Goodbye Shanghai: After 16 years, COVID curbs send American family packing

American Heather Kaye and her family, including cat Mochi, are part of a wave of residents departing Shanghai, leaving behind their homes and memories, driven out by two years of strict COVID-19 curbs, including a crushing two-month lockdown.

>> Casey HallReuters
Published : 7 July 2022, 03:51 AM
Updated : 7 July 2022, 03:51 AM

Heather and husband George arrived inShanghai from New York in 2006 for a one-year adventure, but 16 years latertheir two-bedroom apartment in Shanghai’s historic former French Concession isthe only home their children have ever known.

So while repatriating to the United Statesis technically a homecoming for Heather and George, leaving Shanghai meansleaving home for daughters Charlotte, 14, and Matilda, 12.

Heather Kaye, 48, plays mahjong with her friends before leaving China for the US, during a farewell gathering at her apartment in Shanghai, China June 25, 2022. REUTERS

Heather spent the month of June readyingfor a return to the United States. Her husband left weeks earlier with theirfamily dog to help prepare for their new life in Washington DC.

"I haven't had the luxury to reallygrieve a lot of what I'm leaving behind because I need to get two kids and acat out of here … so it's been really focused on that logistics," she toldReuters from her flat which had just been emptied out by movers.

The Kaye family are part of an exodus ofboth foreigners and locals from Shanghai as China's most cosmopolitan citytries to find its footing and return to normal life after a strict citylockdown aimed at stamping out the infectious omicron variant.

While some opted to leave in the midst ofthe lockdown, stunned by difficulties in obtaining food and fears of beingseparated from family members should they be infected with COVID, others likethe Kayes opted to wait it out. They purchased their new house in Washington DConline during lockdown.

Heather Kaye, 48, and her daughters Matilda, 12, and Charlotte, 14, tour the city, before leaving China for the US, at Huangpu riverside in Shanghai, China June 26, 2022. REUTERS

For many departing foreign residents, thelockdown was the last straw, after two years of strict COVID curbs that made itimmensely difficult to fly in and out of China.

The country, whose zero-COVID approachtowards the virus has increasingly made it out of step with the rest of theworld, has slashed the quarantine time for inbound travellers from 14 days in acentral facility to seven days, its biggest change to border restrictions putin place in early 2020.

According to the European Chamber, thenumber of foreigners in China has halved since the pandemic began. It predictsthat number could halve again this summer, with few international workerscoming in to replenish the numbers leaving.

"Talking to people who were scheduledto move (to Shanghai) in the summer, they are not, they're going to Singapore,they're going to Bangkok," Kaye said. "Being based here, so manypeople can't really do their jobs anymore, because they do require so muchtravel and so that's made it prohibitive for so many."

With ageing parents in the United States,travel restrictions were also a big part of Kaye and her husband's decision toleave, she said, describing how they had already made up their minds before thelockdown.


Kaye moved to Shanghai to work for afashion label and became enthralled by the fast charging energy of a China onthe rise. She later started her own business, now known as eco-swimsuit brandLoop.

Heather Kaye, 48, works before leaving China for the US, at her swimsuit studio in Shanghai, China June 10, 2022. When Kaye moved to Shanghai to work for a fashion label, she became enthralled by the fast charging energy of a China on the rise and decided to start her own business, now known as eco-swimsuit brand Loop. "Anything you can imagine, you can build it here. Anything you want to be, you can make it happen here," she said. REUTERS

Her husband left behind his career as abanker in the United States and quickly immersed himself in Chinese culture andlearnt to speak Mandarin. He eventually started his own sustainable bamboo toybusiness.

They further cemented their ties to thecity by purchasing their apartment, considered an unusual move for foreignersin Shanghai both then and now.

"Anything you can imagine, you canbuild it here. Anything you want to be, you can make it happen here," saidKaye.

Since Shanghai eased its lockdown curbs onJune 1, Kaye has busied herself with packing but also made sure she found timeto reminisce over her time in the city with bike rides to the Bund and a lastplate of dumplings from a favourite local haunt.

The safe streets of Shanghai will beparticularly missed, she said, recounting how she would walk her dog late atnight and felt able to let her children take the subway by themselves when theywere as young as 10 years old.

Heather Kaye, 48, and her daughters Charlotte, 14, and Matilda, 12, wave goodbye to their friends before leaving for the US, at Pudong International Airport, Shanghai, China June 27, 2022. REUTERS

The Kaye family's last few years inShanghai have been tinged by China's growing isolation due to COVID bordercurbs and a worsening relationship between Washington and Beijing, but Kayesaid it has not marred their experience.

"I think people are around the worldbasically the same. We all want to be safe, and be able to go about our workand do creative things and get a good education for our kids, and have a homeand shelter and community," she said. "I think on the governmentlevel is where things get so misunderstood.”

Three days after Kaye and her daughterslanded in the United States all three tested positive for COVID, but they haveno regrets about their move.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher