Discover the best of Shanghai in 1 day

Discover the best of Shanghai in 1 day

As the nighttime lights of Shanghai winked to life late on a humid Saturday afternoon, the tour guide said she had one last stop in mind: the marriage market in People's Park.

"I just hope we're not too late," she said, as we hailed a taxi and headed for the huge park in central Shanghai.

The marriage market wasn't listed in my guidebooks. But I had spent the day following her suggestions, exploring parts of Shanghai I wouldn't have discovered on my own, and I had yet to be disappointed. It was as though I had hired a local friend for the day.

We found dozens of people still in the park, all parents "shopping" for mates for their adult children. Some had created signs touting their offspring and affixed those ads to open umbrellas on the sidewalk. Others were clumped in circles, engaged in animated conversations.

"Why just the parents?" I asked Janny Chyn, the guide.

"The children hardly ever come," she said. "They wouldn't want to be seen here. These are the parents who are embarrassed that their children aren't married and are desperate.

She translated some of the signs. One described a 32-year-old man with a master's degree in economics and an annual salary of 300,000 yuan (about RM178,000) who owns a house. He wanted a wife who was 28 to 30, about 1.65m tall, with a bachelor's degree.

We leaned in to a rapid-fire discussion between the mother of an unmarried woman and the parents of an unmarried young man. They were showing photographs of their children, like old friends, and discussing career ambitions. (The woman, a nurse, made more money than the man, which seemed to surprise his parents.)

All the while, I realised I was privy to something special. Taking a customised tour of Shanghai was my way of dealing with a predicament: I had just a single free day and wanted to see the city's highlights. But I also wanted to step off the beaten path, maybe meet some residents, sample good local cuisine and get a sense of what it is like to live there.

Finding all of those things in one group tour didn't seem likely. I'm also not a fan of the big-bus tour.

I was reminded of that a year ago when I had arranged for a personalised tour of the Great Wall near Beijing and, on the way back, my guide took me to lunch at a giant restaurant - hundreds of idling buses outside and knick-knacks, American accents and industrial Chinese food inside.

This time I vowed to be smarter. My research turned up an interesting possibility. Shanghai Pathways offered what it called "alternative trips", including educational tours, and it specialised in small groups. Several dozen tours were listed on its website, including such things as feng shui consultations and dumpling-making.

I didn't see exactly what I was looking for, so I e-mailed Janny, the owner, who seemed to instantly grasp my goal. She recommended the Custom Tour, a seven-hour guided trip that she tailors to a visitor's interests. At 2,200 yuan (about RM1,306) for one or two people, it was pricey. But it seemed worth a try.

On a cool fall Saturday, Janny showed up at my hotel at 10am. She carried a backpack and an umbrella, looking more like a graduate student than a business owner.

She had roughed out an itinerary, starting with the Bund, the historic waterfront and Shanghai's most famous site, a viewing point for the high-rises across the Huangpu River. The curving, mile-long embankment, dotted with stunning buildings, once was the heart of an international settlement of American and British financiers and later a major commercial centre for East Asia.

After strolling along the Bund, we crossed a bridge to the Astor House Hotel, where we wandered upstairs to see the historic rooms where Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein, among other notables, once stayed.

Then we went next door to a part of the Astor that had been converted into residences. It was surreal: Some of the dark teak hotel room doors bore their original numbers, and hallways had been converted to open-plan kitchens with stoves and sinks. We passed a woman rinsing abalone and a man chopping garlic.

We caught another taxi (they are cheap in Shanghai) to the Bird and Cricket Market. Amid the chirping, Janny explained how many Chinese people revere crickets and keep them as pets. (She has two.)

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