As the nighttime lights of Shanghai winked to life late on a damp Saturday afternoon, the tour guide said she had one last stop in mind: the marriage market in People's Park.
"I just hope we're not too late," she said as we hailed a taxi and headed for the huge park in central Shanghai.
The marriage market wasn't listed in my guidebooks. But I had spent the day following her suggestions, exploring parts of Shanghai I wouldn't have discovered on my own, and I had yet to be disappointed. It was as though I had hired a local friend for the day.
We found dozens of people still in the park, all parents shopping for mates for adult children. Some had created signs touting their offspring and affixed those ads to open umbrellas on the sidewalk. Others were clumped in circles, engaged in animated conversations.
"Why just the parents?" I asked Janny Chyn, the guide.
"The children hardly ever come," she said. "They wouldn't want to be seen here. These are the parents who are embarrassed that their children aren't married and are desperate.
She translated some of the signs. One described a 32-year-old man with a master's degree in economics and an annual salary of 300,000 yuan (about $48,000) who owns his own house. He wanted a wife who was 28 to 30, about 5 feet 4 inches tall, with a bachelor's degree.
We leaned in to a rapid-fire discussion between the mother of an unmarried woman and the parents of an unmarried young man. They were showing photographs of their children, like old friends, and discussing career ambitions. (The woman, a nurse, made more money than the man, which seemed to surprise his parents.)
All the while, I realized I was privy to something special. Taking a customized tour of Shanghai was my way of dealing with a predicament: I had just a single free day and wanted to see the city's highlights. But I also wanted to step off the beaten path, maybe meet some residents, sample good local cuisine and get a sense of what it is like to live there.
Finding all of those things in one group tour didn't seem likely. I'm also not a fan of the big-bus tour.
I was reminded of that a year ago when I had arranged for a personalized tour of the Great Wall near Beijing and, on the way back, my guide took me to lunch at a giant restaurant — hundreds of idling buses outside and knickknacks, American accents and industrial Chinese food inside.
This time I vowed to be smarter. My research turned up an interesting possibility. Shanghai Pathways offered what it called "alternative trips," including educational tours, and it specialized in small groups. Several dozen tours were listed on its website, including such things as feng shui consultations and dumpling making.
I didn't see exactly what I was looking for, so I emailed Janny, the owner, who seemed to instantly grasp my goal. She recommended the Custom Tour, a seven-hour guided trip that she tailors to a visitor's interests. At 2,200 yuan (about $350) for one or two people, it was pricey. But it seemed worth a try.
On a cool fall Saturday, Janny showed up at my hotel at 10 a.m. She carried a backpack and an umbrella, looking more like a graduate student than a business owner.
She had roughed out an itinerary, starting with the Bund, the historic waterfront and Shanghai's most famous site, a viewing point for the high-rises across the Huangpu River. The curving, mile-long embankment, dotted with stunning buildings, once was the heart of an international settlement of American and British financiers and later a major commercial center for East Asia.
After strolling along the Bund, we crossed a bridge to the Astor House Hotel, where we wandered upstairs to see the historic rooms where Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein, among other notables, once stayed.
Then we went next door to a part of the Astor that had been converted into residences. It was surreal: Some of the dark teak hotel room doors bore their original numbers, and hallways had been converted to open-plan kitchens with stoves and sinks. We passed a woman rinsing abalone and a man chopping garlic.
We caught another taxi (they are cheap in Shanghai) to the Bird and Cricket Market. Amid the chirping, Janny explained how many Chinese people revere crickets and keep them as pets. (She has two.)
The qualities to look for, she said, are color and "the sound of their song."
Some were dime-sized, but others — especially those sold for fighting — were nearly as large as a fist. The market was filled with kiosks selling cricket accessories, including cricket homes — hand-painted boxes with air vents.
We made quick work of the rest of the market: birds, turtles, chinchillas, a truly creepy collection of newborn rat pups and large vats of just-cooked bird food and wiggling worms.
Next up was lunch at Lynn, a modern Chinese restaurant in the French Concession, the popular Shanghai neighborhood that until the mid-20th century was considered French soil.
The all-you-can-eat dim sum brunch (88 yuan, or about $14 per person) included steamed pork dumplings, pan-fried pork bun, deep-fried turnip cake, bean curd soup, Shanghai smoked fish and black rice in lotus root.
Janny showed me how to use a spoon and chopsticks to eat the Shanghai specialty, soup dumplings. (The key: Hold the dumpling in a spoon, lift the gathered top with your chopsticks and take a small bite, gently sucking out the broth.)
Over lunch, we talked about her philosophy of travel, which led her to create the company.
"When I travel," she said, "it's important for me to connect with someone who knows the place, who can pass along the experience of knowing that place. Otherwise, I might as well look at photos."
Janny, who is 30, started the agency four years ago after working as an event planner for expatriate companies. She now has a staff of five tour guides, each with a specialty.
Tea and talk
After lunch, we took a taxi to the Old City of Shanghai, once surrounded by a wall, and strolled through a food market on the narrow streets. Though the skies were overcast, the temperature was surprisingly mild for late autumn. Because it's on the East China Sea, Shanghai tends to have milder winters than Beijing.
We paused for tea, and I was a little worried. During my visit to Beijing, I had been taken to see a "free" tea ceremony and then pressured to buy $40 tins of tea.
In the Old City, though, we pulled up two stools at the Yellow Mountain Tea Shop and spent a pleasant half-hour with owner Chen Wangqing sampling and talking about tea, its history, how to drink it and its importance in China. ("Slurp it," Janny advised. "The louder the better.") No one even asked whether I wanted to buy. (I didn't.)
The marriage market in People's Park was our last stop. As we headed to the hotel, I thought back on the day. It would take weeks, months and even years to know a city as large and complex as Shanghai. But, in a little less than eight hours, thanks to someone who did know it well, I had made a start.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO SHANGHAI
From LAX, China Eastern, United and American offer nonstop service to Shanghai; and United, Korean, JAL, All Nippon, Delta, Asiana, Air China Limited and Cathay Pacific offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $772 to $1,163.
To call the numbers below from the United States, dial 011 (international code), 86 (country code for China) and the local number.
This agency offers an assortment of tours for small groups.
WHERE TO STAY
Yangtze Boutique Shanghai, 740 Hankou Road, People's Square; 21-6080-0800, www.theyangtzehotel.com/default-en.htm. Doubles from $135 per night.
Astor House Hotel, 15 Huangpu Road; 21-6324-6388, pujianghotel.com. Doubles from $100 per night.
WHERE TO EAT
Lynn, 99-1 Xi Kang Road; 21-6247-0101. Modern Shanghai cuisine. Weekend all-you-can-eat dim sum brunch is about $14.
Jesse (Jishi), 41 Tianping Lu (near Huahai Xi Lu); 21-6282-9260, www.xinjishi.com. Serving Shanghai specialties. Entrees $10-$25. Reservations recommended.
TO LEARN MORE
Shanghai Municipal Tourism Administration, meet-in-shanghai.net