Without a doubt Shanghai is one of my favourite cities in the world. Its aweing atmosphere, its surreal cityscape and bustling life and culture are assets which China should be very proud of. It is a city that you simply can’t miss when travelling East, a place which holds something for everyone. But that does not mean of course, that like every major city, it has things to watch out for and avoid too. In order for a traveller to get the most out of their Shanghai experience they must prepare carefully by recognising potential challenges and pitfalls that might lie ahead. Usually they all have one thing in common, money. Once that’s done, little else stands between you and one of the most magnificent cities in Asia. So, what should newcomers to Pudong be watching out for? Let’s find out!
Firstly, avoid all people who approach you randomly on the street. There are plenty of opportunities to get to know the locals, they’re a wonderful people, very friendly to foreigners and down to earth, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be on your guard when out and about. People who randomly contact you in public places, most notoriously around the East Nanjing Road area, are always up to no good. Anyone who does this to you has an agenda, you need to be ready for what it is. This kind of behaviour comes in a variety of shapes and forms, it can be either men trying to sell you fake watches for extortionate prices, other defunct goods, illicit services or, more sinisterly, the famous tea ceremony or KTV scam. It is not uncommon to be suddenly solicited by a young attractive woman who can speak perfect English, claiming to be in town to take part in a “famous tea ceremony” and will then attempt to “invite you”, which is in reality is an orchestrated scam which will cost you circa 7,000 RMB minimum. The KTV scam goes along a similar line. In addition, ignore people who try to sell you tickets outside of major sites (these are fake), ignore so called “monks” who will try and bless you for a fortune and don’t tolerate anyone who attempts to approach you for a taxi first. Simple Shanghai life hack: Don’t tolerate or buy into any of it, use the affirmative phrase “wo bu yao” (我不要) and keep going. If you follow this simple code, then you’ve overcome almost all of Shanghai’s traps and scams already.
Secondly, going shopping? Know your stuff. Shanghai is a shopper’s paradise, it has everything, malls, department stores and markets galore, but it is also a rip off merchants paradise too. For every hidden bargain and robust deal you negotiate, there’s overpriced robbery around every corner too. A Shanghai spender should be a shrewd spender, if you’re going to venture outside of well-known authentic name brands and stores, then know your product, know your price ranges well and stick to common sense, research anything before you intend on buying it, this applies with even simple goods such as fruit. If you are naïve, then the skilful shopkeepers of the lesser known stores will have you for breakfast. To do this better, make sure you have language skills, they go a long way. Once you have become aware of the ups and downs of Shanghai market life and gained a grasp of haggling, what was a potential pitfall can become a very enjoyable and rewarding experience.
Thirdly, don’t give to the beggars. Typical in major Chinese cities is an abundance of “beggars” around major areas who work hard to win over your compassion. Usually they have noticeably recurring themes and modes, such as a missing limb, or they engage in strange behaviours such as banging their heads off the floor in an act of apparent desperation to draw attention. Alternatively, on the subway, a person pushing a disabled child round in a wheelchair whilst playing a recording is also common. All of these people are naturally magnetised towards westerners more than locals as greater sources of revenue.
Be ready for them and ready to say no. Like in the first point, these people should be treat with cynicism and ignored, why? Because they aren’t as much beggars as they are tools of organised crime networks to raise revenue for syndicates. Tragically, these people have often been kidnapped, abused, intentionally injured and then used as a means to fraudulently raising money. Through networks of organised “begging”, these people are actually making far more money than someone with a paid job, the victim sees none of it. Don’t give to the beggars, you’re only enabling the criminality.
Four, watch your wallet. The Shanghai metro is one of the most notoriously busy, hectic and crowded mass transportation networks in the world. As a result, during these specified peak times and on a weekend, it attracts the attention of petty thieves. As a western traveller, you stand out and are an immediate target. When on the metro, don’t put your wallet in your back pocket or in a bag, there’s always a probability you will lose it. These thieves work in teams, usually one distracts whilst the others do the sneaky business. Be prepared, keep your hands in your pockets or place it somewhere which is out of reach from the outside. If you’re always vigilant, you’ll be fine.
Thus, to conclude, Shanghai is a fabulous city and is one which if done correctly, will provide a very memorable and enjoyable experience. However, it is not one for the naïve, gullible or unaware. Staying out of problems in Shanghai requires common sense and healthy scepticism, it’s a place where you must exercise skills in constantly questioning and assessing the intentions of others. If you follow all the tips above, I promise you’ll love it and won’t end up coming out like a fool. Don’t let the pitfalls pull you down, Shanghai is great!
Why not read another of Tom’s blogs for TCB, Dandong: The Frontier City?
— Tom Fowdy