Shanghai Pathways Blog

Understand ​China​ ​From the Local ​Perspect​ive



Chinese Woman’s Beauty Change


It is always interesting to see how beauty standards have changed in a country through history.  Beauty does not has a fixed look. It very much depends on when and where you lived. Continue reading “Chinese Woman’s Beauty Change”

The Wechat Era

The New York Times is right about wechat is a “monster” app. As a Chinese person, I am just so addicted to wechat, it is helpful and amazing as it gets more and more interesting every day to watch this app grow and change. Continue reading “The Wechat Era”

Chinese Style Blind Dating


A new dating show is sparking huge controversy online after inviting bachelors’ parents to judge if a candidate is a good match for their son, leaving the audience questioning whether Chinese men are overindulged and their families meddle too much in marriage. Continue reading “Chinese Style Blind Dating”

Incense – A Gife of The Orient

Chinese Incense Ceremony 11

Incense in China is known as xiang. It is composed of aromatic plant materials and some essential oils. For over two thousand years, the Chinese have used incense in religious ceremonies, ancestor veneration, traditional Chinese medicine, and daily life. To most of the modern Chinese people, the culture of incense is always connected with tradition and rather limited to an image of the burning incense sticks inside temples – a symbol of the faithful prayer rising in heaven. However, fashion and beliefs change fast in China, especially among the rich and famous. Just a few years ago, drinking 50 year old pu’er tea and sipping expensive French wine was the ultimate life style. Now, the Chinese elite has moved on to embrace incense and the calming world of Zen. After all, Chinese incense is known to attract divinity – who could resist such an idea?


The release of fragrant smoke when it is burned creates a spiritual atmosphere and masks unpleasant odors. The smoke and fragrance produced aids prayer and helps the believer feel that their worship is sacred and holy.

TIME KEEPING DEVICESChinese Incense Ceremony 7

Along with the introduction of Buddhism in China came calibrated incense sticks and incense clocks. The first written record of them was by the poet Yu JianWu, “By burning incense we know the o’clock of the night, with graduated candles we confirm the tally of the watches.”


Just like with tea and calligraphy, the Chinese developed a sophisticated art form with incense burning called xiangdao. It involves various paraphernalia and utensils in ceramic containers used to burn the incense. Examples include tongs, spatulas, special moulds to create ideograms with incense powder etc., all placed on a special, small table. It is most often used as an enhancement of a personal space to accompany other arts such as tea drinking and guqin playing. Xiangdao enthusiasts seek to finely tune their sense of smell – they play games to see who can Chinese Incense Ceremony 9identify subtle differences between varieties of incense, similar to a wine expert who can distinguish the vintage of a wine from smell and taste.


Some incense woods are extremely rare. For example, agarwood is a prized wood for incense that comes from two endangered species of tree. It’s separated into 6 grades according to its aromatic properties. Agarwood is normally a light color. However, when it’s attacked by mold, the tree releases a dark protecting resin. The aroma of this resin has been prized in Asia since ancient times. Top grade agarwood is saturated in resin, making it hard, dark and aromatic. It costs about $165 US per gram. By comparison, the current price of 24K gold is around $40 US per gram. Most Chinese people have never smelled incense that’s more expensive than gold. The majority of incense sold in Japan is made from more common woods such as sandalwood. By now you must wondering what kind of people are involved in the incense business in Shanghai?

20141110_SEA_incense_0083-37  INCENSE MAKER – MR CHEN

Born into a wealthy traditional Chinese family, Chen Lei made up his mind in childhood, not to follow his parent’s profession as a traditional Chinese medicine doctor. In fact, he didn’t want to work at all! But after making his fortune from running different businesses, he acquired the expensive hobby of collecting high quality incense and ironically his medical background helped him better understand the connection between incense fragrance and how it can benefit people’s health. Retiring very young, he devoted his time and passion to creating a research center for Chinese incense and offering classes to people who wish to learn about it.

THE SCHOlAR OF INCENSE20141110_SEA_incense_0083-232

Zhou Rong Qiao appears to be an idealistic intellectual who is into anything related to Chinese culture. Known as a famous publisher and writer, incense to him is something spiritual which can inspire his writing. His dream is to complete a masterpiece of traditional Chinese incense history, and he is working on it right now. Zhou also owns an incense store in the French Concession area, a popular spot for local writers and intellectuals.

20141110_SEA_incense_0083-289INCENSE TEA MASTER

Zhou Qiong loves Chinese tea but her favorite day to day tea is actually made from incense. Every day, before going to sleep, she puts a slice of incense wood into warm water, boils it for 15 minutes to develop the essences of the fine incense in the water. She uses the incense tea to balance her Qi and energy, it has a warming effect and is especially good for women who have cold hands and feet.

Hunting for Congyoubing

A cong you bing or green onion pancake is a savoury, non-leavened flatbread folded with oil and minced scallions(green onions).  It is crispy and doughy, with layers of fragrant spring onion that are at once salty and sweetly caramelised. The trick to cooking this is in the creation of paper-thin layers, sprinkled with finely sliced spring onion and salt. Whilst the outside crisps and browns from its contact with the oil, the layers fill with steam and cook the bing from the inside out, giving it that perfect consistency of crunch, chew and moisture.

The Chinese Legend

There is a legend in China that pizza is an evolution of green onion pancake, brought back to Italy by Marco Polo. Here is one version of the legend:

Marco Polo missed green onion pancakes so much that when he was back in Italy, he tried to find chefs willing to make the pancake for him. One day, he managed to meet a chef from Naples at a friend’s dinner party and persuaded him to try recreating the dish. After half a day without success, Marco Polo suggested the filling be put at the top rather than inside the dough. The change, by chance, created a dish praised by everyone at the party. The chefs returned to Naples and improvised by adding cheese and other ingredients and formed today’s pizza.

Follow the Smell

At  the corner of Maoming road Nanchang road in Shanghai, there is a famous street food stall, locally known as the A Da Congyoubing. Each congyoubing cost RMB3, it is actually the most expensive bing in Shanghai, usually it only cost RMB1 or 2. I guess quality comes with a price.

A Da, the congyoubing master only makes 300 bings every day and it takes 20 minutes to make 10 each time. So you will need to learn to be patient to wait for at least 1 hour as the line is just so long.

My special hunting trip for congyoubing was really funny. Since I am so lazy and slow in the morning, I have to camp at my friend’s place nearby the market to make sure I could arrive there by 7:30am, and then I promised my mom that I will bring home 10 bings for her as she did wonder why it is so special.  Actually, I have been planning this for weeks, everyone around me has been waiting for their share of the best cong you bing.

When the finally time arrives, the funny thing happened, A Da decided to have his day off on Wed… my effort went in vain and I had to find something else for my empty stomach – bad luck!!!

C’est la vie ~ life sometimes feels like a joke.

The Rich Hunchback Guy

A Da is his nick name – in Chinese it means big brother. He is really a strange looking guy, when he was young, he hurt his back and that’s how he become a hunchback. Since he is disabled, he could not find good job and so he spent RMB20 which was a lot of money at the old time to learn how to make congyoubing. Later he has been selling congyoubing to make a living for over 30 years. Now at the age of almost 60, he has provided his son a good life and bought 3 downtown apartments in Shanghai’s French concession.

In short, he is a millionare now and does not need to work hard and make congyoubing any more. So what makes him get up everyday at 4am and finish by 2pm? A passion for his food, I guess.

At his spare time, he love to sing songs and smoke 😉 After 10 years, he said that he will retire and travel around the world. But he is worried that no body will make congyoubing like he does any more.

The Afterwards Story

After my failed attempt, I have been receiving reports from friends about their experience with the congyoubing:

Nat – the chef: I went to the cong you bing place the other day. Waited 1.5hrs! They are certainly very good, but not worth waiting so long. I bought six and can report that they heat up pretty well for breakfast the next day.

Bobbie – my friend: It is so so so good! His cash register is an honor system, self pay and make your own change system. Amazing thing to contemplate is that his stove looks like a half barrel. It looks like he has gas tanks that run into the barrel. He knows his stove perfectly – how to regulate the heat, which are the hotter and cooler parts, how long to keep each congyoubing in which part of the grill. He measures nothing, but each congyoubing is perfectly shaped with a uniform size. He puts the first ones in the middle and knows how long each side gets and how hard and how often to press them. After the ones in the middle are just right, he moves them over to the edge to finish and puts new ones in the middle. The kitchen he cooks in is his kitchen. When you go up to take his picture, he smiles and says “ni hao”… He does not like for people to buy and then resell. He only makes 10-20 at a time. Many people who wait in line buy all 20 to take to family or colleagues in the offices they work in.

The Vegetarian Tiger

In Shanghai, the vegetarian lifestyle is more popular than ever. I love organic and healthy veggie but I do eat everything that is well prepared and taste wonderful. So people like me maybe considered as “semi-vegetarians,” which usually means that they eat vegetarian most of the time but occasionally eat meat. Unfortunately, being “semi-vegetarian” is like being “semi-pregnant.” You either are or you aren’t. A more accurate term for semi-vegetarian eating habits is “flexitarian.” But if the person in the photo will cook for me, I’ll eat veggie everyday!!

You are what you eat! This ancient saying can apply so well on Lulu, who started to change her life style about 10 years ago due to many chronic diseases. She was suffering from so much pain that no doctor across the continents could help her. She met a Healer in Hong Kong who told her to stop eating meat if she wanted to be healed because by cultivating more bad karma does not help us to cure from the core, he said. She didn’t understand why but she stopped. 10 years gone by, she has not only cured her own physical sicknesses, but also helped many people around her as well. To her surprise, the impact of food indeed goes far beyond the physical body.

Learn to eat foods that bring long lasting health, beauty and happiness
Sometimes you meet people and click right away, this is what happened to me when I met this famous happy chef, who has some amazing energy around her. She is so much into the energy of the food that she has chosen to follow the ancient yogic food philosophy, which encourages people to consume mainly sattvic food (vegetables [except pungent], fruits, nuts, grains, gentle herbs and spices). By following this philosophy Lulu has developed unlimited amount of fusion cuisines, she presents me a variety of tasty food that I didn’t even realize I wasn’t eating meat, milk products and pungent food at all! By eating the sattvic food, Lulu calls it “Joyfood” because these foods can give us long lasting health, beauty and happiness if we practice hard enough. Long lasting GAIN of course comes from long lasting PAIN, most people have no endurance, this is the major problem of her pupils, Lulu said. That’s why Lulu organizes private dinner with live music, so the people can at least experience momentary long lasting health, beauty and happiness in her Yogic Food Garden, she was laughing along this sentence.

The Whole World in one kitchen:
Lulu strike me as a Vegetarian Tiger, Soft outside but tough inside – that is what she is.  She is a language freak, speaks 6 different languages plus 3 Chinese dialects. But the richest side of her I guess it comes from her multicultural background – she is a funny mixture: she looks like a Chinese doll from outside, sweet and cute, almost like a kindergarten teacher, inside her the German system runs, yet from her core you can see and feel the Spanish fire.

When I asked her why she came to Shanghai, she said it was a call. If she could choose, she rather goes to somewhere warmer. Taking as her mission to incorporate the best organic supermarket concept from Germany (Alnatura) she is now helping her friend who owns 13 organic chain stores in Shanghai Haikele (HiQuality), helping them to upgrade to the international standard, meeting the latest health trend, allowing herself to shop the whole world in one single go.

All great things start from a simple idea

All the wonderful things in Lulu’s life came from changing what she puts into her mouth. Now that she is leading a life according to the Buddhist and Yoga teaching, together with lots of art and music, all she wants to do is to pass on this simple happiness to those who are searching for it.

Wanna come with me to a “joyfood” tour? Taken at Lulu’s home: the Yogic Food Garden:

                 A nice cozy kitchen create nice food 

             Colorful salads        

The food is beyond words! Full of LOVE and ENERGY!!! This great lunch lasted 7 hours, my goodness….. danger of two creative hearts on one table.

w.e Musical Education Fund for Migrant Children:

 Ever since Lulu was a child she wanted to learn people but her parents didn’t have the money for that. She started her piano lesson at her teenage with her pocket money. Thanks for the joyfood, her musical talent sprouts, she improvises and composes songs as hobby nowadays. Therefore she wants to help other potential Lulu who might also have the same dream. Therefore she founded w.e musical education fund for migrant children shanghai. w.e has many interpretation, one of its is “wealth exchange”, it’s a “made in Germany” product, place of its birth. 10% of the Yogic Food Garden revenue goes to this fund, now they have one child learning piano. Right, Lulu has a lot of interesting ideas, this is just one of them, you got to meet her if there is a chance.

The Dumpling Queen

Chubby Feng
Feng Wenhua, 52 years old, also known as "Chubby Feng," she was born into a poor family in remote Cungu Village in Fengxian District, a place where the land wasn't fertile.

You don’t choose a life, you live one. – This is what I learnt from the visit to Chubby Feng. 

Usually for a poor Chinese woman from the countryside, life is about helping the family, getting marry and raising children, anything but adventure. However, it is not the Chubby Feng case, she owns four small restaurants and operate one veggie farm in Pudong Fengxian area. In her own words, it is time to enjoy the good life. 

How did it happen? 

At an young age, she is like a BOY. Brave and never afraid of competition. Once there was a contest where all of the kids in her village was competiting to throw rice bags, the one who throw the farthest, would win a pretty bamboo basket. After the boys throw their bags, she simply walked backwards from the line and RUN to throw it….

Of course, Chubby Feng won and looked so happy that you can still feel that moment with her together when she was talking about this story. 

Daughters are usually not so important in the remote areas of China, so Chubby Feng did not get much education and worked at a local factory. At that time, she makes around RMB30 per month, that’s what every worker makes. By the early 1980, China started to change under the great leader of Dong Xiaoping, business started to come back.

During the 80s, leaving the factory means give up the IRON BOWL – an iron bowl means a job that lasts for a life time. Feng decided to leave the factory and start her own street food stall. It was true that a street food seller makes a lot more money than the factory worker in the 80s.

She struggled for years. In winter she pedaled her creaky tricycle to sell pancakes and youtiao (deep-fried dough sticks) near the temple in the town center; in summer she peddled ice cream at the front gates of schools and kindergartens; they were frozen in her hand-made icebox insulated by thick cotton padding.

Later on Feng became the first person from her village who decided to rent a big farm and sell veg to the city people….all of the people in her village think she is stupid and not a good wife because she did not take good care of her son and obey her husband.

For 3 years, the weather has been bad, she did not make any money and losted money. One morning as she was driving her loaded truck to the food market, she had a collision and suffered serious injury. A leg was badly broken and she hurt her voice crying for help. The village people thought she was stupid and looked down at her, her husband blamed her for starting the business. She could not even give RMB5 to her son to let him watch a movie.

I remember that at one point of the meeting, I asked Feng: WHY do you keep doing this? You don’t have to work so hard? You could remain as a factory worker, and be a normal woman.

Feng’s face was sad for a while and she took sometime to think about it, but her answer was firm and strong: Because I can’t live the rest of my life by letting people think that I am a loser. I need to have business so I can provide a better life for my family. There are so many brothers and sisters in my family and my in-laws always looked down at us because we were poor.

People says that only one out of ten business will succeed, so what do we do? TRY 10 times! 

Feng tried 4 times in her life and she finally succeed. Once you arrives at Zhuanghang Town old street, you will see the sign of Chubby Feng restaurant. Her specialty is the local dumplings, i.e. Zhongzi, Qingtuan. She currently holds the district record for making rice dumplings – 29 in 18 minutes – and she’s a master of many traditional snacks.

Ones Life Must Matter

After Feng become successful, all of the person that knows about her changed their mind. They now think that she is a great woman, brave and smart. People from the small village also felt that if Feng can run a business and change her fate, they should also be able to do it as well.

Interesting, right? Just don’t give up if you have a dream.

Sara Imas – a Jewish woman’s amazing life in Shanghai

When I met Sara Imas, I was immediately amused by her high engery level and felt that she has so much passion about life and people in Shanghai.  The more I gets to know her, the more suprises I got. 

Sara’s father Leiwi Imas was the President of Shanghai’s Jewish Club. In 1939, at the age of 43,  to escape Adolf Hitler’s holocaust, Leiwi arrived in Shanghai among the more than 30,000 other displaced Jews that floated into the city between 1937 and 1939. With no money in pocket, he sold his only gold watch and opened a small bakery on the city’s French concession.  By the 1940s  he owned a dozen businesses, including two bakeries, three wine shops, a carpet shop and a truck-rental firm.  In Shanghai, he married to a Polish woman and had Sara as her only daughter.

Leiwi Imas chose to stay in China when most other Jewish refugees left after World War II.  At an old age, the businessman, customs officer and ex-president of the Jewish Club in Shanghai died peacefully in a downtown villa in 1962.

His daughter, Sara Imas, grew up among her Chinese peers without a Chinese passport, speaking only Mandarin with a local accent. After living through upheavals in Chinese history, including the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), and failing to find love despite three failed marriages to local men, in each of these three marriages, she had one child. With 2 teenage sons and one younger daughter, she migrated to Israel in 1991 at the age of 41 and made a living selling spring rolls.

Once there, the Jewish woman, who lacks a college degree, demonstrated an amazing ability to provide for herself and family:

She learned to speak fluent English and Hebrew, found a job in an Israeli court, sent her three children to Israeli colleges, returned to Shanghai 10 years later as the chief representative of a diamond firm to the Greater China area, and married a local government official. All of her 3 children also become very successful in life and business.

To learn more about Shanghai’s Jewish history, click here.

The Grey Gardens in Shanghai


I just had the strangest Xmas eve and it has been all over my head. Everything started with my hopless curiosity towards Shanghai’s hidden buildings and its fascinating history.

At the off the beaten part of the oldest Shanghai corner, there is one small street called the heavenly light lane – walk inside the lane and looking for a wooden house with two beautiful Chinese red lanterns. Across from it, you will find a big black gate with a huge stone outside with the sign of Shanghai’s Gov. Protect building. 

Few people know about the story of this lane’s name, the heavenly light lane is the first place where Shanghai put the 1st public street electronic light, locals regarded the light as it has been sent from the heaven and guides people to their home.  So no one will be lost or suffering from the dark night.  Inside the big black gate, there is a big traditional family house with 3 gardens, it is over 250 year old and around 2000 square meters in size.

It feels like such a desserted place in the most crowed part of the city, standing by the gate, you don’t even sense any alive human beings inside.  Once you get in, the beautiful building is falling apart in front of your eyes. There is only a 89 years old woman and her 58 years old daughter live inside, it is hunted, overwhelming and you can tell how pretty this place was – and it is still unquestionably pretty.

The old lady speaks English and shared stories of her family, her daughter loves talking and always wanted to jump into the conversation even that she don’t understand much English. As mother and daughter, their difference is striking, one thing in common is that each of them has a crazy son and they are both trapped in this place or held back by their sorrows. 

“Don’t you feel this is sad? Don’t you have any compassion? ” – this question shots into my heart. I wonder if I ever should visit this place.

What can I say when I know that it is not up to me to change anything, the local gov. is offering the mother and daughter 5 million RMB to buy the place so the renovation could be done, but the daughter wanted more money. Their relatives have all been moved out and running successful business, they are the only 2 who are left behind to look after the old house. The older son of this 89 years old woman is a successful university professor in Canada, but her heart is always with her crazy younger son in Shanghai’s hospital so she don’t want to move to Canada. The divorced daughter said that she wanted to travel, but she also have to take care of her son who is in the hospital as well.

Is this sad? Yes and No, the house has become decrepit, but it is home to them. Life is not easy for everyone but there were happy moments, photos of this 89 years old woman who was an educated and beautiful Shanghai girl dressed in elegant Qipao. Paintings of her clever husband who was the most famous expert of ancient architecture in China, the daughter’s lively water-color flower paintings hanging on the walls of their house…

Life goes on, people have to move on.

Just like everything in Shanghai, things happened so fast and who has the time to be sad? Now, both of them are retired, the mother enjoy to chat with her old neighbors and the daughter like to dance in the park and charges an entrance fee towards the visitors, they argue with each other and they rely on each other. 

Anyway, I will go back again, I need to understand more and see what I could do.

After the trip, Xmas eve, I watched Grey Gardens – a movie based on the life stories of the eccentric aunt and first cousin of Jackie Onassis (both named Edith Bouvier Beale aka “Big and Little Edie”) raised as Park Avenue débutantes but who withdrew from New York society, taking shelter at their Long Island summer home, “Grey Gardens.” As their wealth and contact with the outside world dwindled, so did their grasp on reality. The two women become reclusive and known around town as the highly eccentric proprietors of Grey Gardens, which has become decrepit and full of stray animals taken in by the Beale women. They were reintroduced to the world when international tabloids learned of a health department raid on their home, and Jackie swooped in to save her relatives.

By the mid of the night, a “lost in touch” childhood friend contacted me for a merry Xmas, how strange is that we used to hang out together all the time during our teens. Now we have completely different life styles and the changes has been dramatic.







Shanghai/China in 10 minutes

About China


About Shanghai

The Avocado Lady

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There is always something special about Shanghai, the famous Avocado Lady is one perfect sample. If you start talking about the Avocado Lady to English speaking Chinese people, probably none of them will understand what you mean and wondering if it is an urban myth. But to many expats she is one of Shanghai’s urban legends. Known as the Shanghai local business owner Jiang Qin, her claim to fame is the selection of imported foods she stocks at her small grocery store on Wulumuqi Lu which undercut prices at Cityshop and the like. Now, it’s easy to overlook the place (actually, the number of foreigners shopping in the place is a big hint to finding it and the store’s been so successful it’s doubled in size) but step inside and you’ll find a good range of imported cheese and rare finds (Do you like Sichuan pepper in your cheese? She’s got it.), meats and fish, herbs, spices, olives, mustards, jams, the list goes on and of course those famous avocados for 10RMB per piece.

The personal story of this interesting and hard-working woman is really inspiring. 20 years ago, she came to Shanghai from Nantong(a nearby city around 3 hours by bus). And she started small business of a vegetable and grocery store. During the years, she learnt how to speak English and western cooking from her expats clients. Amazingly, she is always able to find special things that her clients wanted to buy. This made her different and stand out from the crowds.

As I know from talking with her, Ms Liang tought herself English, and learnt it by being open, chatting with her clients. Without computer and internet skills, she is able to search things that people can not find in Shanghai. In 365 days, she will only rest for 3 days and go back to her home town during the Chinese new year, the store opens every day at 4:30am.

Honestly, I am not sure if I can do better…

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