Week 4: E-Culture in China

Hello all, welcome to my fourth week in Shanghai update! This week, I’m going to be talking about the immense array of electronic services in China, and what my thoughts on it are.

Shanghai and Phone Culture

One of the things you’re likely to notice in Shanghai is that every single person has a smart phone of some kind, whether it’s an iPhone, Samsung, or the Chinese iPhone mimic, Oppo. All of these are a big part of Shanghai (and perhaps all of metropolitan China), making up the immense network of social media apps and electronic services. It also strikes many foreigners, coming to China for the first time, that cash seems conspicuously absent.

This is because the apps AliPay, from Ali Baba (the Chinese e-commerce giant run by Jack Ma), and WeChatPay are the two most widely used payment services for almost any business, big or small. Small businesses are frequently almost cash-free; even street food stalls may take cash and will ask you to pay with 支付宝/支付寶 (Zhīfùbăo) or 微信 (Wèixīn). Some upscale restaurants will let you pay with WeChat (in addition to credit cards)!

WeChat Pay is by far the most common, and while AliPay is the original e-payment app, you should have both, since some services only take AliPay. AliPay is exclusively used for payments and other financial transactions, whereas WeChat Pay is connected to the messaging app, WeChat. However, it is worth noting that whichever you choose, you can’t actually use either app without a Chinese bank account, which is fairly easy to do. I’d recommend going to the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), since they have English speaking staff if your Chinese isn’t exactly up to snuff; otherwise there’s also the China Merchants Bank and Bank of China. China Merchants Bank has a special relationship with Bank of America so that Bank of America debit cards are not charged withdrawal fees.

It was a little strange at first, but I’ve gotten used to it, since it means that I basically never have to carry large amounts of cash on me. For those who live in the US in cities like New York, Berkeley, and comparable cities with large university student populations, you may be used to using a similar e-payment service called Venmo, which is essentially the same thing, though WeChat Pay is more widespread in China than Venmo is in the US, and AliPay is more integrated with a variety of shopping methods than Venmo is.

Taobao, the Chinese Amazon, uses AliPay to have customers pay for items. Some grocery stores have their own apps let customers pay for their purchases ahead of time and pick it up, or get them via delivery. Eleme (better known by its Chinese name 饿了么/餓了麼 – èleme) is the most widely used food delivery app in various metropolitan areas, and uses AliPay as its method of payment.
Deliverymen will come and bring it to almost anywhere, making it so easy to buy food, that some universities have issued policies against letting in deliverymen to deliver food to students!

It sometimes boggles my mind how easy it is pay for and buy almost anything in China, and it’s so quick and seamless that there barely even needs to be a conversation between you and the staff. I feel like it’s a little sad, since it does depersonalize the experience of going around in the city, especially when everyone is already so incredibly hooked onto their phones. When I say that there is a huge e-culture in Shanghai, what I really mean is phone culture. Not computers, but specifically smartphones.

Nowhere else that I’ve been has ever had apps like WeChat Pay so integrated into daily life, or has people on their phones all the time. It’s a little frustrating on trains, when some random lady is more focused on the drama that she’s watching instead of letting people by, when they’re trying to get off the train. It also means that you’re very dependent on your phone, and getting it stolen is absolutely disastrous. You can’t pay for anything if you don’t have your e-payment apps.

I’d be interested to know whether e-payment services make it easier for smaller shops to do business, since it makes it very accessible, as smartphones and phone plans are preposterously cheap in China. The idea of a cashless society seemed impossible to me before coming to Shanghai, and now it seems like a really good thing. People avoid having to keep large amounts of cash on hand, and it’s much easier to keep track of your transactions when they’re all on your phone. It’ll be interesting to see how e-commerce evolves in the future.

This week’s food updates!

Master Xu’s Vegetarian Special

This week, I went to a few relatively more upscale restaurants, though still reasonably priced. The first restaurant I went to was called Element Fresh, which is actually a chain of restaurants that specializes in using fresh ingredients. The food was quite good, and the vegetables were delicious! The assistant manager of their location in the Super Brand Mall, Grace, was kind enough to point out their vegetarian options, and their other staff do speak some English, if you don’t speak any Chinese.

Pumpkin soup with croutons

The menu itself is not of any particular cuisine, but rather has a variety of options, ranging from generic “Asian” dishes to Italian pasta. It was tasty, but I will say that it was a little heavy-handed with the use of pepper. It came with a creamy pumpkin soup that looks deceptively like tomato soup in the dim lighting of the restaurant. I’d definitely recommend going to Element Fresh, as my non-vegetarian friends also enjoyed the food. The price of my meal came out to 59 kuai, so it was very reasonably priced.

I went to an Italian restaurant this week as well, called LA Pasta. It was conveniently located right next to my dorm, so I decided to try it out. There are a few vegetarian items, though the least expensive is 42 kuai. I thought the pasta was OK, but it could have used more garlic or basil to really give it a flavor other than just tomato.

They also have lunch sets that come with drinks, appetizers, or soup at varying price levels, so I will definitely have to check out those some time. They’re pretty good deals for the money, so I’d recommend coming here in case you have difficulty finding something to eat in the Jinqiao neighborhood.

The same night I went to LA Pasta, my friends and I went out to Puxi to Dagu Road, a road with a lot of hidden gems for expats, including a Thai restaurant, a New Zealand restaurant, and other places. But what really stood out is the Shanghai-famous Indian restaurant, Masala Art, which has been lauded by many as one of the best places to get vegetarian food in the city.

Garlic naan and lachha paratha
Saag chaman, Baigan bhartha, and Chicken masala (ordered by my non-veg friends)

I and my friends enjoyed the food, but given that it was quite a far ride out to this restaurant from where I live, it was kind of difficult to justify. The taxi ride was around 60 kuai, and dinner (altogether) was around 67.5 kuai per person. My friends ordered the chicken, so I obviously didn’t eat that.

The two vegetarian items we did order, the saag chaman (essentially saag paneer) and the baigan bhartha, were decent. I’m not a fan of saag (spinach in Hindi) items in general, but the saag chaman was actually quite good, if somewhat heavy on garlic. I thought that the baigan (eggplant in Hindi) was only OK, seeing as the sauce was good, but the eggplant wasn’t marinated long enough, and the inside was very bland. It was also curious that there were whole pieces of eggplant, rather than diced up finely, or as almost a paste. The two naans we ordered were very good, and were thoroughly savored. I think that Masala Art may have other dishes that we didn’t try, so maybe it’s worth coming back to see if there are better items.

That’s all for this week’s post! I will be heading to Hangzhou next week, so look forward to my updates from that trip!

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I'm a student studying at NYU, hoping to pursue a career in diplomatic services, and I'm obsessed with learning and teaching foreign languages. I like to practice Taekwondo, enjoy Square Enix video games, and engage in Asian-American social activism and international political activism.