Monday, April 25, 2011

Batam day-trippin

Batam and Bintan are two islands in the Indonesian Riau archipelago that are popular day-trip or weekender destinations for neighbouring Singaporeans. Bintan, facing the South China Sea, is popular for its beach resorts, while Batam is a good place to spend the stronger Singapore dollar on cheap spas and seafood. Batam also has the less salubrious reputation for its sex tourism. But so long as you steer clear of disco and karaoke bars and non-reputable massage centres, you should be able to avoid encountering this seedy trade. Legal and moral issues aside, tourists should really refrain from supporting this exploitative industry as it’s mired in human trafficking and child prostitution. To learn more about child prostitution issues and how you can help to prevent it or raise awareness, visit

Batam is a 45-50 minute ferry ride away from Singapore. There are a number of Batam ferry terminals with direct connections from Singapore’s Harbourfront ferry terminal, namely Batam Centre, Sekupang, Waterfront City and Harbour Bay. There are also ferries to Nongsapura, which depart from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal, Singapore. A return ticket costs around 45-47 SGD (inclusive of taxes, terminal fees etc), depending on which ferry terminal you’re heading to and thus which ferry operator you’ll be travelling with. For ferry schedule and ferry operators’ contact list, see

Lately, my favourite reason for visiting Batam is to get my hair done at Sibel hairdressing, located at Nagoya Hill. Nagoya Hill is this sprawling complex, located about 5-10 minutes cab ride away from Harbour Bay ferry terminal. The ride probably costs around 15 000 - 20 000 ruppiah. To be safe, board only the yellow-plate licensed Batam Taxis, and also negotiate your price beforehand. Nagoya Hill is anchored by Nagoya Hill Shopping Mall, which was supposedly the largest shopping mall in Batam when it opened in 2007 (not too sure if the “largest mall” label still applies today).

Nagoya Hill Shopping Mall - Pintu Barat entrance (as indicated on its pillar)

The mall itself is pretty huge and if you’re an avid shopper on the look-out for bargain (albeit, not too fashionable) clothing, shoes and groceries, you might be able to spend a good few hours to half a day in there. There’s even a cinema, though I’ve yet to check out its prices and movie listings. There’s a Matahari department store too, which is good for browsing for clothing and buying Wacoal, the Japanese-brand lingerie, which some may find much cheaper than Singapore’s, as they are produced in Indonesia, but of course, the designs and range carried are different too.

There is also a Polo brand corner, which retails the popular collared T-shirts featuring a prominent horseback-riding polo player logo and other Polo merchandise. The brand is popularly regarded as the Indonesian spin-off brand of the international Polo Ralph Lauren brand, and as such, seen by bargain hunters as an economical (though not as quality) version of Polo Ralph Lauren, as the prices can differ as much as by 1/3, if you compare a standard logo Polo Ralph Lauren collared tee with a standard logo Polo collared tee. But there’s quite a bit of internet discussion on the authenticity of Polo and after much trawling, I’m still confused as to if the Indonesian Polo is a) a genuine spin-off brand of Polo Ralph Lauren, which for some reason, is licensed in Indonesia as Polo, instead of Polo Ralph Lauren; b) a legal “imitation” of Polo Ralph Lauren (which due to licensing chronology issues, cannot sue the Indonesian Polo, as the name was registered in Indonesia prior to Polo Ralph Lauren), with merchandise made intentionally to resemble Polo Ralph Lauren’s or c) there exist both Polo by Ralph Lauren and the Indonesian Polo in Batam, the later being a local brand unrelated to Ralph Lauren and thus the “fake”, while the former is carried at only certain retail spots in Batam. Confused yet? So far, most of the Internet findings have not been conclusive, this authenticity issue seems pretty much left to investigative journalism, if it’s worth the time at all. My take on this, is that if you come across the Polo brand merchandise while you’re in Batam or other parts of Indonesia for that matter, and happen to like its merchandise, decide if you feel that the price is worth the quality, not just the supposed brand-name appeal and make your purchase based on that. That way, if you find out that Indonesian Polo is not related to Polo Ralph Lauren, you won’t feel that you’ve overpaid for an imitation product, as you’ve paid simply for what you feel that merchandise is worth, sans its brand-name. But as to if you’ve unintentionally assisted in the infringement of intellectual property? Oops.

The Matahari supermarket is good for browsing for groceries and Singaporeans are wont to cart back boxes of made-in-Indonesia Indomie mee goreng instant noodles, which supposedly taste better than the made-in-Malaysia ones found on Singapore supermarket shelves. On this recent trip, I did not manage to check if this is still the case, given the pretty recent scare about the possibility of banned preservatives in the Indomie, although the Indomie imported into Singapore were cleared with a food safety probe later on. See Because they are hard to come by in Singapore, sometimes I buy back the Mie Sedap brand of mee goreng with jeruk nipis (lime flavour) instant noodles and Kusuka brand of flavoured tapioca chips (I especially enjoy the BBQ and sate pedas flavours). Keropok (deep fried crackers, of which Indonesia has an unusually large variety. Usually the sun-dried, pre-cooked versions are bought, to be fried back home) and Kueh Lapis (layered cake) are also popular snacks to cart back home. Matahari carries a range of keropok, but as for kueh lapis, the general preference is for freshly made cakes bought off bakeries or distributors for home-made versions (for example, such as the Isabella Massage House located in Nagoya Hill complex, which curiously offers sampling of kueh lapis and takes orders for its rather tasty home-made versions), rather than the pre-packed supermarket versions.

Nagoya Shopping Mall is also a place where Singaporeans can satisfy their nostalgic cravings for A&W fast food (especially the curly fries, root beer float and waffles) and Baskin Robbins ice cream, as these 2 brands are now defunct in Singapore. Don’t be surprised if you see Singaporeans making a beeline for A&W as soon as they set foot in Batam (or anywhere else in the region for that matter). It doesn’t matter if sometimes the queue is long and the wait turns out longer than expected for fast food service, or if on a bad day, the root beer float turns out flat and tepid and the curly fries limp. Singaporeans have an almost herd-like instinct to satisfy their long-drawn A&W cravings, if only because it was, after all, many Singaporean's foremost taste of American fast food, seeing that it was the first fast food chain to set up operations in Singapore, back in 1966. See:

While Batam is popular for its cheap seafood, I’ve unfortunately yet to come across one that I’ve liked enough to recommend. I’ve been to one or two kelong (fish farm/restaurants on stilts)-style seafood restaurants that are popular with tour groups, which while cheap, don’t exactly cut it quality and taste-wise. The only seafood restaurant I’ve tried recently at Nagoya Hill Shopping Mall failed to satisfy as well. Maybe I’m too fussy. My Batam hair stylist did recommend one on this recent trip, unfortunately, I did not have sufficient time to check it out. I’ll remember to post it if I ever do get to try it out later and if it turns out well. But if you do have seafood in Batam, you may wish to order “gong gong” - sea snails, which are supposedly a local specialty found only in the waters off Batam and Bintan. The snails are usually served simply steamed in their shells, with no dressing. You pull out the flesh by its tail or with the aid of a toothpick and dip them in the accompanying sambal chilli sauce and devour the mollusc whole, save for its prickly tail.

So instead of feasting on seafood, I satisfy my craving for Ayam Penyet. The famous one, with chains all over Indonesia and beyond, and I just found out, outlets in Singapore (Lucky Plaza) is Ayam Penyet Ria (Khas Ibu Ruth). It’s located at the Food Street of Nagoya Hill Shopping Mall (on its second level, most easily accessed by the Pintu Barat – west door entrance, where the A&W is located. The other entrance of the mall is on the opposite end, Pintu Timur – east door).

Food Street

Ayam Penyet Ria (Khas Ibu Ruth)

Ayam Penyet is essentially an Indonesian deep-fried chicken dish, which originated in Surabaya, East Java. “Ayam” means chicken and “penyet” means smashed or flattened, whereby the chicken is lightly smashed with a pestle to supposedly loosen the meat from the bone. The portion here at Ayam Penyet Ria is really tiny, kid-sized really. So if you have a hearty appetite, you may wish to order double portions or maybe add-on the other dishes – they have beef, prawn, fish penyet dishes too. I recalled from my previous visit, the soto ayam soup, while a tad oily, was delicious as well. The ayam penyet consists of a tiny piece of chicken drum fried to crispy perfection, some sides of cabbage, cucumber, basil, fried beancurd, fried tempeh (fermented soybean pieces) and the piece de resistance, the sambal chilli sauce. The chilli is so good, with such an awesome spicy kick, that I can only sufficiently express its flavour in the Singaporean colloquialism – shiok! For “dictionary” explanation of “shiok”, see: Then temper off the heat, with a nice, creamy avocado shake (a fail-safe drink in Batam – for me at least - made from the creamy avocado fruit ground to a milkshake-like consistency and laced with chocolate sauce). The Nasi Ayam Penyet (with rice) costs 16500 ruppiah (before 10% tax).

Ayam Penyet

Sibel hairdressing is located outside the mall, but within the Nagoya Hill complex. From the Pintu Barat entrance of the mall, cross over to the opposite rows of shops and head left, towards the end of the row, and you’ll come upon Sibel.

Sibel Hairdressing
This is my second visit to Sibel and I made an appointment with the stylist Dorris Lee. While the prices at Sibel are slightly cheaper or comparable to Singapore’s salons (especially after you factor in the ferry tickets), I’m pretty impressed with Dorris’ skills (she proved adept at cutting my long hair, gave my friend a chic bob and her husband a rather spiffy cut too) and knowledge of her trade. Apparently, she attends overseas training stints and is thus able to keep up with the latest hair trends. She’s also conversant in English and Chinese, making it easier for non-Bahasa speaking customers. So, if you happen to be at Nagoya and are in need of a haircut, I highly recommend checking out Sibel and asking for Dorris. If you’re keen to get Dorris to attend to you, you may wish to call in for an appointment. She seems like the only senior stylist around and when I was there on a Saturday afternoon, she was pretty much swamped.

Another reason for checking out Sibel is for the hair spa therapy. It’s a 45 minutes to 1 hour treatment, whereby you get a hair wash, hair mask using L’oreal Hair Spa products, and a (I can’t help but use this word again) shiok head, shoulder and arm massage, and of course, finish off with a blow-dry of the hair as well. Sibel salon is overall rather nice and clean, and if you ask for the hair spa treatment, you’ll be ushered to the quieter upper VIP level, where the steam machines (part of the hair spa treatment) are placed. Should you be unable or choose not to head up to the second-floor, the steam treatment would be done with a hot-towel wrap, in place of the machine.

VIP section on second level

Sibel Hairdressing

Address: Ruko Nagoya Hill G2, Batam, Indonesia

Tel: (0778) 7493 529 (if calling from outside of Indonesia, the country code for Indonesia is 62, so its +62 778 7493 529). On subsequent visits, you may wish to ask them for their BBM (black berry messenger) number for appointments.

Hours: 1000 – 2000 (closed on Tuesdays)

Price: 160 000 ruppiah for hair spa therapy (other hair therapies are available from 60 000 – 90 000 ruppiah); 140 000 – 166 000 for hair cut by Dorris. Pay in ruppiah only. I forgot to check if they accept credit cards.

Tip: Ask to change into a tube-wrap before your hair spa therapy, if you do not wish to stretch your shirt collar, the shampoo boy tends to tug your shirt collar when they need to massage your bare shoulders.

We had our massage at Eska. Again, Eska is most accessible from the Pintu Barat entrance of Nagoya mall, in fact, you’ll find it just right across the road from the A&W.

Eska Wellness Spa Massage and Salon

In addition to spa and massage services, Eska also has a whole range of beauty and hair services spread out over its 3-4 levels – manicure, pedicure, facial and a hair salon on its first level. I tried the package 1 (240 000ruppiah before tax), which is a 2-hour session, which consists of a facial, massage and foot reflexology treatments. The treatments are mostly carried out in curtained partitions. I think the men and women massages are conducted on separate floors. If you book the spa package, which consists of a bath treatment, for example the 3-hours birthday retreat package, you should get a room that comes with its own tub. Otherwise for non-bath packages or ala carte treatments where you have the body scrub, they are mostly conducted in the curtained partitions and you will have to make your way to the common bathroom at the end of each floor, to shower off. Because I had three different types of treatment, I had to shuttle between floors for each different treatment, but it should not be much of an inconvenience to most abled bodies. While the receptionists at Eska are conversant in English and Chinese, in addition to Bahasa; most of the therapists are fluent in Bahasa only and speak at most, a smattering of English. But no matter, arm yourself with a few useful Bahasa phrases and you should be able to enjoy your sessions. For example, the therapist may ask you “sini boleh?” – which roughly translates to “is this ok?” And if you find the massage pressure good, you reply “boleh” (ok), but if you prefer it to be softer or gentler, you can say “pelan” (pronounced “per – lahn”), or if you prefer it harder or stronger, you can say “kuat”. It’s a little trickier with the facial, I find myself struggling to communicate that I prefer not to do extraction, unless they have a pore-closer/toner to apply afterwards. Yes, it’s a tad too specific to be effectively translated with my broken Bahasa. Though the therapist did try her best with her broken English to reach a compromise too. And as always, it’s good manners to thank your therapists with a “Terima Kasih” (pronounced “Te-ri-ma Kah-see”in Bahasa Indonesia, not to be confused with “Te-ri-ma Kah-seh” in Bahasa Melayu – spoken in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei), and a nice optional tip.

Eska Wellness Spa Massage and Salon

Address: Ruko Nagoya Hill Blok R4, F3 & F3A, Batam, Indonesia

Tel: +62 778 7493866

Website: (convenient for checking menu prices and reservations through online booking form at Eska accepts ruppiah, Singapore dollars (at prevailing exchange rate) and credit cards.

Hours: 1000 – 2200

Tip: Eska provides complimentary 1-way transport, either pick-up or return to ferry terminal or hotel.

So, all in all, Batam can be a convenient and affordable quick getaway, where you get to indulge in affordable pampering and cheap grub. Just remember to factor in the 1-hour time difference (Batam is one hour behind, GMT + 7) if you plan your itinerary around the ferry schedules.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Tian Zi Fang 田子坊

Tian Zi Fang (TZF) is an inviting local & expat haunt in Shanghai, where you’ll find art galleries, boutiques and F&B establishments, housed in historical Shikumen. TZF is also getting increasingly popular on the tourists radar.

Video on Tian Zi Fang and from 2:35 minutes onwards, 1933.

Shikumen is to Shanghai what
Siheyuan (四合院) and Hutong (胡同) are to Beijing - both are representative historical residential architecture of the respective cities. Shikumen 石库门, which literally translates into "stone gate”, refers to the stone doorframe predominant in this architectural style. These stone-gated brick 2-3-storey townhouses are a fusion of Western & Chinese architectural styles and their origins can be traced back to the end of the Qing dynasty.

“At their peak, the Shikumen-style neighbourhoods numbered more than 9000 in Shanghai and took up 60 per cent of the total housing space of the city. The Shikumen style, which has survived for more than a century, is however no longer suitable for modern urban living. Since the 1990s, Shanghai began a new wave of renovation and development, demolishing many Shikumen-style buildings. It was only when more and more of these houses were replaced by skyscrapers that people began to realize such monuments of Shanghai's past deserve to be preserved.” (

To learn more about Shikumen, you can visit the
Shikumen Museum at Xintiandi, 25, Lane 181, Taicang Road, Shanghai.

TZF, similar to
Xintiandi 新天地, are gentrified forms of Shikumen, whereby the historical buildings are actively conserved – restored and pragmatically converted for commercial purposes (usually catering to the monied middle-class taste) – as opposed to preserving them as esteemed but rarefied white elephants. But while Xintiandi is more pastiche and comprises of mainly reconstructed Shikumen replicas and seems like an entirely commercialized development, TZF is still housed in preserved original Shikumen and retains some authenticity with indigenous residents still residing in the commune. So there’s still a sense of community life here, as well as a delightful irony – as this is one place where you can see visitors picking out a post-modern art piece or sipping a cappuccino in an al fresco café, then turn the corner and you’ll come across local residents hanging out their laundry or neighbours having a game of mahjong. It’s uncertain if TZF will eventually go the way of Xintiandi & become fully gentrified and its existing residents displaced. But for now, TZF remains, as what a documentary described: “a living fossil of an architectural gem”.

TZF started off as Shanghai’s Art Street, when famous painters Chen Yifei, Er Dongqiang, et al settled here in 1998. Successively, other creative industry and craft stores joined in, giving rise to TZF’s reputation as a burgeoning creative hub. Latching onto the buzz, more owners of Shikumen started renting out their ground floors for commercial purposes. Since then, TZF has been flourishing with painting, sculpture, design, antique and photography ateliers. Drawn to the ensuing bohemian vibe, other lifestyle industries soon start to follow and set up shop here as well. In 2002, Kommune became the first Western restaurant to set up in TZF, offering coffee and barbeque for Shanghai’s Australian expatriate community. In 2006, TZF was awarded “China’s best creative industry park”.

On a side note, Shanghai has seen an influx of creative industry parks. Thanks to the city’s mounting efforts at preserving and developing historic industrial structures, a growing batch of old factory buildings and warehouses have been conserved as creative parks. I’ve read about two notable ones that I would love to visit the next time I return to Shanghai –
M50 at Moganshan Road - ateliers of some of Shanghai’s best known contemporary artists are housed in this converted textile mill, and 1933 - an art deco landmark converted from a former slaughterhouse.

TZF (田子坊), being a 坊 (fang), square, means that it is bordered by 4 streets. A map below, taken from its website, gives you an idea of the labyrinthine layout of this compact square.

Other than the studios and galleries that testify to the artists enclave that is TZF, there is also an interesting eclectic mix of shops – from antique shops to unique international & local fashion to artistic paraphernalia, handicraft etc, and foreign-cuisine restaurants (don’t recall coming across any Chinese or Shanghainese restaurant in TZF. Instead there are plenty of Thai restaurants. So I guess this is not really a place you’ll come to, if you only have time for one quintessential meal in Shanghai?). Generally, there is a cosmopolitan vibe among both the shop mix and shoppers.

This is also the place where you can find those communist paraphernalia that’s so popular with Western tourists visiting China, albeit, here the souvenirs come with added artistic flair and lotsa good-humored jibe. There seems to be plenty of free rein in the commercial interpretation of Chinese cultural icons –– eg. The Obamao – a take on Chairman Mao,
Lei Feng plushie toy and my favorite – porcelain caricatures of terracotta warriors striking the classic Marilyn Monroe skirt-over-the-air-vent pose (pity I couldn’t get a good shot of them).

The interesting juxtaposition of fashionable shop interiors with heritage Shikumen, lents TZF such a charming old-world, bohemian character that makes it quite the shutterbugs’ heaven.

We came across this shop selling the works of Japanese illustrator, Hiroshi Watanabe, who's supposedly very popular in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In these parts, he's probably referred to by his Chinese moniker - 渡边宏 (du bian hong). In compact TZF alone, there are 2 outlets. Serendipitously, the artist was in town that day and dropped by for an autograph session, so we bought a couple of autographed limited edition art prints. If you like kawaii animal illustrations (we particularly dig the pig illustrations), do keep a lookout for the shops at Lane 248, unit 21 and Lane 249, unit 15, when you're at TZF. Listing of other outlets in the rest of Shanghai and China can be found at (in Chinese).

If you understand Chinese, and wish to learn more about TZF, there is a
video of a Chinese documentary found on TZF website

Address: Tianzifang, Lane 210 Taikang Lu, near Sinan Lu / 田子坊, 泰康路210弄, 近思南路
Nearest subway: Dapuqiao 打浦桥
Website (in Chinese):

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Feeling at home in Shanghai

We stayed at the 3-year-old boutique hotel, JIA Shanghai. JIA is actually the phonetic spelling of the Chinese word “Top of Form”, meaning home. A really apt name, as we enjoyed immensely our short 3-night stay there and were made to feel at home, basking in the creature comforts provided by the hotel.

While JIA Shanghai may aim to be a second home for their guests, do not mistake this to mean drab, homey surroundings. Au contraire, this stylish “home” is anything but dull, with interesting interiors and playful décor that mix and match European designer fixtures with Chinese objects and furniture. This playful contrast is further emphasized by the juxtaposition of a gently restored 1920s art deco building façade, with hip, modern interiors, once we enter through its unassuming entrance, indicated simply, with an almost inconspicuous JIA signage.

The whimsy factor greets us at the lobby with arty installations of oversized leather teddy bears and birdcages hovering over the centerpiece Cascade installation by sought-after Asian designer Andre Fu.

While we waited to check in, the friendly staff whisked us to the adjoining lobby lounge. Here we continue to take in an eyeful of the surrounding ornate design-ladden fixtures and furnishings, while grabbing a mouthful of a small selection of cakes and cookies that’s served during the complimentary afternoon tea hours. From the self-service bar counter, guests have access to complimentary soft beverages (bottled water, milk, juices, soda, teas and coffee) round the clock and wine in the evening. Before we head out to explore the city, we usually find ourselves lounging comfortably on the silken sofas, with a glass of juice at hand, while we await our cabs to arrive. And if we anticipate a long day ahead, the hotel made it convenient for us to take-away our coffee and pack some cookies on our journey, by providing take-away paper cups and nifty little JIA-branded brown paper pocket envelopes.

We stayed at the 42 sq m studio plus room. This tastefully furnished studio comes replete with a comfy king-size bed, well-equipped kitchenette (induction stove, microwave, appliances, cookware and tableware for 2), a long desktop space, an oversized sofa, the requisite flat screen TV and a marble/Bisazza-gilded bathroom with rain shower and a generous-sized bathtub. There’s also the super-sized fluffy towels, comfy terry cloth bedroom slippers and luxury linen.

A dose of tongue-in-cheek humor is injected into the room, with JIA branding their toiletries with alternative monikers (shampoo becomes “head start”, hair conditioner is “head smoothie”, body wash “freshen up” and this one will made us smiled on that sleepy morning - body lotion as “smooth operator”. They were all fragranced with customized Jasmine & Ginseng scent, which smells terrific btw. I usually abhor the heady scent of Jasmine, but somehow this Jasmine-Ginseng blend works and gives off such a nice balanced fragrance that I actually don’t mind masking myself in it from head to toe. There are the doorknob hangers that read “seriously need sleep” (instead of the usual “do not disturb” signs) and “seriously messed up” (instead of the usual “please make up room”); and a quirk of localized nostalgia is injected with the provision of the locally manufactured, classic-brand, White Rabbit Sweets to chew on, while you choose from the stocked in-room Monopoly China board game, Chinese chess or browse Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book (“Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse Tung”)!

In the bedroom, along the long desk, we found this nifty plug-in panel concealed behind a wall flap. On the panel are multi-plug sockets (No need to pack the adaptors. Yay!) and various ports for plugging in iPhones, MP3s, laptops for charging as well as seamlessly connect to the built-in ceiling speakers installed in both the bedroom and toilet. If you use a regular laptop (i.e. non-Macs. I was using a Mac unfortunately. Hopefully, they’ll provide for Mac in future.), you can even use the provided cables to connect it to the large-screen TV. With the complimentary wifi available all throughout the hotel, you can conveniently access the internet on your iPhone, iPad or laptop, whether you’re at the bedroom, restaurant, lobby lounge etc.

And the most welcomed JIA perk that totally calls to mind the comfort of home? Waking up to a fortifying, hot cooked breakfast, mmm… (heck, it’s even better than “home”, cuz back home, my breakfast choices are hardly as delicious!)

Breakfast is served on the second-floor, at the sole restaurant, Issimo – an Italian restaurant that serves supposedly good, authentic Italian food (was too busy eating the streets of Shanghai, so did not get to try) for lunch and dinner, while in the morning, it doubles up as a breakfast room for guests. The breakfast is “complimentary” for all guests, which means it is probably worked into the daily room rate. But it’s pretty good variety and quality, so we didn’t begrudge it as one of those token inclusive “free” breakfasts that we wished that the hotel would do away with and rather exchange it for a cheaper room rate instead.

And it’s not a self-service, eat off the buffet food warmers type of breakfast either. This is, above all, a designer hotel. So to keep things classy, guests receive table service and get to order a 2-course breakfast (with 3 options for the cold starters and 6 options for the warm mains – recommend the scrumptious Eggs Benedict, but skip the Shanghainese wonton noodle soup. It’s actually Italian pasta in pseudo-Chinese broth. Issimo is Italian after all.), with choice of juices, coffee/tea/hot chocolate and selection of breads/Danish. Sigh … we sorely missed the JIA breakfast experience after we got home.

We didn’t manage to check them out, but JIA also has a Technogym and an Office and Conference room in Business Centre.

JIA Shanghai is JIA group’s second hotel venture after the hyped Philip Starck hotel - JIA Hong Kong. Both boutique hotels are multi-award winning hotels, and are often featured in travel magazines’ “hot list”, “it list”, and are pretty much firmly entrenched in the “hip hotels” sphere. JIA Shanghai also just won Trip Advisor’s traveller choice award for 2010. So they’ve basically won over both the critic and the consumer.

But accolades aside, we immensely enjoyed our stay at JIA Shanghai for all the reasons I’ve rambled on above, and also because of its size and location, and the friendly service from the bilingual staff (most can speak passable English, though I did use Mandarin to communicate with them most of the time). Being a boutique hotel, JIA only has 55 rooms spread over 7 floors. So it doesn’t feel overly busy, as compared with large chain hotels, and you need not jostle with swarming tourist crowds when you lounge at the lobby or have your breakfast. The hotel is also literally a stone’s throw away (just a few paces across) from the nearest subway station of Nanjing Rd (W) station. But to be honest, since cab fare is relatively cheap we usually just hail for cabs and when it gets hard to call for one, since we were there during the crowded Shanghai Expo weekend, we walked. Being located at the intersection of Taixing road and the main thoroughfare of West Nanjing Road, JIA is relatively accessible by foot to the interesting neighbourhoods of Changle Road (Cheongsam shops) and Fumin Road, the French Concession (Huaihai Zhong Road, Fuxing Zhong Road, Maoming Nan Road, Sinan Road), and the charming Tian Zi Fang along Tai Kang Road (more on this in a later entry). But of course, we are the same folks that find a 1-hour walk from JIA all the way to The Bund rather manageable. The staff baulked at us when we asked them if it was possible to walk to The Bund. Nevertheless we found ourselves making our way on foot to The Bund, after we waited 1-hour in vain for a cab. The weather was cool and pleasant and we enjoyed taking in the sights along Nanjing West Road, so it was a rather enjoyable stroll.

The rack rate for the studio plus room we stayed in is usually RMB 2000++, but we snagged a slight discount with their promotional deal on JIA’s website ( for RMB1700++ per night, so do check out their website and possibly the usual hotel bookings portals (three that I’ve previously used and had no problems thus far, are, and for price comparisons?

On a side note, I’ll like to highlight 3 great snacks found near JIA (yes, I’ve ranked them in order of merit, based on personal preferences)

  1. Yang’s Fried Dumpling, 生煎 (xiao yang sheng jian)

This popular street snack is located on the 2nd floor of the 湟普mall, which stands over the entrance of the Nanjing West subway station, just a few paces across, from the right side entrance of JIA. The mall as pictured below, right on Wujiang Road, 吴江路 .

Once you reach the second floor, you should be able to locate Yang’s just right by the escalator, with its impossible-to-miss queues spilling out its shopfront. This place is a hit with both locals and foreign travellers.

Fried dumplings 生煎包 (sheng jian bao) are a local specialty and Yang’s, which was set up in 1994, and has now expanded to 19 outlets, is an institution in Shanghai, having been awarded the Shanghai Famous Snack 上海名点 (shang hai ming dian) accolade in 2004.

For the uninitiated, it’s easy to confuse fried dumplings with soup dumplings ( xiao long bao or 汤,tang bao) another famous Shanghainese snack, as both are forms of pork dumplings. Xiao Long Bao or soup dumplings are smaller, generally made of thin, smooth dumpling skin and are steamed, while Sheng Jian Bao, fried dumplings, are made of fluffy leavened dough and are pan-fried. Both are enjoyed in a similar style though, best accompanied with a sweet vinegar dip (and sometimes with grated ginger for soup dumplings), that lifts the succulent but often greasy pork. And because both dumplings contain a soupcon of hot broth encased in them, it's recommended to eat them the same way – pick up the buns by its sides, chew off a little opening from its side to slowly sip the piping hot juice (or sometimes, tilt the bun and drain the broth into your soup spoon to slowly enjoy) and then dip the drained bun in vinegar and sink your teeth into the pork and dumpling skin.

We absolutely love Yang’s fried dumplings. It’s perfection in a bun really. From the fragrant sprinkling of sesame seeds and scallions atop the bun to its fluffy yet slightly crispy (thank to its pan-fried bottom) casing to its flavorful broth to the succulent pork filling, and lets not forget the accompanying moreish vinegar dip. We can eat it everyday – which was in fact what we did, with JIA located so conveniently next door.

Other than the dumplings (RMB 5 for 4 dumplings, that’s only about US 75cents or SGD 1), we’ve also tried and enjoyed some of their soup and noodles dishes on its menu, such as the curry duck blood soup (RMB5) and the hot and sour pork intestine rice noodles (RMB 10). Interestingly enough, the eatery does not serve drinks. Possibly to encourage faster turnover of its tables. It’s as if they are conveying the message: “once you’re done devouring the buns, kindly high-tail it to elsewhere to imbibe your drinks and linger there instead!” And yes, as with all roaring trades, be prepared for brusque service.

As mentioned earlier, there is almost always a constant queue at the shop, albeit a fast moving one. The procedure at this outlet, is to first place your order and pay upfront at the left-hand cashier, get the receipt, join the right side queue along the glass-front kitchen, pass your receipt to the staff when you get to the front (if ordering take-away/to-go, tell the staff “wai mai” ), collect your order, then look for a table (if there are 2 or more of you, one can get a table first, while the other queue for the dumplings). You have to collect the dumplings on your own, but they’ll serve you the soup and noodles (the receipts for the dumplings and other orders will be separated, pass the soup/noodle receipt to the staff at the second window, after the dumplings kitchen).

If you can read Chinese, you can check out their website ( for listing of their other outlets.

  1. Pumpkin biscuits, 南瓜 (nan gua bing)

We came across this hole-in-the-wall shop along 264 Maoming South Road, while we were making our way from JIA to the French Concession. Enticed by the baking smells wafting from the stall, we sniffed around and thanks to the friendly vendor, sampled the delicious pumpkin biscuit, before buying up to 1 jin (RMB 12 for 1 jin which is 500 g) worth of it. The discs of sesame encrusted pumpkin cookie were deliciously light and crisp on the outside, gooey and sweet on the inside. And because they are made on the spot, they taste oh so fresh and good. The tiny store also sells pumpkin balls and wafer-thin egg-roll biscuits.

  1. JZ Fried Dumpling 麦道锅贴 (mai dao guo tie)

Ah, another breed of pork dumplings to enter the fray. These JZ fried dumplings, are what’s usually referred to as potstickers or 锅贴 guo tie. They’re also pan-fried, but unlike Yang’s Fried Dumplings, these potstickers are made of thin, smooth unleavened flour skins. The dumplings are served with a sprinkling of scallions, and it’s good to eat them just as they are, but if you so wish, I spy a bottle of vinegar at the counter. JZ is just a small booth-stall, so most patrons buy the dumplings to go. But if you need to satisfy your hunger pangs there and then, most patrons either finish them while standing at the pavement around the stall, walk a little further down or up the stretch and sit by curbsides or steps of buildings or if you’re lucky, catch a spot at the only two plastic stools, probably provided by JZ, near the edge of the road.

The JZ dumplings are sold in 4s, for RMB 3.5. If you need an accompanying drink, soybean milk is available at RMB 2.5 a cup.

This JZ that we chanced upon when we made our way from JIA to The Bund, possibly around 10-15 min walk away from JIA, is located at 599 Nanjing West Road (near Chengdu North road). If you can read Chinese, this website ( has a listing of the 8 other outlets of JZ’s.

As I Googled for the listings of Shanghai eateries, kept coming up. On further digging,, bills itself as “China’s largest online city guide for food, shopping and lifestyle” and seems like a rather credible and popular website. So if you’re comfortably literate in Chinese, this website could be an invaluable resource for your China travels research. It’s a listings website that covers major Chinese cities and provides listings of various categories – such as food, hotel, shopping etc, with accompanying user reviews. The website also has tie-ups with various businesses, which offer promotional coupons for customers to download in their handphone (presumably a Chinese mobile line) or print via the website. The website also has a free iPhone app version (