While Dubai is definitely the most popular emirate for expats in the UAE, Shanghai has always had an allure for foreigners and is the most westernized of the Chinese cities.
Exotic and ancient, but offering modern technology and amenities, it is the perfect destination for expats who long for a taste of adventure without venturing too far outside of their comfort zone.
Similar to Dubai’s lightning transition from a quaint pearl-diving village to a world-renowned metropolis in the span of just over a decade, Shanghai has transformed from a city with narrow lanes lined with decrepit buildings to a megalopolis with towering skyscrapers and luxury shopping malls.
The financial hub of China, most expats flock to the city to make money, and the number of expats has risen by over 70% in the last 10 years.
As with Dubai, Shanghai’s economy has slowed down, resulting in a shift in the mix of expatriates who come to this vibrant city to find adventure.
As large multi-nationals cut back budgets by localizing senior management positions, there are fewer expats coming to Shanghai on lavish corporate packages and more expats making the decision to come on their own steam.
Quality of Life in Shanghai vs. Dubai
Dubai ranks 74th on Mercer’s most recent Quality of Living Survey, while Shanghai ranks lower at 101st place.
As Shanghai struggles with the problems that face any large Asian megacity of its size, expats and residents face problems of air and water pollution, smog, overcrowding, terrible traffic jams, and housing shortages.
While these problems are much less evident in Dubai, it is also much more compact in size compared to Shanghai – where overpopulation is taking a toll on civic amenities and resources.
Shanghai is, however, relatively safe and violent crimes against foreigners are rare, although they do occur occasionally at night clubs and bars. The most common crimes tend to be financial scams, pick-pocketing, and bicycle theft.
Shanghai is one of the easiest cities in which to maintain an expat lifestyle; international schools, cuisine and food stuffs are widely available, but will cost a hefty price.
The biggest advantage of living in Dubai is that English is widely spoken here and expats can easily get by without ever having to learn Arabic. In Shanghai, however, even though English is more widely spoken than in other Chinese cities, it is still difficult to get by if you do not have at least a basic knowledge of Mandarin.
Living in Shanghai has all of the benefits of a large city, including access to great nightlife and entertainment, restaurants, musical events, and all the excitement that local culture has to offer. However, the big city environment also comes with familiar problems including traffic congestion, long commute times, and pollution.
Housing and Accommodation
Housing in Shanghai is very varied with high-rise apartments and suburban neighborhoods co-existing side-by-side with older, luxurious homes. The best way to find a place to live in Shanghai is to ask local friends and colleagues or by checking local publications such as the Shanghai Daily.
Shanghai is divided into two parts by the Huangpu River, which runs vertically through the city center. Expats can generally find housing in either part, along a long horizontal stretch that runs through the city center.
Expats who don’t speak Chinese usually use an agency to find a place to live. Agents deal with specific buildings and will only show you the ones on their listings. It might take a while to find the apartment you are looking for, so don’t despair and don’t rush to rent the first one you find.
The city center has some beautiful old homes, but these come with a very hefty price tag. It is also important to consider proximity to public transport as well as to work.
In general, even though Shanghai is an expensive city to live in compared to other Chinese cities, it is much cheaper than Dubai, where renting in a comparative locality can cost up to 50% more.
Schools and Education
There are three types of schools in Shanghai: public, private, and international. Expat children in Shanghai mostly attend international schools; Shanghai boasts one of the highest concentrations of international schools amongst other Chinese cities.
The medium of teaching in these schools is English, and many of them offer Chinese language classes as well. Many young foreign children, however, are opting for public schools that teach in Chinese, in order to better integrate into the local culture.
Most public schools teach in the old-fashioned way, where students are expected to learn by rote and critical thinking is not generally promoted. Some schools, however, are like the Shanghai High School, which is well known for its international division and offers tuition in both English and Chinese.
International schools can be expensive, costing between USD 20,000 to USD 30,000 or more a year. However, compared to the cost of education in Dubai – which is rising at an alarming rate – education in Shanghai is definitely cheaper.
Less expensive than the international schools – but costlier than public schools – are private schools, which are modeled on the state or include aspects of foreign curricula, and teach primarily in Chinese.
Children who attend private schools are generally from wealthier backgrounds; facilities offered in these schools can be expected to be of better quality than in public schools, and generally have more extra-curricular activities available to students.
Shanghai’s chaotic roads, traffic congestions, and high rate of accidents deter most foreigners from driving as a means of getting around.
As the city is so huge, commuting to school or work is a way of life for most people who live in Shanghai, unless you are lucky enough to have a car with a driver, or live in an expat compound that offers shuttle service to international schools.
Fortunately, for most people, Shanghai has an extensive and cheap public transport system that provides access to the far corners of the city.
The Shanghai Metro is modern and efficient and much faster than the older bus lines. Signs and announcements on the metro are in both English and Chinese; however bus routes in English are available online or only at a few metro stations.
Shanghai has over 1,000 bus lines operated by different companies, and though initially confusing, most expats eventually get the hang of the largely numerical bus system.
Even though the traffic may seem chaotic, China does have a complex set of road rules and regulations, even though it might not seem like it to most foreigners. If expats are still brave enough to drive on Chinese roads, it is important to become familiar with the driving rules and regulations that govern using the highways, express routes and city roads.