Homeland Magazine, Issue 98, January 2014
Original Chinese by Tsu Yishu (Homeland)
Photos by Huang Fangwen, Qiuqiu (Homeland)
Translation by Nick Deng (FEX)
What’s the quickest way to get to know a city in a country you’ve never been to? You could scour the internet for information and articles about any number of topics, or you could get out there and see for yourself. Turns out, in most cities you can do both, with most of China’s major cities being represented by expat websites on the digital side and no one stopping anyone from venturing out and exploring on foot. However, until recently, Fuzhou was not among the cities with a digital guide available to expats living there, but thanks to the efforts of a small group of local expats, this is no longer the case. Simply type in ‘Fuzhou’ + ‘Expat’ on Google and FuzhouExpat.com will be there waiting for you at the top of the page. Visiting the front page of the site yields an exhaustive guide to the city, including Restaurants, Hotels, Schools, Nightlife, and much more. In addition to the city guide, and providing a window into the local culture, are the feature articles and local news, translated quickly and posted daily. FuzhouExpat.com (or FEX as they like to be called) is currently run by a group of 5, 4 expats and a local Chinese businessman, as well as a small staff of volunteers. To get content for the site they go to great lengths to learn about and entwine themselves with the local culture, both past and present. They have a variety of methods of getting the story, whether it’s an interview with a notable expat or local, translation of local news, writing about experiences with local culture, or photographing the changes and evolution of Fuzhou in the 21st century.
Who are the people of FEX?
Before the idea for this website had become a reality, the team conducted a survey of friends and acquaintances to see if the expat community in Fuzhou was big to support an idea like this. They settled on an approximate number of 1000-1500 foreigners in the city. Also, the population of foreigners in Fuzhou has been on a steady rise, with the community growing each year. Even in Amy’s short time here, 2.5 years, she had seen the community grow and change a lot, while Jonas, having been here 10 years had seen even bigger changes. Amy is also very active in the expat community, maintaining social contacts with a large group of the expats living here, but even she was surprised when, after the launch of FuzhouExpat.com, large groups of foreigners she had never met began to appear; they all kept saying that they had found the website, and in turn used it to find each other. With the site drawing more than 1000 hits a day, it’s no wonder that the expats from all over the city are now discovering that their community is a lot bigger than anyone imagined.FuzhouExpat.com is an all English site that’s been around for some time (the domain was registered in 2009) though only recently has it become the go to resource for expats living and working in Fuzhou. The man who initially registered the domain name was an American named Jim, who remains a member to this day, going by the username ‘Laowei’. However, as a one-man team, the website was updated infrequently and the content available was sparse. Starting in June 2013, Nick Deng from China took over the site and started a quick revamp that put in place today’s team, adding Amy Priestes from the US and Amanda Sinclair from the UK. Shortly after this, Steve Cornelsen from Canada joined the team, to be followed by the return of Jonas Norman from the US at the end of the year. With the team in place, it was time to designate tasks and assignments – which in a new business with a small budget, can be a daunting challenge. What emerged from these early meetings was a strong group with skill sets to compliment their roles. Jonas is in charge of the content as Chief Editor, Steve gets the word out as the Marketing Director, Amy takes care of the finances, Nick handles the Chinese side of things, and Amanda is a Staff Writer. Though each has distinct responsibilities, all are expected to contribute stories and content, and they all go out of their way to explore the city they call home, some for a short time, and others for longer.
The whole team from FuzhouExpat.com works full time at a variety of jobs, and in their spare time they explore new horizons with this website. Amy worked as an accountant in a Florida-based roofing company, and now works teaching English here in Fuzhou No. 8 Middle school. Steve is even more of a legend, working as a magician in Canada, and now in Fuzhou. Certified in both countries, he brings a passion to his career, and has had a lot of success – even opening his own studio here, and performing in shows all over China!
Amy had a lot to say about the differences back in America and here in China, but what really stood out was the distance she feels from others back home, “Everyone looks the same as before, but I am a completely different person.” Jonas and Steve also weighed in on this strange feeling, as well as the creative spark they feel working here. Jonas said, “I didn’t feel this kind of energy back in California, people get by each day, go to work and get off. They probably play some X-box after work; I also work here, but in my spare time I feel an intense ‘creative energy’. I venture out and now have a community project to work on. From dawn to dark, every single day is filled with possibilities, created by that passion and energy.”
It is this energy that keeps driving FuzhouExpat.com forward. With the website rounding into form, they continue to push forward, with the introduction of their “Molaiyi Card”. It may have a funky name, but in Fuzhouhua it means “No Problem”, and that’s what they hope foreigners will have when using the cards. Presenting this card at select partner businesses will allow FEX members to obtain certain discounts or benefits, and allow local businesses to easily reach out to a potentially lucrative demographic. On the financial front, this small website is self-funded, and with diligence and responsibility they have managed to build a lot with very little funding. Yet this small budget approach may come into conflict as the website grows, and plans to scale up have to be weighed against their expense.
Recording the City
Jonas moved to the Middle Kingdom back in 2003, from the San Francisco Bay Area in California. Settling into Fuzhou happened quick, and he has seldom strayed far away after that. Fuzhou just seemed to have everything he was looking for. Jonas commented that Fuzhou struck a subtle balance between big and small, new and old. Over his time here, he has witnessed dramatic changes happen on an almost daily basis – pointing to the major changes in the renowned San Fang Qi Xiang area from its days as a small road that’s only distinguishing feature was a beautiful lantern display during Chinese New Year. “Man, I wish I had taken more pictures in the past. A lot of the older things that made Fuzhou so interesting were completely gone before I realized I should be documenting this. That is another reason why we wanted to do this site. We wanted to have a digital record of the breathtaking changes that are happening throughout Fuzhou, but in a different language and from a different perspective. We’re doing a much better job of this now, and when we look back in the future at where we are today, it will be so cool!”
Fuzhouexpat.com features an Interview section that focuses on interesting people they find in Fuzhou. Up to date, they’ve interviewed a diverse group of people, from Chris West, a local tea merchant from the UK (Homeland also did a feature on him as well); Rick Munitz, an Aussie who built Fuzhou’s first skate ramp, aka Boomatang in Fuzhou’s Shao Yuan Park; and Eichi Negoro and his Rugby team. The interviews are always in- depth, and done in a stylish an artistic way, testifying to the quality of the writers they have on staff.
During our interview of this talented group, I was happy to discover that Nick was an avid reader of Homeland magazine. He shared his insights with me on the question every Chinese wants to know and every foreigner dreads being asked – How did you end up in Fuzhou? Nick said, “I remember the back issue named Fuzhou Neng Bu Neng? (Can Fuzhou Make it?). And you know what? Fuzhou certainly can; Fuzhou has its own mojo that seems to convince expats to stay. In Fuzhou, an expat gets to see a lot of culture and traditions, experience them, while at the same time they don’t have to step too far out of their comfort zone because of its rapid commercialization. What really sets FEX apart from other expat websites is the obvious appreciation of the city’s pride and long history. Take Nanjing as an example – you see a lot of nightlife, crazy buildings and other boring western concepts. But at FEX, we have a strong desire to build a connection with Fuzhou’s past, its people and their feelings, and use this to keep us on the pulse of a city that is changing and evolving everyday.” Amy agreed, and added she’s proud of what they’ve already accomplished and hopeful about the future.
‘When we ask expats what made them stay, we probably want to first ask what has shaped the city into its present form.’ Nick said.