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Shanghai Food Heaven

I love Chinese food! Today’s meal will be hard to top anywhere else in Shanghai. Next to the Marriott Hotel near 人民广场 (People’s Square) is a new mall about to open. However, the restaurant itself, on the 4th floor, is already open for business. I forgot to write down it’s name. The food was spectacular. Their pictures below.

Dried mushroom with squid.

Yellow croaker fish.

Steamed xiaolong bao.

A type of vegetable similar to pea sprout.

Part of decor. Didn’t try eating this one.

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  1. perspectivehere
    July 21st, 2012 at 02:22 | #1

    yinyang, thanks for posting these pictures. It is a reminder that one of the great achievements of Chinese material culture is its cuisine, and no matter how international cities like London and New York claim to offer everything in the world on a plate, there are few or no restaurants in these cities that match Shanghai’s excellent Chinese food.

    These pictures beg the question (to those who are historically minded), where did these ingredient cultivation and cooking techniques come from? Consider that to make a dish like the dried mushroom with squid, you would need to have lots of people specializing in doing different jobs (catching squid and bringing them to market before they turned rotten, collecting mushrooms (how to avoid the poisonous and inedible ones?), and fermenting soybeans and rice to make soy sauce and rice wine or vinegar). Shanghai cuisine draws its inspiration from the cuisines of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, and turns them into sophisticated and aesthetically pleasing small-portioned delicacies for the discerning palate and eye (iPhone camera!) of the international traveller.

    But what about the history of Shanghai? In most people’s minds, it seems Shanghai history begins with the “Treaty Ports” following China’s 1842 defeat to the British in the First Opium War. Google “Shanghai History” and what turns up as the No.3 ghit is this piece, which starts off with this Introduction:

    “Unlike many cities in China with long and varied histories,
    Shanghai’s history is quite short. The British opened a concession
    in Shanghai after the first Opium War and ignited Shanghai’s evolution.
    Once a small fishing village on the edge of the muddy Huang Pu River,
    it has become one of the world’s most modern and sophisticated cities.”

    But is this true? How could a “small fishing village” become transformed so quickly into a world city? What this brief picture fails to convey is the importance that Shanghai already occupied as a trade and economic center during the pre-Opium War days.

    Here is another description of what Shanghai looked like in the decade before the First Opium War. This comes from an interesting 2006 essay, Shanghai And The West: First Contact written by James Spigelman, who was formerly the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Australia. It describes the June 1832 arrival in Shanghai by British ship Lord Amherst, led by 29-year-old Hugh Hamilton Lindsay, son of a director of the East India Company, and German (Prussian) missionary Charles (Karl) Gutzlaff:

    “The Shanghai that Lindsay visited was a great trading port. On his first approach, just beyond a protective bend in the river where the Huangpu veered north and the Suzhou Creek came in from the west, Lindsay had seen a forest of masts. During his stay his sailors had counted the junk traffic reporting, in one week, the arrival of about 400 trading and fishing junks, ranging from 100 to 400 tonnes in size.

    The city, Lindsay would report, “possesses extraordinary advantages for foreign trade. One of the main causes of its importance is found in its fine harbour and navigable river by which, in point of fact, Shanghai is the seaport of the Yangzi and the principal emporium of Eastern Asia”.

    Shanghai was also surrounded by an extensive productive region, particularly of cotton. As Gutzlaff reported: “As far as the eye could reach over this extensive plain, there was no spot bare of cultivation or of exuberant vegetation”.

    All of this was the product of massive construction projects which had built protective seawalls, drained marshes, created canals, established flood control systems, redirected and dredged rivers, which infrastructure had largely been created at a time when Lindsay’s and Gutzlaff’s ancestors were being called “barbarians” in Latin.

    Indeed, it was engineering that created the safe haven of Shanghai harbour by diverting the original flow of the river towards the north, so that it became a tributary of the Yangzi and no longer flowed directly to the sea and the perennial need to dredge silt was removed.”

    *****End Quote*****

    Lindsay and Gutzlaff published a report of the trip, as Report of Proceedings on a Voyage to the Northern Ports of China, in the Ship Lord Amherst.

    An Extract of Lindsay’s journal describing his visit to Shanghai starts on Page 172.

    In his journal, Lindsay complained about many things they experienced in Shanghai, and directed a great deal of criticism towards the officials he encountered, but he enjoyed the food he was served: “We had no reason to complain of want of hospitality here on some points, as an excellent supper was provided for us….” (page 179).

    This voyage, and the journal it produced, was extremely important to the British enterprise in China. It gave them valuable intelligence which aided the East India Company’s trade (including Opium sales) with China, and also led to the 1833 voyage by the Sylph, funded by opium merchant William Jardine.

  2. July 21st, 2012 at 06:51 | #2

    I wish I could travel China with your set of minds and curiosity for history! Thanks for this background about Shanghai!

    All these thoughts about lack of innovation in the American press is so ridiculous. The culinary culture in China is absolutely amazing. Imagine if the Chinese have more material wealth throughout the rest of China – in terms of decor, presentation, and ingredients they could further tap into. China is indeed endowed with a long civilizational history, and ingrained in all that is the tried and time-tested culinary expertise unmatched anywhere else.

  3. perspectivehere
    July 21st, 2012 at 19:29 | #3


    Thanks – I appreciate your support. Actually, I’m just learning about these things myself! The internet (especially Wikipedia and their footnote links, Google Books and digitized old books at Archive.org) are great ways to read things which in the past would only be accessible in the libraries of certain major research universities with East Asian collections like Columbia, Yale and Harvard. Your HH blog gives impetus to asking myself questions about what I know and why I think I know it, and what I don’t know. The accessibility of original sources online makes it possible to question the conventional characterization of historical events and seek to verify them. Sometimes the original sources back up the conventional historical descriptions, but sometimes they do not. I think inaccurate historical descriptions, especially if they are in support of a political, economic or ideological agenda, need to be brought to light. This is very “open source” – I try to always give the link and anyone can go and verify or bring in other perspectives. The point is to try to get a clear picture of what was really going on, which is harder than most people imagine, but more possible than before due to accessibility of the information sources online.

    You wrote: “Imagine if the Chinese have more material wealth throughout the rest of China.”

    Actually, in 1832, China was an incredibly wealthy country. Dambisa Moyo’s book “How the West Was Lost” has been widely quoted for its observation that in 1820, China’s share of global GDP was 32.9 percent, while the United State’s share was a measly 1.8 percent. All of Europe’s share of global GDP in 1820 was 23%. Moyo’s book takes its data from Angus Maddison’s research.

    The immense wealth of China represented opportunity to “China traders” to become rich. Many China traders had already become rich by the 1830’s – John Jacob Astor, the first multi-millionaire in the United States, made his money on China trade (selling ginseng, fur and opium to the Chinese) before going into New York real estate.

    Below is a brief account that Hugh Hamilton Lindsay wrote about Shanghai and the wealth throughout the regions of China that he visited during the voyage of the Lord Amherst. His was one of the first reports in Europe on Shanghai as a trade center. His journal details the hoped-for benefits to Britain from drawing upon that wealth through forcing China to open up to unregulated trade:

    “As this is the first time the emporium of Shanghae
    has been brought under the immediate notice of
    Europeans, some few remarks on it may not be
    inappropriate. Considering the extraordinary ad-
    vantages which this place possesses for foreign trade,
    it is wonderful that it has not attracted more observation.

    One of the main causes of its importance is
    found in its fine harbour and navigable river, by
    which, in point of fact, Shanghae is the seaport of
    the Yang-tse-keang, and the principal emporium of
    eastern Asia, the native trade of it greatly exceeding
    even that of Canton. On our first arrival I was so
    much struck with the vast quantity of junks entering
    the river, that I caused them to be counted for
    several successive days. The result was that in
    seven days upwards of 400 junks, varying in size
    from 100 to 400 tons, passed Woo Sung, and
    proceeded to Shanghae.

    During the first part of our stay most
    of these vessels were the north country junks
    with four masts, from Teen-tsin, and various
    parts of Manchow Tartary, flour and peas from
    which place formed a great part of their cargo.
    But during the latter part of our stay the Fokien
    junks began to pour in, to the number of 30 and
    40 per day. Many of these were from Formosa, Canton,
    the Eastern Archipelago [i.e., modern Indonesia / Malaysia / Philippines]
    Cochin China [i.e., modern Vietnam], and Siam [i.e., Thailand].


    The advantages which foreigners, especially the English,
    would derive from the liberty of trade with this
    place, are incalculable. Woollen manufactures are
    now only admitted by inland transport from Canton;
    and the various exactions and necessary expenses
    attendant on its conveyance, render them unattainable
    by the mass of the population in the interior;
    and from the coldness of the climate in the northern
    provinces, woollens would naturally be in much
    higher estimation in them than in the comparatively
    warm climate of Canton, did equal facilities exist
    for their introduction.

    When it is considered how trifling the present
    consumption of woollens is, when compared with the
    population of China, for instance, in the staple
    commodity of broad cloth, under 800,000 yards, among
    360,000,000, not giving an average of one yard
    among 450 persons, is it wild or theoretic to imagine,
    that with a more free and extended intercourse the
    consumption might be quadrupled, or in time
    even increased ten-fold? Or is it unreasonable to
    turn an anxious eye to these hitherto almost
    unknown parts of the globe, to find new outlets for
    our English manufactures now, when all the nations
    of Europe are straining every nerve, by the
    encouragement of their own manufactures, and the
    imposition of protecting duties, to exclude the
    product of English industry from their markets?

    Here is a nation in population nearly doubling that of all
    Europe, combined with a seacoast of fully 3,000
    miles, abounding with the finest rivers and harbours
    in the world. Its ports and cities are filled with an
    industrious, enterprising, wealthy and commercial
    population, who would all hail the establishment of
    foreign trade with joy.

    Even the mandarins in enforcing their
    inhospitable and misanthropic laws, are
    ready to acknowledge the vast advantage which
    would be derivable from foreign intercourse; yet
    the mere will of a solitary despot has, for the last
    century, been sufficient to separate near 400,000,000
    of human beings from all communication with their species.

    I do not pretend to be sufficiently versed
    in the laws of nations (none of which are recognized
    by the ruler of China) to presume to say how far
    other countries are bound to yield implicit submission
    to these laws. But I may be allowed to express
    a hope, that as we attain more mutual knowledge of
    each other, and become better acquainted with the
    friendly sentiments entertained by the mass of the
    people towards foreigners, these selfish and injurious
    principles may gradually wear away; and that the
    time will soon come when the people of China,
    under a more liberal and enlightened system of
    government, may assume the place they are entitled
    to among the civilized nations of the world.”

    Quoted from Report of Proceedings on a Voyage to the Northern Ports of China, in the ship Lord Amherst (1833) pages 209-211.


    Three observations (and some questions) about this view of Shanghai and Chinese trade regulations in 1832.

    (1) Shanghai was already enjoying an active and bustling trade of goods throughout the East Asian and South East Asian sea regions before the First Opium War – Lindsay observed ships came in from Formosa (Taiwan), the Eastern Archipelago (roughly modern day Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia), Cochin China (Indochina) and Siam (Thailand). Imagine the variety of foodstuffs and spices that could have been brought in from those regions! I wonder if these ships were “mainland Chinese ships” returning from abroad or were they ships based in those other regions and sailing to China? Who manned the crews – mainlanders or Chinese people living in those other regions, like the “Sangley” of the Philippines? Were the ships family-owned (i.e., ship owned by a single family who derived their livelihood by living on the sea, fishing and trading) or owned by companies or communities? Could they have been a particular ethnic group or community whose population lived on the sea – like the Tanka people? If anyone has done research or know a good book on who would have owned, managed, and manned these junks and what the trade involved, I would be very interested.

    After all, during this time, the Dutch had a major trading center in Batavia (now Jakarta) and the Spanish had the Manila Galleon Trade (linking China-Philippines-Mexico), so goods from all over the world flowed into China, and Chinese goods went all over the world, for 3 centuries before the British ship Lord Amherst sailed up the Northern Coast in 1832. What is also interesting is that the trading junks from South East Asia and Indochina went as far north as Shanghai in the pre-Opium War days. I was always under the impression that the trading with SE Asia happened in Macau, Canton and Xiamen/Quanzhou (essentially and Guangdong and Fujian trade) and even this Wikipedia article says:

    “The penetration of British and Anglo-American commercial interests
    in Manila coincided with the British founding of a network of treaty port-cities
    in Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai. They also expanded the Nanyang trade,
    previously limited to Xiamen, Quanzhou and Macao.”

    But the evidence from Lindsay’s observation suggests that ships from SE Asia went to Shanghai even before British opened the Treaty Ports. So what was really going on? Does anyone have any good information on this?

    (2) China was believed by Europeans to be quite wealthy, and the impressions gained by Lindsay on the voyage confirmed it. He wrote: “The advantages which foreigners, especially the English, would derive from the liberty of trade with this place, are incalculable.” The use of the word “incalculable” is quite significant. Lindsay was no ordinary sea captain – he was the son of a director of the East India Company. If he says “incalculable”, it means “wealth beyond counting” – and the East India Company was already one of the wealthiest companies of its time, if not the wealthiest.

    (3) Lindsay characterizes the trade rules that restrict trade to Canton as “inhospitable and misanthropic laws” and due to “the mere will of a solitary despot” who is restricting the freedom of 400,000,000 citizens to deal with people overseas. He speaks about how opening up trade with Britain would bring happiness to the Chinese citizens whose freedom is restricted by corrupt government officials.

    China’s laws at the time provided that direct European trade could only be done through through Canton (Guangzhou) where the trade was subject to strict regulations. Here is a description of the Canton trade regulations which were translated by an early sinologist-missionary, Dr Robert Morrison. The regulations provided for a number of items having to do with customs collection, security, prevention of piracy and smuggling, safety, interpreter-translators, statistical reporting, surety, bonding, permitting for various types of goods, payment dates and procedures, defaults, port fees.

    Reading them today, they seem unexceptional. One would think that these types of regulations are similar to those found in any modern well-managed and well-regulated port of entry for trading goods. I think a modern version of these rules would probably be about 500 pages long, and there is a whole system of agents, lawyers, accountants, banks and other industry experts to guide the first time exporter to any country through these regulations.

    Throughout Lindsay’s journal however, we see attempts by Lindsay to bypass these regulations and trade directly with local customers, justifying this as “free trade”.

    Actually, a more accurate word for it is “smuggling”.

    The British have a long history of smuggling, and in the nineteenth century it was commonplace and they didn’t think there was anything wrong with it.

    See for example: http://www.saltburnbysea.com/html/smuggling.html

    “Smuggling itself was an accepted way of life for English coastal villages
    in the late 18th and early 19th Century and it was an activity performed
    by all sorts of people across the social scale from farmhands to clergymen
    to local gentry. Entire villages would turn out to help hide the contraband
    goods before the arrival of the preventive officers. Folklore and local legend
    depicts the smugglers as harmless men, who were merely trying to avoid
    paying an unlawful tax.

    Saltburn and other villages like it were remote and isolated communities
    where hidden beaches meant unlawful business could be carried on far
    from prying eyes. Saltburn itself is ideally situated for smuggling as the
    cliffs provide an effective hiding place and the wooded coves provide
    cover for offloading cargo. The peak of smuggling activity was over a
    150 year period from 1700 and towards the end of the 18th Century,
    the Saltburn – Whitby area became notorious as a smuggling hotspot.”

    another example: http://www.smuggling.co.uk/

    So far from being the ones bringing “rule of law” to a backward China, it seems like the “illegal and corrupt mindset” of the British smuggler-merchant came face-to-face with the legal requirements of Chinese regulation. Instead of compliance, the British corrupt smuggler-merchant would bribe local officials, or seek to use force and guile to bypass the regulations.

    The words that Lindsay used to justify his illegal actions are the same excuses that a smuggler or tax cheat anywhere would use (think of the “tea party” folks that don’t think they should pay taxes because Obama’s government is socialist and muslim) – the government tax or other rule is arbitrary and despotic and should be struck down in the name of freedom.

    When you read the characterization by the nineteenth-century British traders as promotion of free trade for mutual benefit, it is important to keep in mind that what they are asking for is unregulated trade without the payment of duties, or the compliance with safety, security, anti-piracy, payment, bonding and other rules that would be required to run a major international port of trade.

    (Think of the hundreds of vessels that landed in Shanghai in one week in 1832. In order for the system to function smoothly, wouldn’t there be a myriad regulations governing the flow of vessels? Landing rights? Docking fees? And yet, Lindsay believed that he should be allowed to land anywhere and trade off the side of his boat, in the name of “free trade”. Imagine a truck coming in to a city and wanting to sell goods off the side of the truck, and argue with officials who said it was prohibited, and permits needed to be obtained and taxes paid.)

    As it turned out, “free trade” did not quite turn out as free and beneficial for the Chinese as Lindsay’s journal account envisioned.

    Well whaddayaknow.

    After the British smashed the doors down (literally, in the case of Lindsay’s visit to Shanghai when his sailors smashed down a locked door to gain entrance at a government office and later in a much bigger way at the First Opium War), the consequences to the Chinese nation was over a century of invasion, defeat, insurrection, rebellion, destruction, impoverishment, civil war, revolution, warlords, gangsterism and famine from which it is only now beginning to recover.

    From having a global share of GDP of 32.9 percent in 1820, China’s share had shrunk to 4.6 percent by 1950. (See Angus Maddison, The West and the Rest in the World Economy: 1000–2030, Table 6).

    It turned out extremely well for the British – Chinese trade financed a substantial part of Britain’s budget in the nineteenth century, which allowed them to accelerate their economic development and finance their wars in Europe and elsewhere.

    But then again, just about any place that the British colonized became awful for the natives, although there would usually be found a layer of elite / collaborationists that benefited or became rich, who acted as intermediaries for the British in dealing with the natives, or would be the “face” of rule so the British would not need to exert themselves. These collaborationists are not to be blamed too much – after all, they needed to survive too, many of them saw their roles very clearly, and supported China in its darkest times.

    Some Chinese – immigrants to other nations who had to claw and scratch to survive – established themselves overseas and became successful.

    But for the bulk of the Chinese, how to deal with the modern world as a nation has been one of the biggest questions in world history for the last 200 years, and is still being answered.

    What is interesting to me is that China for the last 30 years has finally figured out a way to deal with the modern world that does not involve standing still or moving backwards economically, but moving forward. Any idiot can see that. The question is how to keep that system working and extending the benefits to a larger group, while also dealing with the negatives of that system.

    Put another way, China had been a major “wealth creator” in the global economy in 1820s and 1830s, bringing wealth to its citizens and great wealth to the foreigners who traded with China. The book has not yet been written about the Chinese roots to the “Rise of the West” but it will be written someday. But starting from the 1840’s, wealth destruction took place on a massive scale in China because of the political instability that foreign invasion brought. Attempts to create new wealth were not sustainable except in isolated instances (think of the failure of the Chinese railroads). Wealth creation that took place after the fall of the Qing in 1911 were in many ways under the control of foreign owners, although there was substantial wealth creation during the Republican period among business people associated with the KMT, but then a lot of that wealth was destroyed or moved overseas during the Japanese invasion and KMT-CCP civil war.

    Maddison’s Table 6 shows that from 1950 to 1973, China’s share of global GDP stood still at 4.6 percent. However, at 2003, China’s share grew to 16.8 percent and he predicts that by 2030, it will be 23.8 percent.

    So getting back to what you wrote:

    “Imagine if the Chinese have more material wealth throughout the rest of China.”

    I think China is getting there – 2030 is only 18 years away – but the ship of state will have to stay afloat for China to get there.

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