Take whatever thoughts the name in the first sentence evokes in your mind and kindly place them aside. This is not a story about Shanghai or a Chinese restaurant or possibly even a place you might consider great. This is an observation about eating in Bangkok, the spirit of survival and knowing your niche.
And so this story begins, starting with an eatery — let’s call it that — because I feel the terms restaurant, cafe, food stall, food court or street-side vendor comes with pre-conceived connotations and expectations. The illustriously named venue mentioned before is at its core a place you go to for food. However, it cannot be classified solely by any of the terms above, because it is all of those terms. What it is certainly no longer, is a Chinese restaurant.
The Great Shanghai is situated in the heart of one of Bangkok’s most expensive shopping districts, immediately adjacent to the bottom of a set of stairs that link you to the Skytrain and two of the most exclusive malls this city has to offer. It is an eatery that caters to a shadow community of office workers, wandering tourists, motorcycle messengers, delivery men and women, budget conscious ex-pat residents and on occasion, dazed and confused individuals who walk by not quite sure what to make of the place, but are drawn in by the food and the obvious visual implication that this must be the most affordable place within a square kilometre that doesn’t entail sitting on plastic chairs street-side.
In its earlier life, it was indeed a Chinese restaurant known for its old school, namesake cuisine. I often noticed it back then, either as I walked by or on the many occasions I have sat staring at it in a motionless car while stuck in traffic on what can be one of the most congested segments of Sukhumvit Road. It was not a place that caught your eye due to any pleasing aesthetics or visible signs of popularity.
A few years ago, upon my return from living abroad in Australia for some time, a colleague of mine suggested we go ‘there’ for a quick lunch because of what she described as a quick and easy ‘chicken noodle place’ — we were nearby at one of the shopping centres that loom above the Great Shanghai. In fact what she had referred to as the ‘chicken noodle place’ was in fact the Great Shanghai, if now only in name. And so we walked out of the shopping mall onto the street level, which in itself may sound innocuous enough, but is in fact less normal in a city where almost every major shopping centre is connected to the skytrain via a skywalk. But that is another story.
What greeted us then, and what will still greet you today is so much more than just a ‘chicken noodle place’. It is a very wide shopfront, completely obscured by tables laden with stacks of grab and go food, stands topped with fresh coconuts or trays of Kanom Krok (a popular savoury coconut milk treat), hot rice and curry food stations, a drinks vendor selling all manner of beverages, food carts with steaming corn and sweet potatos, another food station with boiled or fried chicken rice and two long simmering vats: one with pork leg and knuckles and one of chicken legs and feet. None of these on their own are anything special. You see them everywhere all over the city. They represent more or less the established staples of Thai eating when it comes to modest and honest food for the average office worker. The street frontage looks like an amalgam of different vendors, until you quickly reach the conclusion that this is in fact all one team, one venue, and that this place is the Great Shanghai in its current guise as a makeshift diner cum food court cum takeaway counter cum sit down restaurant with menus and even table service. Gone are whatever front doors that used to be there and gone too are most of the air-conditioners that used to cool this long-faded dining establishment. The ones left are certainly not used.
Other than the signage, hints of the restaurant’s former life abound. Unmistakable design touches that evoke Chinese restaurant decor circa the late 1970s, with one part of a wall completely covered with a printed tarpaulin graced with fanciful images of waterfalls and mountainous peaks, that I can only assume are someone’s imagination of places in China. There are also the wood panelled walls, ceilings and columns with varnish so glossy as to make the wood look like it is plastic.
I once asked one of the staff if the place actually has a new name in spite of the old sign. He quite proudly replied, ‘Nope, this has always been the Great Shanghai and it still is.” Well there you go.
If the band of brothers that comprised the eclectic food stations out front aren’t enough to attract and daze you at the same time, inside there is more. There is a papaya salad station with grilled chicken and pork neck, there is also a Yum station (Yum being another kind of Thai salad, typically spicy, with ceviche-like sourness and savoury all at the same time consisting of varying combinations of meat and vegetables) where large glass bowls of the kind normally used for toppings of Thai sweets are instead filled with Yum’s accompanying savouries like prawns, minced pork, minced chicken, squid, mushrooms and so on. There is a grab for yourself range of beverages from several fridges, a self serve ice and cup station, baskets of help yourself Thai basil, bean sprouts and sliced bitter melon (to go with the chicken noodles). There is even free Wifi — a lesson in generosity many of the fancy dining establishments in the malls that surround it could learn from.
By the time you realise that you can either order whatever you want from whichever food station you desire, or you can sit down and staff will also take your order, you will then possibly notice other patrons being handed thick laminated menu albums complete with colour photos that contain a wide range of dishes prepared from the back kitchen. There is a system and before long you too will cotton on to the way things work — and they do work exceedingly well. Help yourself to whatever you’re supposed to, order what you want, and to top it all off, convenient little laminated heavily reused price cards with the individual prices of whatever you ordered lands on your table instructing you very clearly in three languages no less, to ‘take the food card to pay at the exit’. Got it.
If you visit the Great Shanghai it will not be to soak in any kind of idealised notions of what street-level food is like. It is far too no-frills for such things. It is not about sitting here and feeling good about how you’re in touch with your more humble side. The restaurant is often hot as Hades and there is almost nothing about the restaurant that might warrant appearing on anyone’s Instagram feed. In fact I’ve never seen anybody taking photos except yours truly. The Great Shanghai is not about its past, it is about its present.
What I have observed over the last few years is a popular eatery that has adapted to the times, both good and bad. When one business model no longer worked, they replaced it with a kaleidoscopic array of offerings. What once was a long established Chinese restaurant is now something that defies any brief description. It is a community of sorts. I have seen the same faces working here, unchanged for years. I see regular customers, I see tourists, I sense that everybody who comes here has one thing in common: I/we/they/you are all here because the food is good, the food is fast, the food is perpetually consistent. There is no fuss and absolutely nothing fancy and that is precisely what keeps everyone coming back — ensuring that the restaurant is busy from morning until evening everyday. The Great Shanghai is a place that knows what its customers need — a cheap place for decent food in one of the most upscale parts of this city. While it knows its niche, it is at the same time also not unique. There are countless other eateries in Bangkok of varying scale and success that are similarly hybrids of circumstances — both economic and social. But this is simply one of my favourites and it embodies the tough-as-nails spirt of vendors all over Bangkok.
I supposed that is what makes The Great Shanghai, still great.
The Great Shanghai
682/8 Sukhumvit Road, Khlong Tan, Khlong Toei, Bangkok 10110
The eatery is adjacent to the bottom of the stairs that are immediately to the left of the Concourse Level entrance to Emporium closest to the ticket gates of the Skytrain (BTS Phrom Phong).
Dishes start from as little as THB 40 and upwards. Air-conditioning not included.
The Footpath Files
Stories from the Streets of Bangkok
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