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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American and European expats have crazy fun living as princes, princesses or paupers in Shanghai, a city of contrasts, culture and creativity that is always full of surprises.

Recruitment manager Tom Birch saw his transport bill drop to 10 yuan ($1.60) a month after he purchased a second-hand electric moped on a whim while painting the town red in Shanghai recently.

The 27-year-old Englishman moved to China's gleaming financial hub six months ago to launch the first Chinese branch of Stirling Andersen, which is headquartered in Perth, Australia. It now claims to be the fastest-growing insurance specialist recruitment business in Asia-Pacific.

"You can do anything in this city," he said. "It is a city of contrasts, the land of opportunity. Riches and glamor contrast with people selling breakfast on the same street for the equivalent of 20 cents."

If the central government can find a way to relocate more factories away from city centers, fix the shortage of charging stations and meet its goal of getting five million electric cars on the road in 2020, people here hope Shanghai's carbon footprint will drop.

Plug-in hybrids are already government-subsidized and exempt from license-plate fees in Shanghai but the shift to electric won't happen overnight.

Conditional love

Like the Chinese themselves, Shanghai may be one of the most complicated cities in the world in terms of the reaction it generates from those who flock here each year to strike gold as jobs dry up back home.

Once the honeymoon period subsides, many expats say they love some parts of life here and struggle with others - and many locals will agree.

It now seems to be attracting a different demographic to 10 or even five years ago.

"That's one of the biggest differences between when I first came and now," said IBM project manager Casey Werth of Sun Valley, Idaho.

"In 2007, it was mostly career expat single dudes. Now there are loads of young people coming to seek their fortune or intern here in hope of landing a full-time job."

Some came to work for foreign pavilions during the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Others were drawn by childhood memories of Blade Runner or Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, which presents Shanghai in the 1920s as one of the world's most glamorous and cosmopolitan financial centers. The latest national census shows that over 160,000 expats are living here.

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.

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."

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.

Shanghai on a shoestring still a thrill, expats say

Jennifer Stevens of Tampa, Florida moved to Shanghai six months ago to work at an international school. A self-confessed foodie, she enjoys discovering the city's street food like xiaolongbao (steamed dumplings) and shengjian (pan-fried stuffed bun). Maja Kelly / for China Daily

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

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]

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.

Shanghai on a shoestring still a thrill, expats say

(China Daily USA 03/13/2015 page9)