Life on Chongming Island

The Chongming waterfront. You can see Shanghai in the distance.

For the past 2 years, I have lived on Chongming Island (崇明岛 in Chinese characters), which is a little island just off the coast of Shanghai. Unlike Shanghai, it is a very quiet place with lots of green parks and nature reserves, and of course the waterfront. A quick glance at the Wikipedia entry tells me that it has a population of 660,000 and it’s literal English translation is “Lofty Bright Island”. It is mostly known for the unique diversity of wildlife; for example, the migrating birds and the Chongming freshwater crab. Dongping National Forest Park, Dongtan Nature Reserve, Chongxi Wetland Park and Chongming National Geological Park are all located on the island, as well as the delightful Chongming Confucian Temple.

I live in Chengqiao, the largest settlement on the island and home to Nanmen Port. Aside from Chengqiao and some other towns here and there, most of the island is farmland. It’s a very peaceful place to live.

Most of my free time is spent hanging out with friends (there are about 20ish foreigners living in Chengqiao, a mixture of Brits, Canadians and Americans; all of us are EFL teachers in our twenties). In the evenings, we go to various restaurants, host quiz nights, sing at KTV (karaoke) and occasionally head to “Chongming Club” for a night of dancing to weird remixes in an almost empty bar. The quiet lifestyle of the island perhaps wouldn’t suit everybody, but it definitely allows you plenty of downtime to recharge your batteries. There are many places to enjoy walking or cycling at the weekends, and the air is certainly a lot fresher than in Shanghai!

That being said, sometimes I want to spend a weekend in the city to go shopping, enjoy a night out or eat Western foods that I can’t find on Chongming. I’ll talk about things to do in Shanghai in a future post, but for now here are my top 10 favourite things about living on Chongming Island.

1. The waterfront.

The waterfront at sunset. I took this photo in October 2018 at one of our barbecues.

The Chongming waterfront is the perfect place to walk, cycle or just sit with a good book (something I probably do on a weekly basis!). Not only is the view stunning, but the atmosphere is great. There are often locals practicing musical instruments, playing card games or exercising and it’s fun just to feel a part of it all. Ferries to the mainland and other larger freight ships can sometimes be seen departing from Nanmen Port too. Aside from the waterfront at Nanmen, there are also numerous other places you can go to see the view from a more secluded spot. A couple of times my friends and I have had barbecues at one of these spots and it’s always a lovely way to spend a day.

2. The beautiful parks.

One of the biggest parks in Chengqiao with its distinctive Chinese pavilion.

Chongming is home to several beautiful parks. There is an abundance of unusual flowers and greenery, and it feels peaceful. Again, the atmosphere is a key part of the appeal: locals host dance classes here throughout the day as well as playing games such as checkers. I love wandering the winding paths and finding new spots to sit and take it all in. The layout of these parks is deliberately complicated, which means you can always find new corners you never noticed before. Sitting in a corner of a park with an ice cream in the blazing heat of summer allows a welcome escape from the oppressive humidity of the streets.

3. The food.

Catfish – trust me, it tastes sooo much better than it looks!

The food in Chongming is something else. If Western food is what you want, then you’ll be disappointed as there’s only one Western restaurant (and KFC and Pizza Hut) but there are so many varieties of Chinese food, and we find new restaurants all the time. From the Hong Kong style restaurant with its sweet and sour dishes to the restaurant we nickname “KFM” because of its delicious fried mushrooms, there are always enough places to choose from. There are also little eateries selling dumplings or wontons. There’s an outdoor barbecue in the summer, where you choose from a variety of meat or vegetable skewers and they barbecue them in front of you. One of my personal favourites is a catfish restaurant, where you can order a whole catfish cooked in a delicious sauce with potatoes and vegetables to be shared between 2-3 people. They also serve malatang here which is a kind of healthy Chinese style soup.

This is without mentioning the numerous street food stalls selling jianbing (a kind of traditional bread/wrap made with eggs and different fillings and sauces) and other small delights. Needless to say, I always eat well on Chongming!

4. The relaxing.

I only paid ¥80 (approx. £8) for this unreal handpainted Halloween nail art.

Living on Chongming Island sometimes feels like an endless relaxing holiday. Life seems to move at a much slower pace here than in the rest of the world. The availability of cheap massages and manicures means that you can indulge yourself in a pamper session more often than you would be able to elsewhere. I can get a massage for as little as ¥70 an hour (around £7) or a manicure for ¥40 (£4). A typical weekend for me on Chongming involves a meal with friends (often hotpot), a massage and maybe a stroll in the parks or along the waterfront where I often sit and read a good book. It’s rare that I ever experience stress here.

5. The best of both worlds.

The Shanghai skyline as seen from the Bund.

Luckliy, I don’t have to sacrifice city life altogether. Shanghai is easily accessible from the island thanks to the Shanghai Yangtze Bridge and Tunnel which connects the mainland to Chongming. There’s a handy inexpensive bus service from Nanmen Port to one of two metro stations depending which side of Shanghai you’re heading to: either Wuzhou Avenue in the east or Wenshui Road in the west. The bus to Wuzhou takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes, whereas the bus to Wenshui is around 1 hour and 45 minutes. I feel close enough to the city that I can visit at weekends, but far enough away that I don’t have to deal with all the noise and pollution!

6. The cost of everything.

Nanmen Port as viewed from the water.

Nanmen Port is by a mile the cheapest place I have ever lived in. You can eat out in one of the many restaurants for as little as ¥30 (£3) and takeout is often half that price. Rent is insanely cheap (Chongming averages at ¥2000 (£200) per month for a 2 bedroom apartment). Hiring a cleaning lady for an hour (yes, I have a cleaning lady!) only costs ¥20 (£2). I’ve already mentioned the cheap massages and manicures. The cost of living is so affordable that you can live like a millionaire with nothing like a millionaire’s paycheck. Who doesn’t love treating themselves?

7. The community.

My colleague on her wedding day. She invited me even though I’d only known her for 2 months at that time.

Living on Chongming Island often leaves you filled with an overwhelming sense of community. I suppose this could be equally true of any small town anywhere in the world, but I really think Chongming has something different. Perhaps it’s a combination of the small town vibe and the hospitality of Chinese culture, but I have never felt so welcomed or so at home in any other foreign country. My work colleagues epitomise this best, always going out of their way to help me out and introduce me to new elements of Chinese culture. They leave little gifts of food (fruit, candy or other snacks) on my desk. One of my colleagues was generous enough to invite me to her wedding, although I’d only known her for 2 months at that point. Before I went to China, I was worried that I would be left out as the only foreigner in a school, but I’ve always felt very much included.

8. KTV.

KTV is a classic way to spend an evening!

For those who don’t know, KTV is basically karaoke. It isn’t a karaoke bar though. Instead, you pay an hourly rate to rent a karaoke room. The rooms are reasonably sized; you can get them for 6 people plus. Prices vary throughout Shanghai, but on Chongming Island we usually end up paying about ¥10 (£1) each per hour when the price is divided between us. It can sound like a strange concept to those from outside China, but it’s honestly so much fun! We take our own alcohol and usually spend 2-3 hours there, singing and dancing to all the classics. They generally have a fairly good selection of English songs. The only downside is that I always wake up the next day with a creaky throat from screaming into the microphone!

9. The language practice.

My HSK2 textbook to learn Mandarin Chinese. There are many HSK levels to indicate how fluent you are.

For anyone who wants to learn Mandarin Chinese, it’s best to steer clear of big cities like Shanghai as they often have a high population of English speakers and it’s far too tempting to only speak English. On Chongming Island however, few people know any English at all which forces you to speak Mandarin. Even without intentionally studying, I picked up quite a lot of vocabulary and when I actually started trying I was able to learn even more! Hopefully I will be able to pass my HSK2 exams soon, fingers crossed. I reckon the immersive experience of living in a place like this has definitely given me a much higher advantage!

10. The friendships.

With some of my Chongming besties on a trip to Disneyland (that’s me in the red coat!).

Undoubtedly, the greatest thing about Chongming Island is the friendships I’ve made. When you’re all foreigners trying to deal with small island life together, you tend to stick together like glue and the friendships forged from this are some of the strongest friendships of my life. Over the course of the last 2 years, we’ve laughed together, cried together and even spent 2 Christmases together. I’ll honestly be heartbroken to leave these lovely people behind! But I know that the friendships will be unbreakable no matter where in the world we all end up.

To sum up, Chongming is small and quiet, but also a beautiful and extraordinary place to live. I feel so lucky to have spent the last 2 years of my life here. Chongming will always have a place in my heart.

“Home isn’t a place; it’s a feeling.” Cecelia Ahern

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