Shanghai on a shoestring still a thrill, expats say

Updated: 2015-03-13 13:00

By Matt Hodges in Shanghai(China Daily USA)

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 Shanghai on a shoestring still a thrill, expats say

Xintiandi, designed in the style of the city's traditional brick townhouses by American architect Benjamin Wood, offers high-end-bars, restaurants and boutiques. But life can still be enjoyed on the cheap despite fast-rising consumer prices. [Gao Erqiang / China Daily]

Better than Bogota

Jennifer Stevens, 32, recently moved back to Asia from Bogota to teach at an international school in Shanghai. The Tampa, Florida native said she feels more at home in Asia than in South America.

"It's pretty easy to live here. I would say the only drawbacks are the pollution and the cost of living - both much higher than I'm used to," she said.

"The rent is comparable to back home, but in terms of lifestyle you basically choose your own level," she added.

"You could drink baijiu at a hole in the wall, bring your own bottle to a KTV (karaoke parlor) and have a blast for 15 bucks, or head to one of the swanky places like M1NT or Cirque du Soir (on the Bund) and spend 20 dollars on a cocktail like in New York."

Likewise, expats can dine at M on the Bund or an array of Michelin-starred eateries on the opulent riverside that bisects the city, or dive into some kung pao chicken (diced chicken with peanuts, spices and a sugary sauce) for under $5. Those who chafe at battling the city's user-friendly bus and metro system will find "didi-dache", a local cab-hailing service, an affordable alternative. Uber is another step up but the price of hailing an Audi A6 is still uber-cheap.

New breed of expat

Birch represents a new generation of Shanghai-based expats: Younger, more socially mobile, perhaps a little brash. Like many, he is trying to learn the lingo. Most have an interesting job that falls somewhere between the traditional dichotomy of multinational executive and shipwrecked backpacker (foreign missionaries left about a century ago).

They can fit into the social fabric of a brave new world faster than their predecessors, and with less friction, by capitalizing on strong expat networks both offline and online to boost their upward mobility.

Due to China's low utility bills and aggressive push to promote electric vehicles, Birch gets his own parking space and personal charging unit each month for half the price of an Americano at Starbucks. Electricity is included, he claims.

"Now I can get around for 30 yuan a quarter," he quips over lunch at Sproutworks, a hip eatery specializing in salads and soups near downtown tourist site Xintiandi (New Heaven and Earth).

"I never imagined I would be driving past gridlocked Ferraris in this maze of a city on a 48-volt, 200-dollar scooter," he added.