On our first night in Shanghai I remember sitting in the lounge of the hotel looking through huge windows at Chinese Ming rooftops. This was about 6pm and it was still light. Within a couple of hours the sky darkened and lots of jewelled lights lit up the buildings opposite. I didn’t know at the time that these beautifully structured Chinese buildings belonged to the Yuyuan Garden Bazaar. It wasn’t until the next day when I went walkabout that I came face to face with this huge, heavily decorated shopping complex which is attached to a beautiful network of Chinese gardens bearing the same name.(more about this in another review).
I was fascinated and spent most of the morning walking around with my jaw wide open. I couldn’t believe the beauty of these buildings and the amount of shops involved in the complex.The first street I walked on was filled with large jewellery shops selling wedding rings and other jewellery. Huge poster size photographs of sweet smiling Chinese couples decorated the front facades and outside young boys were touting for business trying to sell fake Rolex watches to visitors. I must have looked like I needed a Rolex watch because not one boy stopped me but at least 20. I didn’t feel at all harassed as Frank Spencer would say, they were very polite. I said, ‘No, thank you’ and they left me alone.
Before entering the heart of the bazaar I decided to walk down the main street and every time I saw a side street with more curly roofed buildings then I would go and have a look. Each shop was full of curios, everything from incense sticks, antiques, shoes, T shirts, toy pandas, fans, silk pyjamas, caps, hats, kites. It was difficult to differentiate from the real McCoy and the fakes. I have never seen so many T shirts. I wanted to buy all of them. In the end I did come home with a bag full, buying at least three shirts for every member of the family, even some cute panda design shirts for Alex, my grandson who was then under 12 months of age. Also, something very strange happened to me in this bazaar apart from falling over with a crash landing and breaking my finger (that’s another story), I learnt how to barter. When I have travelled before I have always been shy when it comes to bartering but here in Shanghai, in this bazaar I really got the hang of it and loved it.
Bartering is part of Chinese culture. In some shops assistants will hand you a calculator showing the full price then they will key in another price showing the discount which is usually 30%. I always bargained a little more so I got 40% knocked off. The more items you buy the more discount you receive. If you realise that you don’t want to buy anything, have changed your mind or you want to go away and compare prices at other shops, then say so. The shop owner/assistant will either say, Okay and leave you alone, or follow you down the street offering you a better price.It’s a lot of fun! I found all the assistants I dealt with to be very helpful in finding different sizes and colours, and they always asked if there was anything else I would like to buy, for myself or a friend. They will do anything for a sale.
The best time to visit is early morning and mid-week. During my stay in Shanghai I went to the bazaar every morning but at the weekend I decided to take my husband. He hated it as it was swarming with Japanese tourists and other visitors, all with cameras, clicking away. The bazaar attracts over 1,000 visitors per day so it can get packed and noisy. There is a tourist information office in the centre of the bazaar; it’s a good idea to get a free map so you can find the main attractions of the bazaar like the Temple of the Town God and where the Layangpian is situated. A Layangpian is a Chinese traditional art form; a peephole theatre where a story is told by revolving hand painted pictures in a box. It is called a Raree show. Viewing holes on the outside of the wooden box enable visitors to view the show.
There are many Chinese food stalls as well as fast food restaurants like Burger King. The queue to go to a restaurant specializing in Chinese dumplings was enormous as was the one outside the biggest sweet shop. I was intrigued to know more about Chinese sweets as I hadn’t a clue what sort of things they liked. Most of the sweets on offer were like small biscuits covered in sesame seeds. Each stall had about a hundred different designs of these biscuits, beautifully wrapped in cellophane with a small ribbon. I bought a huge bag filled with a hundred biscuits to bring home for my family. I tried some out before leaving Shanghai; they were quite nice but a bit dry for my taste. Other sweets were hard boiled and smelt like very strong cough sweets; these came in lots of different sizes and shapes. Lollipops seemed to be very popular, as well as chocolate covered wafer type biscuits. The chocolate looked very cheap though so I didn’t buy any of these.
I found some of the smells in the bazaar evocative; sweet smells like jasmine and vanilla mixed with cumin, cinnamon and patchouli. I loved all the water melon stalls and other stalls selling corn on the cob, chicken satays and fried fish. The cooking smells were sometimes strange; a mixture of hot pork and rice water mixed with an overpowering sweet, musky smell. I never did work out what this smell was. My husband turned his nose up several times when this aroma came wafting by, he said it made him feel sick.
I really enjoyed all my visits to the Yuyuan Garden Bazaar; it was a lot of fun and an experience my senses will never forget. It’s a little bit tacky in parts but overall, a great place to shop and be amongst the crowds.
Yuyuan Garden Bazaar, Old Town, Shanghai
Metro Stop: Yuyuan Garden