From cotton candy cocktails to AI crossing guards, Ashley Jones – Innovation Director at The Idea Suite – shares the highlights from her recent visit to China
A 14-hour flight behind me, I can always feel the energy coming through a new airport. With new people to watch and listen to, even with the edge of jet lag, it continues to be a privilege to arrive at someone else’s everyday and observe.
Armed with my hotel card and a business card size piece of paper with my hotel address in the local language, I was in a taxi and on my way to “downtown” – I say this because Beijing is massive, and everything felt like the core of the city to me. I don’t like starting out with a ‘this is the Soho or Wynwood of Beijing’, or ‘Gastown of Shanghai’, mentality. Removing this filter provides a much purer lens through which to observe your surroundings. Find a coffee shop an hour or two into your meanderings and do a quick search on where you’ve ended up - I bet you see things differently.
After a long ride in grid-locked traffic, which my car by-passed by riding the shoulder, I arrived at my hotel. But not before I watched in disbelief as the taxi driver carried on a 4-way video chat with his fellow cabbie friends for the better part of 45 minutes!
Two 8-hour history-filled tours, a pair of three hour back alley “un-food tours” and dozens of walks and runs through busy, quiet, tourist-filled, business suit, and scooter strewn neighbourhoods later, in two amazing cities, Beijing and Shanghai , my senses were eagerly awakened, with a new country, new stores, and a new culture all around me.
Here are a few of the most intriguing things those awakened senses saw, heard and tasted:
Gold stars for public transport; The metro system was amazing – smooth, fast, efficient, and clean! Funnily enough, locals I raved to about this did not feel the same way!
All the advertising in the metro was digital but didn’t always have ads playing – as a marketer I saw opportunity; as a passenger, so much calm to the commute.
Craft rice wine bars are new and trendy. I went to one of the first to open in Beijing, Nuyoan, and participated in a six varietal wine tasting. The two-year aged options as well as the Rose, Sandalwood, and Plum varieties, were standouts for me.
Donkey is delicious, and a popular late-night food when wrapped in something akin to a flaky hot croissant but more like a crepe in thinness and naan in texture. Known as a Donkey Burger, it’s served only with fried green peppers, and you get full on greasy, meat-forward flavour with a hint of buttery pastry.
Peppa Pig is taking over. Yes, it is the year of the pig, and I was there ahead of Chinese New Year, but even after working in Children’s television for three years and directly with Peppa, I was still overwhelmed by the licensing (and not so kosher licensing) at every turn!
Family time in the outdoors is increasingly important. While in Beijing I visited the Olympic Forest Park on a Sunday run. In a city where I was finding it challenging to locate a fellow runner, the park was overflowing with activities, run stations and kilometre markers, play structures and varied walking paths, to a level I haven’t observed anywhere else in the world, including other Olympic Parks. I witnessed this outdoor enthusiasm again at the Summer Palace. The frozen lake was full of families, skating, slipping, and enjoying the air of winter. It’s difficult to make out in the photo, but all of those little dots in the distance are people.
Hats and gloves were nowhere to be seen! There wasn’t a lack of down filled coats - a long coat such as a Canada Goose is a status signal for both men and women - but hats and gloves were hardly to be found. My Canadian blood didn’t understand this.
So - many - malls! But they are all virtually empty, not of stores, but of people. I wondered multiple times a day how they managed to stay in business. However, one of the most important learnings in a big Chinese city: some of the best food can be found in Mall cafeterias, so don’t shy away with judgement.
Fruit! When looking for packaging inspiration, flavour inspiration, or even just a splash of colour, fruit played a major role in both cities.
Proud of their cocktails – Although it wasn’t common or easy to happen across a cocktail bar, the ones I searched out demonstrated extreme care and attention to detail. Whether using cotton candy, tea or essential oil infusions, including incense, sugar or salt-encrusted fruits on the side, served at your table with multiple house infused gins, or at one of the many Shanghai Speakeasies, no cocktail was served without detailed attention to each and every ingredient. I emphasise each and every ingredient because during my travels I came across more minimal drinks than I was used to, with just a few high quality and flavourful ingredients (in stark contrast to the half-menu long ingredient lists you come across more and more in many cocktail menus today.)
Nougat is the new cupcake. Maybe not quite, but if you’re not buying artisanal nougat, then you aren’t exploring trendy sweets. Various nut and fruit inclusions, as well as some standouts like Oreo and Matcha are being widely incorporated – my personal favourite was mango.
There are some key hype-foods to watch. And I literally mean watch, as lines are between 1.5 to 3 hours long.
Cheese Foam tea, by Hey Tea
Dirty Bun / zang zang bao, by Bad Farmers - a pain au chocolat, but covered in chocolate and sprinkled with cocoa powder, making it "dirty"
Brown sugar milk tea / heitang naicha
AI is front and centre and, quite literally, not hiding from citizens in Shanghai. Crossing the street on the Bund, you couldn’t help noticing that you were being watched. In an attempt to curb jaywalking, the cross-walk lights weren’t just telling you to walk and stop, but they also used face recognition to pick up faces of jay-walking law breakers and broadcast them on a small screen. Public shaming, Black Mirror-style – definitely food for thought that I’m coming home with!