Shanghai on a shoestring still a thrill, expats say

Updated: 2015-03-13 13:00

By Matt Hodges in Shanghai(China Daily USA)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

 Shanghai on a shoestring still a thrill, expats say

Tom Birch from England came to Shanghai to set up the first China branch of his global recruitment company. [Photos provided to China Daily]

Skyscraper city

It helps that his 31-story apartment building has an underground lot. But this is not unusual in a city where high rises, or buildings of at least 35 meters or 12 stories, seemingly crowd every street.

When it comes to skyscrapers, only five other cities have more of them. Hong Kong ranks first with 1,268, New York is second with 603 and Shanghai has 253, according to

Designed by American architect Benjamin Wood and completed in 2002, Xintiandi's cluster of high-end-bars, restaurants and boutiques are wrought in the style of Shanghai brick town houses and traditional grey-colored shikumen, highlighting Shanghai's nostalgia for its own past.

This area is one of the most expensive in town. But life can still be enjoyed on the cheap despite fast-rising consumer prices, the falling exchange rate - a dollar would get you 8.19 yuan in 2005 but only 6.25 today - and the economic imperative of having to help subsidize factory salaries that have doubled in the last few years.

On a quality of life index provided by, a high property price to income ratio and stubborn pollution see Shanghai register just 53.17 compared to 114.33 for New York, yet the former is categorized as safer with cheaper consumer prices.

Don't worry, be app-y

Life is easier for newcomers like Birch and Stevens courtesy of a rash of apps that further grease the wheels: SmartShanghai shows the best happy hour deals and provides directions in Chinese to show taxi drivers; Pleco, an English-Chinese translation app, paves the way for autodidactic language-learning; WeChat caters to social networking needs; and City Fu, developed by City Weekend, offers a full listings guide.

Within a few weeks, Birch had formed a new circle of friends, dived headfirst into one of the most exciting nightlife and dining scenes in Asia, and figured out how to burn the candle on both ends on a conservative budget.

A friend's recommendation landed him a 103-square-meter apartment for $1,000 a month at "Big Harmony Garden," a plush high rise complex downtown. Porsche Panameras, German SUVs and other fancy foreign cars fill up his underground lot, which is only a five-minute walk from Tianzifang, a bohemian labyrinth of cafes, restaurants and artisan stores.

Not that moving to Shanghai is free of cultural - or visa -related headaches.

It can be lonely at first. Some wrestle with the distant demeanor of the local people and the transient nature of life. Shanghai's ethnically diverse expat population changes overnight like the phases of the moon.

"There is always a going-away party," said Stevens, a tall All-American blonde with model good looks.

"I also feel like there's less interaction with the Chinese. I used to live in Seoul and people would take my photo every day and want to talk to me, maybe because they want to be Western. But here no one looks at me."