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

Casey Werth from Idaho met and married Lili Wu from Jiangsu province and found a job at IBM during his time in Shanghai.

Hollywood calling

The initial allure of this burning dynamo of a metropolis is hard to resist. There is a wildness to the city and a sense of freedom. It tends to attract high-fliers, entrepreneurs and those with a daredevil spirit.

It offers an abundance of creative architecture and a riverside skyline in the financial capital of Lujiazui to rival that of Hong Kong. The finishing touches are now being put on the $2.4-billion, 632-meter Shanghai Tower, China's newest tallest building. That's more than twice the height of the Eiffel Tower.

You may have seen Shanghai without even realizing it. As Hollywood hungers to offset the fall in box-office receipts worldwide, the city has featured in a slew of recent blockbusters including Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Skyfall, Spike Jonze's Her and Looper.

As one of many hard-to-fathom statistics, China added 5,000 new cinema screens in 2013. This took the total to 18,200, or half what industry analysts consider suitable for a mature industry of this size, Variety reports.

Cabin fever

On the flip side, it is a constant battle to find a rush-hour taxi or restaurant seat for lunch in this chaotic metropolis of 25 million. But most residents and expats would not want to live anywhere else in the country after making this their home.

When they get tired of Shanghai it is usually a case of "zai jian" China.

Werth is feeling China fatigue after nine years. Many expats experience cabin fever in the urban wilderness every few months and need to escape the city for a breath of fresh air. A sense of humor should also be considered an essential part of any expat's basic survival kit.

Yet Werth has prospered during his time here.

He was originally sent to Shanghai by another American company to source factory goods. When the global recession devoured his job he studied for an MBA at Shanghai's prestigious China-Europe International Business School (CEIBS).

The 32-year-old now earns double his former salary, has a beautiful wife from neighboring Jiangsu province, and recently moved to accommodate his six-month-old baby.

"If you want to live an American lifestyle here, it's actually more expensive than in the US," he said. "Groceries, housing, education, child products, clothes and shoes that fit - they are all more expensive. It's only cheaper for me because I don't need a car."

Some find the unpolished manners of some of the Chinese a burden and retreat into a foreigner-friendly bubble of international restaurants and Western pubs and clubs. Shanghai has always been a migrant city, and relations between the "native" and new migrant population can sometimes be complicated.


However, almost all expats relish being able to hop on a bus, train or automobile to visit nearby water towns, the West Lake in Hangzhou or the hauntingly beautiful peaks of Yellow Mountain in nearby Anhui. Domestic flights to remote Yunnan, tropical Hainan island or panda - and hot pot - infested Sichuan can be had for bargain prices.

Americans may be heartened to learn that even though one in two Chinese men smoke, health and fitness is increasingly appearing on the Chinese radar after it featured prominently in the central government's five-year plan.

This has led to the sprouting up of more foreign-run organic food and salad-based restaurants in Shanghai like Element Fresh and Baker & Spice. Western fads like yoga are commonplace among local white collars.

Quick fixes are also available for Americans missing their apple pie, personal space and gridiron barbecue parties in this city that never sleeps.

Werth found no shortage of Philly steak sandwiches, chilled jugs of Budweiser and new friends from places as far-flung as Chicago and Cape Town at The Spot in the pre-dawn hours of one Monday morning last month as he watched the Patriots edge the Seahawks in one of the most thrilling Super Bowls in recent memory.

And the secret to not losing the plot when Planet China starts to overwhelm: Take things with a pinch of salt.

"I call my bike 'The Bronze Chime' because it sounds like a clock striking every time I hit the brakes," said Birch with a grin.

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