How I built fintech products in Singapore and China and navigated the tech scene in both countries

Chelsea Li, product manager at Wise, reflects on her journey to China and back and how the experience shaped her.

By SGN | 13 Sep 2023

As a Singaporean born in China who moved back to Singapore only as a child, I have always straddled two cultures and held a fascination for China. 

Landing a job in China, especially for those aspiring to move there, can be a thrilling yet challenging endeavor. In my case, Airwallex headhunted me in the middle of COVID to fill a product manager role in the Shanghai office. They were seeking product managers with an international background, and my experience of studying in the UK and the US, as well as having worked in several countries, made me a suitable candidate.

 I’ve heard so much about tech companies in China, about their ambitions and fast paced work environment so I really wanted to see for myself how it was like to work for a tech company in China. I also wanted to live in China again given that I’ve only lived there as a child, and be closer to my relatives in China whom I’ve always kept a close connection with.

Adapting to a new environment

My time at Airwallex was marked by rapid growth and continuous learning. The pace at which things moved in the company was staggering, and I quickly adapted to shipping products swiftly.

At Airwallex’s annual dinner in Shanghai where our team dressed up in Harry Potter Themed outfits.

When I first started working in China, I was slower in typing in Chinese compared to English. So sometimes, I would respond to colleagues in English, while they wrote in Chinese on Slack, and we understood each other. Soon, I adopted technical jargons in Chinese and was able to switch seamlessly between English and Chinese, both in technical and business contexts. 

Work was very busy, and I was working with our engineers and product designer to ship features as fast as we could. It was not an uncommon scene to see people working in office at 10pm. “外卖” or food delivery for lunch and dinner was staple to tech workers in Shanghai, as meetings and deadlines filled our day. The experience taught me the importance of agility and the ability to assimilate into a fast-paced environment.

One of the most valuable aspects of my tenure at Airwallex was the opportunity to deepen my understanding of the Chinese market, particularly Chinese businesses, as Airwallex primarily serves B2B clients and provides cross-border payment solutions to them. 

As the product manager covering the onboarding experiences of these merchants, I collaborated with teams across business functions, including KYC, compliance, transaction monitoring, sales, and marketing, giving me a holistic view of the multifaceted fintech landscape.

Building relationships that last

Finding a sense of community in Shanghai was relatively easy for me, thanks to my existing connections and classmates who had also settled in the city. As I had graduated from Yale, the alumni events organised by the Yale Association in Shanghai provided an additional avenue for networking and exploring the city together. 

For Singaporeans based in China or abroad looking to stay connected with Singapore, I recommend seeking out your alumni networks and following the Singapore Global Network (SGN). SGN’s articles and official WeChat account can help you stay connected with home. It definitely kept me up to date on the latest happenings in Singapore while I was in China!

Hanging out with a friend at a Halloween event in Shanghai. Halloween is quite a big celebration in a cosmopolitan city like Shanghai!

Building lasting relationships was another highlight of my time in China. The close-knit working environment, combined with the company’s smart and ambitious hires, fostered strong bonds. These relationships not only made work enjoyable but also provided crucial support in a foreign land. 

When I was looking for a flat in China, I asked a colleague of mine to go house viewing with me as I was wary of going alone. She was definitely a lot more acquainted with the housing scene in Shanghai and things to look out for when renting, it was very reassuring to have had her around during these viewings!

Returning home to start a new journey

After some time in China, I decided to come home to Singapore. The tech scene in Singapore is booming, with many international tech companies choosing Singapore as their APAC headquarters. I found it to be a good base for me to play to my strengths, being at the intersection of the East and the West. 

I wanted to deepen my experience in fintech and looked out for similar opportunities back home. I joined the team at Wise, a UK headquartered company specialising in cross-border payment products, that was rapidly expanding in Singapore. This time my role involved driving Wise’s product development and expansion in the Greater China region, a market I am deeply passionate about. The role also plays perfectly to my skill sets and background. 

With Wise, I launched a product that helps expats in China to send RMB home conveniently.  This addresses a notoriously difficult process – a challenge that I understood firsthand.

The process of transferring RMB out from China is an onerous one. The main options are limited to banks where each time, 5 to 6 documents are needed, and it took at least 3 hours of waiting time for the bank to process my documents and the transfer. I can only imagine how challenging it must be for expats who don’t speak Chinese and need to figure these out with the bank teller over the counter. 

Once, while waiting at the bank, I overheard an expat from India trying to explain herself in English to the bank, but the bank teller could not understand her. I went over and translated between the expat and the bank teller, and she understood the bank’s requirements in the end. This friction was something I wanted to solve and make things easier for expats in China. The product is now launched and we have many expats including Singaporeans already benefiting from our fully digital solution!

At a product launch celebration party in office, you can see our product poster in the background, send CNY worldwide.

Reflecting on my sense of belonging

My journey from Singapore to China and back has been a testament to the power of adaptability and cultural understanding. It has allowed me to bridge the gap between East and West, foster innovation, and create a fintech solution tailored to the needs of expats in China with my team based across China, Singapore, and Europe. 

This blend of experiences continues to shape my journey, and career as I continue traversing between Singapore and China. China is still very much close to my heart, and I go there frequently for work and leisure. As a child, I frequently asked myself: which country did I really belong to? Growing up, I found the answer to this question – it was never one or the other, it’s both.

I would like to take this chance to give back to the SGN community by offering SGN readers a free transfer with Wise for those wanting to send RMB from China. 

Scan the QR code below to register a Wise account and receive the free transfer of up to £2000.

*Please note: Free transfers are only available for those who register using this QR code and make their first transfer with Wise.

About Chelsea

Chelsea is a product manager at Wise leading its product launches in China and Hong Kong. She recently launched Wise’s first product within China, a service that allows expats to send money from China. Previously, she’s worked in Airwallex Shanghai and a tech start up in the US. A globe trotter herself, she believes in money without borders. She’s now based in Singapore but frequently travels to China for business.

Connect with her here.

Hello, Welcome to Singapore Global Network

Already a member?
Sign up with us as a
member today