The Shanghai Sisterhood

By Beth Roulston 2019-11-25 15:26:48

Inspiring women Jasmin, Hannah, Sonia, and Belamie share their experiences as female expats living in Shanghai

I have always been fascinated by a good story, especially real-life ones, and during the four years that I have lived in China (two of which in Shanghai), I have had the pleasure of hearing many other peoples’ accounts of how they ended up journeying to China’s shores. Whether it be for adventure, work, following a partner or by fortunate coincidence, many like myself come to China with the intention of staying for a single year yet somehow find themselves staying for a lot longer.

According to the Shanghai Statistics Bureau report of 2017, there are 163,363 expats living in Shanghai; a 61.2% increase since 2005. If we look at the suggested ratio of 54% male vs 46% female from Internations (2006), this would mean that approximately 75,146 expats in Shanghai are female; including students, working professionals, supporting spouses, and entrepreneurs.

If experience has taught me anything, it is that China, in particular Shanghai, offers no end of exceptional opportunities. Evident case in point when you take a glance at the ever-increasing number of expat-run businesses popping up all over the city including a multitude of ones founded by female entrepreneurs such as Lalu Raw Beauty, Nah Studio, LUÜNA naturals, Strictly Cookies, Charlotta Gandolfo, Virgo Diaries, Luna Mindfulness, It’s Me Cosmetics, C’era una volta and Fiorella Blues; just to name a few!

However, due to the very nature of China, living here can be unpredictable. If you have a family with small children to think about this can present even tougher obstacles. To get a broader view on what life is like for female expats, I reached out to four different women to hear their interpretation on how Shanghai has affected their lives, the challenges they have faced, and to generally understand what brought them here in the first place.


A few months ago, I met Jasmin, a bubbly, charismatic architect, at the official opening party of her co-founded design studio MASS DESIGN. What immediately struck me about Jasmin was that while she glided around the room chatting to all who arrived with a genuinely warm smile on her face, she had her little baby boy, Aloïs, calmly strapped to her front and looked completely in her element. Being the nosy person that I am, I could not help but ask her ‘what’s your story?’

Jasmin was born in Australia to a Malaysian father of Chinese descent and an Australian mother who ended up travelling to China to learn Chinese. Around 1989, a few years before her mother landed a successful job in Beijing, Jasmin was already a regular visitor to China, although it wasn’t until she was in her third year of her architecture degree in Australia that she decided to move to Shanghai to do an internship.

“I’ve had a relationship with China since 1989 and it’s in my blood. And my connection to it was immediate in a way. I kept coming back many, many times and decided to do something even more challenging rather than going to Beijing and simply living with my mum.”

Through her many smiles and sighs that oozed with nostalgia, Jasmin described Shanghai as she knew it back in 2007. From Mahjong in the streets, to an abundance of street food, bustling yet small communities, and lots of Shanghainese culture, it was in many ways different to the Shanghai we know today. Yet, even a decade ago the expat community was friendly and welcoming.

“I think Shanghai is amazing when you arrive because you sense the people that are arriving at the same time. You form very strong relationships very quickly, whether it’s romantic or platonic. Whether you’re a trailing spouse or even depending on where you live in the city, there are many networks that you can easily be drawn into… I think many of us almost try harder to make friends because you want to understand the culture and to explore; and its these shared experiences that you can build relationships on.”

According to Lifeline, the English speaking, not-for-profit helpline based in Shanghai, a large proportion of the calls they receive from women are those going through emotional turmoil due to loneliness. As Jasmin has now been living in Shanghai for over twelve years, I asked her whether she still has friends living here and whether she has ever experienced loneliness.

“Yeah... it’s definitely sad when someone leaves, but the nice thing is sometimes they come back! Last night I had a drink with a friend who left nine years ago, had lived in Shanghai for five years previously, and then moved back two weeks ago. So, see it can happen. But I think it’s important to keep meeting people.”

It was evident while speaking with Jasmin that her success in living a happy, successful life here comes down a combination of her independent nature, the constant of her French partner, whom she met in 2008, and the fact that she loves China.

“I think it was a bit like I’m just going to make this work. You know, like, I want this. I knew I would always move to China... it was just a question of when.”

Considering the nature of how we met, we eventually got around to talking about what it was like to be a mother in China.

“My whole experience so far has actually been amazing because Chinese people love kids. People are very gentle and kind and aware that you’re pregnant and very supportive of this. China even has great built in systems that support pregnant women and mothers while travelling. Like getting to board your plane first because you’ve been standing for a long time or allowing mothers to come off first after a long-haul flight as you have to contend with a baby, your tickets, your luggage etc. all while pretty sleep deprived.”

Jasmin gave birth to her son in China, February 2019, and could not have been more complimentary of how well she and her baby boy were taken care of. Although, it would be doing Jasmin a disservice if I failed to mention the fact that, alongside giving birth she was also simultaneously working on opening a joint architecture company with four other working professionals.

I feel a little envious of Jasmin but also very inspired. Instead of seeing pitfalls, she grasps each experience and welcomes the influx of new challenges. Before finishing our conversation, I asked Jasmin for a few words of wisdom to help guide other women who may be struggling.

“I would start with the basics like exercise for endorphins. Go easy on yourself and find a comfortable cafe that you can go if you are having a BCD (Bad China Day) and then start again tomorrow. I think it’s important to remember that a lot of our frustration stems from not understanding cultural differences. Talk to people that have been here for a while, explore on your own or with companies like UnTour and Historic  Shanghai. It will open up this amazing city to you!”


The day I was to speak with Hannah Keirl, I made the extraordinary mistake of going to the wrong Alimentari despite triple checking which one I was meant to go to. Thirty-two and a half minutes late, slightly frazzled, and completely embarrassed, I brushed my way to the back of the shop to find a bright, beaming face giving me a ‘don’t worry’ expression that faintly reminded me of my sister. I liked Hannah immediately.

Hannah is a passionate, head strong entrepreneur from Australia that has travelled all over the world and worked in a variety of places including Australia, India, China, Ireland, and Spain. Thanks to her extensive knowledge of varying liquors and her skills in mixology, Hannah runs a successful business called ‘Spirits Box’ which sells and imports delicious Australian spirits to a multitude of cocktail bars and restaurants in Shanghai and many other cities within China.

Unlike many other entrepreneurs, Hannah’s journey of opening up her own business was shockingly smooth, to the point where her WFOE (Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprise) was set up before she had moved to the country. Considering one of the ‘hard’ parts was done, I asked Hannah what her first few weeks in Shanghai looked like.

“Um, hilarious! My first week I had to find an office and there are some really horrible offices in Shanghai; that and they’re really bl^^dy expensive. So, I ended up sharing an office with two Dutch guys who are also entrepreneurs and it was a great way to have a little support network. I also had to find a flat and was attending all these networking events; which are integral to my industry and my job. I was so hectic all the time, running around the city and hand delivering bottles because I hadn’t figured out kuaidi yet.”

Hannah’s calm and easy-going demeanour could very well be why she has taken every hurdle in her stride, although when I asked her about the challenges she had faced when she first arrived, she laughed and said you mean aside from everything?

“I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t understand fapiaos. I didn’t understand the whole system! Like chopping documents. People would return things I had sent them saying 'It’s not cross chopped' and I was like what does that mean!?”

Hannah is the perfect example of hard work paying off. Everywhere you seem to go in Shanghai there is someone who knows her. As an ardent fan of cocktails, Hannah co-founded a community group event called ‘Ladies Who Drink’ to bring women of all backgrounds together to learn about different spirits and to build lasting friendships. By chance, I bumped into one of her frequent visitors, Lidel (mother of three), who had nothing but lovely, positive things to say.

“Hannah’s great, so funny and outgoing. I just love her events. They’re always super fun, we always have a good time and it’s nice to know there’s a place you can go and let your hair down for the night.”

Asking others about their first few weeks in China begins to make you reminisce on your own. When I look back, I distinctly remember the first few months feeling like an extended working holiday as Guangdong offered beautifully hot weather, new sights, sounds, tastes and smells, plus lots of new places to explore. It wasn’t until I had been living in China just shy of three months that I began to feel very strange. Simple things like going to the supermarket, buying lunch, or finding things to do outside of work became incredibly frustrating to the point where I was often drawn to tears. As always, my family pulled me back to shore and helped me realise that what I was going through was culture shock. It was upon sitting down and chatting with a fabulous South African lady called Belamie that all these memories began rushing back, however, unlike myself, Belamie didn’t have the luxury of only having herself to worry about.


Belamie, her two boys and her husband moved to Shanghai a little over four years ago thanks to her husband’s promotion. Initially located in Puxi, living in a lovely Shanghainese building, Belamie and her family’s first few weeks in the city were delightful as they were able to experience authentic Shanghai in all her glory. But once the initial honeymoon period was over, and winter set in, things began to feel increasingly difficult and frustrating.

“It got to the point where I was feeling incredibly alone and isolated. I couldn’t relate to anyone in my building, despite trying to learn the language. My tones were always wrong and there was no one around for me to commiserate with. The kids were struggling because we were in Puxi and their school was in Pudong; a 50-minute commute there and back. They didn’t have any close friends, so not only were they exhausted but also quite lonely. It was really tough. When you have unhappy children it’s really hard.”

As Belamie and her children were based far from the school it was difficult to become part of the school’s community and the support that comes with that.

“Things began to pick up for us once we moved close to the school. The kids love the community. I think it’s quite naive in the beginning to think, 'ooh, we want to experience the real Shanghai, we don’t want to live far from the action.’ And it’s true and it’s very frustrating. But if you have children it’s crucial.”

When I asked Belamie how she helped her children to get through their first year, she told me that she and her husband gave each of her boys a portable MP3 player (from Taobao) that allowed them to listen to stories on their way to school. As a result, the boys’ vocabulary and spoken English increased rapidly.

As her children were at school during the day and her husband was predominately at work, I asked Belamie about what she did to keep herself motivated and entertained.

“I’m not the type of person that can sit still, I need to be stimulated. I think the key to surviving here for me was taking advantage of the time I had available and doing courses in areas that interested me like photography and counselling. And the other thing was my little blue bike. It was the most liberating thing I ever bought, and I still have it now.”

On reflection, Belamie expressed that it would have been helpful had their relocation agents suggested a location for them to live in that was closer to the children’s school. If you are new to China and don’t have the knowledge or experience to know what to expect, it is very much a case of you don’t know what you don’t know. Being part of the children’s school community helped Belamie’s family create a happy, concrete routine and this massively helped to improve their daily life.

Considering her experience since moving to Shanghai, I asked Belamie whether she thought living here had benefitted her in any way. She expressed that getting an understanding of what depression feels like and knowing that she had faced it and come through the other side had been incredibly beneficial. Time here had given her an opportunity for introspection, thus allowing her to further understand who and what kind of person she is.

“I’ve also really enjoyed actually being exposed to what I think is going to be a leading city in the future. To be able to have insight and experience of what it’s like to be in a city that is growing so rapidly and realise the cultural differences is extraordinary. ”

I have the upmost respect for women like Belamie, not just because of the journey she has been on but also because she can look upon her experiences positively and realise how they have aided her. Although, like my mother always says, it’s easy to see things in hindsight.


One woman who is currently going through her own initiation of sorts is Sonia; an independent financial advisor and mother of two teenage sons, and a cute, spirited daughter, whose exceptional Australian humour is almost as sharp as her foresight. Recognising its exponentially growing market, Sonia understood that transitioning to China could be very beneficial for someone in her industry plus bring the added value of enabling her children to understand another language in addition to English and her husband’s mother tongue, French.

“Having the opportunity to pop the kids into a school under the English curriculum, where they can learn mandarin was a no brainer; especially for a future living in Australia which is fundamentally a part of Asia.”

At the time of speaking, Sonia and her family have been living in China just over two weeks and quite literally ‘fresh off the boat’. Taking that information into consideration, I half expected Sonia’s response to “what have your first few weeks been like?” to exclusively feature long walks down the Bund and delicious commentary of varying Chinese cuisine. However, what one forgets when one has been living in China a while is the acute stress of finding and acquiring somewhere to live.

“So, we have been visiting a variety of locations near to the kids’ school but not too far from the city centre so I can travel to and from the office, and when we arrive at the properties I’m like looking at multiple different people/agents asking them so… who’s the decision maker? To which I get a lot of blank stares. We did eventually find a place, but then I had to go to the bank to do things like transfer of deposit and rent etc. only to be told it couldn’t be done due to the holiday [Mid-Autumn Festival]. At this point I have a single tear falling down my face and I’m like, look, we’ve just given up our hotel room, I’ve got three children and a bunch load of belongings that need to be moved in today... please help me make this happen!”

Like any move to a new city there were of course the initial teething problems, but, overall, Sonia commented that the family’s collective experience had been incredibly positive and thought-provoking. One moment that stuck out most for Sonia was a conversation that she had had with her eleven-year-old son.

“We had only been here a week when my son, the one who had been the most reticent to leave Australia, came to me and said, “Mum, depending on how work goes, will we go back to Australia or England?” And that was the best question ever to me because part of this journey is having them understand that we’re really quite fortunate in terms of where we live and how we live in Australia. Especially in the city, because it’s not a proper cross section of how the world is. So, the fact that we’ve landed here and that he’s already thinking about spring boarding elsewhere is music to my ears.”

When I add together everything that these four wonderful women told me, I wondered if I would have handled everything with the same level of decorum and finesse had I been in the same situation. Probably not. What I do know though is that, irrespective of the opinions of humans like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Barnaby Joyce, women are truly incredible.