Shanghai Jobs: What Are They and How Do I Find One?

 The prospect of finding a job in Shanghai can be an intimidating. For one, unless you are hired before coming over to China which, for recent graduates is uncommon, you have to deal with the chicken and egg scenario of a China visa- do you try to get a job from outside of China and then have them help you get the correct visa, OR do you enter China on a tourist visa and look for a job once you are in the country? It's hard to get a job without first being in China, so that's not ideal, but neither is attempting a permanent relocation on a tourist visa.

An additional obstacle is that neither Shanghai or Beijing is close enough to anywhere to do regular "visa runs" in under a day, so you'll have to factor in the time and cost of leaving the country every 30, 60, or 90 days.

The point in this is that these logistical considerations can complicate a job search which is and of itself challenging enough.

So, if that's the challenge, where are the opportunities for Shanghai jobs?

Well, there is A LOT of money changing hands these days in Shanghai, and there is always an opportunity to earn the cash you need to survive. That said, keep in mind that without the proper work visas these opportunities won't be legal.

What I will do in the first part of this job post is chronicle some of the curious things I have seen foreigners do in China to earn a bit of extra cash, and in the second part of this post I will give you some strategic recommendations to help you in your job search.

In this first section, the jobs I write about aren’t the best bet for your long-term career growth but at the very least they make for a great story. And sometimes the money can be quite nice!

However, they can also be distracting. If there is one skill that I see again and again in those who are successful in China, it is the ability to defer gratification. The prospect of earning 16K RMB a month teaching kindergarten can be seductive, but unless this is what you want to make a career out of, be very careful that you don't end up doing this for years on end.

In any event, here are 3 creative ways to make money in Shanghai:

1. Work as the “token foreigner”

To understand this phenomena, it is important to understand China’s history as a nation that has historically been closed off from the rest of the world and which has an ethnically homogenous population that is over 90% Han ethnicity. Against this historical backdrop, you can imagine that a company in a Tier 3 city with a low population of foreigners might be able to use a laowai (foreigner) to its advantage. This type of "job" in Shanghai is not as common as it once was, but we still see the occasional company employing foreigners to function as literal window dressing.

Basically, if you are working as a token foreigner, you will function as the public face of the company. You may sit right by the window in a retail location. You may travel to regional meetings with other companies where you impress local executives with your "foreign expertise". You may even teach English to members of the company you are working in. If you find yourself doing more than one of these things on a regular basis, there is a good chance that you are working as the token foreigner.

This phenomenon is even more extreme in the smaller cities, where companies have been known to employ foreigners to pose as their company CEO and even foreign dignitaries.

Just check this out.

And then this.

2. Become an actor, a voice actor, a model, or even pose as Santa Claus

Shanghai is a city of reinvention for some, and many a foreigner has completely transformed themselves here. Regardless of whether you have any intentions of ever trying to become a serious actor, it’s worth working as an extra in a movie at least once. Why not? It’s a once in a lifetime experience and will give your friends back home a good laugh.

And during the holiday season you might even be able to get paid for dressing up as Santa Claus.

3. Work for another entrepreneur in an SME, absorb knowledge for a few years, and then strike out on your own

Our personal suggestion would be to go this route should you find yourself standing in the middle of the entrepreneurial energy that is bubbling everywhere in China these days. Why not leverage this energy and China’s low cost of living to your advantage? Everywhere you go you’ll see examples of successful entrepreneurs, from the proprietors of the corner noodle shop to the traders to the digital nomads who call Shanghai and Beijing home. Seize the energy present in China right now and make it happen! Getting firsthand insight into the operations of a business in a Shanghai SME can give you all the confidence and knowledge you need before beginning your own business.

OK, so what about some strategy?

So those are a few ways that foreigners have been known to survive in Shanghai. Now let's get into the strategy.

If you are a recent graduate, you will likely be starting off your working life in Shanghai with an internship. No, I am not just writing this because my SmartIntern is in the business of securing internships for students and recent graduates in Shanghai.

To understand why internships in Shanghai are still the most common way to open the proverbial career doors, look at the situation from a company owner's perspective. Basically, they are in a situation where there are hundreds of recent graduates coming to China every week in search of work, and most of these graduates are bright, ambitious, and ready to work hard. Thus, company owners can afford to be selective before investing (and this is a BIG upfront investment with training, HR and admin costs including visas, etc.) in a new employee. Rather than take a risk and hire somebody outright (ANY new hire comes with a degree of risk), why wouldn't the company owner put these new graduates in extended 3-6 month long internships instead. 

When coming to China, find a company with a track record of hiring past interns. Expect a 3-6 month internship and plan your cashflow accordingly. Perhaps teach English on the side (although this will not be legal if you don't possess a Z visa). If you get hired directly into an entry-level job- great! But don't go into Shanghai expecting this can happen. As general, preparing for the "worst case" (or in this context, "most likely") scenario is wise.

Now, in terms of tactics, here are three important things to understand:

Tip #1: Avoid the HR Department!

HR is not going to hire you- your future manager is. Get in touch with him or her. HR will only act as a gatekeeper, and your goal should be to avoid making contact with them completely.

Basically, think of the HR department as a mostly indiscriminate filter. This filter might be a person or persons who are screening resumes, but these days, there is a good chance that your resume will be screened out by software that searches for keywords. As a side note, make sure that your resume does contain any relevant keywords so that it has a higher probability of passing through HR software. 

Instead of getting after HR and submitting your resume to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. what you should really be doing is try to connect with the owner of the company or senior managers in the department where you would like to work. Reach out to them LinkedIn (though perhaps not as aggressively as this company and ALWAYS with a personalized invitation to connect) and try find out a way to bring the relationship offline. Keep in mind that the person you are attempting to get in touch with probably gets a lot of coffee requests, so try to make yourself stand out by offering something of value. If you are an aspiring marketer, freely give them ten ways they can improve their website. Provide value generously and they will be more receptive to your coffee request.

 Tip #2: Network Offline

The great thing about living in China is that the expat community is a relatively "flat" social structure. While China is a very hierarchical society, among expats at least, you'll find that you can strike up a conversation with just about anyone. That stranger you buy a beer for at the bar might turn out to be Vice President of a major telecom firm. And among Chinese, you'll find that your "foreigness" is an automatic conversation starter. In Shanghai, people are usually pretty accessible.

Try a run with the Shanghai Hash House Harriers or volunteer with a group like Bean, you will be surprised at the movers and shakers who you bump up against. And, as they have once been in your situation- new and in very a foreign country- they tend to be sympathetic and willing to help.

You might also want to consider joining one of the following groups:

  • Internations
  • FC Club
  • Chambers of Commerce- Google"{your country name} chamber of commerce china" or "{your country name} board of trade china" to see what membership options are available. Membership in one of these organizations costs money, but it is well worth it, as most members are senior executives and entrepreneurs with strong knowledge of the local market.

I’d also recommend getting involved on LinkedIn by starting interesting discussions in groups like China Networking Group

You’ll get stressed at times by the traffic and general chaos on Shanghai's streets (though parts of the Former French Concession can be downright idyllic), but please promise me that you won’t recede into your comfortable apartment with a hundred bootleg DVDs, only emerging once a day for Starbucks. If you get out of the house, involve yourself in some of the above groups, network strategically, and are open to serendipitous encounters, you will eventually meet the people you need to meet.

 Tip #3: Adjust your Expectations

This is not your home country, and expectations are different. In China, there is a saying of ‘吃苦’ (chiku), which loosely translated means ‘eating bitterness’. For long-term success in China, you should be prepared to ‘chiku’ in the short-term. Again, this goes back to what I wrote about the short-term mentality (get rich quick teaching English) and the long-term (sacrifice pay for 6 months to learn the ropes at a great company) mentalities that separate young foreigners in Shanghai.

Too many 23 year olds expect immediate success and high compensation when they come to China. I know because I was once one of them. The reality is that, if you are a recent graduate, you still have a lot to prove to the real world. And if you can succeed in China, you can succeed most anywhere. Building a career here is always interesting but it isn't easy. That said, it's absolutely worth it for the life lessons and practical experience gained.

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About the Author
Author: Brandon

Hi, I'm Brandon! I'm SmartIntern's co-founder and a native of California. I'm interested in all things tech, emerging markets, and writing. When I'm not working on SmartIntern, I like to skateboard through the streets of Shanghai and uncover the city's best hole-in-the-wall noodle joints.

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