China is a ‘vibrant, exciting, dynamic and fun place to be’

Orla Brady calls the world’s third biggest city home. Despite its staggering 26 million strong population, she says Shanghai offers a personal touch.

Originally from Greystones, the Wicklow native studied architectural technology at Limerick College of Art Commerce and Technology in the late 1980s, corresponding with a BA from the Heriot-Watt University for Business and Industry in Edinburgh.

“It was a distance learning degree, when that kind of thing was in its infancy,” she says. After completing her studies in 1992, Brady followed the well-trodden path of Irish emigrants and moved to London, where she worked on a building site in Hammersmith, before heading down under.

Orla Brady currently works as group director of building construction and design at Dulwich College International in Shanghai

“I worked in Melbourne as a project architect with a multi-disciplinary architecture and engineering consulting group, focusing on the design of complex buildings.” After six years, Brady moved on to Sydney, where she received project management accreditation.

Two years later in 2005, Brady set her sights on Hong Kong, taking on a role as quantity surveyor with the commercial property company, Altus Group. “I was back and forth between Shanghai and Hong Kong twice since 2011, but finally settled here five years ago.”

Brady currently works as group director of building construction and design at Dulwich College International in Shanghai (DCI). DCI was founded in partnership with Dulwich College in the UK, which first opened its doors to pupils more than 400 years ago.

“The group comprises 10 private schools in seven cities across Asia with three sister schools across China with over 10,000 pupils. I lead the design and construction team based out of Shanghai, but our projects span Asia Pacific.”

Her work covers new builds, renovation or expansion of existing colleges and liaising with both internal stakeholders and external developers, authorities and contractors. “We currently have five construction sites on the go and facilities need to be upgraded.”

Long days

Days are long with Brady regularly putting 12 hours on the clock.

Like everyone else in China and around the world, her life was disrupted in every way in 2020. “We were in Sydney, my husband’s hometown, in January last year when Covid-19 took hold in China. By the date of our supposed return in mid-February, it became clear that Covid-19 was throwing up many challenges in China, so we flew to Singapore where Dulwich’s regional head office is based.

“Shortly thereafter China closed the border and we were ‘locked into Singapore’ for six months.”

After returning to Shanghai Pudong International Airport on August 1st, the couple entered strict quarantine.

“After blood, nasal and throat testing at the airport, we got picked up by bus and transported to a hotel for full lockdown with no ability to leave the room. Meals were collected at the door, while hazmat-clad cleaners entered the room daily to disinfect the room and collect rubbish like some strange movie.”

When a fellow traveller on the flight tested positive, the couple were moved to a higher-risk hotel to sit out the remaining 14 days there. “It was tough, no doubt. I set up a schedule to get through the day – temperature taking, breakfast, reading, working and having dinner, but weekends were hard.

“Luckily friends delivered goodie bags and I was able to order online food and yoga mats that were efficiently delivered.”

Brady says the attitude to Covid-19 in China is to quash the virus at every turn. “Mass testing of nearly 18 million people occurred in Guangzhou recently because there was an outbreak involving a small number of people. No one is allowed into the country without rigorous testing and quarantine. But you still need an invitation from the government to be allowed to return. Even though it is thorough, it’s still not enough to quarantine.”

As a result of closed borders, many people who went home for Christmas are still there. “Some are staying and have not renewed contracts. Others are here, missing home.

“It’s a tough time for all expats. I think next year will be a make or break year for many, especially if movement to home countries isn’t possible. On top of that, in January 2022, there will be a tax on allowances, which will affect Irish people living here for sure.

“Also, there will be more restrictions on visas. They have three different visas here – A, B and C format. I have an ‘A’ visa, which gets renewed every year or other year. The C visas, which are for people coming over to work as part-time English teachers or similar, could be curtailed, so it will be more difficult for students and non-trades people to come here.”

Brady says the worst part of the pandemic has been the fact that she hasn’t seen her mother in nearly two years. “I try not to think about how long that is. It’s only bearable for so long. I hope this time next year, things will be looking differently,” she says.

Luckily there’s a solid Irish community in Shanghai, which includes a GAA society, several Irish pubs and thriving live music scene.

Barry’s teabags

“You meet people at Irish society events. I’ve met Irish people at barbecues and Paddy’s Day events, as you would expect. I have a fair few Irish friends, which is great and a colleague has found Barry’s teabags and SuperValu Organic porridge oats online here on Taobao – an online shopping website where you can quite literally buy anything.”

Brady says, though the country is locked in, it’s big enough for exploration. “We went to Hainan for a holiday in April, which boasts a tropical climate so we got to spend some time poolside. It offered a welcome relief from Shanghai’s climate, which is very much like Ireland’s and our winters are cold.”

Rents here are high, probably higher than Dublin, but less than Hong Kong where she previously lived.

“It’s at least €2,500 for a two-bed here, so despite the dense cityscape, real estate is at a premium in the megacity. On the other hand, childcare is good as nannies are very affordable.”

Brady insists China is a “vibrant, exciting, dynamic and fun place to be with endless opportunities”. Under normal circumstances, it is the gateway to the East and regular trips to the sunny beaches of Thailand or Indonesia are on the cards for many.

“China is the biggest market in the world. With a population of 1.4 billion people, there is a demand for everything. Right now, we’re in a bubble. We’ve been out of lockdown for well over a year, but once things open up, who knows what will happen. I’m excited to to see how it will unfold.”

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