Moving is never an easy process. It’s hard enough to move to another city, never mind a different country. When Grace and Christopher McCallum relocated to Beijing eight years ago from Vancouver, they only packed clothes and medication in their suitcases. “We didn’t know what to expect,” says Grace. It was the couple’s first time moving abroad.
The two teachers didn’t pack anything to decorate their new home on the Canadian International School of Beijing’s (CISB) campus. Though CISB combined two units for the McCallums, the space was still smaller than their apartment in Canada.
Given that most apartments within the city are not known for their large floor plans, her first piece of advice to expats fresh off the plane is to think about where to put your stuff. “When we first got here, we bought a lot of things that looked nice but took up a lot of space and provided no room for storage,” she says.
It wasn’t long before the McCallums found themselves running out of space for their belongings. Things became especially cramped when they welcomed their two daughters: Lila (age 2) and Avery (8 months). Doubling the family meant not only doubling the amount of clothing, shoes, and food but also entailed the addition of diapers and toys.
Like most Beijing families living within the city, the McCallums didn’t have an extra closet or attic to rely on. Instead, they had to find a way of creating more space inside their apartment without the option of knocking down walls.
The solution? “Make use of your vertical space,” recommends Grace.
For the past few years, most of the furniture purchased by the McCallums was designed with height or storage space in mind. The family TV sits on a stand that is taller and narrower than it is wide, providing space underneath to store items such as small toys and stuffed animals. In the living room, the sectional sofa has rolling drawers at the bottom for extra storage. Glance into the Grace and Christopher’s bedroom and you’ll also see furniture that passes the vertical space rule. “Even our beds are tall enough to put boxes under,” she says.
In addition, the McCallums rearranged some of the rooms to fit their needs. They originally had two bathrooms, but decided to have the shower taken out of one of them to have a dryer put in. The kitchen also needed a vertical makeover so the family could store more utensils and ingredients. The solution was simple; all it took was a trip to Ikea and a box of screws. “We bought enough metal shelving to run the entire length, so that doubled our storage area in the kitchen,” says Grace.
However, the additional storage space did not magically make the McCallums feel like they were back in Canada. To make their apartment feel more like their first home, they started bringing back easy-to-pack items whenever they went home for visits, such as bedding and wall decals. The latter make good alternatives for families who may have restrictions on what they can put on their walls, says Grace. For example, Avery’s nursery is decorated with decals of owls and birds.
Fortunately, new families don’t have to wait for a trip home before decorating their apartment. Though Ikea has been a great resource, Grace recommends Ladies’ Street (女人街) in Liangmaqiao for its little shops selling various decoration items such as custom-made home textiles.
“A lot of [homes here]have windows that project out from the apartment and they are great places to sit,” she says. “Almost any of the tailors will make you a cushion that fits perfectly as well as curtains to match, and it’s all very inexpensive.”
For Bogusia and Detlef Glogowski, the key to decorating was simple: buy local. When the German family first moved to Beijing in 1999, their rental house was already furnished. That didn’t stop them from buying their own furniture, however; they commissioned pieces from several factories located in Shunyi. There was a range of options ranging from more western to more Chinese styles. The couple has an extensive collection of furniture in their Beijing home that reflects their varying tastes.
“You can choose any type of wood, design, and shape, and they will make it,” says Bogusia. She brought photographs to show the dealers exactly what she and her husband had in mind. While their order was being made, the factory lent the Glogowskis furniture so that their house wouldn’t be empty.
Both Bogusia and Detlef have their favorite shopping spots within the city limits. Detlef recommends Macalline, a furniture mall located near southeast Fourth Ring Road. “It has over 200 stores that offer a huge [variety]of furniture and decorations, including modern Chinese styles and historical Chinese,” she says.
The Glogowskis both enjoy perusing the massive Chengwaicheng Furniture Mall, where they bought their first couch. “It is a huge complex. Absolutely everybody will find something interesting there, from simple designs to French Baroque pieces,” says Bogusia. “They also have a big separate building for decorations only. It is a very good place to go if you want to find decorating items that are different from Ikea’s.”
For families who like to bring a little bit of nature into their homes, Bogusia recommends the Laitai Flower Market attached to Ladies’ Street. “You can even pick up a family pet while you are there,” she says, referring to the talking mynah bird she purchased at the market. There are also turtles, guinea pigs, iguanas, fish, rabbits, chinchillas, and other small animals for sale.
Whether you are staying in Beijing temporarily or plan on making the city your long-term place of residence, the city offers a wide range of options for decorating your new home. All it takes is a map, a list of stores, and a budget. A little creativity goes a long way.