That Time I Got Fleas in Shanghai

That Time I Got Fleas in Shanghai


Life was good.  I had just scored my dream job of being an interpreter at a prestigious advertising agency, and I was finally making money after my horrible student experience at Shanghai International Studies University.   I was on top of the world.

The first thing I did with my paycheck was put down a deposit and pay three months rent for my  “new” apartment in Shanghai.  After living in the dorms for six months, I was elated.  I could finally have a place to call my own and move back to city center Shanghai.

They look charming... but don't trust these old buildings!
They look charming… but don’t trust these old buildings!

Being the romantic I am, I was hellbent on living in a 老房子 (lao fangzi, aka antique houses) in Shanghai.  Lao Fangzi are unique in that they have changed little since the days Shanghai was ruled as a sort of colony by other countries (such as UK, America, Japan, etc..), with the largest concession being the French one.  The buildings are like a page from history; they are European but Chinese, foreign yet still very Shanghai.  These antique buildings have withstood the test of time (and even the cultural revolution), and are without a doubt one of the core reasons Shanghai is such a magical city.

The Busy Streets Outside My Lao Fangzi
The Busy Streets Outside My Lao Fangzi

So I found the most Shanghai of Shanghai neighborhoods you can imagine.  My neighbors couldn’t even speak Mandarin (Shanghainese or nothin’).  The exterior of my complex was gorgeous, but the inside hadn’t changed much since the 1940s; it was wooden, rotted, and musty.

My Pretty Lao Fang Zi
My Pretty Lao Fang Zi

Somehow, though, I fell in love with the place.  Walking through the gates, tip toeing up the creaky stairs to my room, and just knowing that I lived in a piece of history–it was like being in some kind of Chinese fairy tale.

Garden on the premises
Garden on the premises

Then, my legs started to itch.  At first I thought it was just mosquitoes (it was summer after all), but then the bites started to increase.  Before I knew it, my white, Irish legs were covered in red dots–like I had the chicken pox all over again.

And then, I saw it.  A black thing.  A black thing jump on my shoulder and then quickly fly away.  I saw another black thing jump on my leg.  My arm.  I screamed, ran, and booked the nearest hotel possible.  I was deathly afraid of going in my apartment.

I can't believe I lived in this shthole
I can’t believe I lived in this shthole

“So, you’ve got fleas.” The doctor said as he prescribed anti-itch medicine.  My legs were red and raw.  “You’ll need to fumigate your home.  Live somewhere else for a few days.  The medicine will help with your itching, but the scars may last forever.”  I cringed.

My old flat...
My old flat…

In that instant, my fairy tale Shanghai apartment instantly transformed into a run-down dump.  I was horrified that I had even considered living there.

Knowing Who Your True Friends Are

Fleas - Mary

Although I would have much preferred to set my apartment on fire instead of attempt to clean it, there were some items that I was hesitant to part with (plus, I’m sure my deposit wouldn’t be coming back if I charred the place to a crisp), so I had no choice but to go back in and attempt to clear out the fleas.

After a thorough fumigation that lasted three days, I went back to flea infested apartment and thought the worst was over.  I opened the windows to clear out the toxins from the fumigator.  I bundled up all of my clothes and spent over 200 dollars to get them laundered (only hot water kills fleas, and Chinese washing machines can only use cold water), and I thought I could finally get on with my life.

And then, I saw it. A little black creature jump from my shoulder.  Another one jumped off my foot.

I darted out of my apartment and ran to my usual hotel around the corner, but it was fully booked. The only place available was across town, in a very ghetto Hanting (the Chinese version of Comfort Inn).  After scrubbing my body down raw and washing my hair ten or twelve times, I sprawled onto my hotel bed, exhausted.

I sobbed.

I wailed like a banshee.  I was utterly and hopelessly miserable.  I had been living out of a suitcase for days on end and spent close to 500 dollars on hotels alone.  Although I had a host of friends in Shanghai, I was hesitant to stay with them and, in turn, give them fleas.

Fleas.  They’re a fucking nightmare.

I poured my feelings onto Facebook, looking for an outlet.  It was 2:00 AM.  After wiping the last of my tears and uploading my post, I prepared for bed.  I had to get up for work at 6:00 AM.

Then, my cell phone rang.

“Mary, you’re staying with me tomorrow,” it was a phone call from my Russian friend from my previous Shanghai University Program.  She had just read my Facebook post.  “I only have a one bedroom studio, but we can share the bed.  You can’t live like this.  You are coming here tomorrow.”

“But I don’t want to give you fleas,” I protested.

“You’re coming tomorrow,” she reiterated sternly.  “I’m texting you my address.  You can stay with me as long as you need.”

She hung up.

I cried again.  But this time, it was tears of relief.

A Friendship Formed From Fleas

View from Tomoko's flat. We used to dance on her balcony, looking out to this stunning sight.
View from Tomoko’s flat. We used to dance on her balcony, looking out to this stunning sight.

I will never, I repeat, never forget the kindness and generosity my Russian friend showed me when I needed help the most.  Despite being a flea infested wreck, she opened up her home to me with loving arms.  She cooked dinner for me.  Made an extra key for me.  Let me, a girl that may have been rife with fleas, sleep in her bed right beside her (luckily, she did not get any fleas!).

If that’s not true friendship, I don’t know what is.

One  day a coworker saw the red spots on my legs and asked, horrified, what in god’s name happened.  I explained the flea situation and she immediately responded:

“Come stay with me.  I just moved to a new apartment and we have an extra room for guests.  You can stay there until your apartment’s contract is over next month.”

Although I had only known her for a month, I was touched at her willingness to let me in her home.  When I tried to compensate her for rent, she shoved the money back in my face and said she didn’t need it.  Her hospitality and generosity moved me.  I was at a loss for words.

And this is how I met Tomoko.  One of my best Japanese friends and, undoubtedly, a woman who changed my life forever.

fleas - friends

Thanks to Tomoko, I met a slew of friends in Shanghai that have now become lifelong connections and soulmates.  She introduced me to the world of Shanghai Jazz and music.  When we lived together for that short month, she taught me how to cook, how to appreciate a good beat, how to dance, how to rock climb, and how to enjoy life.

So, even though the fleas thing really sucked (understatement of the century, really), I like to think that the fleas were a sort of cruel destiny.

Without the fleas, I wouldn’t have become closer to my Russian friend.  Without the fleas, I wouldn’t have created a lifelong bond with Tomoko and, through her, create a happy and wholesome Shanghai life.

I guess everything happens for a reason.  Even fleas.

Tips For Getting Rid of Fleas in China (or anywhere)

Damn you flea bitten cat
Damn you flea bitten cat

So I just have to say, if you are unlucky enough to suffer a flea infestation, prepare for the worst.  You’ll have to leave your apartment and live in another location for days, if not weeks depending how dire the infestation is.

Fumigation is the only way to kill fleas.  Unfortunately for me, one fumigation was not enough.  You will have to fumigate your home multiple times, which will take a week at the very minimum (and afterwards, you will have to keep your house vacant to clear out all the toxins from the fumigation).  I purchased fumigators from 久光 (Hisamitsu), a Japanese shopping mall in Jing An Temple.  This works wonders, but like I said, you have to use it multiple times.

After fumigation is finished, wash all of your linens and clothing in boiling hot water.  Only hot water will kill fleas and their eggs.

If you have flea bites, go to the doctor to get heavy duty anti-itch medicine.  Mosquito anti-itch oils and creams will only make it worse. If you’re cursed with Irish skin like me, the bites will scar.  Three years later and you can still see them on my legs.

The safest bet for eradicating fleas is to call an exterminator, but they charge an arm and a leg.

Fleas come from animals, so make sure your pets are clean.  Fleas are quite visible and you can usually see them hopping around on your pet if they happen to be flea bitten.  Although I didn’t own a pet in Shanghai, I had many stray cats walking around the premises, which I believe brought in the fleas eventually.

And finally, don’t live in a lao fangzi.  It looks cool, and for many foreigners it’s the ultimate Shanghai experience…

….but trust me.  It’s so not worth it.

Have you ever dealt with a bug infestation?  Was there ever a moment in life when someone really helped you out in a pinch, and you’re eternally grateful?  Have you ever had any ‘cruel twist of destiny’ type moments?

30 thoughts on “That Time I Got Fleas in Shanghai

  1. A friendship developed from fleas, yes I can relate to that but not the flea bit.

    Is it not possible to do a hot or at least 30 degree wash with washing machines in China?

    1. There generally isn’t a hot water heat for the entire building/apartment. I think I’ve only ever had one in my bathroom. I actually have to get hot water from the bathroom to wash my dishes in the kitchen. It is annoying!!

      1. Thanks Rosie. This is handy to know.

        All those baby whites you have to do. Wow! How we take things for granted in the West!

        I saw in a forum that some expats buy a portable heater that rest under the kitchen sink. Is this true?

        One should take a pinch of salt with what one read in forum eg it says ladies can only buy big pants in China. Now I know it’s not true.

  2. Uff, I have to look for a new apartment in Shanghai next month, and I was thinking about living in one of those if they were cheaper… but I just changed my mind, haha.
    The apartment I live in now is pretty old and run down, but it is not as old as those lao fangzi. The fact that my flatmate is the dirtiest person I have ever lived with doesn’t make it better either… I want to find a place for myself but Shanghai is frigging expensive and it is just not worth it considering I only stay here 4 nights a week… not even days as during the day I am in the office!

    1. It really depends… Before this nightmare apartment I lived in a lao fang zi, and it was just fine. The main difference was, my first lao fang zi had been COMPLETELY redone, so the inside looked like a brand new apartment. The second laofangzi was run down, but I was sold on its historic charm (that was a bad mistake).

      Basically, if the inside of the room has been remodeled (even if it’s a lao fangzi) it’s probably a safe bet. If it even looks a wee bit old or run down, run away.

      Apartment hunting in Shanghai sucks. Believe it or not, though, it’s way cheaper than the USA. My friend pays 1000 USD just to share an apartment in LA (that’s around 6k RMB). When I lived in Shanghai I paid around 3k rmb to share a flat, and it was pretty spacious.

      I used for finding a flatemate. Not to sound racist, but I always had problems living with Chinese roommates and I found foreigners a lot easier to deal with. Even my best Chinese friend, though I love her dearly, was a slob. It was hard.

      Good luck Marta!

      1. Well, something happened last Friday and I won’t need to look for an apartment in the end… I will just move back to Suzhou. Guess what, my company is moving to Shenzhen… yay…

          1. Not yet, I have a job here until December. After that, I might still work for them as a full employee but from home… if that is possible in China, which the boss doesn’t know yet. I’m not really optimistic about that (I would love it, but I think the HR is going to say that’s not possible). So I might need to start looking for a new job in October… oh God, again…

  3. Love your writing, Mary. Sorry about the fleas. I have my own 老房子 story in Shanghai, but it wasn’t fleas, it was slugs and mold. I learned my lesson as well.

  4. I’ve never had fleas, but Ping once had lice. I freaked out, but it really wasn’t that horrible. It was nowhere near as horrific as this story. Wow.

    1. I don’t think lice spreads as far, and it’s only limited to your head, so with a good lice killing shampoo usually that solves the trick. The problem with fleas is that they’re ultra hard to kill (I heard they’re much worse than bed bugs) and they spread to all corners of your home laying eggs, so it’s just super stressful.

      Glad Ping is ok, though! Gotta watch out for those nasty bugs!

  5. How awful, but oh, what great friends. A decent trade-off…except for the scars.

    Commando Cat came with fleas! Yep, we had to fumigate the apartment and get her a collar. California is rife with cat fleas — so the good news is they were all over the poor cat but wanted nothing to do with humans. No bites for me.

    Now, of course, our animals have oral or topical flea-killing drugs. They are flea-killing machines. Though I have heard that fleas might have developed an immunity…

    I vacuum every two days to suck up eggs. Also because I am super neat.

    1. You had the fleas experience too!?! I wonder why California fleas don’t bite humans…? Hm. The one sin China were so nasty, they chomped all over my legs! (another sign that its fleas and not something else–fleas can’t fly so they’ll bite where they can reach).

      Good job with the flea killing drugs. They’re essential. Are your cats indoor or outdoor? I think indoor cats don’t have to worry so much, but the ones that go outside definitely need the flea medicine/collar.

      *shudder* flea eggs.

      1. My cats were indoor, until we moved to a house with a yard. Then we started using frontline and advantage. It seems to work well, in conjunction with vacuuming. The cats get a few fleas that die. No major infestations. YET. But you have scared me. 🙂

  6. Hi Mary!
    Even though I’m already use to deal with this annoying insects, I have never been in that terrible situation with fleas. *Thanks God you found people with a sweet heart that helps you to deal problems with your sweet blood*
    I came from a hot-tropical-humid country ¨city¨ so we are use to mosquito´s bites and strange deseases. When 老外 people come to my country, they always got red legs with scars as it happened to you. *It seems like mosquitos and fleas love to get an -international blood overdose- whenever 老外 people come to town*
    Also lice are common to kids but they are not terrible as fleas. You just you get a special shampoo and that´s it.
    I have heard terribles stories about fleas from people that own dogs and cats… and yes, you have to deal with fumigation 🙁

    I wonder why you said you had a horrible student experience at Shanghai International Studies University.????? Don’t scare me please :O *I hope it has nothing to do with fleas or any of those animals…..*
    Im gonna be in Tonji university next moment and what I know so far is that some students have had problems with termites 🙁
    I hope my room is already quite free of any of these plagues

    Thanks for your post!!

    1. Helllooo!! So happy to see your comment!

      Yes, in Asia I also noticed that the locals didn’t get bitten as badly as we did. I honestly think that mosquitoes like to munch on foreign treats!

      Yes fleas are awful, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy! Even after fumigation you still don’t feel safe in your home or with your items, because you’re so paranoid about whether it has been contaminated or not. After my flea problem I think I ended up throwing almost half of my clothes away 🙁

      Oh, Shanghai International Studies University actually had a very nice and new dorm (much better than Tsinghua). I just didn’t like the program, it was very, very badly run. I wrote more about this in Chinese Forum, you can take a look here (my name is Angeia btw):

      I heard Tongji University is good! Are you enjoying your studies there?

      Good luck in Shanghai!

      1. thanks Mary Im gonna read about the forum
        Im gonna be in shanghai this friday night
        Everything is going well so far, Im receiving previous information from tongji International Students’ Association.. They are very nice people
        I hope everything will be ok right there also 🙂

  7. Oh my. That is just horrible and also frightening at the same time. I actually lived in a Lao Fangzi in Shanghai. Didn’t get fleas. But after reading your post, now I’m wondering if I really dodged a bullet there.

    1. Yeah at first I was just unlucky, but then I saw Sean’s comment about the slugs! I guess you really have to be careful with those lao fang zi.

      My first lao fang zi was remodeled on the inside, so that was absolutely fine. My friend also lived in a lao fang zi, but again, it was completely remodeled on the inside so she never had any sort of bug infestation or other problem. I guess it’s all about the remodeling.

      No lao fang zi in hangzhou, though, so I think you’re safe! haha

  8. My friend and her family (she’s got a baby!) lived in an apt with bed bugs, and I hear they are the worst to get rid of – much like fleas. I’m glad the nightmare had a happy ending, a very happy one, indeed.

    I hope you told the landlord! Not that anything would change. Ug. I don’t ever want to rent an apt from someone who had a pet now.

    It’s funny that you went for old and historic. I think I would have gone for new and modern. Hahahhaa. Old is nice in the US though. Love 1920s houses.

    1. Yeah I tried to call the landlord repeatedly and he didn’t answer. When he finally answered a month later, he just kind of shrugged his shoulders and said: “what do you want me to do about it?” Then he accused me of having pets and all this garbage, ugh, he was a horrible landlord.

      I don’t know what I was thinking, wanting an old house. I was crazy. After that, it was new or nothin!

      Your apartment in Cambodia looks AWESOME though! I dig it!

  9. Hi Ruby,

    I am undergoing flea challenges too now..
    What sort of machine did you use to fumigate the house and what products did you use to fumigate the house with ? How long did it take ?


    1. Hi Lena!

      I am so sorry you are going through this! It’s the worst! I used a fumigator that I got at a Japanese store in Shanghai. It was called “barusan バルサン”…. This is what I used (apologies it’s in Japanese). I think there are Chinese versions of these fumigators, but I didn’t feel as safe using the Chinese brand.

      For two fumigations it took almost two weeks.

      However, the flea infestation at the apartment I had in Shanghai was so extensive that not even two rounds of fumigations completely eliminated the bugs. Depending on how bad the infestation is, I would talk to the landlord and try to get a professional to come in and get rid of the fleas, or move out. In the end, I had to move out, but good lord it was so horrible…

      I wish you the best of luck!

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