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Expatriate Taiwanese

The Lure of the Shanghai Experience


The Lure of the Shanghai Experience

Source:Ming-Tang Huang

Seventy percent of young Taiwanese looking for work in China see Shanghai as their dream destination. What is it about this city across the strait that so attracts Taiwan's best and brightest?



The Lure of the Shanghai Experience

By Hsiang-Yi Chang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 443 )

The setting is an MBA program at a national university. The term has just gotten underway, and an associate professor familiar with cross-strait financial policies is conducting a comparison of the financial regulatory systems of Taiwan and China, offering the conclusion that Taiwan remains somewhat more advanced and open than China at present. At the end of his lecture, the professor asks the students half in jest, "Now, who still wants to look for a job in the financial sector in Shanghai after you graduate?"

Of around two dozen students in the class, 14 or 15 raise their hands. And one student remarks in response, "Regulations can be revised, but nothing can take the place of Shanghai's opportunities."

Taiwanese people heading across the strait to make careers are no longer a newsworthy phenomenon. Among China's cities, the business climate and lifestyle of rapidly developing Shanghai are closest to that of Taiwan, making it the clear top choice for Taiwanese job seekers.

Composite figures from the Taiwanese business association of Shanghai and job bank industry sources indicate that over 300,000 Taiwanese people are currently engaged in full-time employment in the greater Shanghai region, including outlying areas such as Suzhou and Kunshan. An additional 200,000 Taiwanese visit Shanghai frequently for work. As over 100,000 Taiwanese work in Shanghai proper, since 2006 it has been the city with the highest number of Taiwanese outside of Taiwan.

However, structural changes are taking place among this tide of workers flowing across the strait.

Quantitative, Qualitative Shift in Shanghai-bound Talent

A decade ago Taiwanese living and working in Shanghai were generally either small business owners setting up operations there or senior management moving into the Chinese market with Taiwanese corporations. Manufacturing and conventional industries had the highest representation among this group.

A decade down the road, thirtysomething Taiwanese managers and even fresh university graduates are setting up lives and careers in Shanghai. Their fields of expertise have widened to include finance, law, design, and such service industries as hospitality management.

According to statistics from the 104 Job Bank, the number of Taiwanese looking for jobs in China at the end of 2009 grew 15 percent compared to 2006, nearing 25,000 individuals. Young people ages 25 to 35 accounted for a full half of these, and 71 percent of them envision Shanghai as their ideal place to work and live.

'The Shanghai Experience' Holds Its Own with the West

Shanghai's shift from manufacturing industries to professional services has accelerated in recent years, while at the same time the city has become increasingly international, enhancing its desirability for Taiwanese professionals chasing their Shanghai dream.

Cathay United Bank branch manager Chun Hao Liu, observes that the job market in Europe and North America has suffered a drastic decline, particularly since the financial crisis, yet employment opportunities have increased in Shanghai, making it especially attractive to the talent pool of international professionals.

Liu notes that multinational regional corporate headquarters in Shanghai have grown at a rate of eight percent over the last five years, reaching 751 companies by the end of 2009. Given Shanghai's ambitions of becoming a major financial center, the city's current vacuum of 800,000 related positions has a tremendous sway over qualified professionals.

"It used to be that when (Taiwanese) professionals wanted international experience, they would think of the United States first, with Hong Kong or Tokyo at the top of the list in Asia," says Liu. "But today Shanghai is a big stage with lots of opportunities, and when you add the factor of a common language, it's naturally become the top choice."

Ken Yang is a 34 year-old Taiwanese with a master's degree in urban design from Columbia University in New York City. At first it had not even occurred to Yang to consider Shanghai in his career plans, yet he has worked there for two years so far.

Currently employed at the Chinese branch of the Hok Planning Group, an international architectural design firm, Yang originally felt he would have more room for growth in architectural design in Europe or North America. But acting on the advice of a fellow Columbia student who had gone through the program before him, Yang decided to visit Shanghai for a holiday, and also to explore the city's job prospects. To his surprise, he found that "the (urban planning) cases in Shanghai, both in terms of number and scale, are on a par with the West."

A short two years later, Ken Yang has already contributed to a number of planning projects, including a multinational corporate headquarters, a local government public works project, and a residential construction plan for a local Chinese development firm. What has impressed him most about Shanghai is the willingness within the field to try new things, giving professionals plenty of space to work with. He recalls, "I even had one client whose only specification was to design something in 'modern classical architectural style,'" leaving everything else for his team to decide.

In contrast, since most of the land in Taiwan's urban areas has already undergone development, public development and urban planning and design projects are limited in number, offering professionals in the field scant opportunities. "I'm a true Taiwanese. Sometimes when I see the way it's developing (in Shanghai), I feel a little conflicted about it," Yang laments. "Sometimes I tell myself that I'm gaining international experience in Shanghai, and when the opportunity presents itself in Taiwan, I'll go back to contribute my skills."

Same Pay, Bigger Stage

For professionals a little bit on either side of the age of 35 with some work experience in Taiwan under their belts, in addition to broadening their international horizons, the "Shanghai experience" represents the opportunity to take on bigger roles and responsibility and launch their careers into a new phase.

Scott Lin, senior consultant at the firm of Lee and Li Attorneys at Law, has just moved into an apartment he rented near Huaihai Road in Shanghai. Pointing to his partially unpacked belongings, Lin says with a chuckle, "See, I brought all my favorite kitchenware with me. And I'm not going to go back easily without accomplishing something here first."

With seven years of experience under his belt at Lee and Li, his work mostly involves corporate patent applications and lawsuits – legal topics that have been hot throughout Asia in recent years. Lin readily admits that he is not getting higher pay or a better position in Shanghai, where the cost of living is just as high as that of Taipei. Nevertheless, when the firm expanded its China operations and his position became available in Shanghai, he had just reached the qualification threshold, and he was the first candidate to apply.

"I had a steady job in Taiwan, with familiar work and regular clients," relates Lin. In contrast, China now claims 30 percent of all patents worldwide, a full half of which are produced in Shanghai and the surrounding Yangtze River Delta region. And there are more clients and undeveloped markets there to tap into, whether from foreign firms, state-run enterprises, or Taiwanese companies. It is exactly such unexplored territory that prompted Lin to put himself to the test in Shanghai.

The upscale dumpling restaurant Din Tai Fung in Shanghai's Portman Ritz-Carlton shopping mall is packed at noon with white-collar professionals of all descriptions. Assistant general manager Joe Zhuang circulates around the establishment, greeting regular customers in fluent English.

The former manager of a famous American-style chain restaurant in Taiwan, Zhuang gave up a stable career in Taiwan and chose to begin anew in Shanghai with "opportunity" and "space" as his main considerations. Zhuang relates that although he did well for himself in Taiwan, chain restaurants had neared the saturation point, leaving nowhere higher to climb. In contrast, in Shanghai the potential for the restaurant market is "immeasurably deep." Zhuang likens the city to an experimental farm where a hundred flowers can bloom.

"Notice how the shops in Xintiandi and the Bund take on a new look every few months. It's very stimulating, and when business operators come to Shanghai, they become bolder at trying out new ideas," Zhuang relates. "It's busier and more hectic than Taipei, but it also offers challenges and a sense of achievement that are hard to find in Taipei."

The service professionals Taiwan is most proud to call its own are relocating to Shanghai in droves, and many are racking up impressive achievements. This is good news, but also a warning sign.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman