Pleco is probably the most famous and downloaded Chinese dictionary and learning tool there is. And for a good reason – it’s just awesome! This is also by far the app that I use most both in daily life running around Shanghai, and when studying Mandarin. The dictionary is obviously extremely useful (and free!), but if you’re studying Chinese I would highly recommend buying the Flash Card system that’s available as an in-app purchase. It allows you to create your own categories and study the flash cards in whichever way you want (character – pinyin, pinyin – English, English – character etc.). At least for me this is probably the most effective way of learning characters, as it’s something that requires endless repetition. It’s perfect to do at home, on the metro, while waiting for a friend, or just whenever you have a few minutes to spare. The Flash Cards also come with ready made categories based on HSK levels, which is brilliant for studying for a specific level.
This week I discovered a crazy cool feature in Pleco which I have completely missed before. I’m sure this is old news to everyone else, but just in case, here it is: If you add the keyboard for Simplified Chinese in your smartphone settings, make sure to pick the one for Handwriting as well. Now go to the dictionary in Pleco with the Handwriting keyboard active, and instead of typing in English or pinyin in the search field, you will be able to draw the character and Pleco gives you the definition. AMAZING! This is SO useful and fast when you encounter characters you don’t recognise, which happens all the time here (at restaurants, on websites, in the bank, etc etc…). Thanks Lisa in 阅读课 for revolutionising my Chinese learning yet again!
2. Bon App
Number two on my list has to be Bon App. This is the best app for local restaurant search, ratings and reviews in Shanghai. You have plenty of options for searching and filtering, like by area, name and/or cuisine. You can even filter by happy hour and ladies night, yay! Bon App also has the Near Me feature, which makes it super easy to spot a good place in your proximity. Registration is not needed for searching and browsing venues and reading reviews, but those who want to contribute with likes/dislikes and comments do have to create a simple profile. Bon App is a bilingual platform, so it works both in English and Chinese.
I don’t see how one survives in Shanghai (or anywhere in China) these days without WeChat. Messaging and calling is done mainly through WeChat. People don’t exchange phone numbers or e-mail addresses anymore (and forget about Facebook for sure), it’s all on WeChat. WeChat is also the most important customer facing platform for most businesses. Many companies invest in sites within WeChat instead of producing separate apps, as it’s very easy to integrate to the user-friendly platform that everyone here prefers using anyway. But as I’ve mentioned before, if you’re not fluent in Chinese, utilizing WeChat to it’s max is difficult. I mainly use WeChat for communicating with friends, to pay bills, and to stay updated with my favorite local businesses and communities.
Btw, check out Baopals’ WeChat page for shopping on TaoBao and Tmall in English! It’s a brilliant site, Baopals can access the entire inventory on TaoBao and Tmall with their English interface, so finally we foreigners can shop away even with limited Chinese skills. I just tried it last week to order a water dispenser – worked like a charm. Woop woop!
Dianping is probably the most extensive directory of businesses in Shanghai. It’s great for finding stuff like dry cleaners, banks or tailors that probably won’t be marked in Google or Apple Maps. Just search with a name or keyword in the app’s search field and get dozens of choices with ratings sorted by proximity. There’s one little issue worth mentioning though – it’s all in Chinese. But don’t let this scare you even if your Mandarin isn’t so hot. You can still search with well-known names and brands (like ‘Sephora’ as in the picture below) and just by testing it out and clicking around you can gather plenty of info without actually reading one single character (like clicking on the address which takes you to an interactive map). And when you’re feeling like experimenting more (aka. when you’re desperate), start out with using Pleco for translating, then copy-paste the characters into Dianping (like I did to find my shoe repair guy). Check out the places close to you with the best ratings and enjoy that awesome feeling of cultural-barrier-breaking accomplishment when you finally find what you’re looking for.
5. Youku and iQiYi
I’m still mourning the fact that I now have very limited access to streaming HBO, Netflix and YouTube, but luckily Youku and iQiYi offer some comfort. These two Chinese apps have quite a good selection of international movies and TV series, and streaming is smooth as silk as they are hosted by local servers. The interface is fully in Chinese (most movies’ and TV series’ titles included), but try it out and click around and you’ll eventually find the section for international entertainment. Start by looking for 电视剧 (TV shows) or 电影 (Movies) in the top menu, and follow by looking for 美国 / 美剧(USA) or 英国 / 英剧 (GB).
Other apps worth mentioning are definitely Smart Shanghai and Explore Shanghai Metro Map. SmartShanghai has a great directory, plus articles and tips on what to do and where to go every week. Explore Shanghai Metro Map is an app for figuring out the metro system, which you’ll need it sooner or later, trust me. And of course there are the real lifesavers, the VPN apps. Express VPN and Astrill are the top paid ones, and then we have Betternet that works as a pretty good free back-up.
There’s also an app on my list that I recently downloaded but haven’t had a chance to try yet: BottlesXO. BottlesXO offer quality imported wines for reasonable prices – and here comes the best part – with home delivery within an hour. How brilliant is that! And of course whites and roses come properly chilled. So no need to panic when you’re having a party but running out of wine, just get BottlesXO to the rescue! Perfect.
Got any good tips on apps for Shanghai? Please share in the comments! :)