For many expats, what makes or breaks a move to a new country is the community they meet there. One cannot underestimate the importance of having a friend to go to the bar for a drink or to grab a coffee during the day. It can make a world of difference if you know some people you can ask for help or advice, be it finding where to buy the food they like from back home or to take them to the hospital after an accident.
If someone is fortunate enough to find this sense of community when they move to a strange new place, then they are more likely to stay longer and start to feel like they have a found a home away from home. It’s that same sense of community that the Shenzhen Women’s International Club (SWIC) has been providing to the ladies of our city for over 30 years.
We sat down with President Yvette Taylor and Programs Chair Christyne Holmes for a coffee and a chat to find out more about what SWIC is about and what it offers to the expat women in the local community.
“It started in 1986. It was just a few ladies who met in somebody’s lounge in Jingshan. Two years ago we did quite a few big events to celebrate the 30 years. There are no original members left, but we do have some photos,” explained Yvette.
Christyne had heard about what it was like back when SWIC started. “At that time, in the Shekou area, there were a lot of oil and gas companies, so my guess would be that it came out of that. There were a lot of expat ladies, or expat families, that were living here, and they don’t really know how to communicate locally. They didn’t speak Chinese. They had just moved here. That time, wasn’t like it is now.”
SWIC has come on leaps and bounds since it was first formed, but it fundamentally represents the same values. Their mission statement can be found in their leaflets, but Christyne sums it up well during our chat.
“I think our goal with SWIC is to offer the gals support. These women are the anchors for their husbands and kids and they feel like they are running around, taking care of and solving all the problems. Grocery shopping alone can be a challenge in a new country where you don’t speak the language. Any additional special needs can make acclimation and adjustment even more difficult. I like to think of it as a soft place to land. You can come here and ask whatever questions. You can vent. You can get rejuvenated. Then we put you back out there.”
“We recently had an event and some of the new ladies were really struggling. If you’ve never been to Asia before, it is a culture shock. So we are there for them if they want someone to chat to,” added Yvette.
The group has grown tremendously over the years, which is reflected in the original name of Shekou Women’s International Club being changed to the Shenzhen Women’s International Club it is today. The amount and variety of activities now held offer members something interesting to do every day during the week.
“Every Tuesday morning 9:30 to 11:30 we have a coffee morning. It’s usually at the Hilton, except for the third Tuesday of every month where we go to the Marco Polo in Futian. At our Hilton coffee we generally have over 50 ladies, on some occasions more than 70. The Marco Polo coffee is popular with a lot of our members that live in Futian and have kids, but we also get a lot from Shekou. Generally, there are 50 ladies there.
There’s also a book club, which meets once a month on a Tuesday evening. Most of the books are, some fiction, some non-fiction, but right now we are reading one about a Chinese wife and American husband bringing up their son in Shanghai,” explained Yvette.
Mothers with young children form a significant percentage of the members in SWIC and they are well taken care of.
“So we have a large Mom’s and Tot’s group. That is a lot of support for those with preschool kids. Every week they make play dates. It’s every Wednesday or Thursday and it’s someone different every week. It alternates between different apartments. They had a big Easter party recently and you wouldn’t believe how many people were there. It was crazy,” recalled Christyne.
Yet that represents just a small fraction of the work SWIC puts in to arrange activities for their members. Christyne gave a breakdown of what happens in a typical week.
“Monday they have the hiking group. Tuesday we have the coffee. Wednesday they play tennis. Thursdays they usually do another hike. Monday and Wednesday they do archery. Friday we do mahjong. And then we sprinkle in other activities along the way. A couple of weeks ago we made dumplings in my house. We had 15 or 16 gals who came to my house for that. At the weekend we are going to the Opium War Museum.”
The women of SWIC also enjoy their parties and members can be sure to have a few large events to be arranged each year.
“We had our farewell lunch on the 22nd of May. It was a chance to say farewell for the summer and to those who were leaving Shenzhen. That was at the Westin. We had the ballroom there for a late morning lunch with a wonderful buffet and sparkling wine. 90 Ladies attended,” said Yvette.
“Then in September, we will have our welcome breakfast. A way for everyone to get back into the groove,” added Christyne.
Even putting the weekly activities and the great parties aside for one moment, SWIC is worth joining for the great discounts members can enjoy at more than 50 restaurants, bars, shops, spas, and other businesses you are sure to come into contact with during your time in Shenzhen.
“This is worth the cost of the membership alone. Because if you go to McCawley’s and get 5% off then it adds up over time. It adds up pretty quickly,” explained Christyne.
Charity work forms an important part of the work that SWIC does, so those who want to give back to the local community can find a platform to do so at the club. Yvette went into detail about the assistance they provide.
“We support three local charities; Captivating, Promised Land, and Sunshine Academy. We budget at the start of each year and we set out an amount for each charity. That can either be given to them at the end of the year or if they want to use it throughout the year. What we’ve also done this year are three coffees where – they usually cost 50RMB – the members have it free, but then we have a charity bucket. So we’ve raised 3 or 4,000RMB each charity coffee just by doing that.”
SWIC boasts a large membership, but it’s not one that is dominated by any one clique. As is stated as part of their mission statement, ‘there is no typical SWIC member. We are women of all ages, with or without children, working or not working for money, seasoned or first-time expats’.
“We have over 250 members at the moment. There can be up to thirty different nationalities on a bus during a trip,” explained Yvette.
When asked about the makeup of those 250 members, Christyne is keen to express the diversity. “I would say American is probably the largest nationality and then maybe French. Our mahjong group just cracks me up. We have women from Belgium, France, Korea, Japan, America, New Zealand, and Australia.”
“It’s amazing that everyone gets on so well. I don’t know anyone that is cross with one another. In 250 people, I don’t know if there is any bad blood or poor relations. Which is pretty amazing when everybody is from different walks of life,” she added.
Perhaps the best possible note to finish on is to simply leave you with a quote from the SWIC mission statement, which sums up all the good work the women at the club are doing.
‘The purpose of Shenzhen Women’s International Club is to promote social and cultural exchange between the women of the expatriate community in Shekou and throughout Shenzhen. This is done through meetings and activities in the spirit of mutual understanding and friendship.
SWIC provides a focus for social and cultural activities for members and is of particular value to newcomers by serving as a means to meet other expats, find resources, and share tips and information about living in this city.
We are a club run solely by volunteers. To give back to our host country, we continually support local charities through donations, promotion, and active participation.’
To become a member of SWIC, applicants must hold a foreign passport or be a spouse of a foreign passport holder. Membership costs RMB350 per year, with the year beginning in August.