Asia’s world cities are the most expensive expat destinations, says Mercer’s Cost of Living Survey

Tokyo skyline

Asia remains an attractive place for work opportunities in 2017, especially amidst Brexit uncertainty and what not, but several of its more established expat destinations are also proving the most expensive anywhere in the world, relative to New York.

The latest Cost of Living Survey from Mercer shows that Asia’s financial hubs Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore are among the top 5 priciest locations worldwide, with Shanghai and Seoul also appearing in the top 10. This won’t be a surprise to many; there has been plenty of media coverage lately over the astronomical cost of housing in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Top of Mercer’s survey of more than 400 cities, however, is a destination considerably less iconic than Asia’s shiny metropolises – Luanda:

  1. Luanda
  2. Hong Kong
  3. Tokyo
  4. Zurich
  5. Singapore
  6. Seoul
  7. Geneva
  8. Shanghai
  9. New York
  10. Bern

The Angolan capital, still more likely to be the subject of a pub quiz question than rolling off the tongue of your average traveller, has seen increased demand for quality housing against a limited supply through expats pouring in over the past decade.

With Luanda also lording over the list in 2014 and 2015, like a perennial Champions League winner, it’s unlikely that other cities – microapartments and all – will knock it off its perch any time soon.

Another world city, London, has meanwhile seen a plunge in its cost of living to 30th place from 17th. Unsurprisingly Brexit is named as the cause of this, because of the pound weakening before and after the EU referendum. This comes after a similar report in March from the EIU showed a fall in London’s cost of living.

Belt and Road promises to open up Asia like never before

Other than the takeover of Reading FC by the Dai siblings, the big announcement coming out of China this month that will change the world as we know it was the 900 billion dollar “One Belt, One Road” project.

Sounding like a line from a syrupy U2 song, One Belt, One Road refers to a Chinese initiative of unprecedented scale that will see more than 60 countries connected through high-speed rail, bridges, harbours, tunnels, airports and goodness knows what else in the next 5 years…hyperloops and spaceports maybe. Hence “Belt” and “Road” (though confusingly the “Road” is the sea – the so-called Maritime Silk Road). As the professional world loves acronyms, One Belt, One Road is also known as OBOR, not to be mistaken for something cobbled together by the banking sector.

While the name doesn’t translate well into English, OBOR has a clear enough vision and even a template from the past: the ancient Silk Road that connected China with Europe, when bearded traders slugged over mountains with camels and spices, and told fantastic tales.

Marco Polo was a long time ago, of course, and today’s Central Asian countries, the “stans” from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan, are relatively unknown to travellers even through they account for a huge chunk of the globe.

Gleaming new highways built with OBOR money might change that, in time helping to make those flyover states between East and West even more appealing destinations. If anything, that midlife London-Kathmandu bike trip should be a less arduous experience.

Railways are shrinking the map further. Earlier this year, the first ever direct train service from China to the UK arrived in Barking after 17 days, passing through 10 countries on a 7,456 mile trip. This was just a freight service., however, and there’s no sign of a commercial service any time soon, which is perhaps just as well: just imagine trying to buy a ticket to China from a train station machine (it’s hard enough finding the right fare from Reading to Oxford).

Commercial bullet train services will, however, string together countries in Southeast Asia. Despite the ubiquity of today’s low-cost airlines, Southeast Asia is not an easy region to navigate.

OBOR will connect Jakarta to Bandung, Indonesia’s third biggest city and creative capital, through a high-speed rail project opening in 2019. More spectacular still, a high-speed line will connect Singapore with Kunming in southern China (Singapore Kunming Rail Link, “SKRL”), through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia.

The 3,000km project will include sections such as Singapore – Kuala Lumpur and Kuala Lumpur – Bangkok. SKRL will, in a sense, “unlock” cities along its route – like the Laotian capital Vientiane – making them more accessible and propelling them into the future. Backpacking through Mekong countries will never be the same again.

Of course, a lot of this might not happen. The world is complicated enough and fraught with uncertainty. But if there is one thing we all need right now, it’s optimism. And OBOR optimism doesn’t get bouncier than this:

Cebu or not Cebu? Startup Oasis provides digital nomad support in Philippines

Beach in Cebu

This might sound cliche, but the Philippines really is a name that conjures up images of idyllic beaches and islands (there are more than 7,000), probably to a larger extent than any other Southeast Asian destination, barring Thailand. Throughout the years the country has proved a strong lure for those seeking an escape or a chance to “find themselves”.

In the 1990s, back when the fax machine was the height of sophistication, young author Alex Garland was inspired to write his Gen-X classic The Beach after spending six months in El Nido (while the book itself was set in Thailand). And the rest, as they say, is history, with Garland more recently directing Oscar-winning Ex Machina. Such is the creative power of getting away from it all (while I’m admittedly still waiting for my own lightning bolt of inspiration).

Cebu City is a little more accessible than mystical El Nido, and that’s no bad thing. Budding entrepreneurs can easily escape the pressure cookers that are Hong Kong and Singapore by flying over to Cebu for the weekend, where thanks to Startup Oasis they can get an idea off the ground before swimming with manta rays (soothing for those pummelled brain cells).

Startup Oasis as the name suggests, is a sanctuary for startups, providing co-working, co-living and business support from a large villa (almost like a cross between The Apprentice and a tropical Big Brother, minus the television cameras).

Experienced designers and developers will take on an idea, shape it, and turn it into a web or mobile product, interacting with resident entrepreneurs throughout.

There are three packages available: prototype development for two weeks, a one-month summer camp for those “sleeping on an idea for too long”, and a three-month programme for existing entrepreneurs who need an extra pair of hands.

And thereafter, who knows? Perhaps we will see a new Alex Garland emerge, inspired by Cebu and fit for the post-capitalist age. How does an augmented reality version of swimming with whale sharks sound?

Le Wagon hosts digital nomad meetup in Shanghai

X-Space in Shanghai

The digital nomad movement is normally associated with spiritual places like Bali and Chiang Mai, rather than the financial hubs of this world – and for good reason. But as the name suggests, digital nomadism denotes location independence, and so the trend is rapidly finding its way into our big cities where you’re more likely to encounter a football field than a rice field.

And big cities frankly don’t come much bigger than Shanghai, a heaving megalopolis of 24 million souls (more than double the population of Belgium, or eight times the population of Wales, if you prefer), the scene of an upcoming digital nomad meetup.

On 11 May, coding bootcamp specialists Le Wagon Shanghai will deliver a free evening of digital nomadism talks on how to take advantage of our “ultra-connected world to work whatever suits freelancers”. The event will be held at bar/cafe/hipster space X-Space, Jiangning Road near Fengxian Lu, which has the added kudos of being located in my former neighbourhood.

Beginning at 7pm, the evening will include a snapshot of the key challenges relating to the digital nomad lifestyle in Shanghai, short talks from digital nomads on remote work, Q&A and drinks (obviously).

(With special thanks to Brian Tam for alerting me to this.)

From Shanghai to Changchun: cities in China that most appeal to foreigners

West Lake, Hangzhou

In these Brexit times, China is a land of opportunity, but where to even begin? It’s not all Shenzhen and Shanghai (former British PM David Cameron visited Southwest China with his business delegation).

A cursory look at a map of East Asia will reveal a territory of mindboggling size. I once took a flight from Shanghai on the east coast to Chengdu – not even in China’s geographic centre – and landed in Sichuan 3.5 hours later. That’s like going from London to Kiev. A flight from Shanghai to Urumqi will meanwhile take 5.5 hours – the same as going from London to Amman in the Middle East.

A former colleague once asserted that China was more a continent than a country – and I could see his point. Twice the size of the EU (yes, including Britain) and surprisingly diverse, China is also the world’s most populous nation.

Each of China’s provinces could be considered a country in its own right. Take Shanghai – a city whose population exceeds Australia’s – a sprawling society with a thriving economy, its own identity and a language (Shanghainese) spoken by 14 million people (more than the number of native Czech speakers). Shanghai is a virtual country.

And it’s Shanghai where most foreigners gravitate to, according to a new survey. A report released by “China Society for Research on International Professional Personnel Exchange and Development” reveals the cities with most appeal to foreigners living and working in China, based on criteria such as living environment and local culture. The top 10 is as follows:

  1. Shanghai
  2. Beijing
  3. Hangzhou
  4. Qingdao
  5. Tianjin
  6. Shenzhen
  7. Suzhou
  8. Guangzhou
  9. Nanjing
  10. Changchun

If anyone is wondering, like I was, about tenth-placed Changchun, I can tell you that it’s the capital of Jilin province, bordering Russian and North Korea. Changchun is home to some 7.6 million, making it slightly bigger than Hong Kong. It’s also an important industrial base, known in China as the “City of Automobiles”.

It would be no surprise to see more cities appeal in the years to come, as foreigners explore more of the country. Some China urban areas are seemingly sprouting from nowhere, like volcanic islands rising from the sea, while other cities, from Beihai to Dezhou, are busy putting themselves on the international map.

And finally, while I’m not resident in China, of the 10 cities listed above my vote would go to Qingdao. Beaches, seafood and fresh Tsingtao beer served straight from the keg in takeaway bags.