My China Story | Helping Expats Embrace Life in Shanghai

ByLin Jing May 10, 2024

Linda Painan, from Singapore, has been living in Shanghai for 27 years. She won the 2023 Shanghai Magnolia Silver Award. The award, named after the city flower, was initiated by the Shanghai Municipal People's Government, in 1989, to honor outstanding foreigners for their positive contributions to Shanghai's international exchanges and urban development. Painan is a mother of three, an entrepreneur, and an influential social activist and philanthropist in Shanghai's international community.

Painan is chairperson of The Expatriate Center (TEC) under the Shanghai Family Life Services Center, and she is deputy chairperson of Hongqiao Friendship Alliance in Shanghai's Changning District.

The TEC is a pivotal project of Shanghai Family Life Services Center. Its purpose is to help expats "build a home away from home." Supported by Changning District People's Government and the Hongqiao Sub-district Office, Painan set up a government-society-collaborative, one-stop-service platform to help expats and returned overseas Chinese better integrate into local life.

Assisting Foreigners

When Painan first visited Shanghai, she was a Deutsche Bank employee, and she had been sent to the city to follow up on a project. "After living in Shanghai for a period of time, I found that Shanghai, as China's largest economic center, and an international metropolis, had unique advantages for development. I was attracted by the city's vitality, diversity and growth potential. As my ancestors are Chinese, I thought, at that time, 'Let's come back here,'" Painan recalls. 

In 1997, Painan and her husband moved to Shanghai, where they became engaged in real estate business. Later, Painan began participating in charitable activities. 

When asked how she decided to create a charity that helps expats, Painan recalled the first expat she helped. It was at a nail salon, where she encountered an American woman who was struggling to communicate with the Chinese staff. Sensing the woman's distress, Painan offered to help.

The woman shared with Painan the difficulties she was experiencing in adjusting to life in Shanghai. The woman's husband was general manager of an American company's office in Shanghai. The cultural and language barriers had left her feeling overwhelmed — and isolated. She explained she had plans to return — with her 4-year-old son — to the United States that very night. 

Painan encouraged the woman to give Shanghai another chance, and she emphasized the importance of keeping the family together. In the days that followed, Painan accompanied the woman as she explored life in Shanghai, and she helped the woman with translation and communication. Painan also offered insights into the city's cultural nuances. 

They visited Dongjiadu, where various fabrics and numerous tailors could be found. The woman, who had a passion for designing napkins, placemats and coasters, purchased fabrics and asked a tailor to make some placemats and coasters, based on her designs. 

Recognizing the woman's talent, Painan suggested she could sell the items at international school fairs, and then donate the proceeds to people in need. "In this way, her life in Shanghai became enriched, and meaningful. I helped her, and I took her to do charity work, which was also very meaningful," Painan says. 

While assisting the woman, Painan realized many expats must feel somewhat helpless when they first arrive in China. Although they live well-off lives, they encounter many problems in their daily lives, especially with the cultural nuances. For that reason, Painan decided, they needed professional guidance and solutions. 

In 2014, Painan volunteered at the Shanghai Family Life Services Center. In 2018, she established TEC, with the purpose of helping expats integrate into local life, and to feel at home in Shanghai.

3E International Fair

As the recipient of the 2023 Shanghai Magnolia Silver Award, Painan says, "The honor is not only a recognition of my years of community service, but also a recognition of the contributions of the expatriate community, represented by the TEC team I lead, to the development and prosperity of the city." 

Under Painan's leadership, TEC has organized the 3E (Entrepreneurship, Employment, and Enterprise) International Fair for four consecutive years since 2020. The event has served as a platform that has brought together multinational and local companies in Shanghai, to create job opportunities for thousands of individuals. 

Notably, the fair helps applicants, who find the right job, to directly handle tax, visa and other employment-related matters on the spot, at the information desk. As a result, the fair helps streamline the hiring process, and it provides one-stop services to applicants. To date, the fair has offered more than 1,200 job positions, and it has attracted more than 5,000 job seekers. 

Furthermore, TEC provides regular consultation services to individuals seeking a work visa in China. It has invited representatives of government departments to give lectures on tax policies and foreign-related-legal consultations each year. Such events have benefited more than 50,000 individuals. 

TEC has also partnered with nearly 80 institutions, to organize public-welfare lectures and themed courses on policy guidance, language and cultural exchanges, healthcare issues, foreign-related laws and children's education. 

"We have also organized cultural exchanges and community-service activities, and we have raised funds for nursing homes and child-welfare facilities," says Painan. "With the support of the Cooperation and Exchange Office of the Changning District People's Government and the Hongqiao Sub-district Office, we have led Shanghai's teachers and teams of volunteers to Lüchun County and Honghe Prefecture, in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, to provide character-education courses and parent-child courses to local children and parents." 

Adds Painan: "In celebration of this year's International Women's Day, we will host a forum on women's leadership and entrepreneurship. Our goal is to not only promote the power of women, but also to raise funds to assist more women in need of medical and educational support, creating more opportunities for them to excel in life."

Integrating Charities, Personal Life 

Beyond her endeavors at TEC, Painan incorporates philanthropy into her personal life. She runs a charity project, through which she supports children, in mountainous areas of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, so they can complete their education. 

Her efforts have enabled more than 80 children to complete their studies. "I often receive letters of thanks from these children. When they say, because of our help, they can continue their studies, and even change their life trajectory, I am deeply gratified and proud," Painan says. 

During COVID-19, Painan used 830,000 yuan (US $116,901) of her own income to purchase protective materials, and she donated those materials to more than 70 units in Shanghai. She also organized expats to establish an English-language, information-service center, which provided information on relevant policies and self-protection. 

She also engages her children in charitable endeavors. For instance, she took her eldest son to a mountainous region, in Sichuan Province, to help a school build a water tower. During her youngest son's first and second birthday celebrations, she encouraged the guests to donate money to assist needy children in Yunnan, who required surgeries for congenital heart disease, rather than buying her son gifts. The funds raised during those two parties helped several children.

Contributing to Urban Development

Painan has also helped promote the development of Shanghai. She was once invited to a "Face-to-Face Meeting with District Party Secretary" activity, where she had the opportunity to offer her insights on the city's housing situation, and on the lives of foreigners in Shanghai. Painan also used the opportunity to emphasize the importance of individual well-being for thriving enterprises. 

In 2022, Shanghai Municipal People's Congress invited Painan to participate in legislative research involving establishment of a barrier-free environment in Shanghai, and establishment of an international-communication-language environment in Shanghai. "As a foreigner living in the city, I feel honored to experience the whole-process people's democracy. I truly feel Shanghai embraces me as part of the big family," she says. 

In 2023, Painan invited Siddharth Chatterjee, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in China, to visit Shanghai, and to participate in discussions involving the use of public-private partnerships to accelerate the sustainable development goals in Decade of Action. As stated on the UN's website, the Decade of Action calls for accelerating sustainable solutions to all of the world's biggest challenges — ranging from poverty and gender to climate change, inequality and closing the finance gap. 

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, TEC, in conjunction with Huacao International Community Development Association, invited more than 250 foreign nationals, and their families, from nearly 30 countries, to the Bund to enjoy the cruise light show. "In this land, where we stand, we deeply feel this is home," Painan says.

Future Vision

Having witnessed Shanghai's ever-changing development during recent decades, Painan says, "Great changes have taken place in the humanities, science and technology, economy, and social formation. Cultural diversity in Shanghai has increased, and the city's culture has become more colorful." 

Within the context of Shanghai's continuous development, Painan has her own vision for TEC. "I hope TEC will become a more influential platform, which not only provides support to foreigners in Shanghai, but also promotes broader cultural exchanges and social integration," she says. One of her plans is to expand charity projects, especially involving education. 

Painan also hopes women in TEC will become more active, and that they will share their insights and organize more meaningful activities. "Women are the core of every family. The core is good, so the family is good," she says. 

Earlier this year, TEC became the first non-profit organization in China to provide public-welfare-community services on the City News Service (CNS) platform. The CNS, a platform for expats seeking official information and city services in Shanghai and China, is sponsored by the Information Office of the Shanghai Municipal People's Government, and it is managed by Shanghai Daily. "I hope it will enable a wider audience of foreign residents to easily access the information and support they require," Painan says.


Photos from Interviewee

(Women of China English Monthly March 2024)



Please understand that,a non-profit, information-communication website, cannot reach every writer before using articles and images. For copyright issues, please contact us by emailing: The articles published and opinions expressed on this website represent the opinions of writers and are not necessarily shared by