The Shanghainese love to talk, and they love to talk loudly. Everyone has a mobile, which they shout into. They also blog and microblog, play online games or simply walk down the street staring at their phones, narrowly avoiding the omnipresent postmen and women on their bikes.
In other words: Connection is not a problem in Shanghai.
There are two state providers: China Mobile (which supports GSM) and China Unicom (GSM and CDMA). Each offers a headspinning range of subscription deals and handsets, and shops large and small sell handsets and packages (bring your passport). Beware of fakes if you decide to brave a big electronics mall to find a good deal on a handset. The simplest thing to do is choose the handset you want and buy a pay-as-you-go card. They come in units of RMB100 and you can top up by calling (English service provided) or texting. Cards are available on practically every street corner in newspaper kiosks and convenience stores, though China Unicom cards are carried by far fewer vendors. Network coverage is excellent.
For a smart phone, you’ll probably want a package. Again, you can do this anywhere. Bigger shops should have someone who speaks enough English to walk you through the process. iPhones can be bought unlocked here (so you can use them with a pay-as-you-go card), but to get the best deal for 3G you should go to a China Unicom shop. If you take a long-term deal it can work out very cheap. If you already have your own, you’ll have to unlock it first.
Your landlord or compound manager will help you set up wireless Internet at home. China Telecom is the main provider but you can also set up deals with companies such as OCN that are packaged with digital cable TV. A year usually costs around RMB1200. Note that your apartment building or house may have the capacity for faster Internet – i.e., new cables have been installed in your area – but your landlord may be sticking with the same provider and same slow speeds. Ask that they sort out the fastest available Internet for you, since the prices are pretty much the same. Shanghai currently has China’s slowest Internet speeds at around 100 kb/s (global average is 230), which can be annoying – but other than blocked sites it works fine. You can also consider getting a VPN.
The Shanghai government has been talking about a massive improvement in Internet infrastructure leading to speeds literally a hundred times as fast for some time; it will happen sooner or later, but it remains a work in progress. 3G coverage can be spotty, and people seem to find China Unicom the better provider in terms of this, but it’s not a big problem.
Free Wi-Fi is everywhere and taken for granted – it would be easier to list the cafés around town that don’t offer it than those that do. The laptop-and-coffee mafia are everywhere you look. There are also extremely cheap Internet cafés all over the city, full of young people playing games and chatting online. Many of them offer snacks and drinks, and some can be rather impressive – but generally they’re crowded and hot. They cater mostly to locals but they’re easy enough to use. They’ll ask for your name and passport number but you don’t have to bring your passport with you and this is a perfunctory check.
The Great Firewall of China
The Chinese government can be a bit funny about the Internet, and you might find your favourite sites blocked. Perennial no-nos are BBC, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and (weirdly) movie site IMDB. The “Great Firewall of China” is quite sophisticated and perfectly capable of blocking individual links inside otherwise usable sites (for example, you might be able to read everything in your online newspaper except an article about Tibet). They also filter and block searches for the three Ts (Tibet, Tiananmen, Taiwan), pornography and anything else sensitive. Your best way round this, and for a generally easier (and often faster) experience is to get a VPN (Virtual Private Network). These are easy to set up online and will cost you a few dollars a month (the free ones have all been blocked). We recommend Golden Frog as the most reliable VPN provider in China.
China Post Offices are everywhere, with small branches handling basic letters, stamps, bills and account work, while bigger branches deal with oversized packages, Western Union and money changing. You’ll need to speak Chinese or have someone to help you; however, if you’re sending a letter or postcard overseas you don’t need to write the address in Chinese, though it may help to add the country name in characters. In theory you could do this for domestic delivery as well (since letters arrive from overseas without Chinese characters) but in practice, why take the risk? If you’re sending a package overseas, bring your passport and don’t close anything up until they’ve had a look at the contents.
Western Union, DHL and Fed Ex all have English-language hotlines. However there are ever-changing regulations on shipping to and from China. At the time of printing Fed Ex was restricted to company to company shipments – personal deliveries had been disallowed. If you do plan to ship or receive international packages, contact your company of choice and verify the situation personally.
For citywide delivery, there are literally hundreds of kuai di (courier) companies offering very fast, very cheap delivery. They’re the guys careering around the roads on motorbikes looking stressed. Get someone in your office or a friend to call them up for you, and they’ll deliver around the city, usually for under RMB20. You can also set up an account so they know where to come for pick-up when you call.
Your local newspaper kiosk will probably carry both China Daily and Shanghai Daily. They’re bland digests of local and international news in English, though Shanghai Daily is much improved and if you can get through the typos and Chinglish is making an effort to carry relevant local information and thoughtful editorials. You should read it to get the lay of the land when you first arrive – it won’t take long and it only costs RMB2. Other than that, the International Herald Tribune and the Financial Times are often found at five-star hotels and other top end establishments, though distribution is hit and miss.
Shanghai’s English magazines are all free, supported by advertising; they’re also on the whole rather good. The oldest is That’s Shanghai, a monthly with high production values and full listings of events, restaurants, etc., as well as strong features, interviews and reviews. City Weekend is a bi-weekly magazine with regular columnists in areas like LGBT issues, parenting issues and dining – it’s strong on listings and has an excellent website, as well as sister magazines for families and property. Also from the City Weekend people is Shanghai Family, a monthly that focuses on expat family life in Shanghai. Time Out started publishing in the last couple of years and has carried on the high standards of its namesakes around the world, with a distinct editorial voice and imaginative monthly features. Shanghai Talk is a large-format, rather idiosyncratic magazine with some excellent writing and unexpected features. There’s also Enjoy Shanghai, a spin-off magazine from a successful discount card operation – skip the token articles and check out the classifieds. You’ll find all these scattered in the usual foreign-friendly cafés, restaurants and bars.
There’s a clear crossover for the best websites. City Weekend is excellent for listings and community reviews, and Enjoy Shanghai for jobs, buying and selling and classifieds. The best pure website for getting around town, sorting out where to eat and drink and meet people is probably SmartShanghai, which also operates a delivery ticketing service for concerts, plays and the like. It’s user reviews are usually very up-to-date.
China blogs abound. For news and events of local interest, Shanghaiist is the place to start. It’s a blog with 10-20 posts a day from local writers who speak Chinese and provide local news with a dry wit and opinionated slant – worth reading for the arguments in the comments thread alone (find out what an wumao is). Also try Sinocism, ChinaGeeks and Jottings from the Granite Studio. Sinosplice is from a ChinesePod mainstay based in Shanghai, and China Hearsay covers issues of business interest. Two great websites that translate the most popular topics on the Chinese Internet, as well as provide a sampling of chatroom comments, are ChinaSMACK and China Hush. It’s fascinating to see the conversation going on and an eye-opener to those who think Chinese people have a conformist mentality. Note that some of these need a VPN, but using an RSS reader may get around this.
That’s Shanghai has a relaxed weekly podcast about the events coming up in the weeks ahead; for general China discussion and analysis the Beijing-based podcast Sinica is indispensable. Shanghai-based ChinesePod has weekly podcasts on culture and language issues; you’ll have to subscribe for its excellent language-learning content.
Shanghai apps are booming too. Explore Shanghai has the best, most functional Metro map bar none. Shanghai City Guide and City Fu Shanghai give you listings galore. Shanghai Walking Tours and Map is a great way to get to know the city. For language, the heavyweight is Pleco, which is not only a great dictionary but also has an OCR function that allows you to take pictures of Chinese characters and get an instant translation. There’s also Sina Weibo, if you want to explore the thriving world of Chinese microblogging.
This is just the tip of the jiaozi; once you start exploring the online and offline options you’ll find whole ocean of resources out there.
Shanghai’s English Media Landscape
Sinica (through Pop-Up Chinese)
Shanghai City Guide
City Fu Shanghai
Shanghai Walking Tours and Map