Drinking tea is not a new thing to the Chinese. At restaurants, tea is served instead of the typical glass of iced water. Chinese tea ceremonies are important to the culture, teahouses are everywhere, there’s a tea museum in Hangzhou and even an annual tea expo held in Shanghai.
The Chinese know their oolong, jasmine, pu-er teas but what is becoming more popular, specifically in Shanghai is the English afternoon tea culture.
With two months to spend in Shanghai, I went to nine afternoon teas. That’s like 18 scones, 24 cups of tea, 20 tea sandwiches and too-many-to-mention-without-feeling-fat pastries. And that’s also how I got acquainted with the interesting world of Shanghai’s afternoon tea culture…
The definition of afternoon tea in Shanghai
Since the English afternoon tea culture in Shanghai is relatively new, I found the locals interchange the words afternoon tea and high tea.
What I found is high tea was a hearty meal in between lunch and dinner that the working class had. Meanwhile afternoon tea was a light meal with teas and small sandwiches and desserts started by a duchess, making the practice of afternoon tea a thing for the upper class.
Till today in Shanghai, afternoon tea is in a way more for the middle to upper class. It is always held in luxury hotels and typically only in internationally known hotel brands such as Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton.
5 Observations about Shanghai’s Afternoon Tea Culture
Out of the 9 afternoon teas, I went to one by myself, one with my mom, two with my mom and aunt, and five with a local who was either the PR or communications manager of the hotel.
Through the locals and also from my aunt who is an expat in Shanghai and has been living there for 7 years, I got some insight into Shanghai’s afternoon tea culture.
1. Anything ‘western’ becomes popular
This is probably why afternoon tea is now so popular. Just like how American music and movies are known to people all over the world, China is no different. So when there’s something like afternoon tea which is originally a custom from England, it’s only natural that it made its way to China.
2. Dressing up
Looking around at the other tables around me when having afternoon tea, I noticed locals take their appearance very seriously. They probably think they’ll only be caught dead wearing shorts or something casual to an afternoon tea.
3. Don’t forget the men
They come too.
It’s normal to see business men in suits and ties sitting around a three tiered afternoon tea tray. To me it looks a bit funny but what’s even funnier is they don’t even touch it. It’s almost like just an excuse to be able to sit in the lounge and have a business chat. (Which the ambience at all hotels I’ve had afternoon tea in Shanghai is excellent for just that!)
But a part from the business men, there are also couples where it seems like the woman dragged the man along. But afternoon tea in Shanghai seems to be an event for women in their early 30s.
4. Sometimes, it’s just a show
Due to the Chinese taste and preferences, I’ve heard that some of the the local afternoon tea goers don’t even like the tea and sweets. They just go because it’s important to ‘be seen’ at the hotel.
It’s not always the case though because all hotels cater to the Chinese taste by offering an English Afternoon Tea and Chinese Afternoon Tea package.
5. Must take selfie
A term I created when traveling in China was ‘extreme selfie’. This is where you take a selfie (a picture of yourself using your smartphone) but really take time to set it up- your head is at a certain angle, your lips are puckered in a certain way.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen someone taking an extreme selfie in China. The person taking the picture always seems really self absorbed. And it takes several minutes to take one picture!!
This selfie taking culture translates to Shanghai’s afternoon tea culture. Every table (that’s not in a business meeting) spends time taking selfies and then at least a picture of the food. I don’t exactly understand the need to take several selfies but I don’t really blame them for shooting the food- it’s usually really colorful and worthy of a picture!
Where to have afternoon tea in Shanghai
Out of the nine places I’ve had afternoon tea in Shanghai, I can recommend seven of them. Check out this article featuring them: 7 Best Places for Afternoon Tea in Shanghai
But if I had to pick just one out of all of them to say was my favorite, I’d pick Four Seasons Pudong.
Tips for your afternoon tea experience in Shanghai
1. An afternoon tea package averages at about $45 USD per person. This includes a tea of choice with refills of hot water and a one person portion of savories, sweets and scones.
2. There’s a surcharge that will be added on top of the listed package price. At the time of writing, it was 15% for all hotels.
3. Tipping isn’t customary.
4. Speak English. If you can speak Chinese and English, stick with English. I felt like we got a different treatment and service depending on what we spoke.
Since I don’t speak Chinese, I obviously went with English but when my aunt or mom went to ask a question, the staff didn’t seem as polite as when I went to ask in English.
5. Dress up a little.