Living Abroad in China
Prime Living Locations
2006 © Stuart & Barbara Strother, from Moon Living Abroad in China, 1st Edition. Used by permission of Stuart & Barbara Strother, and Avalon Travel. All rights reserved.
We’ve chosen to cover he places that can offer the best quality of life for foreigners, based on factors like the size of the city’s expat community and the accessibility of western amenities like imported groceries (i.e. butter, cheese, and cereal), high-quality housing, international schools, and western health care.
Proud capital and seat of power, Beijing wields an amazing amount of influence over this vast nation. All provinces live by Beijing; they set their clocks by Beijing time and speak Beijing’s Mandarin dialect in their schools, businesses, and local government.
This city is the heart and soul of the nation, and the presence of central government is strongly felt here. In fact, politics is one of the main reasons why many foreigners come to Beijing, from diplomatic positions at one of the many embassies to journalists who keep the world informed of what this mighty giant is up to.
Compared to Hong Kong and Shanghai, Beijing is much more “Chinese” than its cosmopolitan cousins. Though its immense skyline is decorated with copious glassy skyscrapers, this city still feels old, due in part to the gloriously stubborn existence of hutongs, the labyrinthine neighborhoods dating back hundreds of years. It’s also the center of the Chinese performing arts, celebrating the rich culture of this ancient nation’s unique culture with its Chinese operas, acrobat shows, and traditional orchestras.
Unfortunately Beijing is often weighed down by thick gray smog. Harsh winters and occasional dust storms blowing in from Mongolian deserts add to the challenges of Beijing residents. But the city is in the midst of massive change. As Beijing prepares for the 2008 Olympics, every corner and facet of this great capital is under scrutiny for how it will look and function when the world descends on its doorsteps. Vast improvements to infrastructure and industries supporting the tourist market are quickly turning this city into a world-class destination.
With over 17 million residents, Shanghai is not only the largest city in China, it’s also the biggest in the world by some counts. In this flourishing commercial and financial center, East meets West in a striking blend of world cultures. Historic European buildings stand regally along its busy river, a reminder of its colonial past, while Asian temples and old-style Chinese neighborhoods hint at the more ancient culture. The real heart of Shanghai is in its fast-paced business and social scenes. This city is all about energy, and it is hard not to feel the excitement pulsing behind its futuristic skyscrapers when you first arrive. This place is also all about money, and Shanghaiers have a reputation for focusing their lives on the pursuit of conspicuous wealth. Businessmen in thousand-dollar suits jet about in shiny new Buicks, Bentleys, and Hummers to high-powered business meetings; the young and beautiful get all decked out in designer labels and pack their way into the subway for yet another night out on the town.
Some compare Shanghai with New York, some with Paris—though don’t go expecting either or you may be disappointed. As for expat amenities, Shanghai can’t be beat among mainland cities. You’ll be able to get just about anything you want here, though you may have to pay dearly for it. Your money will also buy you more choices here than in other parts of the country, from what kind of world cuisine to eat for dinner to what architectural style of luxury villa to live in (Mediterranean stucco or Bavarian village? Japanese zen or sleek ultra-modern?). Shanghai offers more opportunities to forget, for just a little while, that you are living in China—something that foreigners in smaller cities long for when the culture shock and the homesickness come on strong.
Hong Kong and Macau
The return of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997 and Macau in 1999 made these areas official Special Administrative Regions (SARs) of the People’s Republic of China, although they retain their own laws, currency, and taxes. Though the British governed Hong Kong for 150 years and the Portuguese ruled Macau for 400 years, these spots have always maintained their Chinese character, along with a bit of European flair. Yet so many years of independence from the mainland have given Hong Kong and Macau a unique flavor that you won’t find anyplace else on the mainland.
Hong Kong is as cosmopolitan as China gets. Its urban islands boast a plethora of international restaurants, posh shopping malls, and five-star hotels amidst a dizzying array of skyscrapers and neon lights. It’s the place mainland China expats run to when they need dependable health care, when they want to shop for something they can’t find on the mainland, or when they need a break from the “real China.” It’s not all glass and glitz, however. A trek out to one of the outlying islands will put you on sandy beaches and forested hiking trails for a much-needed infusion of the natural world.
Macau, on the other hand, is limited by its size in what it has to offer. Located opposite the Pearl River Estuary from Hong Kong, the peninsula and islands that make up Macau are tiny, home to less than half a million people all packed into eight square miles. Most are drawn to Macau for its historic old Portuguese charms or its sparkly new casinos—it’s the only Chinese city where gambling is legal.
While both Hong Kong and Macau come with a lot of perks, they also come with a hefty price tag. Their real estate and cost of living are among the most expensive in the world. But if you’ve got a lot of money to spend, this is as good a place as any to spend it. Both Hong Kong and Macau consistently make it into the top five best places for expats to live in Asia.
The best word to describe southern China, both literally and figuratively, is steamy, a land of summer typhoons and successful tycoons. It’s home to Hainan Island, where the tropical sun and surf have garnered it the nickname the Hawaii of the Orient. Nearby Guangdong Province holds the economic powerhouse of the Pearl River Delta cities, including three top destination cities for expats: Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Zhuhai. Up the coastline in Fujian Province, Xiamen Island has been captivating foreigners with its charm for centuries.
Guangzhou City, also known as Canton, has served as a major port since the days Arab traders exchanged their Muslim religious influence for a bit of silk and tea during the Tang dynasty. British merchants replaced the Arabs in the 19th century, and modern-day Guangzhou reflects these many years of foreign influence. The Cantonese have a reputation for strong entrepreneurial spirit, cosmopolitanism, and above all, a taste for very strange foods.
The city of Shenzhen is the gateway between Hong Kong and the mainland, and it’s strictly business. As the PRC’s first experiment with foreign business and investment, Shenzhen is a new and prospering boomtown, narrowly beating out Shanghai for the position of having the wealthiest residents. Directly across the Pearl River is the city of Zhuhai, which is following in Shenzhen’s footsteps. Zhuhai is the gateway to Macau, and its status as another of the first Special Economic Zones has created a prosperous city where there was none just 20 years ago. Both Shenzhen and Zhuhai boast clean air and pleasant living environments with easy access to the perks of nearby Hong Kong and Macau.
Up the coast and beyond the mountains of Fujian Province, the city of Xiamen covers two islands and a bit of the mainland. Its seaside gardens and meandering lanes of old Mediterranean-style villas reflect Xiamen’s history as a colonial port city, while its thriving new upscale commercial areas and pristine beaches provide loads of modern-day pleasures.
East China consists of the two provinces surrounding Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, which all together make up the Yangtze River Delta economic cluster. This is one of the wealthiest areas in China, where even the farmers live in towering four-story homes.
As the saying goes, “In heaven there is paradise. On earth there are Suzhou and Hangzhou.” For centuries these two cities in eastern China have had a reputation for their physical beauty, Suzhou for its ancient gardens and Hangzhou for its famous West Lake. The effect of having such a relaxing natural environment has given Hangzhou residents a laid-back demeanor, unlike their workaholic Shanghai neighbors. Both Hangzhou and Suzhou have a thriving tourist industry, with highly developed amenities and businesses that cater to foreigners.
Farther north, Nanjing holds strong historic significance as the site of the Kuomintang headquarters and the Japanese massacre. This ancient city is once again starting to come into its own, adding amenities like a new subway system and international luxury hotels. Some say it’s like Shanghai was before the development of Pudong—on the brink of great things but still a sleepy city.
Ningbo, on the coast south of Shanghai, is smaller and sleepier still, mostly known as an important trade port city as well as the jumping-off point to beautiful Putuoshan Island. Booming business in Ningbo’s commercial hub has brought a growing community of foreigners within its borders.
In eastern China you can have the best of both expat worlds—the feel of a small town, including a cheaper cost of living, with easy access to Shanghai’s boundless cosmopolitan amenities.
The northern region surrounds Beijing and follows the coastline from Shandong Province, through the Bohai Bay Economic Rim, up to the cold borders with North Korea and Russian Siberia. In the north opportunities abound for getting out into nature, from digging your toes into the sand to digging your ski poles into fresh mountain snow. Hiking takes a spiritual twist with a climb up Mount Tai, a mandatory pilgrimage for devout Taoists. And the hilly landscape of Hebei, crisscrossed by the Great Wall and dotted with historic temples, is the play land of city-weary Beijing residents.
Bordering Beijing, Tianjin Municipality is one of the four cities that stand independent from a province, along with Shanghai, Beijing, and Chongqing. Tianjin’s reputation is often linked with nearby Beijing, though there is plenty here for it to rest on its own laurels. Tianjin is one of the most prominent and influential industrial and port cities in China. Its history as a concessionary port is reflected in its varied architecture today.
Heading northeast from Tianjin, the region once grandly referred to as Manchuria is now known as “The Rustbelt,” with its closed factories and unemployed workers. The Chinese government is determined to
redevelop the area, however, and Liaoning’s provincial capital, Shenyang, is the epitome of these efforts. This historic city has come into its own as a prime expat destination within the last couple of years. In contrast, the charming port city of Dalian on the tip of Liaoning Province’s southern peninsula has long been established as a flourishing seaside resort, having escaped the industrial decline and dismal reputation of its neighbors.
The north’s other famous coastal city, Qingdao, is Shandong Province’s pride and glory. This place savors a reputation for incredible seafood and pristine beaches. Home to China’s most famous beer and historic old
Bavarian villas, Qingdao is full of surprising delights.
Inland China, covering the bulk of the nation’s geography, is home to colorful minority villages and the ancient Silk Road, the world’s highest peaks and one of its lowest points, mysterious Tibet and gorgeous natural scenery, and the mighty Yangtze River that divides the Middle Kingdom into north and south. There is a richness here that has always brought tourists by the droves, and yet the lack of resources for foreign residents has kept all but a small percentage from settling here. There are scores of inland cities where you’ll find only a handful of expats teaching English or studying Chinese, but only three cities have a strong enough mix of rich experience and international amenities to be considered prime destinations: Wuhan in Hunan Province, Chengdu in Sichuan Province, and Xi’an in Shaanxi Province (though Chongqing Municipality is an up-and-coming fourth).
The cloudy city of Chengdu is known for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, its portly pandas, and its time-honored teahouses. It’s a growing city that is quickly climbing its way up the scale of international importance. In the past visitors simply passed through colorful Chengdu on their way to Tibet and other exotic locales nearby, but nowadays foreigners are discovering that Chengdu is not such a bad place to set down some roots.
Wuhan and Chongqing, the front and back gates to the popular Three Gorges on the Yangtze River, are known as two of China’s furnaces, with blazing hot summers. Wuhan, nick-named China’s Chicago, is a sprawling commercial city and key transportation hub between the inland and the prosperous east, with a colorful history of foreign missionary activity and political uprising.
The last of the prime inland locales is the most world famous: Xi’an, home to the famous Terra-Cotta Warriors. Xi’an has an amazing history that dates back 5,000 years. It was China’s pride and glory when it served as the well-traveled gate of the Silk Road. Xi’an still reflects those strong Turkic influences today, with its famous mosque and large Muslim population.