade later by the Communist Party. If blockbuster films are not to your taste, Harbor from the Holocaust is an American PBS documentary about the nearly 20,000 Jewish refugees who settled in the city after fleeing Europe during World War II and the complex relationship between the disparate communities.

Stories tied to war may not be the escapism you’re looking for during a pandemic, in which case you can fast‑forward to modern‑day Shanghai. Germany’s Deutsche Welle, known as DW, produced a 26‑minute documentary in 2018 called Shanghai: Life in the Megacity. It offers a glimpse of what it is like for the city’s 24 million inhabitants, told through a series of vignettes of those who call Shanghai home. If you’re up for something more ambitious, however, I Will Find You a Better Home (Ānjiā 安家) is the 53‑episode Chinese drama that made me long to visit the city again. It’s a “slice of life” series released in 2020 that racked up a whopping four billion views. The show captures the socio‑economic diversity of the people in Shanghai, where they live and how they live, told through the work and personal lives of an eclectic group of real estate agents.