Learning the ZhongGuo lingo

I thought it was about time we did a blog that covered one of the biggest challenges connected to living in China – the language – so I’ve done a self-interview where I ask the questions that my 18-month-ago self would like to ask my today self.

Are you good at languages?

No. I learnt German and French at school but found it tough. I struggle to learn something if I’m not interested in it, so lacked the discipline needed to study and practice tables of  vocab, tenses and genders. Grammatical rules leak out of my brain faster than they’re poured in and my pronunciation is shocking (my command of English language – my mother tongue – is based on the 80:20 rule, meaning that Em spends a good half hour proof-reading and editing each of my blogs before I publish them).

In sum, I have none of the attributes of a good language student. Expecting myself to pick up a highly complex and structured language was akin to dropping a range cooker into the shallow end of a swimming pool expecting it to complete a 50m front crawl.

What language do they speak in China?

It depends on who is asking. If you’re a child, i’d say Chinese. If you’re standing next to me in the toilets while at a pub quiz, I’d say Mandarin Chinese.

If I’m at a dinner party and want to out-smug you, I’d say the answer actually depends on whether you mean ‘speak’ in the literal sense, or whether you also mean ‘read’ and ‘write’.

Traditional & Simplified Chinese

Try changing the language settings on your phone to Chinese (don’t actually change it, it’s devilishly hard to undo). There will probably be two options: “Simplified Chinese” and “Traditional Chinese”. These relate to the written language. Chinese writing has evolved over thousands of years and the written characters are central to the culture (calligraphy is a widely practiced skill and visual art form). A vast number of characters (estimated over 100,000) developed over time, each with varying levels of complexity of meaning- this is what is referred to as Traditional Chinese.

In the mid 20th Century, to improve national levels of literacy and to make it easier to read/write, the government promoted a simplified character set covering a few thousand common words. Most of China now uses the simplified version, though in some pockets (such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau) traditional characters still prevail. Some regions have their own unique characters (e.g. those we saw in Lijiang which resembled little stick men carrying out activities) but these aren’t widely used in modern china.

Examples of the evolution of characters from those written in old bones (c1300 BCE) to modern simplified characters.  Image yoinked from www.chinafriendly.com.au
Mandarin Chinese

Each character has a spoken form, and “Mandarin” is the term used to describe the dialect that 70%+ of the population speak. It’s based on the northern Chinese dialect, and spread through China along trade routes emanating from the capital.

There are actually 7 major dialects in China each of which boasts a compilation of sub-dialects; many of these are barely distinguishable even for Chinese nationals, but some are practically different languages altogether. As an example, if you go to Hong Kong you’ll find many people don’t speak Mandarin, they speak Cantonese. Simply put, the same characters will sound different depending on your location in China and the time period.


The third element of the modern Chinese language is ‘pinyin’, which is standard Chinese but written in the Latin alphabet. This is useful both to teach pronunciation of the characters and to help you type the characters into your keyboard or phone. Before pinyin, if you wanted to learn how to say a character, you’d need to remember the pronunciation for each one; some characters contain clues to how they should be pronounced, but that’s not much help if you’ve got another language system coded into your brain.


Pinyin gives you the latin alphabet word for each character. For the above, ‘pīng‘, ‘pāng‘ and ‘qiú‘ respectively. This tells your Latin-indoctrinated brain and mouth how to pronounce each Chinese character. Helpfully, if you type pingpangqiu into your phone while set to Chinese, it’ll create the characters for you (which mean ‘ping pong’ or ‘table tennis’). So whereas in the UK most people have to learn written English and spoken English, most people in China would learn written Chinese characters, spoken Mandarin Chinese and written pinyin.

Some characters and the pinyin.

Do you need to know mandarin to live in China?

That depends on your definition of ‘need’. In a cosmopolitan city like Shanghai many people can speak English (most Chinese kids will learn English to a good standard at school) and many are totally fluent. It’s likely to be harder to get around Shanghai if you don’t speak English. Most signs, menus and labels have English versions, or are set up for foreign visitors (most menus have pictures of food for you to point at). So in answer to the question, you don’t need to.

However, it’s probably a good idea to do it for the following reasons;

It’s fun. I often feel like I’m in a massive code-breaking puzzle with little mini-games everywhere, each with varying degrees of difficulty and offering your brain little squirts of dopamine when you solve them successfully.  Take buying something from Taobao (China’s Amazon/e-Bay megahybrid) as an example. Imagine the normal consumerist buzz you get from buying something online, but you also need to look for treasure by navigating a dense jungle of sellers using a bewildering wall of complex symbols on a tablet (or phone), then overcome several side-quests; “Can you successfully decode what size and colour it is?”, “Can you find your address and enter it in the right place so the courier can read it?”.  Once you’ve beaten the ordering level, you then have the thrill of waiting to see if your chosen item actually turns up and is of reasonable quality.

People respect the effort. People will forgive even the most abysmal butchering of their language if you’re genuinely trying. ‘Knee how. Wo yow moy ee bay pee jeeyo’ (‘Hello, i’d like to buy a bottle of beer’ in ChinBrum). The culture is very relationship based so trying is a good way to show respect.

It improves your options and experience. Nice restaurants, hotels, western chain coffee shops, art galleries etc. are all likely to cater for English speakers. However, if you want to try a more unusual restaurant, a speciality coffee or get a Miley Cyrus tattoo; then you might find fewer English speakers. If you want to venture out of the city, set up text alerts on your phone, return an ill-advised purchase of some Hello-Kitty patterned trousers, or apologise sincerely to a police officer, then you’re much better off if you can speak some Mandarin.

You feel embarrassed less often. There’s nothing as humiliating as being stuck in the middle of a public place (like a supermarket) doing something that should be straightforward (like trying to buy toothpaste), when the person in front of you is asking you questions or giving instructions but you literally can’t understand or respond to a word they are saying. After some time you either have to give up, or wait until someone comes along who can speak English to tell you that they’re just trying to explain the price. Actually there ways it could be more humiliating than that. Like if you were buying ointment. And were naked.

How are you learning?

As part of the assignment we get some lessons included; I do around 90 mins of lessons per week, every week. There are loads of books and websites that help you learn, but I’ve found a couple of free language apps which are really helpful.

Which one do you think it is?

Is it hard to learn?



Tones. I said earlier that pinyin gives you a Latin version of each character. Well lots of characters have very similar letter-chains. The thing that tells you that word is a different word from the exact same letters in the exact same order is the tone you use to say it. There are four tones in Mandarin, which are best explained using the pinyin word ‘ma’. Depending on which tone you use to pronounce the ‘a’ in ma, it can mean four different things. ma

The little squiggles above the ‘a’ tells you how to pronounce the word. Trouble is, those little squiggles are hard to keep in your brain since you need to remember the word and the tone of each word. It also makes it really hard to understand whether or not someone is talking about their mother, some hemp or a horse. It might help if you knew words like ‘saddle’, ‘nosebag’, or ‘rope’. Then you’d definitely know they were talking about mothers.

The pronunciation is really quite important. Consider that I work in a place called ‘Hongqiao’ 虹桥 – which means ‘Rainbow Bridge’. Similar to this is ‘Hongchao’ 红潮 which means menstruation; so as someone who is atrocious at pronunciation, when I say even simple statements like ‘I work in Human Resources’, people find it laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Time & Effort. The typical teaching method in China is to learn through regular repetition and lots of independent study. You need to practice to commit so many different images, sounds and letters into your brain. This can be hard when you’re trying to work and travel and write blogs. My foreign colleagues who’ve done the best at learning the language have put in lots of extra time and get the benefit. I do ok, but still find that in between lessons the vast majority of learning just empties out. It’s been like trying to do an etch-a-sketch on a trampoline.

There aren’t really any shortcuts. The closest there is to a shortcut is to learn Pinyin (i.e., how to say the words). This means you don’t need to bother learning the characters. However, you don’t see pinyin written anywhere (apart from road signs), so your brain doesn’t get any help from your eyes when trying to remember words. The other limitation of only learning Pinyin is that you still can’t read anything, you can only do the speaking and listening bit, which is hard when people speak quickly and you can’t pick out if they just said 人事 rén shì (Human Resources/HR) or 人势 rén shì (Human penis). In fact both of those sound exactly the same; I forgot to mention that Chinese is a contextual language so the general theme of the discussion will influence the meaning of each word. I’ll let you think of your own hilarious examples of the the rén shì/rén shì dilemma.

“You studied what at university?”

Everyone speaks English! Sometimes, if you’re standing naked in a supermarket trying to buy ointments, the most expedient way of communicating is in English. This is also true in the workplace (though nudity is against the dress code), as most people’s English is far superior to your Chinese. So if you need to summarise a meeting agenda, you could do this in 15 seconds in English, or 30 minutes in Chinese, after which you’ve probably accidentally called everyone’s mother a horse.

Do you need to learn the characters?

No, but as above it can help you remember the words. For example, the character below has four little lines on the bottom of it. These represent flames (like flames under a pot). Once you know to look out for that, you know that this character has something to do with fire, heat, cooking etc.

– means hot

The bit above the fire 执 means zhí – to hold in your hand. That is made up of two bits, on the left 扌 means ‘hand’, on the right 丸 means ‘small round object’. One technique is to make up little stories to help you understand the character. So to remember the word for ‘hot’, I always try and remember the scene in Home Alone, where Joe Pesci opens a door (with his hand) and Kevin McAllister has rigged the door with a blowtorch trap. As Joe walks through it, the blowtorch blasts fire onto the small round object that is Joe Pesci’s head. The sound ‘rè’ is like the horrified, angry, pained noise that Joe Pesci makes until he can dunk his flaming head in the snow.

joe pesci
rrrrrèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèè – hot. See?

Sometimes the character looks a bit like what it’s meant to represent.

huŏ – fire. See it resembles a fire?
shān – mountain. See, it looks like a mountain?

Sometimes words are made up of smaller words. Volcano is ‘huŏ shān‘ – which is literally the two characters above in succession. I like that, and if you think about it, ‘fire mountain’ makes a lot more logical sense than ‘volcano’.

Chinese conversation: “Mommy, what’s that called?”, “That’s called a fire mountain”, “Why?”, “Because it’s a mountain and there’s fire that comes out of it”, “Okay, that makes sense”

English conversation: “Mommy, what’s that called?”, “That’s called a volcano”, “Why?” “Do remember the Romans? So they had this god called Vulcan. He was the god of fire. There was this mountain near Rome called Etna, and the Romans believed it was the forge of Vulcan because occasionally fire would come out of it. They used to apply the word Vulcanus to it. Over time, and due to the cultural and linguistic influence of the Roman empire, this turned into a general term for volcano, burning mountain in latin languages” “Okay, that makes sense but my enthusiasm for learning and asking questions has been crushed at an early age”

There are lots of other examples of this:

  • 电 (‘diàn‘) means ‘electric‘.
  • Add 脑 (nǎo) which means ‘brain‘, and you get 电脑 (diànnǎo) – ‘computer‘.
  • Or add 影 (yǐng) which means ‘image‘, and you get 电影 (diànyǐng) – ‘movie‘.

This way, once you manage to crack some of the characters or syllables then you can build up other words, or at least have a good guess.

Since there isn’t much pinyin written down anywhere, I find that I recognise certain symbols around me which then makes them more familiar and easier to remember. If you’re a visual learner like I am, I’d recommend trying to learn at least some.

One hard thing though, there isn’t really much punctuation, sowhenyouseeasentencewrittendownitcanbedifficulttoworkoutwherewordsstartandend.

Can you write the characters?

To write the characters properly, you need to remember multiple strokes (lines), which order they go in, and which direction you write them. This explains why caligraphy is an art form. I can write the following:

yī = One;  二 èr = Two; 三 sān = Three; 十 shí = Ten; 人rén = person; 上 shàng = On/Up;  不bù = No.

The co-ordination in my hands and eyes dissipates half way through a W, so I don’t stand a chance with characters with multiple strokes. Whereas English dictionaries are organised A-Z, Chinese are organised by stroke count 1-64. Yes, some characters have 64 strokes.

– or ‘how a dragon flies’ has 51 strokes.

This complex beast, 龘,  , which relates to the visual way a dragon flies only has 51. This explains why, in ancient times, prisoners who were offered one last wish before they were executed would simply say: ‘I never got to see a dragon. I wish someone could explain, in writing, how a dragon flies’. The sheer time it would take for the obligated jailer to complete his task would effectively grant the condemned a permanent reprieve. (NB I made this up)


What about all the grammar rules and sentence structures?

I recently started on my intermediate text books which includes some more complex grammar. Up until now, I’ve found the grammar much easier than English, at least in spoken form. The main thing is to remember is the vocab and tones.

I explained earlier how context is pretty important, allowing people to fill in gaps and understand meaning; this means you can be quite economical with your language. When my language teacher teaches me sentence structures, it often sounds like a Chinese person speaking slightly broken English – so I try and imagine a Chinese person speaking English and use that as a template. To give you an idea:

你在做什么 Translates literally as: “You doing what?”

我在找人事部门”I looking for Human Resources department”

你为什么赤身裸体 “You why be stark naked?”

我想买软膏 – “I want buy ointment”

这是超市. 我们不卖软膏. 你怎么来到这里?”This is supermarket. We no sell ointment. How you come here?”

我来到这里用马 “I come here using horse”

你可以骑马吗?”You can leave by horse?”

不能”No can”

为什么不能”Why no can?”

我的马在虹桥”My horse in Hongqiao”


– 迈特 màitè – meaning Matt


January in Shanghai

When I started this blog 22 months ago, my intention was to capture and share (hopefully interesting!) stories about our move from the UK to China, our new life in Shanghai and our travels around Asia. Reflecting back, I’ve focused much more on the latter! Our new base has provided a brilliant opportunity to more easily explore South East Asia and we’ve grasped this with both hands, visiting many cities in mainland China and also in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia – I’ve enjoyed sifting through the hundreds of photos after each trip and recording my favourites here. In the beginning our followers were colleagues, friends and family but now we have readers from all around the world!

While we have some amazing trips in the pipeline for 2018 – including Goa, India for Chinese New Year and Japan later this year – I also want to capture more of the normal stuff – what it’s actually like to live as an expat in Shanghai. This is our last full calendar year here, so I’m aiming to write a monthly ‘non-holiday’ post (I smashed Dry January, so in comparison this goal will be a piece of cake… right?!). Without further ado, here are my January diary entries.

We moved offices: Lujiazui to New Bund

On my first working day in China back in April 2016 I caught the metro from Shanghai Library to East Nanjing Road, then changed to Line 2 to cross the Huangpu river to the Lujiazi Business District. I looked up at the Mirae Asset Tower – my new Monday-to-Friday home – gleaming in the April sunshine; it was a world away from where I had worked in Coventry in the UK!

Lujiazui is the central business district of Shanghai, home to iconic and shimmering skyscrapers including the Shanghai Tower (the world’s second tallest building). It’s a cool place to work, with huge malls, luxury hotels and restaurants catering to every kind of appetite and budget. However, it’s ‘business district + tourist hot-spot’ status in such a vibrant and fast-paced city meant that it was also incredibly crowded (Line 2 in rush hour was less than fun!)

The ‘powers that be’ in government seem to have acknowledged that Lujiazui has reached capacity and in response have begun construction of the “New Bund” – a burgeoning new financial district around 14km south downriver from Lujiazui. Keen for a bit more space and shiny new facilities, we moved into our new office in the New Bund World Trade Centre (next door to the Oriental Sports Centre) on 2nd January. At the moment the view from our workplace is a 360 degree panorama of a construction site so it’s not quite as glamorous as our previous home, but it’s definitely got potential – and more importantly, it’s cut a valuable 10 minutes off my commute! I’m looking forward to watching it grow and change over the next year or so.

Shared Bikes

Another change this month has been the mass culling of shared bikes from the streets of downtown Shanghai.

When Matt and I moved here in April 2016 we noticed the orange-and-silver Mobikes lined up in neat rows along most streets. These GPS-enabled bikes which you (a) unlock via a smartphone app, (b) use as long as you want, and then (c) leave anywhere, took off in a big way and over the course of 2017 the sector exploded. Multiple new brightly coloured competitors joined the fray at breakneck pace, most notably the canary yellow OFO (my bike of choice).

It’s easy to see why they are so popular; they cost next to nothing (just a small deposit plus a negligible fee-per-use) and Shanghai is as flat as a pancake so there is zero effort involved. Their popularity hasn’t been limited to Shanghai and it’s estimated that there are now 10 million shared bikes on the streets of Chinese cities, operated by more than 30 companies (between them, Mobike and Ofo take up more than 90 percent of the market).

“Colourful chaos”; a bike-share centre in Hangzhou (from the Guardian article – see below)

The explosion of this highly convenient facility had it’s down side. Pedestrian walkways in certain areas became clogged with bikes making it difficult for pedestrians, especially near popular tourist spots or near metro stations, and by the back end of last year you could hardly walk down Wulumuqi Lu for the unsightly jumble of bikes cluttering the pavement. We even caught a few examples of some interesting attempts to ‘stack’ bikes.


Over the last month there has been a crackdown following new government regulations which aim to regulate the industry. The photo below is taken from outside our apartment building, where until recently we could easily pick up and drop off bikes. Many upmarket shopping areas or residential areas have banned shared bikes and cordoned off parking areas. It’s been interesting to witness this explosion and counter reaction in such a short space of time, and this January we’ve seen the tipping point when the highly social idea of shared bikes suddenly began to be perceived as anti-social.


You might experience something similar in your home town – see this interesting article from the Guardian newspaper last year


I’m British, so i’m genetically obliged to talk about the the weather. Around October and November last year our colleagues started to predict that this winter would be a particularly harsh one – much colder than last year – and that it would impossible to get warm due to the damp air. What they didn’t predict was the snow! The first snow in Shanghai in around 5 years. It fell for 2 or 3 days and didn’t stick around for long, but that didn’t stop a social media frenzy and snowmen/snowrabbits popping up everywhere!

As temperatures drop, people turn up the coal-powered heating in their homes and workplaces causing pollution levels to rise. The naturally overcast winter weather traps the pollution beneath the cloud line, and so China’s major cities become shrouded in a blanket of smog (especially the heavily populated Eastern cities such as Shanghai and Beijing). The government are conscious of this and during times of particularly bad pollution the production in factories is suspended (I have read that that are also investing in clean energy sources, and there is evidence the air quality getting better year-on-year). Even so, on Saturday 20th Jan when the Air Quality Index (AQI) spiked at 216, I took the opportunity to stay indoors and have a duvet day!

Annual Party – A Fantasy World

I wrote in more depth about annual parties last year

Friday 26th January 2018 saw the most eagerly anticipated event on the company calendar: The Annual Party. The theme was ‘A Fantasy Journey’, with fancy-dress strongly encouraged – the result was spectacular!

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I opted for Alice, as it saved me having to buy a wig. I’m now quite confident that if the HR gig doesn’t work out, I would go down a treat at Disneyworld (and they have one in Shanghai, Bonus!).

The team performances were seriously impressive – from human shadow-puppets to sumo-wrestlers! There was even a rendition of the ‘pineapple pen’ song (google it).


My favourite restaurant this month: OHA Eatery

I want to try and visit a new place to eat each month. Ideally a brand new restaurant, but failing that, at least somewhere we’ve not eaten before. To say that the food & booze scene in Shanghai is competitive is an understatement. There is so much choice, with new places opening every week, that restaurants have to really bring their A-game; as a result we rarely have a bad meal out. Trends sweep into the city and one current trend is for ‘izakaya’ (informal Japanese pub-style restaurants). One such place – OHA Eatery – opened a short walk from our apartment so we went to check it out.

The space: Small and cosy, with one U-shaped bar-table down the middle. It felt more like someone’s dining room than a commercial restaurant, and the service was in line with this – warm and welcoming but not overly personal.

The food: The menu, printed on a small piece of creamy paper contained a curated selection of Guizhou-inspired dishes (often using ingredients from the Southwestern province). We ordered 5 dishes, and almost licked the plates clean they were so delicious (My favourite was the stuffed baby squid with calamansi lime and soy). Walking out we agreed that we would need to go back soon to try the other half of the menu – always the true test in Shanghai where places can peak early and then lose their edge. That said, I’m looking forward to returning here already – maybe this evening!

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See you in February

– Emma


A Impression of Wartime Shanghai


If you had to choose a single image to encapsulate Shanghai, there’s a high probability you’d choose ‘that’ skyline; the cluster of attention-seeking Lujiazui skyscrapers on the Pudong side of the Huangpu river. You would choose it because it contains some of the most distinctive and iconic buildings in the city – and possibly in the world; those affectionately known as the ‘bottle-opener’ (Shanghai World Financial Centre), the ‘ice-breaker’ (Jin Mao Tower), the ‘screwdriver’ (Shanghai Tower) and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower (erm… that’s it’s real name).




beautiful shanghai skyline

There are a couple of points I’d like to note about ‘that’ skyline…

Firstly, many of the buildings in that infamous image are actually incredibly new. The Pearl Tower was completed in 1994 (the same year that my younger sister was born) and the two tallest – Shanghai Tower @2,073ft and SWFC @1,614ft – were both completed in the last 20 years. There will still be plenty  of people in Shanghai who will be able to say – ideally in a Lancashire accent – “When I were a lad, all that there were nowt but fields”. But seriously, Google ‘shanghai skyline 1990’ and compare it to the photo above –  it really is an shocking confirmation of Shanghai’s modernity.

Second point to note is that the picture above is taken from the Bund – a dignified row of European-style commercial waterfront buildings dating from the turn of the 20th Century – an emblem of an earlier era of prosperity for Shanghai when it was booming as a trade port.

The Bund is a tourist-magnet and I’d guess that it’s because, for a city of this size, there isn’t exactly an extensive array of historical sites of interest. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to occupy a history buff, but it’s largely ‘modern history’ set within the past 200 years. For example, the Old Town area around Yuyuan Gardens, the classical dwellings that make up places like Xintiandi, and the various buildings that housed early communist party luminaries. My point being, Shanghai today is decidedly modern, and you have to work a little bit to get your history fix.

This week however we didn’t have to, as an opportunity to attend an author’s evening fell into our laps…

At the event we met Betty Barr and her husband George Wang. They were there to tell us about a book which they have recently published – Ruth’s Record – which contains the full text of a diary which her mother, Ruth, kept between 1941 to 1945,  while she and her family were interned in ‘Lungwa’, the Japanese internment camp in Shanghai.

Betty and George beginning their presentation

I had started to build a picture of 1940’s Shanghai during my recent city walk around the Hongkou district (i wrote about it here), which focused on the experience of Jewish immigrants during the Japanese occupation. Given this, it was particularly special to hear first-hand from Betty about life as a resident in pre-war Shanghai – for example how their lives revolved around the arrival and departures of great American cruise liners which brought letters, food, movies etc. for the local expat community. I honestly don’t know how I would have coped moving out to China if I wasn’t able to video-call my family, use translation apps and enjoy a relatively unbroken flow of imported Italian wine (!), which made Betty’s parents’ decision to live here all the more impressive. It was truly fascinating to hear about the transition from life as a normal resident in the Shanghai International Settlement to that of an ‘enemy alien’.


Thanks to Henman Wealth, who organised the Author Talk event

Betty explained how her mother had written daily during their time at the camp and remarkably managed to keep her diary hidden from even her family; Betty only came to know about the diary upon her mother’s passing away in 1990.

The book is brought to life by photographs passed to Betty by a friend, and drawings by Deirdre Fee, an Irish friend of Ruth Barr’s who was also interned at Lungwa. Meanwhile, the event last week was brought to life by Bettys husband George Wang, who was brilliantly bright and funny!

Although the story is articulated during the Second World War – during which there was considerable damage done to China and Shanghai – their account was quite unique given that it wasn’t a violent wartime story, but one that described day to day experiences (such as how mealtimes were organised, how people kept busy, the daily work rotas etc.). It gave us an authentic and insightful window into a Shanghai that is both recent (literally in living memory) but also almost completely hidden behind the new shining city with its thousands upon thousands of glass-facade buildings and millions upon millions of residents.

It was lovely to hear some familiar references – they went to school near where we live in the Former French Concession – and they mentioned several local buildings that today are just one of many residential units.

Like true Shanghainese both Betty and George were game for a selfie with my friend Usha and I after the presentation, and they also signed a copy of my book (Matt pointed out the next day that it was funny that he wasn’t mentioned in the dedication given that he had paid for the book… oops!)

I’ve started reading the book and am enjoying it thoroughly already; thanks to Betty for sharing her mother’s story with us.


Shanghai-versary 2017

At 22:20 on Thursday 28th April 2016 – 12 months ago to the day – Matt and I arrived in Shanghai with six stuffed suitcases and a serious case of jet-lag. The keys to our apartment wouldn’t be ready until the following day so we checked into the Intercontinental, tourist-style.

When I made a big deal today in the office about having been in China for one whole year, my colleague Miki asked me how I felt. My reply – taking huge liberties with the truth – was “I feel like a local (!)”.

Local I certainly am not, but I do feel quite at home in China. I can order coffee “Kāfēi Měiguó jiā niúnǎi” and – more importantly – a glass of white wine “Bái pútáojiǔ”. I can scoot around on the metro. I have favourite places to eat and know where to buy cheese. I have some great friends. I can use Taobao and Alipay. I brazenly walk out into oncoming traffic, careful not to make eye-contact with the drivers of cars hurtling towards me. I no longer squeal when someone invades my personal space,,, Well, okay,  I may still be working on the last one but I’ve improved a lot!

As for Matt, he has eaten more obscure foods in 12 months than most people eat in a life-time, can hold his own in Mandarin, and has mastered the ‘Chinese Group Photo Pose’ (those who grew up listening to the Spice Girls will also recognise this as the universal symbol of Girl Power). This is expertly demonstrated below at a meal we had last night to celebrate the birthday of one of his team members (happy birthday Patra!)


We’ve made it through 4 seasons; the sweltering summer (which is almost upon us again – it’s forecast to be 27 degrees on Sunday!), and the not-as-cold-as-expected-but-twice-as-polluted winter, where my face was disguised behind my attractive air-filter mask for about two months straight.

Since we moved out here I’ve not been back to the UK so it was great to have my parents come to stay earlier this month. We visited Beijing, Pingyao, Xi’an and Zhangjiajie over the course of 12 days – blogs and photos to come! All our holidays – with the exception of Christmas in Thailand – have been in mainland China and this year we plan to branch out into Asia a bit more. Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos are near the top of the list, so if anyone reading this has been and has any top tips or recommendations, please let me know!

Holiday Map
Our jealousy-inducing Year 1 travel map!

I’ve tried to photo-document my travels around Shanghai and China as much as possible, for the blog and to share with family and friends back home (my ad-hoc snaps are usually accompanied by funny looks from locals who are evidently thinking “why on God’s earth is that crazy blonde lady taking a photo of my washing line?). I would estimate that I’ve taken around 718, 000, 435, 888 photos during my time here but to mark our 1-year Shanghai-versary I’ve picked my favourite:


To all our family and friends, we miss you lots. We hope you are enjoying the blog and look forward to seeing you soon!

– Em & Matt

Exploring HongKou, ‘Shanghai’s Ark’

Last weekend I joined my friend Miki for a guided city walk around Shanghai’s Hongkou district (虹口区). The event was organised by a local tour operator and promised to delve into the cultural history of the area, including it’s Jewish heritage and status as home to one of the world’s most notorious prisons…

When I arrived at the meeting spot outside Tilanqiao metro station the organiser approached me with a worried expression and asked if I spoke Chinese… After 11 months in Shanghai I’m now quite accustomed to being the only Western blonde in a sea of Asian brunettes; however, other people are not always accustomed to me! I explained that my translator was on her way… after taking a small detour four metro stops in the wrong direction (well, it was early morning! haha)

When Miki arrived we joined a smaller group of around ten and stood in a circle on the streetcorner to introduce ourselves. I learned that this bunch of 20-somethings were largely born & bred Shanghainese, who had never explored this part of their city before and wanted to learn more about the Jewish migration here in the early 20th Century. Having stereotyped the sort of people interested in taking city walks on a weekend (middle-aged tourists), I was a little surprised at the demographics of our little cohort, but when you consider that there isn’t so much of a heavy Friday night drinking culture in young Chinese compared to their Western peers, I guess there is no reason not to jump out of bed on a Saturday!

Xiahai Temple

Hongkou is on the Puxi side of the Huangpu, river just North of the Bund. Our first was a few metres up the street from Tilanqiao metro station: Xihai Temple. The grand temple building was quite incongruous with it’s grimy neighbourhood surrounding, although if my wanderings around Shanghai in the last 12 months have taught me nothing else, its to expect the unexpected – you often find a beautiful architectural gems hidden in the most unlikely of places!


The rest of the street looked something like this:


Tilanqiao prison

A few meters down the road from Xiahai temple we came across another large building, although this one didn’t look quite so inviting…

Tilanqiao prison was opened in 1903 to house those convicted of crimes in Shanghai’s international settlement. It was once the largest prison in the world, and earned the nickname ‘Alcatraz of the Orient’ as in it’s 110 year history no-one has ever escaped.

The hustle and bustle of locals going about their daily business wasn’t quite enough to disguise the eerie silence which permeated from the prison grounds – the place looked devoid of life, although apparently it houses around 8500 prisoners at the moment. Our guide described some of the gory details, such as the three-story execution chamber designed for death by hanging, complete with a trapdoor which allowed the body to drop directly into the prison hospital’s morgue. Lovely.



The ‘Shanghai Ghetto’

In the early 20th Century around 23,000 Jews sought asylum in Shanghai. The first wave arrived from Russia having fled the 1917 Revolution, and many more came from Europe throughout the 1930’s and 40’s seeking a safe refuge from the Holocaust in one of the only destinations still open to them.

The new residents may have been safe from anti-semitic persecution, but they soon found themselves entangled in another conflict. Following the Battle of Shanghai in 1937 the Japanese Army took control of the city and between 1943 and 1945, around 18,000 Jews from all over Shanghai were forced to relocate to a 3/4 square mile of the Hongkou district- which was already home to 100,000 local Shanghainese. This area was formally known as the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees, but informally known as the ‘Shanghai Ghetto’.

The Jewish residents of the Hongkou restricted area may not have been fenced in literally, but Japanese military patrols secured the area and enforced a strict curfew. Many refugees lived in group homes with as many as people sharing a single room. It was one of the poorest and overcrowded areas of the city; unsurprisingly, starvation and disease were rife.


This monument stood in the grounds of the Jewish Refugee’s Museum. We didn’t go inside the museum, but I plan to go back with Matt to take a look.


The White Horse Inn & Art-Deco Architecture

Despite the less than ideal conditions, the Jewish refugees established a thriving community which included cafe’s, bakery’s, shops and theaters. In 1939 Rudolf Mossberg – who had moved to Shanghai with his family – bought a three-story building at the corner of Changyang Road and Lintong Road where he set up and ran a cafe which he called the White Horse Inn. Those who had been bakers and bartenders in a previous life found themselves re-employed in at Mossberg’s cafe, which quickly became the centre of social gatherings for the Jewish refugees.

As is the fate of many buildings in this fast-evolving city, the White Horse Inn was demolished in 2009 when Changyang road was widened, but was re-built in 2015 as part of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, using some of the original features such as the doors, windows and staircase handrails. I love the rounded balconies on the second and third floor; so romantic!

The White Horse Inn

Some of the original architecture in this area was incredible; Art deco style red-&-grey brick three story row houses with handsome arched windows. The metal rails sticking out horizontally from window frames are for hanging out washing to dry as there isn’t much room to do this inside the apartments.



Continuing the Art Deco theme was the Roy Roof Garden Restaurant on Huoshan Road (below), built in 1928 the plaque outside confessed it to be “the largest place to avoid summer heat in the Jewish isolated zone during the World War II”. Having experienced one sizzling, sweaty summer in Shanghai, I can vouch for the absolute necessity of somewhere to escape the heat.


I took lots of photos during our walk around Hongkou and really like how the black and white ones turned out. It was a chilly morning and the sky was quite bleak. I love the web of overhead wires in this next photo, separating the older houses from the modern towering apartment blocks.


Ayi Milk Tea

As out tour group wandered along Huoshan Road (and past more of those beautiful red and grey brick houses) we came across a group of people huddled around a hole-in-the-wall, and Miki explained that it was a famous milk tea; Did I want to try? she asked. Of course! I said.

Milk tea is a warm drink made from black tea and milk (usually evaporated or condensed milk, as opposed to fresh), and comes with various fillings; we went for the sticky rice one which was just on the right side of sweet, very creamy and so delicious! Filling too.

Ayi milk tea

Refugee Camp

Warmed up from the milk tea we continued the tour, which took us down an alleyway off Changyang road to see what used to be the largest refugee camp in the Jewish isolated zone of Shanghai during WW2. The ghetto was officially liberated in September 1945, and by 1950 almost all of the Shangahi-based Jews had left China. The tiny apartments are still occupied, but today their residents are local Chinese.



A typical lane in the Hongkou district

The opportunity to explore first hand the last vestiges of Hongkou’s Jewish heritage was fascinating (especially for someone who walked away from history class aged 14 and now finds herself hopelessly and embarrassingly uninformed about some of the most significant historical milestones!).

It was even better to explore with Miki, my translator and the lovely person who introduced me to milk tea with sticky rice!



One Person’s Trash

I began today with a determination to cram 48 hours of weekend into a scant 24 – an ambition forged by my spending Saturday in the office (not out of choice, I  might add, but required by a quirky feature of the Chinese working calendar that requires you to fund national holidays by sacrificing weekends to work).

First on the agenda was my Mandarin lesson. This was scheduled for 90 minutes, but in a strange yet interesting twist ended up being split- one part vocab, one part impromptu coaching session whereby I coached my tutor through her crisis of career confidence (NB- even the brightest and most passionate Young Chinese seem to feel that they are on the scrap heap if they are 27, single and not yet a millionaire. Contending with parents of a generation who associate the success of their progeny with marriage, children and a dazzling career, ‘weight of the world’ is an understatement.

Anyway, coaching and study complete I left the apartment to join Matt for lunch who had been out for breakfast and coffee, his usual routine. He announced that he had found a ‘no-frills’ vegetarian cafe’ in South Shaanxi (which turned out to consist of one table and a tea urn); we took a brisk walk in that direction down HuaiHai Zhong Lu.

Our neighbourhood, the French concession, is a paradise for those who like to meander about taking intermittent pauses to point at objets d’intrigue; its rich in incongruous architecture, kooky fashion, questionable food vendors (‘Danger Food’ as we call it), there’s almost always something interesting to see. I could do it all day, every day, probably for the rest of my life – or until I got hungry.

Today we walked past a corner house, fairly typical for the area:


Some of the windows were boarded up, and at a first glance it wasn’t worth a second. Until turning the corner, we glanced into a metal-framed basement window, scruffy and short of a couple of plastic panes.


Inside, a leaning tower of canvases prompted a closer look…

‘Nude, with dog’.
‘Nude, without dog’; and what you might get if the Carphone Warehouse branched out into Sushi…
From left to right: ‘Unidentified Chinese Man’; ‘Unidentified Chinese Woman’, ‘Unidentified Chinese Couple’; ‘Nude, without dog’.


As someone who strongly values tidiness (I put Marie Kondo on a pedestal alongside the chap who first thought to bake bread in a handy slice format), this presented a distressing, but nevertheless intriguing scene. Why would someone pile canvasses in this way, behind a window open to the elements? Why would they choose to keep something that is – literally – underneath loads of trash? And why on earth would someone name a California roll after an i-phone?

I often remind myself that the things that I find interesting most likely aren’t so interesting to anyone else, which limits me posting about things I see through other people’s windows. But I really loved this one!

Lunch at the vegetarian place was pretty good, and this afternoon I’ve packed for our next Chinese mainland adventure: Huangshan (yellow mountain), for which we catch the train on Thursday. I’m not sure I fully succeeded in squeezing two full days into my Sunday, but the bottle of red we’ve just polished off is certainly helping to blur the edges. A satisfying compromise.

– Emma


Chinese New Year 2017

A few weeks ago Matt and I celebrated the arrival of 2017 in a small cafe-bar in downtown Shanghai, with buy-one-get-one-free cocktails and pizza. We managed to eat without booking a table, and the streets were largely quiet at midnight.

It might have been a bit more lively on the Bund, but we found that December 31st is a bit of a non-event in China; most expats travel home – or elsewhere – for Christmas and the locals register the new year using a different calendar altogether…

Today, 28th January 2017, is the first day of Chinese New Year according to the lunisolar Chinese calendar; Xīn Nián Kuài Lè (新年快乐) – Happy New Year – everyone!

The Year of the Rooster

Each CNY is characterised by one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac and today we transition from the Year of the Monkey (animal #9) to the Year of the Rooster (animal #10).

People born in the Year of the Rooster are honest, energetic, intelligent and confident folk. So far so good, but any existing roosters (born in 1993, 1981, 1969…) may want to take extra care not to walk under ladders or engage in other risky behaviour – the year of your sign is believed to be one of the most unlucky years of your life.


Party like it’s… 2017 (in China)

For most people CNY means a week off work and catching a bus/ train/ plane (delete as appropriate) out of the city to visit family. Depending on your age, marital status and level of career success, this annual gathering may be something you look forward to or something that fills you with dread; I could write a whole blog post on this (and probably will at some point!) but here I want to talk about another CNY tradition – the Annual Office Party and Banquet.

Imagine the Annual Party is a pie, and you cut it into thirds; one part is a corporate ‘Thank-You’ to employees for a year’s hard work (complete with awards, gifts and an after-party), one part is a New Years’ Eve celebration (complete with rooster-themed team videos), and the remaining part is a crazy cabaret-style talent show (complete with near professional level acts and dances performed by employees).

My experience started off like this:

Internal Comms Manager: Emma, would you like to be the MC (compère) for the Annual Party?

Me (internally): Oh my god! I’ve never even held a microphone before; there’ll be hundreds of people and lots of VIPs. What if I look ridiculous? What if I say something ridiculous? Will I have to speak Chinese? In public? What will I wear? Will I have to dance? What if I fall over? What if I forget my lines? What if I have to dance, then forget my lines, then fall over, then say something ridiculous in Chinese?

Me (externally): Erm, okay.

Fast forward a few weeks and,  well, this happened…


Between four of us we hosted – in English and Chinese – a fantastical, elaborate evening of toasts, performances, prize draws and competitions. And given I’ve never done anything like this before, I have to say that it went pretty well!

‘Passionate Red vs. Mysterious Black’

It took me a while to wrap my head around our theme for the evening, but essentially ‘Passionate Red’ represents the lucky colour of Chinese New Year, and ‘Mysterious Black’ was a homage to Friday 13th (黑色星期五)- the night of our party. Colleagues were assigned to either the Red Team or the Black Team depending on their functional area and dressed accordingly. This led to some pretty special outfits…

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We kicked the evening off with a traditional Chinese meal  -a wide variety of cold dishes on the tables to start, then wave upon wave of hot foods  (not that the MCs had much time to eat; there was too much ceremony that needed mastering… my dinner consisted of 2 prawns and a mushroom), and of course some festive toasts to the New Year (we did find a bit of time to do a toast. Priorities).



And then we moved on to bit that everyone had been waiting – and rehearsing madly – for… the team performances!

There were four rounds of performances, with each round pitting a Red team group against a Black team group. After each round, the audience voted which of the two they wanted to send to the Finals…

No pressure.

This is an office party….

The red versus black theme was wholly open to interpretation, resulting in eight colourful, crazy performances thematically linked only by their inclusion of red, black, and some form of creatively choreographed dance routine, a kind of mass homage to the cult boy and girl bands of the 1990’s.

Rock bands went head-to-head with Victoria’s Secret-style angels and James Bond was pitted against Snow White. On the same stage, we saw our colleagues transformed into Peking Opera stars, Storm Troopers and what I think was the Angry Birds (although I can’t be sure!). Some highlights below…


This is still an office party……

Voting was by QR code and after each performance a Mexican wave of i-phones rippled across the room.


The final vote was for Best Performance, and the four semi-finalists waited with baited breath and wine-in-hand for the winner to be announced…

5, 4, 3, 2, 1… The Amazing Tron Dance! This was a seriously spectacular performance which involved a total blackout and a group of dancers who had flourescent LEDs weaved around their outfits. They danced to techno music and had other group members (dressed entirely in black) help them perform maneuvers that made it look like they were floating and flying and so on. I have no idea how they managed to rehearse this in the office (!)

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Best dressed was well deserved


Although you would have thought the four good looking folks below would have given them a run for their money!



I had a brilliant time, it’s unlike anything that I’ve ever experienced before and the effort and energy that people put into their performances and outfits was beyond impressive. It also had a kind of collective positivity that you don’t always get at events back home – it was a really great way to signify the transition of one (work) year to the next (work) year. I’m looking forward to seeing how they’ll top this next year !


祝大家新春大吉 Happy Chinese New Year!

– Emma