China; Read all about it!

It goes without saying that the best way to learn about China is to spend a good slug of time here and immerse yourself in the place itself, talking to locals, visiting the diverse regional provinces, and having an open and curious mindset about the Chinese culture; however, I’ve come across some great books, videos and podcasts over the past couple of years which give a good level of insight without having to commit to an international flight or, indeed, a three-year work assignment (although I wholeheartedly recommend both of these options if you have the chance!)

If your understanding of 2019 China is based on a recent viewing of Crazy Rich Asians (which coincidentally tanked at the China box office and was slammed by Chinese netizens* who took offense at the superficial, wealth-obsessed stereotypes which abound in the film) and want to learn more about this deeply traditional, rapidly changing and globally influential country then the links below may provide a good starter for 10.

* internet citizens, for those who like a good portmanteau 

If you’re interested in…

1. The transformative power of the internet in China.

Even the most unobservant would be hard pressed to ignore the total absorption of mobile internet into modern Chinese life. Walking through the bustling metro stations in downtown Shanghai it’s a miracle there aren’t more frequent human-on-human collisions as people dart from one platform to another, eyes fixated on the glowing screen in their outstretched palm. Once boarded, life in a metro carriage invariably looks something like this:

metro phones
Unlike London, you can still access 4G and Wifi on the Chinese underground.

Yes, I know that smartphone-addiction isn’t unique to China, but what is interesting about the adoption of the internet here – especially mobile internet – is the sheer scale and speed at which it is transforming the way in which people interact and make a living in what is still a communist state with a tradition-heavy culture.

1.1. The rapid growth of the Chinese internet and where it’s headed, by Gary Liu (TED TALK)

Gary Liu speaks at TED2018 – The Age of Amazement, April 10 – 14, 2018, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

I alluded to the all-consuming absorption of mobile internet in my slightly facetious comment about the Shanghai metro, above; however, this TED talk by Gary Liu, the new CEO of the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong’s daily newspaper), paints a vivid and engaging picture of how the internet has revolutionised the basics of life in China, manifesting tangible benefits for those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic hierarchy.

“China had 772 million internet users by the end of 2017 (equivalent to the accumulated populations of US, Russia, Germany, France, UK and Canada) – and still this only counts for 56% of the population.”

Gary Liu

Case in point, the Sunshine Digital Classroom initiaive wherby qualified teachers live-stream classes to some of the 60 million “left behind children” whom, pre-internet, would have been lucky to access any schooling at all. Having met some of these children at the Jaguar Land Rover Zhaotong Hope School in Yunnan Province in 2016, I can understand the potential life-changing impact of this initiative for underprivileged kids in a country where your education level is of paramount importance.

1.2. Digital Migration (PODCAST – BBC World Service The Documentary)

The impact of the internet on China’s working class is also explored in this podcast by the BBC World Service, in which domestic migrants working repetitive jobs in factory environments describe how they use their social media accounts to access a virtual private space, practically inaccessible to them in their real lives (they often live in cramped rooms, sharing living space and beds). Social media also provides a channel through which they can access the glamour and luxury of modern China – an aspirational lifestyle which they have little chance of attaining.

Listening to this podcast led me to reflect on my own relationship with private space – something I place huge value on as an introvert, but often take for granted – and wonder how I would cope in a similar environment.

2. “Doing Business” in China

2.1. The House that Jack Ma Built, by Duncan Clark (BOOK)

Hands-up, I’d never heard of Jack Ma (Chinese name Ma Yun 马云) before I moved to China; something I now find hard to believe! As co-founder (and until recently the Executive Chairman) of the Alibaba Group – the Chinese multinational e-commerce conglomerate – Ma is one of China’s richest men and is a bit of a local superhero here.

This book would have been equally at home in my first list on the transformative power of the internet in China as it straddles the two topics, but at it’s heart this is a book about entrepreneurial success, charting Ma’s journey from humble beginnings in Hangzhou, via a stint as an English teacher, before his elevation to mega-icon for all budding Chinese entrepreneurs.

When Alibaba went public in 2014 it’s IPO was $25bn, and two of it’s subsidiaries Taobao (an e-commerce website) and Alipay (a mobile payment platform) – are an essential and integral part of daily life in China, so it was great to learn more about how they came into being.

2.2. Chinese Rules, by Tim Clissold (BOOK)

In this book Clissold – a British investment consultant who moved to China in the early 1990’s – recounts his experience of buying tradeable ‘carbon credits’ from heavily-polluting industrial firms in cities like Hangzhou, at a time when the iron doors of Communist China were tentatively opening up to the West.

Structured in a series of ‘lessons learned’, Clissold paints a comical first-person-perspective picture of 老外 lǎowài (foreigners) attempting to do business in China and – with the wonderful wisdom of hindsight – details the implications of trying to operate “Our Way” in a country with it’s own well-established rule book.

While the macro environment has undoubtedly progressed in leaps and bounds over the last 30 years, there is still a tangible difference between “getting things done” in China versus in the UK, and I found myself nodding along to parts of this book where I’ve had similar interactions or experiences in the workplace, especially around decision-making (which doesn’t always follow the Western rules of logic, even in a non-State-owned company!). The descriptive writing in this book is excellent and could easily masquerade as a novel, so don’t be put off if you’re not usually one for non-fiction.

3. The Chinese Approach to Dating and Love

Attitudes towards relationships and dating are inexorably intertwined with the cultural norms and expectations of a society, which makes this a fascinating topic for discussion in China where attitudes (at least in the supercities like Shanghai) are undergoing a generational revolution.

From the indubitable importance of star signs, to the role of ones parents in finding a match for uncoupled offspring, it’s a world away from my own experience of relationships in the UK, and I’ve learned a lot about the Chinese culture through listening to my friends’ stories of dating and marriage.

3.1. Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China, by Jemimah Steinfeld (BOOK)

If you don’t have Chinese girlfriends with whom to debate the relative importance of various attributes in a potential partner, then this book will prove a stellar substitute. Steinfeld draws on her interviews and conversations with young people, mainly in Beijing, and recounts their stories of dating and love against the social, political and economic context of modern China.

The book also gives a perspective on the impact of the single-child policy (implemented in 1980 and only recently reversed), wealth, homosexuality and religion on relationships.

“China is transfixing – and transforming – the world. And it’s youth are at the centre…They are being tugged in different directions, by tradition as much as modernity”

“The China of the twenty-first Century was nothing like the China of the twentieth – a fundamental difference between them and us [the West].”

Little Emperors and Material Girls, Jemimah Steinfeld

The author is undoubtedly a Sinophile, casting a positive light on certain more contentious aspects of relationships, but if you hold that lightly then it’s a great read.

NB- Don’t be put off (or misled) by the sensationalist title; this is a book about youth culture and relationships in China, not about sex (which, aside from a mention in a couple of interviews,  doesn’t really feature). ALSO, this book was recommended me by a guy at work who said that it really helped him to better understand his local team and colleagues, so I can affirm that it’s not just one for the girls!

3.2. Lotus, by Lijia Zhang (BOOK)

A little left-field for this topic, but a great book and so worth a mention.

Lotus, the protagonist heroine, is inspired by the author’s grandmother who, orphaned as a child, was sold into prostitution aged 14 by her uncle. While the story itself is a work of fiction, the sex trade in China is not and – albeit illegal – it’s a fast-growing industry which typically exploits poor migrant workers from rural China. Zhang wrote this book in English, as a form of protection from censorship on what is a desperately sensitive topic.

This story won’t be to everyone’s taste, in which case a good alternative is to listen to this BBC Sounds World Book Club interview with the author Lijia Zhang, which starts with an excerpt from the book (a little of which is copied below) read by Zhang.

“Every day at four p.m., as instructed by Moon, the girls all had to stand outside on display, dressed up, painted and ready for sale. Lotus’s thoughts turned to the last letter from Shadan, her seventeen year old brother. In his last letter he had thanked her for the money she sent home…

Shadan, her brother’s nickname, meant “Stupid Egg”, and her own was Chouchou, “Ugly Ugly”. Their superstitious grandma Nai had given them unattractive nicknames in the hopes that the evil spirits would leave them alone”

Lotus, Lijia Zhang

4. China’s Generation Gap

4.1. China’s Generation Gap Beijing (PODCAST – BBC World Service The Documentary)

China’s generation gap is referenced quite a bit in Steinfeld’s Little Emperors & Material Girls, but I found listening to the first-hand account in this podcast really powerful. It describes the profound differences between generations, explained against the backdrop of the socio-political changes of the past 60 years in China.

Today, Chinese millenials operate in a country which is economically open to the rest of the world; women have more freedom to pursue varied career and life choices, young people have the opportunity to work for Western companies, travel abroad and spend money on lifestyle and experiences. This is in stark contrast to their great grandparents – who lived through a turbulent Cultural Revolution characterised by violence and famine – and their parents’ formative years which were shaped by the fall-out from this period.

The Chen family, who are interviewed in the podcast.

“young people start to realise that you don’t have to rely on a very established system or institution… there are so many opportunities that you can really participate as an individual instead of as part of a machine… that is also the biggest difference between my generation and my parents’ generation, they don’t really have this opportunity “

BBC World Service ‘The Documentary’ Feb 11, 2018

While pushing back against parents very counter-cultural, it’s becoming more and more common in China today as young people wish to pursue a more independent and modern lifestyle. Interestingly, one of the things that I’ve admired about the Chinese culture during my time here is the respect shown to elders; you often see young people assisting their grandparents in the street, and it’s still common for the older generations to live with their children (retirement homes are being introduced here, but far less normative than in the UK). It will be interesting to see how this dynamic changes over the coming years.

5. China’s past (the recent, and the not so recent!)

5.1. ‘Do Not Say We have Nothing’ by Madeline Thien (BOOK)

This book is beautifully written and left a deep impression on me. It tells the story of Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli, a trio bound together by their love of classical music and of each other, during the Cultural Revolution when intellectual pursuits such were vilified and forbidden. It is a sweeping book which spans three generations and two continents and is on my ‘must read again’ list.

“The students began offering criticisms of themselves and each other, and the girl next to her, an erhu major, mocked Zhuli for favouring music in the “negative” and “pessimistic” key of E-flat minor, and continuing to play sonatas by revisionist Soviet composers, including the disgraced formalist, Prokofiev. 

Zhuli rebuked herself fiercely, vowed to embrace the optimism of the C and G major keys, and ended her self-criticism with “Long live the Great Revolution to create a proletarian culture, long live the Republic, long live Chairman Mao!”. Had she been critical enough, too critical? Their faces, their gestures, their eyes were cold.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeline Thien

5.2. ‘Empress Orchid’ by Anchee Min (BOOK)

I read this book shortly before visiting the Forbidden City and Summer Palace in Beijing, and it provided a vivid fictional peek into what life may have been like during the final years of the Qing Dynasty. It’s told in the first person from the perspective of Cixi, the last empress of China from 1856 to 1908 and gives a sympathetic account of her rise to Empress Dowager (non-fictional historical accounts are typically not so kind). It’s a good read, if you don’t mind taking your history with a pinch of salt!

“At audiences, I discovered that the best solutions often existed between the words of those who had reported the troubles. They had spent time with the subject and were able to come up with suggestions. What bothered me was that the ministers often held their true opinions back. They trusted the Son of Heaven to see things “through a god’s eye”.

It amazed me that Emperor Hsien Feng believed that he was the god’s eye. Rarely doubting his own wisdom, he sought signs to prove it’s heavenly source. It might be a tree split by thunder in his garden, or a shooting star crossing the night sky”

Empress Orchid, Anchee Min

If you do read or listen to any of the above, I’d love to know your thoughts and reflections so please leave a comment or get in touch. Likewise, if you would like a recommendation on another topic then let me know. I’ve purposefully omitted politics and economics here to keep it light, but, or the McKinsey Global Institute APAC research articles are a good shout


Header image courtesy of (Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images)

Behind the Bund

I’ve been fortunate to have met some brilliant people during my almost-three-years in Shanghai, and build friendships which I’m certain will far outlast the duration of my work assignment. Most of my friends are, perhaps naturally, in a similar boat to me – expats who are living here for a defined period while completing an international work assignment; however, the two friends I want to introduce here were both born and raised in Shanghai. 

I met Miki and Lian through work, and while they now follow wildly different career paths (Lian works in corporate HR and Miki is a tattoo artist and entrepreneur), they share many traits, including a positive attitude, a creative spirit, and a deep passion for the city they grew up in. The latter was even more evident when, over brunch a few weeks ago, they disclosed to me with excitement their new business idea – to design and host city walks for foreigners who would like to explore Shanghai “off the tourist-track”, and get insights from a local perspective. They had completed their first itinerary – Behind the Bund – and wanted a guinea-pig: I accepted immediately!

But first… coffee

We met mid-morning at % Arabica, a chic Japanese coffee shop on Yuanmingyuan Road (apparently opening soon in UK). Here, while we sipped our sweet Spanish coffee, Miki better acquainted me with the story of Shanghai’s international settlements around the Bund area of the Huangpu river delta; how they were established and developed through the defining periods of the Opium wars in the mid-19th Century and through the second world war.

While we drank our coffee the cobbled street outside formed a proxy catwalk for waif-like Chinese girls with flawless skin, red lips and bare legs, surrounded by a posse who perfected their make-up and handed them new clothes to wear while a photographer (invariably dressed head-to-toe in black) snapped their every move. These girls are the stars of TaoBao – essentially clothes horses for online retailers who use a similar influencer-led business model to that seen on Instagram; as you can see below, they start young! Apparently Yunnmingyuan street is prime photo-back-drop real estate, and became so crowded at one point that the local government banned photo-shoots here, but have relaxed this particular rule more recently.


Caffeinated, we began our walk at No.1 Waitanyuan – the former HQ of the British Consulate (est. 1849) and now owned by the Peninsula Hotel – a beautiful and iconic European-style building which, painstakingly restored along with those surrounding it, gives a glimpse into what life might have been like in early 20th Century  Shanghai. 

Waitanyuan literally means “source of the Bund” and it was this area which British settlers chose to develop as their residential quarters after the conclusion of the First Opium War. As a Yīngguó rén (British person) I was genuinely interested in learning more about this period of history and I fully embraced my role of guinea-pig by asking lots of ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions!

Over the course of the morning Miki and Lian ushered me around some of the most historically significant buildings of the former British concession, some of which I’ve captured in the photos below. While all were undoubtedly stunning, my favourite has to be the China Baptist Publication Building, designed by Hungarian-Slovak architect Lázló Hudec in his characteristic style; Art-Deco with a hint of Gothic.  Hudec had a significant influence on the architectural character of the Bund area and also in the former French Concession, where I lived during my first 2 years in Shanghai, and I love the serious yet elegant presence of his work (google the Park Hotel, Shanghai for another great example).

Miki, Lian and I continued our walk down less famous streets, but with no less magnificent buildings. As I mentioned in my last blog, one of my favourite things about Shanghai is that every time I turn my head I’m presented with another scene or moment that I want to capture – motley rows of mopeds and Mobikes spread neatly along the pavement; serpentine loops of black electric cable stretching overhead; wild foliage burgeoning indiscriminately from brickwork and gutters, a fragment of green against the earthy reds and browns.

And it wouldn’t be a walk through Shanghai without coming across a meticulously staged wedding photo shoot… albeit the first one I’ve seen featuring Chanel shopping bags!

It was a great to spend this time learning more about Shanghai from Miki and Lian, who are proud to show off their city – the facts and stories they had collated kept us busy until our stomachs told us to stop for lunch! If you find yourself in Shanghai with a few hours to spare and would like to explore the city with some lovely locals then check them out on Air Bnb Experiences.

And if you don’t plan to visit Shanghai anytime soon, then I recommend you to follow Miki on Instagram (mikijing0225) and experience city life through her eyes – she is a fabulous photographer.

Lian, me & Miki (L-R)… we are in fancy dress here, just to be clear!


Autumn in December

Having spent the latter two weeks of November in England – where the frigid arctic wind seeped into my bones while I scraped a stubborn layer of frost off the car windscreen – the autumnal weather that we’ve experienced in Shanghai today has been lovely.

Wandering down Yongkang Lu on my way to lunch, a clement breeze whipped golden-brown leaves from swaying tree branches and cradled them to the ground where they crunched underfoot. On the pavement a huddle of men thirty-or-so strong craned their necks jostled position to watch a mahjong game unfold on a beat-up plywood table. Fleecy bed-covers flapped and floated alongside well-worn bras and knickers on roadside washing lines, and everyone had opted for two-wheels rather than four.

My last visit to England was in May earlier this year; a fleeting catch-up with family and friends. This time my primary purpose was for work and it was the first time I’d set foot in the UK office for 18 months. It was lovely to meet with colleagues face-to-face after so long; everyone was keen to know whether I was still happy living in China, and also whether I was looking forward to moving back to the UK (my repatriation is on the horizon now, as I’ll complete my 3-year assignment in April next year). Honestly, I found it hard to give a neat answer. Shanghai isn’t a new adventure anymore, or a work assignment – it’s my home.

I love the rich juxtaposition of familiarity and foreignness, whereby I have a favorite coffee shop and preferred dumpling vendor (yes, really), but stare wide-eyed (in amusement, or curiosity, or horror) at various culture-specific and previously unseen scenarios on most days.

I love that everything around me is worthy of a photograph. Case in point: a few hours ago, while cutting through an alleyway off Nanchang Lu close to my apartment, I glanced past the coffee shop on the corner, noted the new nail place (“trouble girl”), and settled my gaze on the festive display outside Kym’s Flower shop – bright red poinsettia and colour-matched Christmas baubles. So far so normal, but look a little to the left, and you will find five fish fillets strung to a wooden pole, gutted, cleaned and drying with the aid of a rusty old fan propped up on a battered plastic cool-box. Every Shanghai street coaxes you to look closer, to be present, and pay attention (especially because these little glimpses of old-school China are becoming rarer, as the lane-house-lined streets are swept away to make room for the new and modern and shiny).

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I also love my friends in Shanghai – albeit the merry-go-round of expat assignments means that they won’t be here forever either; I was gutted when one friend moved back to Australia in September.

So am I looking forward to moving home? Well, not in the sense that the UK doesn’t really feel like home at this moment. The prospect of moving into a rental apartment in Warwickshire, learning to fit back into a routine that is now unfamiliar, and turning on the radio to relentless updates on Brexit doesn’t exactly fill me with joy. But still, there is a lot that I am looking forward to; the prospect of a new challenge at work… accepting birthday and wedding and Sunday dinner invitations… being in close proximity to Marks & Spencers food hall… fresh air on a crisp winters morning (yes, even if it does mean scraping ice off the car windscreen!), because let’s be honest, my autumn-in-December experience today was a bit of an anomaly; let’s take last Thursday as a comparative:

So in sum, I spent most of my week in the office explaining my feelings as “pretty mixed”. When Matt and I did our expat immersion training shortly before moving to China, we were advised that the culture shock experienced by people on return to their home country can far exceed that of the initial relocation, as you grow and develop over the three years in a completely different context and culture to friends, family and colleagues back home. I intend to write more about this as I prepare to go back.

It goes without saying, but I’ve been a bit crap at blogging of late. I have at least 8 half-written drafts which nag at me when I find myself binge-watching Mad Men after a long day/week at work. With only a few months left in China in which to tackle a bucket-list as long as the Huangpu River, my job, a plethora of seasonal social commitments (Christmas, New Year, Chinese New Year) and a predilection for at least 8 hours sleep, it may be a stretch that I’ll finish all 8, but I’ll try for at least a couple more!

– Em

Shanghai friends

Zhujiajiao Water Town

Between Shanghai and neighbouring cities Suzhou and Hangzhou there are a network of ancient water towns built up around the rivers, lakes and canals which characterize this part of China (and earned it the nickname ‘Venice of the East’, after comparisons were drawn with the similarly watery European city).

Water towns are popular with both Chinese and Western tourists and also expats looking to escape the city for the day (although unless you arrive early doors, you will be lucky to escape the crowds).


A few weeks ago I visited Zhūjiā Jiǎo 朱家角. This was my third water town excursion since moving to Shanghai, having visited Zhōuzhuāng 周庄水乡 – one of the oldest and most popular water towns – shortly after I arrived in 2016 (I blogged about this trip at the time) and then Qibao 七宝古镇 last year with a Shanghainese friend (Qibao is one of the only water towns that you can reach by metro so ideal if you don’t have access to a car – it’s North on Line 9).

A couple of pics from Qibao:

While the water towns vary in size (Zhouzuang at the larger end of the spectrum, Qibao at the smaller), they are otherwise incredibly similar; two-or-three story whitewashed and wooden-fronted houses line up alongside the waterside, squashed against each other like overcrowded teeth; ground-floor food vendors hawking steaming rice dumplings and glossy meats; sinewy strong men in cone-shaped bamboo hats guiding gondola-style boats through the murky green canals; souvenir shops selling beaded bracelets and pearls.

This uniformity lends to a ‘seen one, seen them all’ mentality, but I’d heard good things about Zhujiajiao from a friend who had visited recently, and with the prospect of a sunny day and nothing else scheduled in the diary, I decided that there are worse things than a little de-ja-vu. The rest of this blog is mainly pictures, as I got some good ones – enjoy!

This wide, tree-lined canal leads you into the centre of Zhujiajiao.

Zhujiajiao had a large expanse of water in the centre, which made it feel a lot more open than some of the water towns built solely on intricate little waterways.

An aquatic taxi-rank. Gondola-style boats, strung with the traditional red lanterns, are the main mode of transportation.

Homes and restaurants with waterside views

Steamed pork dumplings.


There is no point being in a hurry around here; you get nowhere fast!

Zhujiajiao did a fine trade in braised pork products – knuckles, belly and some parts that were a little harder to identify. All cooked in a sweet/salty liquid until they achieve a melt-in-the-mouth consistency.

Dried fruits and meats.

A string of meat hung out to dry from a bamboo pole (I don’t remember seeing this in Venice!).

A smaller stone bridge crossing a central canal.

We couldn’t tell if this lady was required to pay ground rent for her grocery store.




Lunch (not mine!)

Fangsheng Bridge, built in 1571 is also known as ‘setting fish free bridge’ – for a few kuai you can buy a goldfish to release into the water.

Famous Zhujiajiao biscuit shop.

The famous biscuits – you need sharp elbows if you want to get to the front of the queue and buy some (which we did!). They were crumbly like digestive biscuits but much lighter in texture; I imagined they would be sweet but they had a slightly herbal taste. Not bad, but I didn’t have a second one…




This was an excellent place to rest tired feet and bums.

As you would imagine in a water town, the menu is fishy. In most of the restaurants you can select which fish you would like for lunch, from a large tank in the entrance.


This post-box sits outside the old Post Office which dates back to the Qing Dynasty. Inside you can see letters written on bamboo and post cards of Old Shanghai. Well, apparently you can – we didn’t have any cold hard kuai on us to pay the entrance ticket (ahem, who uses cash anymore?!).

Outdoor seating at one of the riverside restaurants.

There is a local saying that “to visit Zhujiajiao water town without seeing the bridges means that you have not really been to Zhujiajiao at all!” (regular blog readers will be familiar with this expression, which also cropped up in Huangshan 黄山 and Zhangjiajie 张家界). Given we only spent a couple of hours there, a good hour of which was spent drinking hot green tea in a little cafe overlooking the water, we didn’t see very many of those 36 bridges… so perhaps I have only seen two ancient water towns after all!

– Em

The Year of the Dog – and my Final Year in China!

Hello again! I’m back from my unplanned four-month-long break from blog writing, which happened to coincide with the transition into my third and final year in China (28th April marked the 2 year point). I’d love to say that my hiatus is the result of wonderfully exotic travels and cultural experiences – this is partly the case, as I’ve nipped to India, Thailand and UK in this time – but the real story is far less fun: work has been really, really busy. Rubbish excuse, I know.

The superstitious part of me (which I am not sure is real, though I shouldn’t tempt fate) also believes that I jinxed myself by writing a ‘January’ blog with the intention of following the same format each month – clearly a huge mistake! Anyway, “Three Years in Shanghai” suggests a commitment to charting three years in Shanghai, so this is me pulling my finger out and promising to do better hereon-in.

That said, here is a whirlwind recap of the last few months…


FEBRUARY – Welcoming the Year of the Dog


In February the Chinese calendar transitioned from the Year of the Rooster to the Year of the Dog – the 11th animal of the Chinese Zodiac. Some key facts:

  • Birth years: 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018
  • Personality traits: The dog’s most powerful characteristic is it’s loyalty. They are also typically honest, good at helping others and offering advice, decisive, determined, playful and fair-minded.
  • Most compatible with: Rabbit, Tiger, Horse
  • And least compatible with: Dragons

If you’re really really into this, the Chinese New Year website has an insane amount of detail (career advice based on your zodiac, anyone?)

Part-way through the Chinese NY holiday Matt and I flew to Goa, India to join my beautiful friend’s Hindu wedding ceremony, but in the days preceding our flight we found that we had Shanghai almost to ourselves (see pics below). The French Concession in CNY is eerily quiet, as most foreigners take the national holiday to travel around Asia, and most Chinese travel back to their hometowns to see family. The upshot is that you always get a seat on the metro, but at the same time 90% of your favourite restaurants are shuttered (so if you’ve not been organised and done a food shop then you end up eating peanut-butter on toast… granted, there are worse fates).

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The handful of other people who chose to stay in Shanghai – and the flocks of inbound tourists – obviously chose to hang out at Yuyuan Garden, which was a veritable people-mountain-people-sea. Wire sculptures bound with brightly painted silk had been positioned throughout Yuyuan, telling the story of an ancient Chinese fairytale. Red lanterns strung overhead added welcome splashes of colour to an otherwise gloomy grey sky.

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March – A few Milestones

Milestone #1: Miki – When I moved to Shanghai and joined my new team at work, there were two people who I bonded with straight away; they made me feel welcome, helped me to settle into Shanghai life (i.e., setting up TaoBao, OFO and DiDi – that’s all you need, right?!), and over the past couple of years they have always, always been there when I needed anything whether inside or outside of the office. Sadly (for me), bright young millenials based in Shanghai rarely stay with a company for long as there are so many amazing career opportunities to explore here; in line with this trend both my friends have moved on to new ventures in the last 12 months. I was really sad to see Miki leave as she always brightened up my day, but at the same time I’m confident she will be a great success.


Milestone #2: Matt: As happens every March, Matt got a year older and we celebrated with great food. This time at LAGO – the new restaurant by two-star Michelin chef Julian Serrano, at the Bellagio Shanghai. The striking tunnel entrance opened up into a glamourous art-deco style restaurant, fitted out in glass and marble and mirrors – the restaurant itself had been designed in the ‘boot’ shape of Italy, and our table looked out over the Huangpu river and Lujiazui.

The menu was Italian tapas designed to be shared – always a good strategy in China – and the food was top notch, especially the vitello tonnato (the veal was coated in charcoal made from bamboo and burned tomato skin, and the tuna which was whipped into an air-light mousse with capers and lemon: incredible). Interestingly the other standout dish was the pizza, which was infused with truffle paste and topped with shaved fresh truffles. Yum.


April – Many Cocktails, and a Splash of Culture

Looking back, I appear to have spent most of April with some kind of alcoholic beverage in hand (Dry Jan feels like a lifetime away!). The photo where I’m holding a soft rabbit was taken in a speakeasy in South Shaanxi called Speak Low, accessed through a corridor hidden behind a vending machine in an otherwise unassuming cafe. The cocktails are similarly presented in a ‘things are not all as they seem’ manner – mine came in a hipflask zipped into the belly of aforementioned rabbit! Gimmicky, yes. Expensive, uhhuh. Worth it, absolutely!

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Christian Boltanski – Storage Method

On a sober day, I went to see ‘Storage Method’, a Christian Boltanski exhibition held at the Power Station of Art (PSA)- China’s first state-run contemporary art museum renovated from an old electric plant in the Huangpu District. The exhibition had been recommended to me by Miki, and it didn’t disappoint. The vast industrial space was the perfect backdrop for Boltanski’s expressionist conceptual pieces – mainly photographs, projections, assemblages and installations – which explore disappearance, existence, and the human condition.

The central theme is brought to life as soon as you walk through the front entrance, through a multisensory combination of Boltanski’s heartbeat reverberating through the soundsystem, and a mountain of discarded used clothing evoking the absence of those who have worn them (‘Personnes’, 2010). It continued throughout, for example in ‘The Last Second’ (2014) – a red-LED counter which gives an accurate record of the number of seconds Boltanski has been living since his birth – it will stop at the moment of his death.

I really loved this exhibition; I loved the dark eery close atmosphere in the cool concrete corridors of the PSA; I loved the way that the other visitors seemed to add to, rather than detract from the works, even when they stood in the way taking selfies (often a bugbear with art exhibitions in China); and I loved that some of the pieces made me feel uneasy in the pit of my stomach because they so powerfully probe the subject matter –

“What place does the individual have within the group? In what way are we unique and in what way do we depend on the social conditions imposed on us? Are not our efforts to survive after death in vain? What role do chance and destiny play in a life path?”

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May – The Start of the Shanghai Summer

May saw a return trip to the UK, a consequence of which was that the month disappeared in the blink of an eye! It was lovely to see family and friends (the last time I was on home soil was June 2017 – 11 months earlier), and as always it was a bittersweet feeling to return to Shanghai.

And that brings us to June! I couldn’t resist posting the photos below – blue skies are so rare in this city and we’ve been so lucky to have some really nice days recently. I’m fully aware that this is the calm before the storm, and that soon the heavens will open with relentless torrents of rain, followed by soaring heat and almost unbearable humidity. Wish me luck!


Zhaotong Hope School: Part 2

If you haven’t already, make sure you read my last blog post before starting this one; it explains the background and context to this trip, plus some great photos of the Yunnan countryside!

Arriving at the JLR Hope School in Zhaotong

After close to two hours of back-seat rodeo, negotiating rocky mountain paths and crawling through flash-flood streams, we arrived at our destination: the JLR Hope School in Zhaotong. Since the 2014 earthquake the region has received funding for improved infrastructure but the Hope School was so deep in the mountains that the final leg of our route there was more off-road than on!

Photo courtesy of Acefoto

The team of photographers who documented our weekend used a drone to capture the stunning surroundings of the school and the photo below is one of my favourites; Zhaotong is largely agricultural (tobacco is one of the main crops), and the stepped fields transform the landscape into a work of art. The large building in the bottom centre is the school.


Breaking the Ice

Our team-building event took place on a Sunday and the grounds were deserted. The headmaster and the volunteer teachers came out into the rain to greet us, then ushered us into one of the classrooms where they had prepared hot tea and set up some electric heaters (it was a cold, wet day, and there was no central heating).

Prior to our visit I’d helped the mentors and mentees to exchange contact details so they could introduce themselves by phone or WeChat (China’s main social media platform), but this was their first chance to meet in person. To help ease any initial nervousness we had arranged a series of games designed to raise the collective energy, build trust and – importantly – have some fun together. It was great to watch everyone participate so enthusiastically (even those who may ordinarily be a bit shy!).

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With the ice broken, we split the mentor-mentee pairs into two teams who then competed against each other in a series of interactive challenges. The stakes were high, as the winning team would receive the best ingredients from which to make their lunch! Over the next few hours they solved problems, hunted for treasure, configured rollercoasters from chopsticks and finally, once the challenge was complete and the ingredients had been won, the two teams threw themselves into the final test – to work together as one team to prepare and cook their meal, from scratch.

The Hope School has a small kitchen where meals are prepared each day for the children and staff. The teachers often pitch in to help the cooks at mealtimes and so are familiar with the recipes and they taught the JLR mentors how to make the local dishes (an insight into their daily life). I’m sure the significance of this activity wasn’t lost on the mentors; we have hundreds of restaurants on our doorstep and the most difficult part of our lunchtime is deciding whether to have sushi, sashimi or grilled salmon. Here, if you don’t gut the fish and scale the fish, you don’t eat the fish.

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As you can see from the photo, they all pulled together and succeeded in creating a delicious and well-deserved feast.

Bon appetit! (or rather, 好车 ‘Hǎo chē’ )

Teacher’s Day Ceremony

The following day we returned to the school again. We had planned our visit to coincide with China’s National Teachers Day (Monday 10 September, 2017) and watched as the children lined up in rows in the yard and sang a song to give thanks to their teachers. Teaching is a historically respected vocation in China dating back to Confucious; however, during the Cultural Revolution the pursuit of intellectual growth was repressed and teaching condemned. Teachers’ Day was established and awarded national status in 1985 as a government-led effort to reestablish the status and dignity of the profession, and is an important date in the academic calendar. A few children wearing bright red sashes raised the Chinese national flag of the same colour, and later we presented the mentors with a certificate to recognise and celebrate the commitment they had made to the teachers.

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Teacher for a day

Prior to the team-building trip we had tasked our mentors to collaborate with their mentee to design a lesson which they would co-deliver to the Hope School students. They were given free reign on the subject matter, and the lessons ranged from English language to martial arts; this was another great way to give the JLR colleagues a glimpse into the daily life of the graduate teachers.

Students learned some key facts about England and China, and drew the Chinese and British flags. They did a great job!

The photos below were taken during the lessons which our JLR mentors facilitated.

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 The First Foreigner

During the break-time we had an opportunity to meet the students and play games together. My colleagues told me that I was likely to be the first foreigner that the children had ever met, which was clear from their reaction; they were nervous at first, running up to me in a group and pushing each other forward in my direction before running away squealing and laughing! But it only took one kid to take hold of my hand and after that I was mobbed for the rest of the day…

Say “cheese”! (or, in Chinese, 茄子 ‘qié zi’ – which is used as it sounds like ‘cheese’, though it actually means ‘eggplant’. Cheese is 奶酪 ‘năilào’ but that won’t trigger a smile in photos).       Photo courtesy of Acefoto.

This game involved jumping on an elastic rope stretched between the ankles of two people stood a metre apart, and was very similar to a game I remember playing when I was at school.

This little girl had an incredible smile. Photo courtesy of Acefoto.

The students had to wait outside the canteen while we finished our lunch, but it was hard to concentrate on the food with such an eager audience so I soon went back outside to play!

The Hope School

While the children and mentors were in class I explored the school grounds, which include the main school building, a separate ‘outhouse’ toilet block, the kitchen, the students’ and teachers’ dormitories and the playground, where a new dormitory wing is under construction. Students who live fairly locally can walk to and from the school each day; however, many live further away and they reside at the school full-time during the week.

I wrote previously about the devastating 2014 earthquake; the insult to injury here was that this part of China was already incredibly poor; in 2015 the average disposable income in Zhaotong was only 540 yuan (61 GBP) per month and more than a quarter of inhabitants fell below the poverty line. One consequence of this is that many young people migrate to Southen or Eastern Chinese cities in the hope of finding better paid work, leaving their children to be raised by grandparents or relatives. There are 176 of these so-called “left-behind children” and the Zhaotong Hope School, who see their parents once or twice each year. A recent JLR China crowd-funding initiative has helped to buy telephone watches for each of these children so they can more easily call their parents, and help them to maintain their relationships despite the distance.

The dormitory building was life-changing for many children, enabling them to more regularly attend school (I was told stories of some children who would walk for 3 or four hours across the mountain each morning and evening before the dormitory was built). However, keeping the children in school over the long-term is an additional hurdle; as their families often need them to support with the farming and so pull them out of school early.

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As we made to leave the school on our final day I was suddenly seized by a clamour of tiny hands and dragged into a classroom, the children chanting a chorus of “teacher please don’t leave us!”. I’ve never been particularly child-savvy and was completely helpless – they were surprisingly strong!. Luckily one of my colleagues came to the rescue and negotiated my release – on the condition that I sing a song. Mind racing (what do you sing to small Chinese children who maybe know a couple of words of English!) I settled on “heads, shoulders knees and toes”, and got them all to join in, which seemed to go down a treat (phew!). It was a sweet and funny end to the visit.

A lasting impression

This wasn’t my first time in Yunnan – Matt and I spent a weeks’ holiday there in 2016 – but this was my first glimpse of life deep in the countryside, far from the tourist-friendly cities of DaLi and LiJiang. As we made our way back to Shanghai I reflected on the significance of schooling and education in China. Even the most basic education – being able to read and write – can make a monumental difference in a persons relative prosperity and quality of life; the more highly educated the person, the better their chance of boarding the economic juggernaut of modern China and accessing the boundless opportunities available in the big thriving cities.

The Chinese education system is notoriously grueling (google ‘GaoKao’ to get some idea of this), and if you’re not from a privileged background then it takes an admirable amount of grit and application to get a university degree – your golden ticket to a well paid job in a blue chip company. Through conversations with Chinese friends and colleagues we’ve learned that the norm is, having emerged successfully but battle weary from the educational gauntlet, you find yourself at the bottom of a huge ladder (the career ladder), ideally with a respectable company/job. You then need to gather your wits and get climbing as far and as fast as you can to reach your goal of achieving level X by age Y.  This makes it all the more remarkable to me that the volunteer teachers have chosen to take an atypical path, to do something decidedly altruistic at just the time when society dictates that they should be climbing that ladder the fastest.

The two days I spent at the Hope School were a great experience for me. For the teachers it will surely be an incredible character-building step, and a powerful foundation for their future careers. The 28-year old headmaster was testament to this; he has a huge amount of responsibility to deal with for someone so young, and moved me with his genuine humility and resilience.

While driving through Zhaotong we witnessed highways being built which will eventually traverse the mountainous prefectures and connect traditionally remote areas (such as Qiaojia 巧家县, where our hotel was locatedwith cities such as Kunming. This will bring new economic opportunities to the region, but any entrance is also an exit which may entice more people away from these remote regions. It will be interesting to see how the tourism industry develops here over the coming years – the natural beauty of the area is immense – and what impact this will have on the local life. In the meantime I look forward to supporting the JLR-Hope School Dream Mentor programme, and I hope this brings lasting rewards for both mentors and mentees.

Photo courtesy of Acefoto

– Emma


Zhaotong Hope School: Part 1

Last year I was fortunate enough to be able to work on a pretty special project; to design and launch a mentoring programme which would match eight employees from the company I work at with eight volunteer teachers at an underprivileged school high in the mountains of Yunnan province, South West China.

In general I try to avoid talking about work in this blog (Matt and I agreed from the outset that we wanted to focus on documenting our life in Shanghai and our travels around Asia, rather than giving our view on what it’s like to work here); however, getting to visit the school in Yunnan was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, opening my eyes to a rural community and way of life that the majority foreigners to China (especially expats) will ever get to see, and so I am making an exception.

First a bit of the background…

Project Hope

Corporate Social Responsibility or ‘CSR’ (whereby organisations support social and environmental initiatives as part of their corporate strategy) is commonplace in Western companies, but less so in emerging markets. That said, Chinese companies are starting to get on board with certain types of CSR and Project Hope – one of the better recognised public service projects – is a pioneering example of this. Launched in 1989 by the China Youth Development Foundation (CYDF) and the Communist Youth League (CYL), it’s goal is to seek non-governmental financial support to give children in very poor, typically rural communities the opportunity to go to school and receive an education.

It’s an opportune and important initiative in modern-day China, where the income inequality between the ‘Tier 1’ cities like Shanghai and the interior countryside regions is severe (recent statistics show that the richest 1% of mainland households hold one third of the country’s total wealth, with many having benefited from owning multiple properties during the recent real-estate price inflation). China’s gradual approach to economic reforms post-1978 have enabled unprecedented and prolonged economic growth; however, it’s estimated that more than 30 million children aged 6-14 are unable to attend school or drop-out early to support their parents at home, with over 80% of this number coming from the countryside.

Provinces in blue show where average income exceeds the national average (unsurprisingly these include the coastal areas), while those in orange show where it is lower – the darker the orange, the lower the income (map produced by Matt Hartzell, based on 2011 data).


The Jaguar Land Rover Dream Fund

So back to my trip.

For a region already at a significant economic disadvantage, 2014 brought a new and tragic challenge to the people of Yunnan. On 3rd August, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake hit the impoverished Ludian county, claiming 617 lives, injuring over 3000 and damaging or destroying around 80,000 houses. As part of the recovery effort, JLR (my employer) in collaboration with Project Hope, funded a school to be built in Zhaotong – a city close to the epicentre – and in 2016 the ‘Dream Class’ project was launched, placing 8 qualified volunteer teachers at the school.

The volunteer teachers are recent university graduates who sign up for a two-year placement to live, teach and help to care for the children of Zhaotong Hope School. It’s a serious commitment – the school is isolated from Zhaotong city due to the near-inaccessible mountain roads, the environment is unforgiving and the living conditions are basic – so the intention of the ‘Dream Mentor’ programme was to offer the teachers a friendly ear and sounding board; someone they would be able to talk to about their aspirations and dreams for the future, and figure out how to make it happen. With around 2000km separating the Shanghai-based mentors and Zhaoting-based mentees it was essential that at the start of the programme they had an opportunity to meet each other face to face. The solution was to arrange a team-building event at the school, which took place last September.

The journey

When I was invited to accompany the mentors to the team-building event, I received words of warning from some colleagues who had visited the school a few months earlier; “the mountain road is so bumpy that my step tracker thought I had walked for miles, even though I didn’t leave the car”, one colleague told me, holding up a screenshot on her phone as proof. But the risk of being considered a fraudulent stepper wasn’t enough to deter me; I was intrigued by the Hope School, a place I had heard so much about but still could hardly imagine.

On a drizzly day in September I flew from Shanghai to Kunming (the capital of Yunnan, which hosts the nearest airport), and from there we boarded a fleet of cars which would take us the rest of the way to the school. Having exited the city, we zipped along quiet highways, cut straight through the mountains.

After a few hours we left the highway and started to climb winding mountainside tracks, passing though ramshackle roadside villages, huge quarries and beautiful lakes. The drizzling rain which had pursued us from the city subsided, revealing a brilliant clear blue sky.

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It took around 4 hours in total to reach Zhaotong and it was almost evening when we crawled the last few kilometres towards our hotel, under the casual gaze of locals sat out in front of their homes and the chickens scratching around in the street. Our hotel was the most modern-looking building in sight, and doubled-up as Zhaotong’s KTV (karaoke bar) – open throughout the night, as I found out the hard way!


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That evening we crowded around a circular table and ate a feast of typical Yunnanese food, which was spicy, oily and quite delicious – the sticky eggplant (top left) was my favourite. The restaurant itself was a bit of a stretch outside of my comfort-zone; the air was thick with cigarette smoke (smoking indoors is still normal in this part of China) and the ceiling was dotted with hundreds of flies; however, to my surprise my stomach survived without incident!



Early the next morning we set off for our first day at the Hope School –  a 90 minute drive away through progressively more difficult mountain terrain. We bumped and bounced in the backseat and by the time we arrived my insides were thoroughly churned!


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September is the back end of the rainy season and we knew that the roads would be vulnerable to landslides. At one point, not far from the school, we were forced to double-back on our intended route as the road ahead had become completely blocked but fortunately our drivers – local men and women who are familiar with the mountain – soon found an alternative route. We got some great photos out of it too!



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The time and effort it took for us to reach the Hope School gave me a powerful sense of the isolation that the graduate teachers are living in here. Even sat in luxurious cars, it was quite gruelling just being a passenger! While some of the teachers were originally from the countryside, others had grown up and attended universities in Tier 1 and 2 cities, and the disparity between the two environments is monumental. I’ll talk more about this in Part 2, as well as the enduring impression it left on me.

– Emma