From silk ties to luxe doonas to affordable jewellery, Shanghai is a paradise for bargain-hunters, as Megan Singleton discovers on a budget-busting shopping tour.
It's hard to believe that only 20 years ago the skyscrapers that stand so tall and proud today over Shanghai's grey Huangpu River weren't even here. Yet today any one of these majestic towers would be an iconic building in any metropolitan city in the world, but here they stand side by side, calling "look at me" in Shanghai's booming centre of commerce.
This city is such a stark juxtaposition of China's new wealth and extreme poverty even in the same street. Under the shadow of these architectural masterpieces, a street vendor rides his rickety three-wheeled bike towing a trailer loaded with knick knacks that he'll peddle for a few yuan. Dilapidated apartments with laundry hanging under the eaves are dwarfed by five-star hotels and office towers in view at the end of the street.
Yet somehow amongst the din of a city with 23 million people all busily getting on with their lives, there is a serenity they have carved out. Despite the traffic jams and the millions of shoppers squeezing their way down Nanjing Road like the Sydney marathon, people make time to meditate and be calm.
Along the Bund, the concourse that stretches along the river, you'll find groups dressed in matching outfits doing tai chi. Wander down here early enough and you'll see men flying kites that disappear into the grey sky before packing them up and cycling off to start their day.
But I'm not here to be calm. I'm here for a shopping frenzy.
So the Shanghai shopping expedition begins …
The perfect person to help me navigate my way around this crazy place is New Zealand ex-pat Suzy Fewtrell. She moved to Shanghai when Air New Zealand started flying here because her husband was a pilot. They loved it so much that he left the company to stay and Suzy set up her business taking tours for (mainly) western shoppers who want all the leg work done for them.
I nearly dance a merry jig upon seeing the prices of clothes, luggage, homewares and linens on this trip. I'm also told about a couple who saved $22,000 on curtains for their new (and obviously large) home by purchasing direct from the factory, which made me think a holiday here makes perfect sense for the thrifty.
I take the Shopping Tours Shanghai full-day tour, starting at about 8.30am and ending at 6pm, with lunch and a driver included. I thought it would be far too long, but we scamper through the outlets on our itinerary with such gusto, even the token male ran out of time.
Starting at the Fabric Factory, it's winter coats in every colour, shape and size hanging from racks, while fabric samples fill books just waiting to be made into something fabulous. Or practical.
I spin in circles as Suzy tells us which vendors she has set up deals with, and whose clothes she's had an Australian tailor come and inspect. This means you don't need to haggle they'll give you their best price straight away. I know this because I wasn't paying attention and tried my skills at another stall with no luck on moving the price more than a couple of dollars. In the end Suzy helped me negotiate on a popping lime-green, lined cashmere cape for about $150.
They also have pictures ripped from fashion magazines like Vogue pinned to replicas of the latest look. Two of my colleagues get coats made to order overnight and delivered to our hotel by 8.30am the next morning.
I also buy two 100 percent silk ties, two scarves, three pairs of cuff links, a belt and that coat all for less than $200. Bargains!
Next we arrive at a place that sells gorgeous ceramics plates, bowls, vases but I decide my luggage doesn't need the weight. We stop for a delicious lunch in one of Suzy's favourite restaurants serving Shanghainese food, then head off to the Silk Factory. Here, worms are boiled in their silk cocoons and unravelled by machines into fine, web-like threads to be made into doona and pillow fillers.
Four women stretch the "wool" holding a corner each over a bed to make the doonas. Each takes at least 100 layers of the silk thread (see below picture). I buy a king size and two pillows (which they vacuum packed for travelling) for $200. These are the most popular items on the tour, and Suzy is often asked to send them overseas to those who wished they'd bought them.
Image: Megan Singleton
Next stop is for antiques and collectibles. I hunt for a sculpture of a Chinese coin, finding it made from marble at the next stop. Christmas decorations are out in full force among homewares and garden furniture, fresh flowers, and the most amazing fake flowers I've ever seen. I restrain myself here thinking about the size of my suitcase, but could so easily fill a container.
Finally, we hit the Pearl Market which is a misnomer as it covers three floors and has all kinds of jewellery, luggage, handbags and knick-knacks. I spend the remainder of the contents of my wallet here on gifts galore including some very cute hand-painted chopsticks and my piece of art.
Suzy and her team also run personalised tours, so if you're fitting out your new house, for example, and want to save a cool $20,000, she'll help you locate the right factory before you travel that makes the curtains you're after.
At that price, you can afford to stay at a fancy hotel on the Bund, dine on the rooftop and still go home richer.
Shopping Tours Shanghai's full-day Best of Everything tours cost 1200RMB, around $200 per person. Click here for more information.
Megan Singleton was assisted by Air New Zealand from Auckland. She has her own travel blog at www.bloggeratlarge.com.