Treaty of Nanking

Where the streets are not always paved with gold

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 January, 2012, 12:00am


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Shanghai's international community has been buzzing with gossip about an expat scandal.

Scores of unsuspecting tenants are complaining they have been swindled out of large sums of cash after their Canadian landlord skipped town with their deposits.

Ryan Fedoruk is alleged to have run out over Christmas on 80 people who gave him a total of 340,000 yuan (HK$417,800) in down payments and advance rent on rooms in 30 apartments he was subletting. The real landlords have thrown the victims out onto the street, claiming rent had been unpaid for months.

Shanghai police are looking into the claims, but were initially reluctant to pursue the case due to a lack of evidence. According to local media, most of the victims had no formal contracts, just handwritten notes detailing their deposits and due dates for the rent.

The apparent swindle says much about the trusting nature (call it gullibility, if you like) of emigre societies, and the swiftly changing face of this metropolis.

Shanghai's expatriate community is growing rapidly. At the end of 2010 (the most recent figures available), there were more than 162,000 foreign residents in the city - up more than 60 per cent on the figure just five years before.

That may be well under 1 per cent of the general population, but foreign numbers are concentrated in specific pockets. Walk down tree-lined streets in the gentrified French Concession, and at times white faces outnumber locals.

But that increase in sheer numbers masks another change. There may be more foreigners, but they are increasingly less affluent, experienced and connected.

A decade or so ago, if you met a foreigner in Shanghai, the chances were they would be a senior executive preparing for a company's push into the mainland market, or consolidating their manufacturing base. Five years ago, spouses and children were coming in tow as well.

Today, it is just as likely that a random foreigner is a fresh graduate teaching English at a kindergarten on a tourist visa.

Shanghai was once considered a hardship posting - an opinion that held true right up to a few years ago - but it is increasingly becoming known as a party posting.

Young graduates are flocking from all corners of the globe, looking for experience and opportunity in China, just as multinationals are downsizing their commitments in terms of overseas staff and localising management.

Overseas companies that have been on the mainland for a decent period now have well-established internal structures, and no longer need to bring in so much home-grown talent to knock things into shape. That trend accelerated a couple of years ago when the global financial crisis caused accountants the world over to review the cost of big expatriate packages.

Interestingly, during the same period a slew of other businesses seem to have belatedly woken up to the emergence of the mainland economy and, in a panic, raced to establish a China base - for little reason other than because they heard everyone else was going.

Where before they would have sent one of their most seasoned senior managers, many now seem to be trying to do this on the cheap. Wide-eyed, junior executives (single, naturally, saving the company a fortune in housing and international school fees) can be seen bumbling around the city, attempting to implement a fuzzy and barely thought through China brief.

And then there are those fresh graduates coming on spec, looking for a chance to make it.

The suggestion of going to the mainland - even just for a short backpacking jaunt - used to raise eyebrows in the West, clearly marked out as something only the most adventurous of travellers would contemplate. Those days are gone - the path to China's door is now well-trampled.

Tales of the country being awash with rich opportunities, coupled with gloomy job prospects back home, are an attractive lure, and innocent Whittingtons are arriving looking for the streets of gold. Many arrive with little knowledge of the country or the language, and don't seem to think that strange.

It's little wonder that the predatory instincts of some less scrupulous types are tingling.

The Fedoruk case isn't surprising because of its scale or the deviousness of the alleged deceit. The real surprise is that these things don't happen more often.