These days, you won’t find anyone reaching for their wallet while dining out in Shanghai. Cash has become almost obsolete as virtual currencies corner every last slice of the retail payment market. QR codes and app-based systems are the new normal, even for transactions less than the equivalent of US$1 (like our beloved breakfast street food staple, the jianbing).
According to a recent New York Times article, mobile payments in China hit US$5.5 trillion in 2016. Yes, with a “T”. And 2017 is sure to be another banner year as AliPay, WeChat Wallet, Apple Pay and others continue to fight for market share. We’re used to hearing questionable China statistics, but this one is easy to see (and believe) while going about our daily lives here.
The first small-scale business we noticed getting on board the app-based payment train was 319 Noodle House, a small noodle shop in the former French Concession neighborhood. Back then (around two years ago), it was surprising and struck us as extremely modern that a business that had previously been cash only, eschewing credit cards because of the set-up costs and recurring fees, had leapfrogged directly to mobile payments.
Today, with trillions of dollars of transactions floating around between friends, businesses and online shopping, Shanghai citizens would be just as surprised to find any shopkeepers refusing digital payments; indeed, more cafés and stalls are putting up ‘no cash’ signs.
QR codes and app-based systems are the new normal in Shanghai.
At 319 Noodle House, the Gu family has been serving authentic Shanghainese noodles for the last five years. It’s a family affair, with their 30-something daughter manning the cash register, ahem, payment screens, and mom and pop out chatting with customers, coordinating the kitchen and dealing with suppliers. Their elderly neighborhood friends help out during the lunch rush, giving the place a charming yet buzzing vibe as local office workers file in like clockwork.
The menu is stocked with Shanghainese classics, and everything can be ordered either dry (半 bàn) or with soup (汤tāng), depending on personal preference (or perhaps the weather). Many guests additionally order páigǔ niángāo (排骨年糕) as a side. The classic local dish consists of a breaded, fried pork cutlet paired with a crispy-fried glutinous rice cake – you’ll find Shanghai’s version of Worcestershire sauce in yellow bottles tableside to brighten up the oily treat.
Our go-to dishes include the zhá jiàng miàn (炸酱面), which lands you a bowl of wheat noodles topped with stir-fried minced pork mixed with fermented soy bean paste, tiny bits of tofu and bok choy. Although it’s a take on a dish associated with Beijing and the flavors up north, it’s also mixed with julienned and fried spring onions, which is practically a must for any proper Shanghainese noodle dish. Another favorite is the là ròu miàn (辣肉面), in which the wheat noodles are topped with chunks of diced pork marinated in chile sauce that is paired with a sweeter soy-based sauce for the local palate.
Even though Mrs. Gu was a Shanghainese teacher previously, she’ll hand over English menus to foreigners who look lost. You can order either by dish or by topping, so you’re free to mix and match as you please with items like braised duck leg, mushrooms, stewed pig trotters and pork intestines.
They’ve just taken over the real estate shop next door, so don’t be discouraged if the place looks jammed – they’ll find you a seat. And, they’ll also still take cash if you aren’t set up with a mobile wallet just yet (you Luddite).