SHANGHAI, China — I told y’all I’d step up my food game in China, and on Friday morning here in Shanghai, I came through.
One word: Dumplings.
I had read about and been told to check out a couple dumpling joints in this massive city and they both happened to be a short walk from my hotel.
So, early Friday I wandered over to Yang’s Fried Dumplings and Jia Jia Tang Bao, which stood right across from each other on a skinny Huanghe Road.
First up was Yang’s, where I approached what seemed to be the register and pointed to the large picture of what looked to be pork dumplings and shrimp dumplings.
Yang’s is considered “fast food,” with chefs cooking up huge batches of fried dumplings in giant oil-filled pans.
After three minutes, my order was ready and piping hot. I immediately tried one of the shrimp dumplings, cautiously biting a small hole in the dough and sipping the tasty soup inside. It still burned my tongue, but also warmed my soul.
The entire dumpling is best described as a greasy ball of goodness, with the combination of thick and crispy dough, juicy meat, and savory soup coming together nicely. The price was right, too, as 10 of these large dumplings cost about four bucks.
With Yang’s in hand, I wanted to kill two birds with one stone and snag some Jia Jia before I came back to my hotel. Luckily, there was no line, so I walked inside the hole-in-the-wall eatery and pointed to “crab and pork dumplings” on the menu and ordered four.
The woman at the counter rang me up for what was about 14 dollars and I was taken aback, thinking she was trying to rip me off like some of the taxi drivers at the airport or train station. I actually ended up walking away.
Ten seconds later, I realized that “four” meant four sets of 12 dumplings, and that 14 dollars made much more sense for such a quantity. Shaking my head, I walked back inside, smiled at the nice woman, and this time ordered just “one.”
I ended up waiting about 20 minutes inside, but for good reason. Unlike Yang’s, which had huge batches of dumplings ready to go, Jia Jia is more of a made-to-order spot, with women working together in their red aprons and red chef hats to chop up small bits of dough, flatten them into thin circles, and fill them with small bits of goodness from a heaping pile of raw meat before finally steaming the dumplings. It was pretty awesome watching this happen in real time.
While Yang’s was like a juicy greaseball, Jia Jia felt much more elegant, and in some ways, just about perfect.
The super fresh dumplings came out hot and the soup inside was equally as savory as Yang’s, if not better. The combination of crab and pork was on point, and the accompanying soy vinegar dipping sauce was an excellent compliment. And, by the way, 12 dumplings at Jia Jia was about four bucks.
Now that we got the food pornography out of the way — actually, there’s more at the end of this post — let’s talk about my experience using technology, and particularly Internet, over the past few days in China.
As you may know, the government here has the “Great Firewall” in place that blocks sites like Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, and more.
However, I’m using a VPN, which lets me access these sites and works well. Also, my 2G T-Mobile connection, although quite slow and spotty, does let me access Facebook, Twitter, etc., so this really hasn’t been a huge issue for me.
But, when I was working at Alibaba’s headquarters earlier this week, the VPN wasn’t connecting and when I tried using Google to search for key information, I had to instead use Yahoo. This was kind of annoying. Interestingly, Google is looking to re-enter China five years after removing its services from the country.
Just in case, before I arrived here Monday evening, I ported important emails and calendar information I had on Gmail and Google Calendar — I heavily rely on both back home — to a new account on Microsoft Outlook, which I’ve actually been quite impressed with as far as functionality and ease of use across both my laptop and smartphone. Combined with the Microsoft Translator app that’s saved my butt more than once on this trip, I gotta give props to the folks in Redmond.
Given that my T-Mobile mobile data service is less-than-stellar here, it has made navigating a bit more difficult. But I’m taking screenshots of maps while I’m on WiFi to use when I need directions and that is working just fine. And my T-Mobile plan offers unlimited international texting, so that’s what I’m using to contact others while on-the-go.
I’m also falling in love with WeChat, the messaging app — it actually does much more, like mobile payments and social networking — developed by Chinese tech giant Tencent and used by literally everyone with a smartphone in China. It is such a sleek and intuitive app, letting you easily send voice messages, photos, videos, and group messages in a wicked quick manner. I do really like Facebook Messenger, but WeChat is better.
Not exactly technology-related, but the subway system here is really, really good, and I’ve come to like it even more so given how much traffic there is in Shanghai and how freakin’ crazy the drivers are. Most, particularly those driving taxis, subscribe to a “IDGAF” mentality here — “I Don’t Give A F***” — as far as making lane changes and adhering to what we know as “right of way” back home. That means when you’re crossing the street, despite a “walk” sign, you better watch out.
But back to my point — the Metro here is sometimes uncomfortably crowded, but is equally convenient and also cheap, costing no more than a few bucks to get you from A to B.
After visiting Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou and seeing Jack Ma hang out with U.S. college basketball players earlier this week, I’ve spent the past few days in Shanghai meeting entrepreneurs and executives to get a better feel for the startup and technology climate here.
It was really cool to catch up with Kelly Smith, the Seattle startup veteran who’s spent the past 14 months in this country heading up the digital team for Starbucks China. Smith, the founder of RocketVox (sold to ThePlatform), ImageKind (sold to CafePress) and Zapd (sold to RealSelf), helps lead a team of 20 employees that are working to develop Starbucks’ digital efforts in a country where the Seattle-based coffee giant is opening one store per day.
Smith told GeekWire that the shift from Seattle to Shanghai — and to corporate life from the startup world — has been relatively smooth, and he’s extremely bullish about Starbucks succeeding in China.
“Excluding the social and payment platforms here, as a Starbucks brand, my goal is to make this the most prevalent application used by people in China, bar none,” Smith said. “The growth could be explosive, and there is all the potential in the world here for Starbucks.”
By the way, there are tons of Starbucks in Shanghai, including this fancy location I stumbled upon.
Starbucks has also made its way onto city directional signs.
Stay tuned for more from Smith on GeekWire.
I also had a chance to meet Daniel Tu, the Group Innovation Officer for Ping An, a huge China-based public holding company offering insurance, banking, and financial services that has a market cap of more than $650 billion. Tu, who has spent time in Seattle over the past few decades, is an expert when it comes to international business and shared a number of insights regarding innovation and technology in China.
Tu is responsible for helping Ping An stay on its toes when it comes to new business verticals, partnerships, and investments. During our conversation, he touched on the mobile user base in China — which is growing at faster clip than in the U.S., he said — and the differences between the two markets. We’ll have more from the innovation officer later on GeekWire.
After chatting with Tu over breakfast, I had another small meal with Sean Liu, a 1987 University of Washington graduate who now heads up the UW Alumni Group in Shanghai. Liu is a technology industry veteran, spending years in Silicon Valley before arriving in Shanghai about a decade ago. Liu introduced me to a new Taiwanese breakfast joint where I ate a rice ball filled with egg, pork, and some other stuff I’m unsure of.
Later on Wednesday afternoon, I got a small taste of the startup life in Shanghai while visiting Chinaccelerator, an accelerator that helps tech startups grow their business ideas into full-fledged companies during a 90-day program.
While there I met with Todd Embley, a native of Canada who shared some incredible personal stories of business-related hardships in China before he became the program director for Chinaaccelerator, where Embley is passionate about helping entrepreneurs.
At Chinaccelerator, I also met Dominic Penaloza, a mentor with the program and also founder of Bestaurant, a new social tool helping users find the best restaurants.
“This is probably the most exciting market to be in in the world, period,” Penaloza said of China, and specifically Shanghai. “If you are an entrepreneur who has a knack for seeing gaps in markets, and products that will fill those gaps, you go crazy. This is the biggest market for everything, with the fastest growth rates.”
After visiting Chinaccelerator Thursday, my day ended with a fantastic few hours with family friends, visiting their new cozy tea shop and enjoying a mouth-watering, home-cooked meal.
But before hitting the sack, I had a chance to test Uber on my way back from dinner. The app and the overall user experience from hailing to riding was exactly what you’d expect with Uber in the U.S. — and in many ways, better than a Shanghai taxi. The car itself was a sleek Audi A4 — there are tons of Audis here in Shanghai, by the way — and the driver was calm and not so aggressive at the wheel, which was refreshing.
“It’s popular in Shanghai, it’s popular around the world,” my driver said of Uber.
There are, however, a few differences I noticed with Uber here. For one, there’s an option of “People’s Uber,” which I’m told is the cheapest option, even cheaper than uberX. Also, at least in the neighborhood where I hailed the Uber, there was an option to ask for an English-speaking driver. Unfortunately, there were none available when I pinged the app for a ride.
OK, that’s all for now. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. It’s fun taking you along for my ride here in China. My next two days in Shanghai are all about the University of Washington — there’s an “Innovation Summit” today with people like the Microsoft China CEO and successful entrepreneurs from Seattle set to speak. On Saturday, we’ll head to Mercedes Benz Arena to watch the Huskies take on Texas in the first regular season basketball game — NBA or NCAA — to be played in China.
Stay tuned for words and pictures from those events. Talk soon, and enjoy some more pictures of Shanghai below.