The Shanghai Supposition: Better Choices=More Choices=Better Experiences

By Jabulani Leffall on 13 March 2008 18 comments

I’m in Shanghai, China on a business trip right now, (read working vacation) and in my time away from working at the Jin Mao tower, which is nestled in the Lujiazui section of the Pudong district, an area that makes Manhattan look like Des Moines (No disrespect to Iowa), I again discovered the wonders of a favorable exchange rate.

When I visited a local tailor during a rare break, I bought three tailored dress shirts made of Egyptian and Sea Island cotton, designed by me, configured to my exact bodily dimensions and all for a paltry equivalent of $40 each. In Beverly Hills, or even Macy’s I’m paying maybe $500 each for such shirts if I’m lucky and catch a sale. I won’t even mention the criminal discounts I got on one-of-a-kind teas and items for the family.

But this isn’t about extravagance at the expense of a slightly weaker currency. Nor is it about my insatiable taste for fine haberdashery. I already went there in one of my past posts. This is about the $16, 30-mile train rides, the 28-cent round trip subway rides and the $10 five-star, three-course meals. It’s about discovering something new and about frugality and the ridiculous American mark-ups I experience at home.

So I got to thinking, what if I just shopped for my clothing and fine wines in China, or in Malaysia or in Hong Kong or in Prague? What if I saved my money on luxury items and entertainment expenses stateside and created a travel savings account? People have health savings accounts, money market savings accounts. Why not a life experience account? We all know that if I curbed unnecessary shopping here, made different choices about outings to the movies or fine dining or mark ups on exotic ingredients for dishes at home, that I could save a lot of money and gain a lot of goods, time, and experiences money can’t buy.

People I know always use the excuse that they can’t travel because they can’t afford it. Well, I’m here to tell you: with anything it just takes planning. If you plan it out, stretch your expenses, book passage and accommodations on the Pricelines, the TravelZoos, the and the’s of the world, you too can buy Bordeaux Rouge for $6 or look upon the splendor of the Huangpu River and take a deep breath.

As I espouse in these posts again and again, it’s not about what you spend or don’t spend that helps you build wealth or create a quality and standard of living that you enjoy, it’s about choices. After this eye-opening trip, I may never again visit Nordstrom or any of the overpriced boutiques or wine shops. If I told you what I spent on these items you’d have to kill me. Savings are good, eating out is good. Going to Macy's isn't bad. But no one wants to die having never left the town they were reared in and nobody wants to live their lives through other people's travel anecdotes either.

I'm not saying come over here and go nuts or get rich by saving to fly 8,000 miles to shop; nor am I saying waste your money buying cheap goods in a foreign country. What I'm saying is that experience is something you can't buy!

BTW, General Tso is known over here as a war hero and not a spicy delicious chicken dish.

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Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

I love Shanghai!  The food there is great and the shopping is amazing.  There are also great spas on the cheap.  These days the quality of Chinese apparel is very good.  I always get my winter wool coats there at a fraction of the price here, and I always get compliments on them from coworkers and random people.  Once a girl in the mall asked me where I got my coat and I said Shanghai, and she said, "I'm so jealous!"  Shanghai also has amazing architecture from all over the world. 

Here's a picture of my great grandparents in Shanghai in the 40s.  That building is still there:

Jabulani Leffall's picture

Yeah, Xin,

 I've been simply amazed at the historical and cultural relevance of this city and how modern it is and just how cosmpolitan it is, while still being relatively affordable compared to some of its global metropolis counterparts. As someone who has lived in New York and London and been to Paris, I would rank this city above almost all of them. The only drawback is probably the polution. Interesting note, the Cuban food I had here from a Cubano who immigrated here 10 years ago was better than anything in Miami or even Havana for that matter. In the photo that clock tower looks familiar. Is it located on the other side of the Bund from the Pudong New Area the oriental pearl tower and all that?


abulani Leffall

Monetary Gadfly, Common Currency

00000 Broke Blvd. Kitchenette #68 & 1/2

Lowcash, CA 90000-0000

rstlne's picture

I was from Malaysia. It's been a while since I last visited the old country so the pricing gap has narrowed significantly but back then, I could eat out for lunch or dinner for less than US$1. I also rode a rickshaw one time. Imagine a scrawny man pulling my heavy self up the road. Gave him the equivalent of a few US$ for the ride and he was happy. I had clothes and shoes tailor-made there too. The cost of labor for that would be very high in the US but over there, it was inexpensive.

Guest's picture

I would love to visit shanghai and it seems like you are getting some bargain deals, lucky guy.

Guest's picture

A travel fund is a great idea. I do that myself. I put $50 per paycheck and 40% of any extra money (OT, tax refunds, ect) in there. Plus if I resist the siren call of pizza delivery I add in what I would have spent. They money adds up enough pretty fast.

Then I can go where I want, spend what I want, and not feel guilty.

Guest's picture
Peter Jeziorek

Don't forget that services there are cheaper. You can get clothing mended for about 2-5 RMB, hair cut for 20 RMB, teeth cleaned for 50 RMB, back massaged for 60 RMB/hr, cell phone fixed, etc. If you plan it right and buy goods and services in China that you would've bought anyways and for top dollar in the US, the trip could pay itself. Of course, this will require some restraint.

I'm sure Europeans and Canadians are coming to the US with the dollar so low compared to their currencies with the same kind of reaction

Guest's picture

This is a great idea. Then downside is people that don't have the ability to travel due to work, kids etc.

I do wish there were more direct route ways to take advantage of the exchange rate. I did find some really good deals on things like Sari fabric via the India version of Ebay. But It wouldn't let me join Ebay India to actually purchase things.

There also used to be a few expats that sold things they bought in Hong Kong, they were closer to US prices but still a pretty good deal.

I would love to see more direct sale options come available, along with some level of assurances you will actually get your items and not get your c-card number stolen.

Guest's picture

I live on $325 / week after taxes (on a single income). Yeah, makes life boring because I cannot afford to do anything but rent a couple dvd's every month. Sure, if I lived in my car, it would save some green, but living in Michigan makes that next to impossible. Also, makes for a crowded space when the kids come to visit.

I'm glad you can afford to travel abroad by cutting down on buying $500 shirts. Maybe if I stopped eating altogether, I could too.

Guest's picture

The exchange rate is actually not favorable right now with China--your dollars are worth less, and Yuans are worth more than they were a year or two ago. The dollar's not tanked as much as it has vs. the euro, but still, in general, a weak dollar means its more costly for Americans to buy goods abroad ***than it would be if the dollar were strong*** On a finance blog, you'd better get your financial facts straight.

So while tailored suits may be cheaper in Shanghai, it has nothing to do with the exchange rate and everything to do with low costs of labor, overhead, regulatory mechanisms, and everything else.

When you think about how cheap goods are in certain foreign countries, I think it's good to have a mature understanding of what produces that effect. Abysmally low wages, for starters-if you were a resident of China performing your same duties for a Chinese company, how much would you be making, and would that $40 shirt seem like an impossible splurge?

As to your closing point about choosing to spend money on travel and experiences over "stuff"--there, my man, you are right on the money. Especially when you're young.

Jabulani Leffall's picture


Thanks for your comment and thanks for you agreeing with me on the last sentence. At any rate, I'm quite aware of how currency works. While the Yuan has appreciated against the dollar tremendously the Yuan RMB is not regularly traded and in global forex circulation. It is pegged against the dollar, which stabalizes the currency and makes my dollars stretch over there.

BTW, I'm here now and I'm a U.S. citizen so a hypothetical scenario of me being a Chinese citizen is irrelevant. One question on the currency when and how is 7 to 1 not favorable?  You also underestimate the 200 million people who are now in the Chinese middle class and can afford to spend 210 yuan on a shirt on a tailored shirt or 50 yuan on authentic tea, comparable discounts on property and a stronger dollar than the yuan still buys more stake in a Chinese company than it could otherwise. The list goes on and on.

Also, Eqyptian Cotton, like tea and other raw materials is the same as it is everywhere. In the case of these fabrics U.S. and Eurporean companies likely get it from Egypt and China and other countries for dozens of bucks less than I paid and mark it up by as much as 1,000 percent, smack Versace or some stupid brand name on it and the mark up is as much as 3000 percent. A lot of the pricing over here is based on what consumers are willing to pay for brand loyalty.

I'm not saying come over here and get rich or even waste you money buying cheap goods in a foreign country. What I'm saying is that experience is something you can't buy.



Jabulani Leffall

Monetary Gadfly, Common Currency

00000 Broke Blvd. Kitchenette #68 & 1/2

Lowcash, CA 90000-0000

Guest's picture
Aaron H

I had the same type of epitome a few years ago on my first trip to asia. The price of things makes you evaluate how you spend and budget back home.
However, as I explain to people how goods and services are so much cheaper in other countries (depending on the region), the counterpoint is that the cost of the travel itself (planes/hotels/visas) equalize and savings from buying goods or services outside the US.

For example, your custom shirt, while 40 bucks in china, would cost between 100-500 in the US. Flights to china are between $500-$1000 and a hotel stay $20-$100. For you to reap the full rewards of cheaper goods and services you need to either buy in bulk, or have somebody else foot the travel bill (as in your case).
Sometimes people will fly to HK or china for tailored goods, while othertimes they will pay for the convience of getting thier shirts down the street at Macy's at a higher price.

I understand where you are coming from, the Thai restaurant will charge 7 bucks for pad thai while you can find it on the streets of chiang mai for less that 50 cents. I've got my travel budget!!

Jabulani Leffall's picture


Thanks for your comment. My whole point, as you expounded on, was that anyone can go down the street. The shirts were just one example the whole experience in customization, heirlooming, hand craftsmanship. Not to mention the teas and the slew of other items and the sub $100 five star hotels. Just so you know, save a few business receipts for travel and meal related expenses, the airfare and hotel was footed by moi. If I told you how little it was due to planning and piecemealing my reservations over a couple of months, you'd kill me. Plus as you mentioned, I have the added bonus of expensing those miscellenous receipts. Convenience has it's place as you so aptly pointed out but anybody can go to Macy's. or for that matter they're local dry cleaners. But nothing beats a $3 Cuban cigar over looking the inlet to the East China sea, I gotta tell you. My father's vacation happened to overlap with my work and conference schedule and to see him tear up over being in China with his son; to get measured for shirts together and laugh and bond; to see the possibilities of humanity in the eyes of millions of people I've never seen before -- some of whom had never set eyes on a black man -- garners a feeling that even the $1.5 trillion in U.S. Currency reserves that China has can't buy. And If I can skip some trips to Sam's Club or Brooks Brothers or Arclight Cinemas or any of the number of places I go to for things I don't need, I can experience that feeling, with or without material goods, over and over again. 

Jabulani Leffall

Monetary Gadfly, Common Currency

00000 Broke Blvd. Kitchenette #68 & 1/2

Lowcash, CA 90000-0000

Guest's picture

Hey now... Des Moines is not such a bad place. It is certainly no Manhattan, but neither is it Boise. Des Moines is bigger and more happening that you think, although it certainly could be more so.

I'm not quite sure why Iowa is always the first place people bring up when trying to make a point about sleepy, out of touch states. Iowans are spread out among a number of decent sized cities and have a great public education system. And if you hadn't guessed, it's the state I'm from.

Please don't dump on my dear old Des Moines!

David DeFranza's picture

I really, really hate to nitpick, but The Bund is actually in the Huangpu District of Shanghai, across the river from Pudong. Thus, if you are standing near the river in Pudong and look across, you see The Bund, and vice versa.

Really, a great article. I agree with you, Jabulani, that there is something really exciting and special about being in China that makes everyday tasks totally fantastic. I think China is the only place in the world I actually enjoy shopping.

Guest's picture

I've heard this from many of my friends who have traveled over there.
It is something I'd like to experience as well.

Guest's picture

Dear Jabulani Leffall,

Do you have any knowledge of recruitment agencies or headhaunters in Shaghai that are placing Americans with Helpdesk/Customer Support Manager skills with local companies. I would very much be interested in coming to live and work for a while ( several years ) in Shankhai!

Thanks in Advance,

Paul Lebo
Dallas TX

Jabulani Leffall's picture

I'm actually thinking of moving there myself. First thing to do would be to look into the Zhangjiang Hi- Tech Park and find out what opportunities are out there. Then go on forum like this and find some expatriates already working in the technology sector. I think if you have some time off you should just go, it's cheap to get around and you can meet people and the job market is pretty decent there. If you get stuck perhaps we can chat offline and I'll give you e-mail contact info for the executive manager of the high-tech park.



Jabulani Leffall

Monetary Gadfly, Common Currency

00000 Broke Blvd. Kitchenette #68 & 1/2

Lowcash, CA 90000-0000

Jabulani Leffall's picture

You see how I'm rollin' Google me, find me, play with me like you have been, I'm certain I'll figure it out soon if not immediately. I'm confident that I won't be suprised either. I'm also quite assured that I will be presently suprised by my lack of suprised and exceedingly endeared that you took time out of your schedule for......well I guess we'll figure that out later huh? Here's a clue


Jabulani Leffall

Monetary Gadfly, Common Currency

00000 Broke Blvd. Kitchenette #68 & 1/2

Lowcash, CA 90000-0000