I first visited Shanghai in early 2002, just after I had left the UK to live in Hong Kong. I had been to China a few years before, but only to the tourist spots of Beijing and Xi’an. That first trip to Shanghai was also my first business trip to China.
I don’t remember doing that much business that week, but I do remember being overwhelmed by the vibrancy, the passion, and just the sheer number of people that I saw while I was in Shanghai. I saw that everyone spoke incomprehensible Chinese, found that there was no restaurant within walking distance of our hotel that I could actually order a proper meal at, and also that there seemed to be construction going on wherever I looked. I was still coming to terms with the fact that not only had I moved to Asia, but I was now expected to work in this Chinese environment, which felt completely different to my initial career in London.
After four years of living in Hong Kong, I left to go to Dubai. It turned out though that China’s pull on me was strong, and at the end of 2008, just at the peak of the financial crisis, I found myself moving to Shanghai. Living in China? I had loved Hong Kong, but living there was fairly straightforward. It was full of Westerners, pretty much everyone spoke English, and the business environment was mature and sophisticated. This time I was on the mainland, which then was still a fairly new market, and with the challenge of managing a team of Chinese colleagues no less.
Right away I realised things had changed. Big new gleaming apartment blocks were up everywhere. I was staying in the same hotel as in 2002, and now there were well-stocked restaurants wherever I looked. Across the road was a brand new 100-storey skyscraper. And was that English that I heard being spoken in the shops? The vibrancy and the passion from before were still very much in evidence, but it felt that this had been channeled more, directed towards progress and rapid development. As the rest of the world shuddered to a halt, China was now the place to be.
I met all of my new team, and settled into my new role. I then went and met them all again, trying to break the silence in the office, by suggesting that they did actually speak to me, as I was not an unapproachable boss sitting in an ivory tower. Once they began to realise that I was genuinely interested in what was happening day-to-day, and that I did not scream and shout when things went wrong, then we started to talk more, and our business started to make progress. One cultural gap to overcome on the very first day.
As with my earlier overseas stops, my way into the local expat community was through playing football. Wherever you go, whatever part of the world you find yourself in – join a team, and you have at least 10 other people with whom you have an instant connection. Shanghai was no different, and once I found a team of a suitable level (i.e. not too young or quick), I started playing every week.
Over a few beers I chatted to my new teammates, and in particular to the guys who had been around in China for many years. Despite the many changes on the ground, I was surprised to hear them talk about how it was all better before.
“In the mid-nineties, there were so few of us. We all used to hang out together, there was only one bar that we all used to go to. Even going to the shops was a challenge, you had to be on your toes all the time. Now it is too easy, and everyone keeps to themselves.” I guess this highlights the difference amongst many expats, who tend to divide into two distinct camps – the one-off, toe-in-the-water group, who head for home when their three-year stint is done; and the lifers, those who set off and never come back. (13 years and counting, myself…) Back then Shanghai, and China even more so, was only for the hardy, and the enthusiastic; but now as it opens up, it becomes a lot easier as it is regular route on the expat merry-go-round, switching one identikit villa and international school for another. I have plenty of ‘China Moments’, as does everyone, when things just don’t work the way you would like, and I wish it was all a bit easier; but in the Middle Kingdom there is so much more to explore and experience that it the end it makes it all worthwhile.
That is why as I work in Shanghai still, I enjoy the dichotomy that I see all around me. My job is in international finance, where China’s influence comes ever stronger on the global stage. Just this year we have seen the effects, as if the Chinese economy sneezes, the world catches a cold. The skyscraper I saw in 2008 has now been dwarfed by another next door, which climbs far higher and ranks second in the world. Famous chefs come to Shanghai to open their latest restaurants, where they host Formula 1 drivers or touring pop stars. Shanghai becomes an international destination.
Yet another life co-exists alongside, that one that those first expats appreciated. Outside my air-conditioned, manicured apartment complex, I can go and order a huge bowl of tasty noodles for less than USD2. I walk through the back streets and see people being shaved in the street, cutting keys in tiny kiosks, or sitting on boxes as they play majiang with their friends. China is never just one thing, and Shanghai even more so. Rich live alongside poor, locals with foreigners, international companies trade next to one-man shops. A globally-recognised city that still has its roots in many years of culture, with all aspects of life to be explored down every side street. I enjoy being in Shanghai.
by Ian Mote
AuthorHouse (472 pp.)