The expat way-back machine: first impressions of Zhuhai

As we are in the midst of building a fourth new life abroad, I have indulged myself in revisiting a grim slice of time from our first move abroad: a pre-move recon visit to Zhuhai, China. 

Picture it: George Bush Jr is still president, something like four people have heard of Facebook and I think that moving to Zhuhai will be an adventurous two-year blip in our otherwise Seattle-based life.

The Zhuhai coastline in 2004. Please note that the "romantic" Chinese building is a guard tower and that the sunset is made brilliant orange due to heavy air pollution.  (photo by my mom, Linda Brown)

The Zhuhai coastline in 2005. Note that the romantically silhouetted building is a guard tower and that the sunset is made brilliantly orange due to heavy air pollution. (photo by my mom, Linda Brown)


Scanning the search results for “Zhuhai,” the first result was a BBC article referencing the Chinese National Air Show being cancelled due to the city’s severe air pollution. Scrolling down, the next several results all described a massive weekend orgy attended by 400 Japanese men and 500 Chinese prostitutes in a hotel with a faux waterfall running down its facade.

Digging deeper, I also learned that Zhuhai, a city of 1.5 million mainly migrant workers, features a long coastline traced by Lover’s Road which is often dotted with brides wearing rented white dresses for wedding portraits by the seaside.

Despite the search results, I remained enthusiastic about the chance to live in China, so in the stonking heat of September, we arrived in Zhuhai for a look-see visit. Our company-sponsored, pre-move tour was conducted by a man who had little grasp of life outside of China, a fluent English speaker named Sailing Ko.

Our first stop was to Zhuhai’s massive public sporting facility. Visiting this space-ship shaped, cement building required crossing glaringly white acres of paving in the blazing hot sun. Trailing Mr. Ko and my husband, I reached the structure itself and entered an enormous room. When my eyes adjusted to the contrasting dimness, I saw that it was filled from end to end with ping-pong tables. I then smelt a whiff of chlorine and was led through to the Olympic-sized pool full of swimming-capped pensioners exercising. Would I buy a swim cap and hang out here on weekday mornings? Would I spend my evenings playing ping-pong? I was open to anything and mulled this over as we walked back across the paving to the car holding Mr. Ko’s proffered umbrella over my head as a sun parasol (this was the first time in my life I would have imagined using an umbrella to shield the sun).

Mr. Ko was surprised that my husband wanted to see a health club for our next stop, but happily obliged by taking us to a spa dwarfed by a vaulted, marble foyer and filled with beautiful young women wearing matching, floor-length, sea green dresses. It was only when we asked to see the fitness equipment that both sides realized the depth of our misunderstanding.

Mr. Ko, hoping to ease our minds about the availability of food that would be to our liking, then took us to the international food departments of several grocery stores. Scanning the shelves for imported products we found tinned tuna, Green Giant canned corn, Kraft American cheese singles and Campbell’s oxtail soup.

Housing was the last part of our look-see tour and Mr. Ko handed us over to a shiny, young real estate agent with a suit-pocket full of mobile phones and hair stiff with gel. Mr. Slick assumed, without asking, that all foreigners wanted to live on the outskirts of town in houses that resembled the set of the old American soap opera Dynasty: overly big and vulgar with massive golden chandeliers, fussy draperies, and gilt, overstuffed furniture. Convincing him that we would rather live in the city-center, he showed us apartments housed in buildings tiled in pink with blue-tinted windows and kitchens covered in a patina of ten years’ grease.

And then, dumbstruck, we flew back to Seattle to pack.

We moved to Zhuhai six weeks later and swiftly swapped Mr. Slick for a savvy Taiwanese friend who helped us find an apartment with a clean kitchen and sea views. I never again visited the Olympic-sized swimming pool or purchased a can of Campbell’s oxtail soup. We greatly enjoyed our four years there.

Take-away: look-see visits may be useless. In fact, I haven’t gone on one since.


20 responses to “The expat way-back machine: first impressions of Zhuhai

  1. You had me at oxtail soup – there is something about China and cans of Kraft corn and oxtail soup. Of course, the palatial marbled foyers and buildings were bowling alleys when I first visited a smaller city in China in the early 2000s. It was the first (and last) time I’d ever seen bowling raised to the level of golf courses.

    PS: This is the second time I’d heard of the name “Sailing”. I can’t figure out phonetically what it’s suppose to represent in Chinese. Can you? (I’m thinking, “Selling”, but that might be too obvious.)

    • I always assumed he chose “Sailing” as an English name. Maybe he had a thing for that Christopher Cross song of the same name ….

      From your reference to “upscale” bowling and and palatial foyers, I can see that you’ve also visited the Zhuhai Holiday Resort. Nothing says close like Donald Duck shaped garbage cans.

  2. I take my hat off to you – I spent one night in Zhuhai back in 1996 and it was enough to last a lifetime. Basically a dirt ridden scummy hole where beggars and prostitutes outnumbered the pedestrians and the only decent meat you could get in restaurants was cat. I guess that improved it a lot within the next 10 years or are you just absolutely hardcore? 🙂

  3. I’ve only seen look-see visits work in one way – giving the visitor some hope that there will be friendly faces. On my look-see to India I met two women who went on to became my friends; in turn I helped a visiting family when I was leaving India. In China one British family came on a look-see from their other posting in Korea, and I was introduced to them.
    These were all situations where the husbands worked for big companies; and the wives established a network. More chance of honest assessments of the new destination over good food and drink; less chance of a visit to a “health club”.

  4. The sun/rain umbrellas… I love them. I think I am going to bring them back to America with me (if we ever go back) and cause some heads to turn. I will also probably start a trend, because I am just that awesome… hahah.. well, probably not the trend, but definitely the turned heads.

    • A few reasons, I suppose: (1) I find I miss China quite a bit from time to time and get nostalgic (even in Hong Kong, I missed China); (2) it’s odd to think about the whole new life with two children in tow that I’m living now that I wouldn’t have dreamt up then; and (3) I thought I’d take a break from writing about how awesome cycling is in Utrecht!

  5. I haven’t been to Zhuhai (we were living in Shenzhen, so it would have been really close), but my husband always said we should go and just relax for a weekend. I think a lot must have changed, people always say it’s one of the cleanest and most liveable cities around. Not sure if that’s true.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s