I’ve lived in and around Dalian and Qingdao and spent a fair amount of time in Xiamen. I would not choose Dalian, but only because my experience there was not the best. I thought it was boring, the air quality wasn’t really that great (Compared to present-day Chengdu though it was pretty amazing) and there wasn’t a whole lot to do.
Qingdao on the other hand is probably my favorite city in the mainland and where I’d choose to live again given the choice. The weather can get quite humid in the summer, but it doesn’t get quite as hot as a lot of China. The beaches that are a ways out from the city center is nice, the beer is better there and the food is great.
Xiamen is pretty cool from my limited experience of a few weeks spread out across a couple trips. The summer gets a bit too hot and humid for me, but I come from a cold place so I’m just bad at dealing with heat in general. The local food and stuff didn’t really tickle my fancy all that much, but the whole Fujian/Zhejiang region sort of does that for me. You might like it.
The winter in Qingdao is pretty miserable though. This is my first winter in Chengdu, so I don’t know how typical it is, but you can expect it to be a LOT colder up there. The houses all have pretty good heating though. Any new apartment has a nice central heating system.
Qingdao is a lot less developed than Chengdu is in a lot of ways though. There’s a lot less in the way of foreign shops (A few Carrefours and Juscos, a Japanese Chain, scattered around) and the subway isn’t open yet. Line 1 should be open sometime this year maybe…
Also you (kind of) can forget biking in Qingdao. The roads are tiny, curvy and more resemble some European or New England city than any other major Chinese city. Also the place is very hilly. I rode a bike around for a while but I was too scared for my life given the winding narrow roads and lack of any bike lanes and even sidewalks in some parts. The newer parts of the city (Laoshan, Sifang) are much more like Chengdu or any other big Chinese place with very wide, open roads and even bike lanes in some places… but the CBD and most of the business is in the older more central parts. If you never leave the burbs you can bike fine, I’d reckon.
Qingdao is also a bit pricier than Chengdu in a lot of ways. My apartment was pretty cheap by Qingdao standards in a new complex just on the edge of Shinan Qu (Which is where about 90% of the business/jobs are). I was about a 10-35minute bus ride from the very center of town depending on traffic and paid about 1800 for a studio. In Qingdao this was a steal, I got a break on my rent by tutoring my fangdong’s daughter, as most of my neighbors had the same-ish apartment and paid like 2000-2500. Within Shinan Qu itself any decent place will be well over 2700 a month and with roommates might go a bit below 2k. Laoshan and Sifang are a lot cheaper, but a lot further out. If you’re just looking to teach ESL Laoshan has a lot of English schools as it’s where the richer, car-having middle and upper middle class folks live now.
Another place you might want to look into is Yantai. Ironically it’s name translates to “Smokestack”, roughly, but it’s a very, very clean and nice city on the bay north of Qingdao. It’s smaller than Qingdao and Dalian, but I loved the place. Less foreigners, but it has a decent Irish pub that serves a good shepards pie.
Here are a few pics from this last summer in Qingdao:
There was a public park/mountain in my complex’s backyard. This is the view of Laoshan Qu on a relatively foggy day.
Here’s a pic from the roof of my complex looking over the main part of the city (Shinan Qu). The buildings stop because of the ocean.
Here’s another picture of the blue skies. Again, I lived within a 30 minute walk of the CBD. This isn’t totally our in he sticks or anything. The subway will connect Sifang with the main part of the city and will likely make that area a lot more convenient to live in.
edit: wow I wrote a lot. I lived in Qingdao for a while and love it though, so take it as you will. Also Qingdao is very close to both Japan and Korea and has huge expat populations of both, making good Japanese food like sushi and very authentic Korean VERY cheap and common. You can even spend like 200rmb to take a boat to Incheon if you want.