My Shanghai Is Better Than Yours: Where to Shop

Four years ago, Dan Washburn dropped everything, moving from suburban Georgia to China's most dynamic city. As the editor of Shanghaiist.com, he's since learned far more about Shanghai than we ever could hope to, so we've invited him to tell us the best places to eat, shop, and play

(Ryan Pyle)

Shop

In Shanghai, someone's always trying to sell you something. It can be maddening, particularly when the same guy tries to sell you the same Rolex at the same corner every single day.

But when you really want to shop, this bazaar-like quality is a blessing--even if the best options rarely approach you on the street.

Small, unassuming Tree, in Xuhui, for example, is the perfect place to order a custom-made leather shoulder bag (around $85) or a pair of cowboy boots (around $115) for a fraction of what you'd pay in the States. Designer Yan Feng will help you with a sketch, or you can choose one of the many items on the store walls.

The owner designs many of the wares at Christine Tsui's Fashion Club, where handbags (from $30) and other accessories blend modern and ancient aesthetics. The shop is in northern Xuhui on Xinle Lu, a lovely lane lined with boutiques, some set away from the street and buffered by gardens. On the west end of Xinle is Sideways, the only head shop I'm aware of in the city. Always an entertaining visit.

A couple streets north is Brocade Country, filled with hand-stitched tapestries (from $24) that Liu Xiao Lan hauls back from Miao villages in central China.

Walk through a nearby parking lot to get to Spin, a sleek ceramics shop. The owner of Shintori, a Japanese restaurant, was spending too much on replacing broken china, so he hired designers and started making his own. Simple cups are less than $5, a nice alternative to the tea sets most tourists buy.

Many of those tea sets will be purchased at Yu Yuan, the historic garden/megamall in Old City. Before buying anything there, check out Cang Bao Lou Market, the five-story building at the end of Old Street. It's the wholesale market that supplies a lot of Yu Yuan's shops. Bargain hard.

That advice will serve you well at most markets. Try to pay no more than 30 percent of the initial price, and assume that nothing's authentic. If it's a name brand, it's fake; if it's "old," it was made two weeks ago and rubbed in dirt. At the Dongtai Lu Antique Market, near Old City, sift through the junk to find fun gifts. Across the street is the Xizang Lu Flower and Bird Market, which is what it sounds like (except the bird-flu scare has chased away most of the birds). In the fall, you might catch some cricket-fighting.

Two of Shanghai's most popular markets are in flux. The Dongjiadu Lu Fabric Market has just moved 500 meters and will now be called the South Bund Fabric Market . The new air-conditioning is a plus, but the market has lost some of its character. It's still the spot for affordable made-to-measure clothes; just don't expect perfection. I once got a tuxedo there for $50. The famous Xiangyang Market (a.k.a. the "fake market") is slated to close June 30 to make way for an office, retail, and hotel complex.

For old stuff that's actually old, head to Guo Chun Xiang's Curiosity Shop on Duolun Lu, a pleasant walking street in Hongkou. Guo has a spectacular U-shaped showroom packed with relics from the first half of the 20th century. Art Deco, in the fabulous Moganshan Lu art district, also offers a glimpse into the city's roaring pre-Communism years. Husband and wife team Ding Yi and Wang Yiwu have assembled a grand collection of furniture from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s.

For a little fun, try Nantai Costume Company, five minutes west of the Bund. Nantai outfits many of the local opera troupes and has the ambience of a factory store. Shelves are stacked with everything from tasseled platform slippers to stringy beards. Say hello to Chun Ge, the store's pet mynah bird--he'll say ni hao back. The kid in you will enjoy POP Shanghai, a quirky housewares store in the Bridge 8 complex in Luwan. I can't get enough of the retro tin wind-up robots (from $5).

Finally, there's the Shanghai Xin Mai Peng Electronics Market. Known to some as the Gray Market, it's dark and a little dirty. There are lots of electronics, but I've seen everything from swords to baseball bats. A couple of shops sell iPods: Best not to ask where they came from or, as a friend discovered, expect them to work very well.

A little pink book called inSHop ($4) provides brief introductions to 50 cool boutiques and studios, as well as interviews with 20 up-and-coming designers. The text is in English and Chinese, perfect for showing taxi drivers during communication breakdowns. Everything is organized by neighborhood, with maps. Zheng Ye, one of the book's editors, says they plan to release a new edition each year. In a city changing as rapidly as Shanghai, that's a necessity; sections of the 2005 edition are already out of date, thanks to good ol' Mr. Wrecking Ball. InSHop is available at two of my favorite bookstores, Garden Books (325 Changle Lu, near Shaanxi Nan Lu, 011-86/21-5404-8729) and Shanghai Foreign Language Bookstore (390 Fuzhou Lu, near Fujian Zhong Lu, 011-86/21-6322-3200).

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