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June 01, 2006
Cynthia Sin-Yi Cheng

Shanghai is the origin of my roots despite my not having grown up there. It is my father’s culture and homeland. Shanghainese cuisine is what Celia and I grew up eating in Taiwan and Shanghainese dialect is amongst the first languages I grew up listening to (although regrettably one I never picked up). So when my parents started living there part-time three years ago, I began discovering a city that was at once brand new yet so uncannily familiar to me.

Each of my visits is unique. The first two were filled with awe. I saw only the good and the better, the impressive and the more impressive. I wanted to capture the essence of the nostalgic colonial past and linger in it by repeated strolls up and down the tree-lined streets of the French Concession. It hit home that with its Sino-Franco sub-community, which evolved from a strong French presence dating from the concession days, this is the city of my dreams. (More details about my Francophile background in the May Paris feature.) On my third trip, I noticed the backwardness, the abandoned housing, the rude service, the poverty and more stark realities of a city that is outperforming expectations on the surface but maybe not quite so in infrastructure. Subsequent trips have all had their own flavors, balancing the good and the bad but definitely leaving me with more honest impressions.

I just got back this month from a weeklong stay researching a travel piece on this “city of the moment” everyone is talking about, writing about and booking flights to.

Here are some discoveries I would like to share.

Note: The Chinese restaurants I recommend serve superb food but might not have the spiffiest décor or a menu in English (not to mention an English-speaking waitstaff). Try these places if you want to taste some authentic and delectable local cuisine. My advice is either to be adventurous and order from what you see other tables are having or to simply bring along a Chinese speaker.

Shrimp with Hot Peppers A. Xing Fu

This restaurant is so new it is still brainstorming on an English name. The owner, Silver Ma, told me she didn’t want a banal, direct translation of the two-character Chinese name, “xing fu,” which literally means “happiness.” For those who like the sensation of spicy food that numbs, you’ll find happiness certainly abounds here.... full article

Crab B. Xing Guang

An address for crab lovers. I was invited by a true connoisseur of all the better things in life. We started with the drunken crab. While I usually indulge in everything raw, the taste and texture of this cold dish of crab soaked in yellow wine didn’t do much for me. But the subsequent four courses, all made with the different parts of cooked crab,... full article

Snails C. Chun

My favorite homestyle Shanghainese joint in town. The owner is also the cook. She just whips up whatever is the freshest produce of the day. You can go through the daily specials with her verbally, or just ask her to put together a selection for your table. She is open for both lunch and dinner, but a reservation is a must at this four-table “hole... full article

Lion Head D. Red Door

My favorite noodle house. There is a long list of noodle dishes, my craving being the “lion head” (lion head = a giant pork meatball). This is casual food made with care and without MSG or excessive oil (not an easy thing to avoid in Shanghai eateries). You can order many small appetizer dishes to share, then your own noodle. Insist on sitting... full article

Setting E. Colours

Inside the majestic Ruijin Guest House complex, Colours has a stunning terrace over a man-made lake. Stately old pine trees abound. The setting took me back to my days in Kyoto. While away the afternoon here with a good tome or a dear chum. Then, check out the rest of the Ruijin complex with its immense gardens and colonial-period villas.

Books F. Garden Books

A good address to pick up some books in English on the history, architecture, culture and current trends of Shanghai.

Shanghai Living G. Shanghart H-Space

From a photo collection of 500 Shanghai citizens in their homes, this exhibition catalogue showcases a selection of subjects from all different vocations. It ranges from a vendor’s tight quarter — squeezing in three kids in the top bunker while the husband, wife and a baby share the bottom bunker — to a Chinese-American brand consultant’s... full article

Shanghaiist H. Shanghaiist

An offshoot of the popular New York blog, Gothamist, this website provides some good social commentaries on life in China, in particular about Shanghai. A good read for the feel of the city from the expat viewpoint.

Ji Wenyu Exhibit I. Shanghart H-Space

Ji Wenyu (b.1959)
Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing (soft sculptures)
Sculptures – plush, cloth, insulative packingmaterials, carpet

Ji Wenyu (b.1959)
Sculptures – Linen, insulative packing materials, wood, latex
75 × 54 × 127 cm

Ji Wenyu (b.1959)
Sculptures – linen, iron, wood,... full article