Who actually buys stuff at Shanghai's pricey luxury malls? Even the nouveau riches seem mostly to go to see and be seen, Starbucks lattes in hand.
The markets are where locals spend their renminbi -- and though the settings are sometimes dingy, the deals are glee-inducing.
Here's a pick of seven of the city’s best markets, selling everything from vintage propaganda posters to cheap prescription glasses and Burberry-style kids' coats. If you want to experience the China market for your last minute China travel deals, you can consider the following places.
1. Qipu Lu clothing market
Qipu Lu isn't for everyone -- but if your idea of fun is digging through a cardboard box to find an RMB 15 T-shirt with Hello Kitty prints, then it’s worth a stop.
It's also a must for fans of clothes that sport amusing or incomprehensible Chinglish slogans. I laughed out loud at a billboard advertising the DULL apparel line -- DULL for Delicate, Unique, Lovely and Legendary, of course.
The Qipu Lu main drag encompasses outdoor shops as well as dingy malls with floors covered in fabric fuzz, peanut shells and who knows what else.
Enjoy the cheapness while it lasts -- the kilometer-long shopping mecca will eventually be replaced by a fancy fashion district. But no specific timeline has been released for the street’s transformation. You can get the fashion clother at cheap price. If you are interested in it, you can consider to visit there to color your top China tours.
2. Hongqiao Bird and Flower Market
The Hongqiao indoor flower market is the place to go to escape from the futuristic Shanghai landscape and pretend for an afternoon that you’re in charming Paris instead of hectic Shanghai.
The flowers are fresh, cheap and abundant, with clusters of purple and pink blooms that seem transported out of an Impressionist painting.
Orchids go for RMB 20 or 30 a stem. Small glass vase centerpieces brimming with delicate buds are another bargain at RMB 20.
The local homemakers from the sedate Hongqiao neighborhood come for the tasteful housewares on offer, from quilts to wicker baskets to dainty ceramic dishes with pastel glazing.
But anyone seeking flashier fare will not be disappointed.
The market also stocks eye-catching pets, including enormous goldfish, floppy-eared rabbits and birds that squawk "ni hao.”
And don’t miss the kitschy lawn ornaments, such as a hulking white unicorn with an asking price of RMB 22,000. You can experience the atmosphere for your popular China tours.
4. 3 Yeh optical market
In contrast to what the market actually stocks, the name of the optical mall, 3 Yeh, means "three leaves" in Chinese.
The problem with buying glasses in the United States or Europe is they're so expensive you can only afford one pair -- which usually means something staid. Shanghai is the place to unleash your inner Elton John.
At this maze of stands near Shanghai Railway Station, glasses come in colors as mouth-watering as lollipops, and they're nearly as cheap.
The shops also stock more subtle styles, like tortoiseshell and metal frames, as well as contacts lenses and sunglasses.
A friend and I, both with basic nearsightedness, brought in our prescriptions and picked out cherry red frames. We each paid RMB 200, with lenses and a quick eye checkup included. Our glasses were ready in an hour.
A farsighted friend had less luck -- the shop didn't thin out his hefty lenses enough, and he turned down the glasses they made for him. Anyone with an unusual prescription should proceed with caution.
5. Dongtai Lu antiques market
Did I say this list would feature only markets prized by locals for good deals? In this case, I lied.
"You can buy all this stuff cheaper on the Internet," observed Hong Kong native K K Man (文家祺), taking pictures of the bric-a-brac.
But bear with me. If you're visiting Shanghai and only have time for one market -- a place combining local charm and souvenir shopping -- this is a good bet. It's in an enclave of hanging laundry, locals washing their vegetables in the street and kids playing tag. Just don't forget to bargain hard.
Many of the “antiques” aren't old, but they're fun.
Stands sell 1930s-style posters featuring glamorous smiling Shanghai ladies, or statuettes of Chairman Mao playing ping pong (RMB 50 after bargaining). Charming tin cookie bins have enough rust on them to look plausibly vintage. You can learn some culture and history about Shanghai here which can make your China tours more interesting.
6. Wenmiao book market
Located in the courtyard of a Confucian temple near Shanghai old town, this popular Sunday market mainly sells secondhand Chinese-language books, from contemporary novels and 1980s comic strips to ancient pamphlets to be read from back to front and right to left.
The few English-language books tend to be amusing, like a coffee table book called "Timeless Tiaras." Other odd finds include a biography of Prince Philip and a guidebook to Oregon.
But even for non-Chinese speakers, and for people who might be put off by the RMB 10 entrance fee to the temple, the book market deserves a visit for the atmosphere.
Every Sunday, vendors set up rainbow-hued umbrellas in the courtyard, and the haze from chain-smoking booksellers blends with incense from the temple.
It’s a good place to find cheap but original gifts for your family and friends after tired China tour packages. Propaganda pamphlets have arresting bright covers and would look smart on a coffee table.
Comic fans might like pocket-sized Tintin comics from the 1980s, with text in Chinese (two for RMB 100).
Best markets in Shanghai