Valentin Fedoulenko wrote in Russian Emigre Life in Shanghai:
In the twenties the minimum amount of money necessary to live reasonably well in Shanghai was about 120 Chinese dollars. To give you an idea of the standard of living that was developing in the Russian colony, the ordinary policeman would receive about 200 at that time, as a start. I, for instance, paid my help in the pharmacy with 175 to 200 Chinese dollars a month during that time.
He includes rent in his calculations, because everyone was renting. Let’s say 200 dollars in salary equals 10,000 yuan, a decent monthly salary for today’s Shanghai. We can call 6,000 yuan a reasonable minimum as well.
At that time you could buy a loaf of bread for 10 or 15 cents and could order a very decent meal for forty to fifty cents in an inexpensive restaurant. Of course, the more expensive restaurants charged more.
So, a loaf of bread was 5-8 yuan, and a decent meal cost 20-25 yuan. By the late twenties, Russian bakeries were everywhere. Today there are none, and a loaf from Farine or Baker & Spice is 6-10 times more expensive. As for a decent meal, 20-25 yuan will only get you one vegetable dish in a neighborhood restaurant like “Hunan Xiangcun Fengwei” or half a sandwich in a “foreign” café. A decent and affordable meal today costs at 3-4 times more than in the 1920s.
Of course, my wife and I for many years lived extremely modestly. In fact we spent not more than $24.00 a month on food for both of us. You can imagine how we ate even at the inexpensive prices then.
1,200 yuan a month for two people spent on food is, indeed, very frugal.
The most you could reasonably spend for a good suit would be 25 to 30 dollars. A decent apartment would cost from 35 to a maximum of 75 dollars in Chinese money [...] Our whole rent was only 55 Chinese dollars per month and was both for the store front and for my apartment upstairs.
Today a suit still costs 1,200-1,500 yuan, but a decent apartment is much more expensive. For 1,750 yuan you cannot get anything in the French Concession, and for 3,750 you can get a room in a shared apartment. Fedoulenko's apartment upstairs AND a shop front for 2,250 yuan would be impossible now. More like, five times the price, even if we suppose the commercial properties cost the same as residential.
Journalist Natalia Ilyina describes a gypsy dance troupe in the 1930s in her book Ways and Destinies:
Men in sequined vests, women in multicolored skirts and shawls, their necklaces jangling... The famous Shurik is dancing; he is dark-skinned, aged nine. Beautiful Masha is dancing too, she is about fifteen. Both of them are snatching one-dollar and five dollar banknotes the customers give them.
Today, the little dancers would be getting 50-250 yuan per each tip – not bad!
Anna was sleeping peacefully on the bed next to mine. She had a small clerical job in the large American-owned “Shanghai Power Company.“ She earned 75 dollars a months – enough to pay rent and buy clothing.
3,750 yuan in today’s Shanghai is enough to pay rent OR buy clothing, but not both.
I started working in a newly opened Chinese company that exported bristle. For two months in summer I typed their business letters. The monotonous work made me sleepy, but I considered myself lucky: the company promised to pay 50 dollars a month. Together with my newspaper earnings it is enough to pay the rent for my room, buy food, and possibly get a new pair of shoes.
Today 2500 yuan would not get her very far, but there is more choice of cheap (and low quality) clothing.
Illustrated magazine Projector hired me as a “schroff.” I had to collect money from subscribers and advertisers (mostly doctors, notaries and small emigrant stores). [...] It is an easy job: all you do is hand them the bill. Naturally, they are not happy to see you. They make you wait in the hallway. They say, “come tomorrow” or “come in a week.” For running around and waiting in hallways Projector paid me one dollar a day.
50 yuan a day, or 1,500 yuan a month is pretty meager, but she only worked in the mornings.
Georgy Eliseyev lived in Shanghai in the early 1940s:
Father sent about 120 fabi (6,000 yuan) a month. 100 (5,000 yuan) paid for the board and meals, 20 (1,000 yuan) paid for day-to-day expenses and the college (one semester cost 100 fabi (5,000 yuan).
Sounds reasonable, except it is not possible to find a boarding house with meals included anymore.
At first I lived on Route Grouchy, in the Passage No. 9. It was a good room, but the price was high! Forty or fifty dollars. Soon my auntie offered me a room in her boarding house for twenty dollars. … It was pretty small, about 2.5 by 3 meters.
He would consider himself lucky to find a room for 2000 or 2500 yuan a month in today's French Concession. 1000 for an 8-meter room is about right, but only in the old town. Eliseyev was a poor student, always looking for work, and when he found jobs, they paid 200 dollars (10,000 yuan) a month.