As part of our relocation to Beijing, we got a house hunting trip to find a place to live. Because Stac was recovering from surgery still, I asked our good friend Shari to come along with us. Stac and I have known Shari for 20+ years; it was she that first went with Stac to Taiwan while they were in college. She is fluent in Chinese, having lived in Taiwan for over 6 years. She’d help me navigate Beijing and locate a school and an apartment in Beijing. We left Seattle on Saturday the 4th and arrived in Beijing on Sunday and made our way to TangShan DaXia hotel. This was right across the street from the Ocean Center where Amazon’s headquarters are located. It was not however one of the big nice western hotels, more like a Chinese La Quinta. Located at a very confusing junction of Jintong Expressway where the elevated 3rd ring road swirled above the local streets. As we would come to find out it wasn’t in a super easy to get to location. In the course of our stay we’d end up being abandoned by several taxi drivers and miss the exit and overshoot by a mile or so a couple of times having to loop back. This was our base of operations in finding a place for us to live.
Relocation with a large company such as Amazon involves several amenities designed to ease transition to a foreign assignment. One of these is the services of a relocation company that coordinates your move, for me this was Graebel a large company with offices throughout the world. My coordinator Gareth was located in Singapore; he coordinated sub-contracting a myriad of agencies to preform many of the relocation tasks. For example a Colorado Graebel employee contacted me about coordinating our move, whom I am sure will contract with another local company to pack our air shipments to Beijing and pack our belongs for storage. They will further sub-contract with one company to store our goods and yet another company to transport them. Assisting me in getting a work visa was handled by a local Beijing company : Fragomen. My house hunting trip was coordinated with a different local Beijing relocation company : Asian Tigers. At times I felt there were 10 layers between me and the task at hand. For example in Beijing our Asian Tigers coordinator Andrea (who was awesome by the way) arranged for a real estate agent to show us apartments. These real estate agents in turn would work with property management and landlords.
Finding the right apartment in Beijing is a daunting task; there are 22 million people. It is a huge sprawling city that is modernizing at a rapid pace. First a little bit about the way Beijing is laid out as a city. Beijing means northern capital, anciently it more often than not housed the dynastic home of the Emperor (Sometimes they ruled from Nanjing which is Southern Capital). The center of Beijing is and was located at what is now the Forbidden City. This imperial complex was in turn surrounded by series of narrow alleyways known as Hutongs which were lined with courtyard homes. These traditional homes have doorways that lead inward to a courtyard surrounded on the remaining three sides by rooms for sleeping and eating. This ancient city occupied a very small subset of what is today modern Beijing and was surrounded by a great city wall. This wall has since been torn down and is replaced by what is known as the 2nd Ring Road which loops around the city, there is by the way no first ring road. (There still is a section of this city wall preserved in a park north of the Forbidden City). Successive ring roads surround the city in huge beltways circling outward in the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th ring road. Obviously the further out the ring road the further you are from the city center. For reference the airport is just inside the 6th ring road around 30km from the city center. The main office buildings are located within the Central Business District which is just east of the ancient city from the 3rd ring road to the 4th ring road. (Map)
Within the city there are several options for housing and there are trade offs based on various factors. Some of these factors weren’t a consideration prior to my visit, and only became a priority while visiting. The most important criteria was based on location and interaction between the three most important places : Location of the school we choose for the children, location of the office and location of the apartment. It was important for us to have our housing close to the schooling to minimize the amount of time the kids spent traveling to and from school. The office was obviously already decided, its located at the edge of the 4th ring road in the Central Busines District. We were considering 5 major international schools in Beijing that instruct in English as their primary language. Two of them the International School of Beijing and Western Academy of Beijing are located in the ShunYi District outside the 5th ring round, out near the airport. These are located way outside the city center which would result in a long commute to the office (upwards of 45 minutes). There is also a lot of ex-pat housing out in ShunYi that are compounds with gated communities, guards, security and even neighborhoods with single unit stand alone houses, which in China they call Villas. Some people have said living out there is like living in Arizona. Given the long commute to work and the isolation we quickly ruled this out.
We wanted to live somewhere inside the 4th ring road. The three other schools are all located inside the 4th Ring Road : Beijing International School (BISS), Yew Chung International School of Beijing (YCIS Beijing) and Beijing City International School (BCIS). BISS was north and a bit further away from work, though situated closer to the foreign embassies. We ruled this out. This came down to YCIS and BCIS, both are fairly close to each other. We visited both for 90 minutes or so. YCIS is renowned for their Chinese immersion program; from grades 1-5 kids have two teachers in each class team teaching; one speaking in English and the other speaking in Chinese. They are not translating but both are teaching and speaking in turn in alternating language. Every student from 1-3 years also learns to play the violin. Students wear uniforms and they follow the British education system, which seems to put a big emphasis on testing (as does the American system unfortunately). The school grounds are just west of ChaoYang Park and its around 15 years old. The facilities are a bit on the smaller side and look as you’d expect a bit older. BCIS is a relatively new school, only 6 years old; they started as elementary and have expanded to Middle and High Schools in the last two years. They use the the IB program and there seems to be more focus on education vs. testing. The facilities are amazing. Very large and open; they have a full size outdoor track and soccer field. They have a very large three basketball gymnasium, a rock climbing wall and a nice large pool. They seem to place a big emphasis on techlogy with the kids creating wiki pages and using multi-media. We really liked BCIS the best and the Friday before we left I went and paid our registration fees.
This left focused us on housing. Our local relocation contact was Andrea Tang with Asian Tigers. Work only gave me three days with them, one of these days I wanted to reserve for when we arrived to set up bank account, get a drivers license etc. So this left us with two days during our 5 day visit. We planned on going out with Andrea on Wednesday and Friday. Tuesday Shari and I set off with a map in a Taxi to driver around neighborhoods, within 5 minutes we’d gotten into some trouble and that turned into a very long day. After getting out of the police station we went with Tu to Fuli Cheng a huge apartment development just south of the Central Business District. This complex was no different from the many we would see over the course of the next four days : a large series of high rise buildings surrounded by a fence and gauards (every place has gaurds in Beijing, even the parking garages and parking lots outside of restaurants have guys dressed in faux gaurd outfits), a club house and a courtyard in the center. We parked underneath and made our way up into the courtyard; we saw a phone number in an apartment window, which we called and met a local real estate agent. He took us around to see three different apartments. They varied in size, though most were 3-4 bedrooms. The agent noted that the complex was mostly comprised of local chinese, though there were 20-30 % foreigners in one of the other complexs. (Fuli Cheng has District A, B, C and D). One of them was on the 26th floor and has amazing views. One of the 4 bedrooms was in a lowrise on the top floor at 8 stories, but had very small rooms. These complexes were on the “older” side and bit more lived in, but not desheveled in any sense of the word. One of the things I really liked was it was in the middle of the CBD, it had nice retail shops all around and felt a bit like what it might in New York City.
The next day Andrea picked Shari and I up at Starbucks and off we went. That day we visited five different properties and saw from 2-3 apartments in each complex. A typical visit to see an apartment would involve the following people : Andrea from Asian Tigers, with the driver waiting outside in the van. We would pick up the real estate agents in route. At the property we would meet a property management person who had the keys to the properties. Entering the apartment would be six people : Myself, Shari, Andrea, two real estate agents and a property management handler. Sometimes we’d also meet the landlord. Every place we went into we’d have to wear plastic booties over our shoes, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. They rattled across the floor as we walked through. One of the properties that I really wanted to look at was a traditional Chinese courtaryd, these are located in the narrow hutong alleyways in Beijing. The properties for rent have been remodeled and modernized. Typical courtyard homes do not even have bathrooms, but share public bathrooms and showers. Some of the areas Nanchizi have been completely rebuilt. The appeal of living in these is that they are very very quiet, despite the hustle and bustle of a huge city, by the time you wind your way down the alleys and into the buildings the noise has dissapeared. They have courtyards with a tree and a place you can see the sky. You are more among the local population than among all expats. However after viewing on, it became clear that while ideal and romantic they were impractical because of their location. HuTong’s are only inside the second ring road, inside the boundaries of the ancient Beijing city. This meant at least a 45-60 minute commute to their school, more than likely by a hired driver as there are no school buses that run this far. (Yes BCIS has a school bus along many of the major complexes in the nearby area).
While we drove away from the HuTong I asked the real estate agent what precentage of foreginers look at HuTongs, he said around 1%, though he said many of the French do. “The French Love Hutong’s” he said. Funnily enough one of my co-workers Beatrice lives in a Hutong with her husband and she is of course French.
The rest of the day we spent touring apartment complexes in ChaoYang District that were in close proximity to BCIS and YCIS. By the end of the day they had begun to blur together a bit but there were some common themes. Most of the kitchens are crap. They are small and narrow as if they are a required aspect, but as an afterthought. Most of them are so narrow you couldn’t really cook in them, let alone eat in them. A kitchen for me is a place to cook and to create; to hang out in and eat. I really dislike eating in dining rooms, or dining rooms adjacent to a living room and a TV. We really wanted one with four bedrooms so that when Kiah came in the summer or we had visitors we’d have room to accomodate them. There are fewer four bedrooms units and they tend to be not only more expensive (obviously) but also on the higher floors. We saw maybe two units that were on the ground floor, but most of them were above the 20th floor. After a while the appeal of living high grew on me, a surreal sense of being above everything and a nice view to boot. Often though we found that 4 bedrooms didn’t mean 4 bedrooms. Sometimes it was 3 + 1, which meant 3 bedrooms with a study, or a small area that they called a bedroom but really wasn’t. The square footage (or square meters) of the apartments varied as well, some times there were four bedrooms but they were small, and the apartment had very little storage space. Some of the apartments were completely over the top, way too huge and way too magnaminous. The apartment complexes had a theme usually and they centered around western sounding names : Central Park, Palm Springs, East Villiage and Park Avenue. Some of these had decorations that were way too austere; one we looked at was all heavy marble Italian style, it felt cold and imposing.
Over the course of our visit I would keep asking about FuLi Cheng, as our real estate agent spoke it was clear this was not an area they dealt with very much. He referred to FuLi Cheng as a “local product”, with Chinese management who wouldn’t see things from a western perspective. The areas he was taking us were a “western product”, with property management companies who would understand us and our needs. These “western products” were also much bigger, much nicer and more expensive. The agents were paid according to the price of the apartment, so they were incented to find you an apartment at the top of your budget. At times you feel like your in a system designed especially for you that you can’ t escape.
For me though we are going to China to live in China, I wanted a Chinese experience. And yet I realized that, while he romantic ideal of a Hutong was appealing, to live there we needed to have enough of our personal comforts to have longevity and staying power. I didn’t want to give up on location for my children and my own commute and if I was going to have to live in a high rise I figured we may as well be high. While we will end up living in a complex comprised mostly of ex-pats, we weren’t living way outside the city and we’ll have to work hard to ensure we have a Chinese experience. We’ll have to work to ensure we don’t cloister ourself inside and we explore the world around us.
I am really glad that I was able to go on a house hunting trip, while it was a dizzying whirlwind I had a much better sense of the city, of areas, neighborhoods and apartments. I’d seen a lot in a short week and we did find something. 15 minutes for the kids, 15 minutes for me (or a 25 minute walk). We are just south of ChaoYang Park where I hope to be able to run. And we aren’t too far from getting into downtown where we can explore and enjoy all that Beijing has to offer.