Living in China - Hotel or Apt?

Old Jul 14th, 2004, 01:45 PM
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Living in China - Hotel or Apt?

After having travelled to China for the past few years, we have an opportunity to relocate to China and can choose to live in either Hong Kong, Shanghai or Beijing. We're in our early 40's, no kids, have always lived in a major city and are still learning the language. First of all, which city would you recommend and why? Second, would it make more sense to live in a hotel rather than an apartment? After having checked out some expat housing sites, a hotel seems like it might cost the same (or less) plus the benefit of housekeeping and other hotel amenities might make it easier to settle least for the first year. What would you do? Any recommendations on resources for information to help manage such a move?
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Old Jul 14th, 2004, 03:09 PM
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There is a very great difference indeed between living in Hong Kong and living anywhere in mainland China, and it terms of creature comforts, general health, consistency and reliability of all services, and general administrative hassles, Hong Kong wins hands down.

Living in Hong Kong is living in a developed nation with the rule of law (despite the Beijing government's depredations since 1997). Living in the mainland is like living in the Wild West--fun if you can handle it, but at the very least inconvenient in the long run, even if you are going to work for some multinational which will cushion you from the effects, and put you into an airconditioned expat bubble (in which case, what's the point?) I've lived in both Beijing and Hong Kong, and spent some time in Shanghai. If I had to make the choice of mainland cities I'd still choose Beijing, but if Hong Kong was an option, I'd certainly choose Hong Kong.

Approaching any of these places through the usual expat channels will bring news of impossibly high prices for everything, but there are local ways of tackling all this which put prices down to realistic local levels. Beijing currently ranks as one of the most expensive places in the world to live, but this is only an indication of the willingness of expats to pay furious sums of money for services, not of any need to do so if you engage with the real economy. There are local agents who can find you a decent, brand-new fully fitted apartment for much less than the hotel equivalent, and with a great deal more space. As someone who sometimes spends 200 nights a year in hotels, I know which I'd prefer. It's also not difficult to find apartments in ordinary Chinese residential buildings which are considerably more basic, but which cost very little indeed.

As for learning the language, Mandarin still won't be of that much use to you in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, but then English is enough there.

Look at,, and other similar sites for a chance to chat directly with those who already live in mainland cities, but be aware that many expats are sealed in the aircon bubble and don't have much idea of real life. The Web sites of locally produced magazines for expats will also tell you more;,, etc., but don't believe everything you read.

Peter N-H
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Old Jul 14th, 2004, 08:05 PM
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Are you including yourself in that last bit, Peter? (smile)
Old Jul 16th, 2004, 01:51 PM
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It's difficult to answer your questions because there are so many things to consider. I've lived in all three cities. Like Peter, I would choose Beijing over Shanghai, but Hong Kong will be my choice if you can afford it.

Why Beijing over Shanghai?
Living in the capital city does have its perks because it is more closely managed by the government. Meaning there won't be blackouts, less crime, better roads,
etc (when comparied with other cities in the mainland). I find the city cleaner
and less crowded than Shanghai. Summer is hot but winter is colder and dryer. There are countless sights to visit and many markets where you can bargain for all sorts of things. Don't like markets? There are enough shopping malls and department stores to satisfy your needs. The city host many cultural events and there's enough night life to keep you busy. Although it seems quiet at night, I was surprised to find a street full of 24 hrs Chinese restaurants and there are other late night eateries located in town. It is a large city so you'll rely heavily on your car and probably a driver. It is best if you can speak basic Mandarin since most people don't speak English. Overall I had a positive experience.

Why Hong Kong?
Hong Kong is a convenient 24 hrs city with terrific public transportation. I
completely agree with what Peter said. The difference between Hong Kong and any
city in the mainland is so great that it is easily the better choice unless you
don't like it. Your personal preference is most important and it will greatly
affect your experience. I enjoyed living in Beijing, however I am thankful I didn't have any accidents or fall ill during the time because hospitals there are still not quite up to standards. Good luck trying to find some who speaks English during an emergency. There's always a lot to adjust to when moving to a foreign city and by choosing Hong Kong will make it less difficult. Another good thing about Hong Kong is that it is simply the best place to travel to anywhere in Asia. You can choose from almost any airline so prices are kept low. The only things I don't like about Hong Kong are the humid summers and how it gets crowded in some areas. The Chinese government loves to brag about how modernized and developed Shanghai is, how it can replace Hong Kong, but in reality there's still a long long way to go before that can ever happen.

House, apartment, hotel?
I don't recommend living in a hotel any longer than 2 to 3 months while you look
for a real place to stay. It gets boring very quickly. I don't know about you but when I realized I had tried almost everything on the room service menu, I knew I had to get a real home quick. Here's what I did in each of the three cities:

In Shanghai I lived in a house in a gated community and had a live-in maid. I know this is the expat bubble but it was nice and comfortable. Her salary was RMB1000/month and we provided all her meals. The reason I chose a house was because I had brought all my furniture with me so I needed space. In Hong Kong I lived in an apartment. Knowing space cost a premium, I brought just a few pieces of furniture and bought the rest locally. It wouldn't make any sense to live in a hotel because they are small and expensive. It is affordable to hire a maid in
Hong Kong, full or part-time depending on your budget. I hired part-time help in the beginning but after a while I was able to handle it on my own. In Beijing, I stayed in a serviced apartment. It was very convenient. Fully furnished with daily housekeeping (including dishes). I moved and settled in on the first day. It was like an instant home. Obviously I didn't bring any furniture with me this time so when my shipment arrived, unpacking was a breeze. The building had a gym and a pool. There were also a few restaurants connected to the building.

I'm not a good writer so please pardon the length and grammer.
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Old Jul 20th, 2004, 05:22 AM
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I have lived in Hong Kong and Singapore and spent a lot of time on business and pleasure in Beijing and Shanghai. I now live in Zurich, so obviously love the expat life and all it can offer. If you really have a choice, I would choose Hong Kong far and above the other two, for the following reasons:

1. It is just easier to live in Hong Kong on a day-to-day basis, IMO. Beijing and Shanghai are interesting to visit, but far more of a hassle to live in, IMO and in talking to others who have lived in both or all three. It's nice to go to immigration to renew your work permit and find people who speak English, it's nice to be able to find your favourite breakfast cereal at the grocery store. It's nice to go to a restaurant that is not in a hotel. With working full time, you may not enjoy the every day "adventure" of living in Beijing and Shanghai.

2. Public transport is plentiful, cheap, clean and efficient. Taxis are cheap. Not quite the same in the other two. You would not need a car in Hong Kong. You might want one in the other two.

3. Pollution. While there is smog in Hong Kong, it is nothing compared to Shanghai (esp. in the winter months) and Beijing, plus Beijing gets dust storms.

4. Traffic. Virtually none in Hong Kong. Becoming a real problem in Beijing and Shanghai and no improvement in sight. With the construction which will go on for the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, you will find roads disappearing and traffic will be dislocated for several years, IMO. Not that fun on a daily commute basis.

5. Base for travel. You can hop on a plane in Hong Kong and get virtually anywhere in Asia non-stop and increasingly anywhere in Europe and the US non-stop. It is easy to go for a long weekend to Bangkok or Bali. Not the same for the other two. It is also easier to do business travel from Hong Kong, esp. if your region includes places like India or Australia.

6. Beauty/Seasons. This is very subjective, but I like the hills and harbour of Hong Kong much more than the flatland of Beijing and Shanghai. The river in Shanghai can't compare to the harbour in Hong Kong, plus you have great beaches literally at your doorstep in many places. You can hike and do water sports fairly easily in Hong Kong, plus you have that magic view out your window each night. "Winter" in Hong Kong is 72 F and sunny, winter in the other two is freezing and cold winds. Summers are hot and humid in all three, so you don't really avoid it by living in Beijing or Shanghai.

Other than housing, costs in Hong Kong are not that high, I call in "New York plus". Eating out is not really expensive, and some things like maids service, are really cheap. Taxes are low (esp if you are a US citizen and can avoid being "tax equalized&quot.

With regard to apt versus hotel, no choice for me. I like to have my own furniture with me (or better yet, buy all that great Asian furniture and have my company ship it home later. . . .). Good point above about getting tire of room service. If you can stand not having your own stuff, a serviced apartment may be a good compromise in any of the three.

Some expat sources would be:

Other places would be the US Embassy in all three, go to for links, or the US Chamber of Commerce in all three, go to the one in Hong Kong at, or Shanghai at, which should give you links to the others. Another place to look would be the American Women's Association of Hong Kong. Take a look at Take a look at their "Partner Sites" which contain a ton of helpful information. I belonged to this group in Hong Kong and Singapore and found them useful and fun. In addition to advice on living in Hong Kong they have language classes, cooking classes, workshops and sponsor travel in China and elsewhere. They have a board where you can post questions also.

Finally, I highly recommend the "Culture Shock! series of books published by Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company . There is one for Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, as well as one for China generally. They give a comprehensive and in my view accurate report on living in these places. You can buy them on line from Amazon or your local bookstore can order it for you.

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