To me, the hallmark of a stellar souvenir is if the object is admired long after it makes its way through customs. Admit it: eventually, that stuffed panda will become a slobbery dog toy and that pair of chopsticks will get lost in the deepest, darkest recesses of the cutlery drawer. So instead stocking up on trinkets you can score in your local Chinatown, I propose to put your cash towards totally unique pieces that can be used in your daily life. My five suggested souvenirs vary in style—from retro watches to ultra modern ceramics. They also represent cultural snapshots from different eras in China’s vast history, like Nankeen fabric made from a 3000-year old technique and original propaganda posters from the Mao era. All of these things are also easy to pack, minus the ceramics at Spin. But don’t worry, the must-see shop helps customers safely ship their purchases home without a crack.
This iconic Chinese watch has been ticking since 1958. For decades it was one of the “three bigs”: status symbol items—along with a bike and radio—bachelors were expected to own to be considered eligible for marriage. Dongtai Lu Antique Market has plenty of cheap and cheerful reproductions, but they will break on you in a hot minute. Shanghai Code—a tiny store specializing in vintage Chinese accessories—has the real deal. Die-hard watch collectors will love exploring the little watch shops surrounding the now shuttered Shanghai Watch Factory in Yangpu District.
The Nankeen Exhibition Hall on Changle Road in the French Concession is a must-see. The gallery-like shop is devoted to the 3,000-year-old Chinese art of blue and white nankeen fabric, which is similar to batik. Be sure to visit the shop on a sunny day so you can witness bolts of fabric billowing gently in breeze as they line-dry in the courtyard.
Cliché? Maybe a little. But after a visit to the Propaganda Poster Arts Museum, it’s hard not to want one for yourself. Maybe the museum has brainwashed me into thinking it’s a great souvenir, but they are seriously cool pieces of art with history. This amazing collection spanning from the 1930s to 1970s is an art and history lesson rolled into one.
Meaning “flying forward” Feiyue kungfu shoes are century-old Shanghai icons. Even if you could care less about martial arts, these comfortable canvas kicks make great wardrobe additions. Go for the original Chinese version, which has an extra-squishy sole and roomy fit. For around RMB 50 a pair at Culture Matters, they are a bargain.
Spin is Shanghai’s leading ceramic store, known for affordable minimalist designs with maximum aesthetic impact. Each piece is handmade in China’s birthplace of porcelain, Jingdezhen. This two-story industrial space has countless useful pieces like tea sets and artful objects like paperweights shaped like dim sum delights. It’s hard to walk out of here empty-handed, so if you purchase more than an armful, ask the store for help with shipping the goods home.