Foreign bodies: Shanghai shakers

By Arthur Hawkes
Photography by Graeme Kennedy

Featured in Capital #81.
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Foreign bodies is a 4 part series about locals living overseas. To read the next one, click here.

We spoke to a few Wellingtonians who’ve established themselves overseas, asking about the depths and differences of their new locales – and whether they still reminisce about broken brollies and the town belt.

Hadleigh and Hannah Churchill, 39 and 37, founded Shanghai design and architecture firm hcreates in 2010 and have been in the city for 14 years. Hannah has a design background and worked with various firms after the couple’s permanent move in 2009. She’s now involved with every part of the process, from the board room to the building site, utilising her degree from Wellington School of Architecture. Hadleigh previously worked in advertising, starting with a Shanghai firm in 2008. After a couple of years they took the plunge and started hcreates, which would go on to design and fit out a slew of luxurious premises in China, growing a team of employees in Shanghai and Hong Kong. The company was named among the AD100, Architectural Digest China’s top 100 design and architecture firms.

Where are you living now?
Hadleigh: Jing An. It’s one of the older districts right in the middle of Shanghai. It’s constantly evolving as old areas are pulled down to make way for the new, so it’s got a bit of everything. It does have a lot of tree-lined streets which is really nice. It’s good to be close to some greenery.

What’s the pace of Shanghai like?
Hannah: The city is constantly alive and changing. Due to the intensity and turnover of expats here you make lifelong friends fast. We are lucky to have a crew that has been here a long time. People are very spontaneous and the ability to go grab dinner or a drink any night of the week makes for a very sociable community.

I find a huge plus here is having home help (called “ayi”). As a working mother of two kids this has allowed me flexibility with the business and time for both myself and family. This has also allowed the kids to grow up speaking Chinese which I see as a huge advantage, to be able to learn a language without realising it!

Is it more affordable than Wellington?
Hadleigh: It’s definitely more expensive than Wellington: rent, healthcare, eating out. I can’t even begin to talk about the school fees. Flat whites are now more readily available, but are between $8 and $12.

What are some of the biggest differences?
Hannah: The thing that is most noticeable is the pace. Work is fast, projects are completed fast, life is fast. People are connected 24/7 through social media, making for fast decisions and constant updates with work and friends. The other major difference is the ability to get anything delivered to your door. Delivery is an amazing service here, from groceries and takeout within the hour, to large appliances, clothing, almost anything you can imagine.

If you could summarise Shanghai with one item, what would it be and why?
Hadleigh: My electric Scooter. I have never driven a car in China in my 14 years here. It doesn’t look like much fun. Scootering is a great way to get around and every time you stop at an intersection for a brief moment waiting for the green you have two minutes just hanging with random Shanghai people. You are at one with construction workers, delivery guys, granddads taking kids to school, aunties on their way to the park, a lawyer late for a meeting. It’s a beautiful mishmash of people and always reminds me I’m in a different place.

Favourite spots in Wellington when you were last there?
Hannah: One of my favourite spots is the Chocolate Fish at Shelly Bay. It’s such a great spot for the kids to run around and relax with Kiwiana food and a quintessential Wellington view (and wind) to remind you where you are.

Is there any part of your experience that has helped you being a New Zealander abroad?
Hadleigh: “She’ll be right” as a mantra fills me with a relatively healthy sense of optimism that a solution can be found; but equally it has led me down some phenomenally gloomy paths to nowhere. But I think we are very practical and when things are swirling around we have the knack to keep looking for a solution.

Have you taken on any characteristics of Shanghai culture?
Hannah: It’s probably not a characteristic, but I have learned so much about the depth and regionality of Chinese food. There are some really game-changing dishes out there.


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