by Mia Taylor
Last updated: 10:00 AM ET, Sun September 24, 2017
There's a right way and a wrong way to eat a soup dumpling.
At least in Shanghai.
The proper approach is to lean into the dumpling and bite just a tiny hole from a soft spot on the top and drink (or boldly slurp) all of the delicious, warm broth inside.
Not only is this a much cleaner approach that avoids a broth explosion on your clothing, it's the best way to fully experience all of the mouthwatering flavor of a dumpling.
This was just one of the tips I picked up during my walking tour of Shanghai with my twenty-something guide Portia Huang, who I connected with through a small, local company called Jenny's Shanghai Tours.
A sprawling, glittering metropolis and the world's largest city with 24 million inhabitants, Shanghai can appear overwhelming at first glance.
With that in mind and only one day to explore this fascinating destination, I opted for a walking tour, which allowed me to get an intimate view of a complex, old meets new, east meets west powerhouse.
Jenny's Shanghai Tours specializes in custom, private small group tours. For the entire day, it was my guide and myself strolling through various districts in the city, interacting with locals, sampling food and exploring all the color, sights, sounds and customs the city had to offer.
We explored parks, back alleys, temples and even a marriage market. It was a fascinating day that provided a broad and colorful overview of life, including a chance to see parts of the city that are rapidly disappearing as Shanghai continues its march toward modernization.
Our tour began with Huang asking me what I most wanted to see. Once she had that vital bit of information, a plan for our day was quickly developed.
The first stop was Fuxing Park, a garden in the Luwan District designed by the French in 1909 that's known for its shady tree-lined pathways; open spaces, pavilions, fountains, and flowerbeds. Fuxing Park is alive with activity early in the morning, which is why it was the first stop on our tour.
Shanghai's retirees converge on the park to engage in an awe-inspiring range of activities - dance, badminton, tai chi, karaoke, water calligraphy, political discussions, mahjong, and more. If you want to witness this incredibly inspiring scene, arrive between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m.
The elderly population of Shanghai is active, vibrant and socially engaged. Rather than being shut away in nursing homes or receding from life in some way, these retirees, many of whom leave the workforce at around 60 years old, have an entirely new and vibrant chapter of life after their work years are left behind.
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After Fuxing Park, we hopped on the subway and emerged at People's Square in the center of Shanghai where the weekly marriage market was being held.
Until visiting Shanghai I had never heard of the marriage market. This intriguing gathering, a very low-tech version of Match.com, is held in a public park and it's the parents of eligible singles doing the marketing of the bachelor or bachelorette.
To showcase their sons and daughters, the pathways of People's Square are lined by open umbrellas that are placed on the ground. A piece of paper is taped on top of the open umbrella listing all of the highlights and need to know facts about the eligible single in question.
With Huang translating, we read several of them. The first one we came across described a civil servant, born in 1984, who owns a house and car. This eligible young man was searching for a woman who has a bachelor degree and is at least 162 centimeters tall, among various other attributes.
"To the Chinese, background is important," explained Huang. "And in China salary is a must-know. But it's not just about money, it's also about values."
She also explained that it's not only parents who come to the marriage market. Young people like herself and her friends will peruse the postings as well.
"It is a good platform to make friends," she said.
Once we thoroughly explored the market, we shifted gears and stopped for a soup dumpling lunch. Sampling food in Shanghai is a key part of the experience and many of the walking tours offered focus on breakfast street food tours or evening market tours, all of which allow for diving into the culinary scene.
What you eat often varies by the time of day you take such a tour, Huang explained. There are different offerings during the morning and evening. Highlights include soup dumplings (Xiao Long Bao), pan-fried dumplings (Sheng jian bao), crawfish (in the summer), eel noodles, fried snake, and scallion pancakes. The city is known for both sweet and oily cuisine.
In addition to being a foodie's dream, another reason street food should be experienced in Shanghai is because it's rapidly disappearing.
"Shanghai is cleaning up all the streets," Huang explained over lunch. "The goal is to make this a global city and the street food will disappear. There is still some street food, but not as much as there was during my childhood."
It was a comment that led to an even more fascinating discussion about the evolution of Shanghai over the past 20 years. During Huang's generation, much of the city's unique character has been eliminated in favor of development and the creation of a modern, world-class city. As a result of that process, the city has become more expensive and in some cases, a far more sanitized place to live.
To fully understand this evolution, Huang and I explored what remains of the city's old town and its many tiny back alleys, where the most humble Shanghai citizens still live in homes that are no more than two or three tiny rooms, perhaps totaling 200 square feet. These small homes, which exist in the shadow of skyscrapers, have no kitchen and no bathroom and are occupied by three to five people.
Typically, there is one communal bathroom at the end of an alley, that's shared by all of its residents. There are also shared kitchens all along the alleys, some no bigger than a shower stall and containing little more than an electric hot plate.
People's lives are improving amid Shanghai's changes and modernization, so there is a benefit, Huang told me as we strolled along one alley after another, stopping to say hello to people and talk to them about their lives. Curious residents came out of their homes to greet us, take pictures with us, and practice their English. Others talked to us about the offers the government has made to buy their property so the homes can be removed in favor of more modern buildings.
Shanghai has become much cleaner and life has become easier in many ways, as part of the city's ongoing modernization, Huang said.
But along with all of this progress, old Shanghai, for better or for worse, is becoming a thing of the past.
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