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November 26, 2010

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Everyone has a story to tell as inflation bites

PHILLIP Bernard, freelance photographer and designer

Locals aren't the only Shanghai residents stung by higher prices.

Phillip Bernard, 31, is an American freelance photographer and designer who has been dividing his time between California and Shanghai for the past four years. Usually, he spends springs and autumns in Shanghai.

"My apartment rent went up by 30 percent in the four years, and my studio rent more than doubled," he said.

"Things may still look cheap for expatriates, but the level and speed of price increases are actually rather scary," he added. "Every time I come back, I can find the prices of my favorite bubble tea or dim sum a few bucks more expensive."

When Bernard first arrived in Shanghai four years ago, he found a nice two-bedroom apartment near Jing'an Temple. The rent was 3,500 yuan (US$526) a month, not too prohibitive for him at the time. But five months later, he had to look for a new place to live because his landlord was selling the property. The unit he found in a nearby building cost 4,200 yuan a month, with about the same size and interior decor. A year later, the landlord asked for 500 yuan more. Bernard agreed to the rent rise because it was too tedious to find another cheaper unit in the area.

The rent has since risen a few times more. And when he came back a month ago to renew the contract, the landlord asked for an additional 400 yuan, bumping up the rent to 6,000 yuan.

"There was an even bigger jump in rent for my studio in an old deserted building near People's Square," he said. "It was only 3,900 yuan when we first found the place, and now it's more than 7,000 yuan." He's now surfing online to see if he can find something cheaper.

Another big cost for Bernard is printing fees for his works. For passable quality, the fees were once quite cheap. The quality hasn't changed much, but the price has gone up by nearly 50 percent, he said.

"Every time I try to bargain with someone, they just keep telling me, 'Hey, man, you don't understand. All prices are skyrocketing in Shanghai now, so we just can't charge you less'," he said.

Tom Han, small eatery owner

The spiraling cost of living has put restaurants in a bind. They don't want to raise prices for fear of losing customers, but rising costs of ingredients are squeezing profit margins.

Tom Han, 45, who owns a small but popular Halal food restaurant at Songjiang University Town, finally decided in September that he had no choice but to raise menu prices by 1 yuan per dish.

This was a hard decision.

He had to reprint all his menus.

And he knew that the students who form the bulk of his customers would not be happy and might turn to school canteens for meals.

"The price hike in raw materials has made us suffer a lot," said Han, "I discussed this matter with many other restaurant owners, and we all agreed that we had to raise prices to get through this period."

Han is not alone. Almost all the eateries popular with students in Songjiang University Town have adjusted their prices since September.

Some students have complained that they have to spend about 12 yuan for lunch now, when it only cost them 8 to 9 yuan last year.

The restaurant owners insist they are only passing on rising costs.

Han pointed to the popular tomato noodle dish on his menu.

He told Shanghai Daily that the price for tomatoes at local supermarkets has risen to 6 yuan per kilogram from 1.6 yuan last year ? an increase that he had never anticipated.

Other ingredients, including oil, rice and flour have gone up in price as much as 50 percent, he said.

"To make the things worse, my workers are now demanding higher salaries because they are coping with higher prices," said Han.

"Life is not easy for anyone today," he added.

Ren Zhixiao, office worker

When the price of mushrooms increased to 16 yuan per kilogram at some neighborhood green grocers recently, Ren Zhixiao, a 50-year-old worker, found a cheaper alternative.

He now drives his car from his apartment on Hongqiao Road to a massive wholesale vegetable market in Meilong Town every Monday to stock up on vegetables.

"It's only a 30-minute drive," he said. "I can buy and carry home great volumes of vegetables, fresh and cheap, for the whole week."

Ren discovered the market in Meilong Town earlier this month, while driving his daughter to school. He didn't give it a second thought until the family decided it was time to come to grips with spiraling food prices.

According to Ren, vegetables at the wholesale market are at least 50 percent cheaper than those sold in other local markets.

For example, mushrooms there cost only 6 yuan per kilogram, while white turnips sell for 1.6 yuan a kilogram, compared with 5 yuan elsewhere.

"I spend only 10 yuan to purchase a week's worth of vegetables at the wholesale market," he said. "That would be about the cost per day at other places."

He's not alone in economizing. Ren said he's starting to meet a lot of his neighbors who are also driving to the outskirts of town from downtown areas to save on vegetables, a mainstay of the Chinese diet.

Chen Xiaojun, migrant worker

The migrant workers who have been the backbone of Shanghai's breathtaking construction projects are among the poorest of city residents. They feel the sting of rising prices most acutely.

Chen Xiaojun, 27, a migrant worker from Anhui Province, has worked on various construction sites in Shanghai for the past five years, going home to his family only during the Chinese New Year break.

But last February during China's most auspicious holiday, he didn't go home because he couldn't afford it.

"It has gotten much more expensive to survive in Shanghai, and I didn't save as much money as before," he said.

Chen lives with five other migrant workers from his home town in small huts on construction sites.

"That's lucky for us," he said of the rudimentary accommodation, "because rents are among the fastest growing prices. When we are between jobs, we need to find short-term leases or go to cheap hostels, and they are almost twice as expensive as they were just a few months ago."

Food is another worry. Migrant workers like Chen can't afford the time and cost of cooking at home. They work long hours, don't usually have cooking facilities anyway, and typically eat at what are known as "migrant labor dining rooms" in the city, a reference to small eateries serving cheap box meals. Chen knows almost all of the places.

These small eateries are often hidden in small streets or lanes near busy commercial areas like Nanjing Road W., Huaihai Road M. or Xujiahui, and the majority of the customers are taxi drivers and migrant workers.

"We call the meals there 'migrant workers' box lunches' because they are really cheap, especially compared with the average price of lunches in those areas," Chen said. "But even these cheap box lunches have gotten more expensive."

His favorite meal is stir-fried rice with vegetables and pork, which sold for only 3.5 yuan about two years ago. The price is 7.5 yuan now. The box lunches are being bulked with more rice and less vegetables or pork, too. In some of Chen's favorite eateries, 7 yuan will buy you only a vegetarian lunch box.

"We've started seeing young local white collar workers at these cheap and dirty eateries," he said. "That was quite rare only a year ago."

Migrant worker pay has increased gradually, though not enough to keep pace with the cost of living, Chen said.

He currently works seven days a week from 10pm to 7am at a commercial installation and makes 320 yuan per night, more expensive than his hometown friends working during day time. A year ago, he was making 200 yuan per night.

"So far, I haven't saved as much as last year," he said. "But I do hope I can save a bit more and go home for Chinese New Year."

Yang Xiaoxiao and Sophia Wu, first-year graduate students

For Yang Xiaoxiao and Sophia Wu, two 22-year-old female graduate students studying and living at Songjiang University Town, going out shopping in downtown streets or at malls is a by-gone pleasure.

"Everything is more expensive than before," said Yang, "Look around at the dishes at nearby restaurants, fruits, cotton clothes and even second-hand books."

Like many other young people, they now turn to group online purchase sites.

Group purchase sites allow people to buy cheaper if enough of them sign up for goods or services. The students now search for everything from cheap movie tickets to cosmetics, trying to capture the group discounts offered.

"Many famous cosmetics brands offer a price much lower for group purchases," Wu said. "A 50 percent discount is very common."

"Another advantage of group purchasing is that you don't have to fear that the products are counterfeit because there is safety in numbers," she said.

Besides group purchasing, the pair are also into what's known as miaosha, or "second killing." Under that system, which is now popular on many online trading platforms, buyers can purchase an expensive item at a very low price only if he or she clicks the mouse on the purchase button faster than anyone else.

"I still remember Wu staying up late, madly turning through pages at midnight, her mouse clicking wildly," said Yang. "She was participating in a promotion where several iPads were being sold at half price to the fastest clickers."

Lily Yan, secretary

It's not only feeding oneself that causes Shanghai residents to groan about rising prices. This is a city of devoted dog owners, and canines have to eat, too.

Lily Yan, 29, owns a two-year-old female Husky named Bun after a small yellow spot on her white face that looks a bit like the stuffing in a Chinese bun.

The dog is friend and even child for Yan, so nothing is too good for Bun.

But huskies are big dogs with big appetites. Yan spends about 700 yuan a month on Bun, which includes imported dog food from France, toys and snacks, weekly baths and fur clipping every two or three weeks in pet salons.

"I don't keep a record of how much I spend, so I didn't feel the changes until one day I suddenly found myself out of cash in a pet store," Yan recalled.

She had brought 500 yuan with her and thought it would be more than enough, since the dog food normally cost about 380 yuan. She had figured to spend the spare money on a few snacks or toys for Bun.

Yan was taken aback at the counter when her bill came to 650 yuan, far more than she expected. The price of the dog food brand she's been buying for a year suddenly shot up 80 yuan. The toys and snacks also were more costly.

"It was a gradual change, except I didn't realize it until that day," Yan said. "I still remember standing there, quite embarrassed, telling the pet shop owner that I wouldn't be buying snacks anymore."

The showers, fur clipping, kenneling and veterinary bills for Bun have all risen in price between 10 and 30 percent.

"It was quite a struggle for me to decide where I could cut costs," Yan said.

Rather than deprive Bun of the lifestyle to which her pet had grown accustomed, she turned to the Internet for the first time. Since March, Yan started buying everything for Bun from Internet shop sites, which are about 30 percent cheaper than pet stores. But even prices on websites are rising, which has Yan worried.

"A dog usually lives 10 to 15 years," she said. "I'm so afraid that one day I will have to say to Bun, 'Honey, I'm sorry. I just can't afford to keep you anymore.' It's such a nightmare."

Bobo Xu, unemployed college graduate

When Bobo Xu, 23, was led into the apartment advertised for 400 yuan per month, he was quite stunned.

The 150-square-meter unit in Songjiang District was sub-divided into six rooms and shared by six families.

As he stood there in amazement, a half-naked migrant worker walked out of the smelly shared bathroom, said hello to Xu and went straight into his room, leaving his door open.

As Xu passed one of his "neighbors," he saw a woman, sitting on her bed, staring at the wall and giggling loudly.

"Don't bother about her," the migrant worker yelled out. "She's got mental problems."

To Xu, a jobless Liaoning Province native who graduated from college in July, the whole scenario was a stark reminder of the situation he finds himself in. He's still hunting for a job in Shanghai, and higher prices for everything forced him to move from a more expensive rental apartment downtown to the much cheaper digs in suburban areas.

Around Zhongshan Park, one of the city's central areas, the rent for a 70-sqare-meter apartment has risen from 3,000 yuan per month last year to 3,500 yuan this year.

Even at the city's fringe in a district like Songjiang, the rent for an apartment of the same size, located near a Metro station, fetches 2,000 yuan per month, compared with rents of between 1,000 yuan and 1,500 yuan two years ago.

Xu has neither job nor income nor relatives in the city to support him. He had to take the cheap room in the shared apartment, despite the problematic co-habitants.

Still, his problems aren't over. As the cost of living keeps rising, he finds himself counting the days until his meager savings are exhausted and he will have to leave the city.

"When I graduated in July, I had 10,000 yuan as savings, and I figured it was money enough to live for 10 months before I needed to find a job," said Xu.

That time frame has now been shortened by three or four months.

"I have to save every possible penny to prolong my stay as I look for a job. I may have to go home by March."

Helen Li, student studying in France

Helen Li, 24, is in her last semester in France. She still remembers the two large suitcases that she brought when she first left Shanghai slightly over two years ago.

"My parents and I bought almost everything here because we were afraid it could be too costly to buy in France," she said.

How wrong they were! Soon after she arrived in Strasbourg in northeastern France, Li discovered that it was actually cheaper to buy many daily necessities - such as shampoo, batteries and utensils - in Strasbourg than in Shanghai.

"The only thing that was cheaper in Shanghai was clothing, especially inexpensive clothes from small street shops," Li said. "So I planned to buy a lot of clothes when I came back to Shanghai."

She came back for the summer and found even those plans shot to shreds. "Jackets, shoes and bags are all so expensive here. I'm not talking about luxury brands in department stores. I'm referring to those who-knows-what brands in tiny stores."

She recalled once being able to buy sweaters and jackets for between 200 yuan and 400 yuan. No longer. The cheapest ones she has seen in Shanghai stores nowadays are around 700 yuan, and boots cost over 1,000 yuan. You can get brand name boots on sale for that price in France, she said.


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