Casey Hall: Journalist, Author & Decade-Long Resident of Shanghai
Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance
Living in a foreign country for over a decade you certainly pick up a thing or two about local culture. Casey Hall is no exception, a journalist and author who moved to Shanghai in 2007 with her husband, when the idea of living and working in China was still somewhat foreign, and cities like London were the popular choice. Over ten years and two kids later, Hall is as at-home as ever, and took some time out of her busy schedule to share with Advance a snapshot of her life in Shanghai.
Out of all the places in the world that you could've been a freelance writer in, why did you choose Shanghai?
I studied to be a journalist at RMIT in Melbourne, and started working soon after as producer and researcher for Channel 7’s Today Tonight. Like most Australians, I was planning to go to London for a few years, but it just so happened my boyfriend and my best friend were both planning to go to China: my boyfriend to open his own company and my best friend to teach English. Coming to Shanghai meant we could really make things happen for ourselves; we wouldn’t have to be reliant on other companies or people or circumstances. We came here in 2007, and we've been here ever since.
How much has Shanghai changed in the 10 years that you've been there?
It's changed so much in many different ways. There was a huge period of change around 2010, when the World Expo came to Shanghai and the local government really made an effort to remake the city.
ON WORKING ENTITLEMENTS…
What working entitlements do you have as journalist in Shanghai? Are you able to work for many different companies?
Yes I am. It's interesting – the English language media sphere here is very small so it wouldn't seem like there's a lot of opportunity to work, but there's also not too many experienced people, and those who do speak English here are transient. I’ve been here quite a while and have established myself in the industry, so when an English language publication from overseas is looking for a practitioner, I quite often I get recommended. Things are very different now from when I first started, however. When I first came in 2007, I didn't speak any Chinese.
Are you still on a working visa now, or have you become a permanent resident after being there for quite a while?
We’re still on working visas, which need to get renewed every year. Renewals are easier than getting a new visa, but even that can take up to four weeks to get back. All four passports! So there is that limitation, we can't plan any travel around the time when we're getting our visas done.
ON LIVING AS A WESTERNER IN CHINA…
Did you need to speak Chinese when you first arrived?
I didn't, I'd have to say. The first four years I was here, I was working as the managing editor of the English language division of a magazine publishing company. So I was in charge of all the English language publication. By the time I left that job, all the applications we received were amazing; they were people who spoke amazing Chinese, had really great degrees, and had really interesting experiences. It was a bit of a stroke of luck that we came before many people were paying a lot of attention to Shanghai. My Chinese is quite good now, but if I tried to enter China now doing what I do, I think I would struggle.
Was it difficult to learn Chinese?
It is difficult to learn Chinese! After 10 years of learning (and two of those years learning full time) I still do five hours of class a week. I'm actually a bit hooked on it! My Chinese is fine for day to day life for communication, but I'm also increasingly working and interviewing in Chinese. Because I write about a lot of different subjects, I just can't imagine getting to a point where I won't need to study specific vocab before doing interviews, for example.
Is it easy to sustain a western lifestyle in China?
It's much easier than it used to be. When we first came in 2007, for example, it was really hard to buy things like nice bread and cheese and coffee. Life is much more convenient now for westerners than it was 10 years ago.
It really does depend on how international you want to be. If you're buying Chinese food or Chinese take-away for lunch, then you're definitely going to be spending less money than if you want to buy western food at every meal. If we're cooking at home, we don't cook Chinese food, but we do order a lot of Chinese food, or eat out at a lot of Chinese restaurants. It is quite delicious!
Is there any one thing that you wish you had known before you moved over?
When I started learning Chinese, I only learned speaking and listening. I didn't initially learn characters, because I just wanted to be able to communicate with people as fast as possible. But I very quickly hit a wall. If you know characters, it becomes easier to understand and differentiate words.
I was essentially living blind for my first four years in China because I couldn't read anything. It's made my life so much easier to be able to read. I really recommend to people, try and do it properly from the start, because it will mean a lot of saved time!
ON LIFE IN SHANGHAI…
Do you work on any specific Asia-related topics in your writing with your clients, or is it just a complete mix of things?
Most of my work is China-focused. The people who hire me do so because they're interested in what's happening in China, and want to have some insight into that from the outside looking in. So I write a lot about Chinese consumers and the rise of China's middle class. I write quite a bit about arts and design, and actually I wrote a book last year about interior design in Shanghai.
The other thing I've been writing about a lot is technology, because the technology sphere in China is so different than anywhere else in the world. The social media world is completely unique. The kind of innovation companies employ here is unlike elsewhere in the world. So that's also a really interesting thing that I've been covering the last couple of years.
What would you recommend to someone visiting Shanghai as a tourist? Are there any specific things that you would suggest they do for a weekend?
It depends what they're into, but I always take people to see a small museum called the Propaganda Poster Art Center (PPAC). It's run by a guy who was collecting propaganda posters from China's 20th century history, and put them all in one place. He's arranged them chronologically, so you can kind of see the story of China's 20th century history, told through these posters. It's really interesting.
There are also a whole bunch of really excellent museums at the Bund area – a place where everyone should have a meal!
ON THE FUTURE…
Do you have any plans to move back to Australia?
We’d love to move back to Australia eventually, it’s really just a matter of timing. It’s been so easy for me to work here and do my own thing, which is great when you have young children because I can have more freedom to be home with them when I want to.
We do have a nanny here, who works Monday through Friday, and it's really affordable to have that kind of help, much more affordable than it would be in Australia. But that savings gets reversed once the kids get to primary-school age, because schools here are so expensive. It is possible to go to a public Chinese school, but very few of them admit foreign passport holders.