Continuously voted the best city for expats in China, Shanghai is one of the country’s most modern, diverse, and cosmopolitan cities. Yet, it’s also a city with a rich cultural and historical heritage and learning about the Shanghai’s past, customs and traditions would be not only interesting but also highly useful for anyone planning a move to the city.
Having started out as a small fishing village, Shanghai became an important treaty port after the First Opium War and was quickly opened to foreign influence. The city was soon divided into concessions independently administered by the Americans, British, French, etc. Even though there were specifically Chinese residential areas, a lot of people chose to settle in foreign neighbourhoods resulting in a mix of cultures and traditions that has formed Shanghai’s signature character. The city became the centre of commercial and cultural activity in the country and attracted both foreign investment and migrants from other parts of China.
Today, Shanghai is a colourful blend of glass skyscrapers housing offices of international enterprises and quaint little neighbourhoods with authentic tea shops and flea markets.
Shanghai is where eastern and western cultural traditions intertwine in China. Here, you will be able to experience the country’s age-old traditions alongside bearing witness to large scale international events; try the local snack called ‘stinky tofu’ or enjoy a gourmet meat at a Michelin star restaurant; watch the original Shanghai opera or see the sunrise over some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers ‘ and more.
In China, however, Shanghai is primarily noted for its wide acceptance of western trends, styles, and traditions ‘ also known as ‘haipai’ (ocean/overseas culture). The city is home to a large number of foreign corporations and is the country’s number one ethnic melting pot for both foreigners and locals.
Shanghai is not only China’s commercial hub but also the centre for arts and culture. It is always the first city to welcome the latest performances, concerts and shows and is home to Shanghai Grand Theatre, where some of the biggest international cultural events take place.
Etiquette and traditions
While Shanghai is as international as a Chinese city can get, there are still some unspoken rules to follow in public and certain lifestyle aspects that may be surprising at first.
The Shanghainese deeply value the concept of ‘face’ (‘mianzi’ in Chinese). This means that they do their best do avoid public embarrassment ‘ being either on the receiving or causing side of it. It is, thus, recommended not to poke fun at people in a public setting, not to reply with a direct ‘no’ (phrases like ‘I see’ or ‘maybe’ are preferred) and do one’s best to avoid direct conflict.
Gift giving is another traditionally important part of Chinese culture ‘ and you should be prepared to receive traditional presents (usually cakes or other pastries) for major festivals and events.
Speaking of festivals, they are taken very seriously in China. Some of the country’s main holidays include Spring Festival (or Chinese New Year), Moon Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, China National Day, and some others. All of the mentioned holidays come with public days off, celebrations and traditional gift giving. Note that the majority of traditional holidays are celebrated in accordance with the Lunar calendar and their dates shift slightly every year.
When it comes to modern trends, there are a few things of note.
The first thing that may catch your eye is the extensive use of mobile phones. Most city’s residents, especially the younger generation, almost never part with their handheld devices. A mobile phone in China, and, especially, in a big city like Shanghai is way more than a means of communication. You can use it to rent shared bikes, pay for all types of purchases and public transportation, order food with just a few taps ‘ and more. Having mobile phones out at business meetings and keeping them on the table during dinner are also common practices.
Then, there is Shanghai’s signature rush. The rapid pace of life is a trait shared by most big cities, but Shanghai is notoriously fast. The city is alive 24/7 and you will be able to order takeout and even get a haircut at any time of day and night. As most offices work overtime, so do coffee shops, bakeries, street food stalls, and other vendors. You will see people on the streets starting from as early as four o’clock in the morning and the hustle doesn’t quiet down until late in the night.
Shanghai is China’s leading city when it comes to career opportunities ‘ and most people who come here to make a better living for themselves. Money and money making specifically are important aspects of the city’s culture exaggerated even further by the striking contrast of posh high rises and small traditional lane houses standing side by side. People in Shanghai talk about money a lot ‘ and you should expect questions relating to your salary, rent, expenses, etc., which are not considered rude.
Another city feature that may take one by surprise is that the use of cash is getting to be very rare in Shanghai ‘ as well as the use of bank cards. Almost every transaction from purchases in a big shopping mall to buying breakfast at a street food stall can be done via one of the two popular mobile payment platforms: WeChat or AliPay. A WeChat or AliPay account is linked to your bank card and by scanning the vendor’s QR code, you will be able to make the payment in a matter of seconds. You will also find quite a few self-service stores in the city which work based on WeChat and AliPay as well.