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Shanghainese Vintage Food Destination 'City Mart' Serves Up Deep Fried Nostalgia

Raffles' new basement food court is a Shanghainese street food time machine...
2021-09-27 12:00:00
Photos: Angela Leung

Destroy something, grieve for it, and then reproduce it –that's how Shanghai works.

Reproduce it in a more manageable place, ideally. Say, the basement of a mall on the North Bund.

Enter the newly opened "City Mart", an old timey Shanghainese street food hub, opened last July in the new Raffles, lately trendy with with locals for its melange of traditional cheap eats and old Shanghai urban tableaus.

The business of nostalgia in Shanghai isn't a new trend. We've already seen a similar concept with Lane 1192, also in a mall, popular with wanghong tastemakers for whom places like these make for novel Weibo post opportunities. There are also other "City Marts" around town, but this one is the realest fake we've seen. If you want to check out one, this is your best option.

City Mart is 70% cafeteria, 20% cultural hub, and 10% random filler. Like Peppa Pig merch stands and FRIED yoghurt stalls. Founded by three Shanghainese guys, the restaurants are mostly chains that date back to the 1980s and '90s. Complimenting the food options are recreated scenes of"haipai wenhua" (traditional Shanghainese culture), including barber shops, lane houses, newspaper corners, and more. Bamboo wood furniture abounds, much of it reportedly sourced from the personal collections of Shanghai families. On the sound system, pop songs from bygone eras and Shanghainese dialogues are looped. The ground is authentically greasy. And if you squint a little, it looks alright. Just don't look up into the ceiling where the modern ventilation and air conditioning systems ruin the illusion a little.

Let's talk about the food.

City Mart is hosting big chains like Dahuchun (for shengjian), Xiandelai (for ribs rice cakes and desserts), Wumaoxing (for noodles), to name a few. There are also delicacies from independent retailers and other cultures like ramen and dim sum. Pricing is very affordable, starting from 1rmb snacks and stews. 50rmb get you a "fancy" meal. If you spend more than 100rmb you're doing it wrong. Note: most menus are not bilingual, so if you don't read Chinese, the WeChat translate function on your phone is your friend. Just start ticking boxes.

Finally, you don't have to crawl to Qibao for xiaochi. They've got a spot here serving best-selling stuff, along with other sticky rice / pickled products.

Get your crispy caramelized congyoubing from a giant pan after queuing till starvation. These ones are great. The soggy ones from takeaway spots or frozen ones from your fridge are just... soulless.

This is the vegan destination in the food court, with a wide variety of jingsu dishes (strictly vegan in the Buddhist sense, meaning they also exclude five pungent spices: onions, garlic, scallions, chives, and leeks).

The ultimate snack selection. A lot of these brands were particularly stylish when I was at school a decade ago or so. Only the cool kids bought those.

Other than dining, there's the whole spectacle of it. Executed to varying degrees of success.

Look at this random gran. P.S. this is a statue, not a real person. She's weaving and selling floral bracelets. You can still find these next to a few metro stations these days, but the vendors only take Alipay and WeChat instead of cash.

Shanghai style table tennis and snookers (we call that "kangle qiu"). Gotta admire the DIY aesthetic here.

Our version of the TARDIS... window sills with 4 or 5 brightly colored rotary phones.

While the surroundings inspire childhood memories, a few things bring us back to the present –the QR code machines and led screens in particular.

Hey, what are you doing here, Luckin?

So who's going? Locals. Loads. Predominantly Shanghai ayi squads. And then people in their '20s and '30s like me who just want to reminisce a bit.

It's not a perfect illusion. But the food is cheap. And maybe it's an interesting enough diversion to try out if you're looking for something to do on a weekend afternoon.

City Mart North Bund is situated on the basement of in the new Raffles City – which is their third branch located in Hongkou District. It looks super futuristic. You will find the entrance right off Exit 3 at Tilanqiao Lu metro station along Line 12. Go check it – before it gets knocked down, too.