Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Battle Royale: Beijing v. Shanghai

Since I'm going away for a few weeks - and am likely to post little or not at all in that time - I thought I would leave you by trying to kick off an online debate on the relative merits (or failings) of China's two greatests cities, Beijing and Shanghai. (Yes, for the sake of simplicity, I'm going to leave Hong Kong, Chongqing, et al out of the discussion for now, if you don't mind.)

I have touched on this great controversy here on the Barstool a couple of times before (here and here), but I somehow failed to trigger the expected torrent of pugnacious opinions. Oh, well, third time lucky?

So, which do you prefer, and why?

Beijing, the seat of government, or Shanghai, the centre of commerce?

Shanghai is commonly said to have more of a 'European' feel to it, but is that necessarily a good thing? And does that make Beijing 'more Chinese' by comparison?

I love Shanghai as an occasional weekend getaway. I love the narrow little streets of the old foreign concessions. I love the fact that it's on a huge river, close to the sea. I love the fact that its taxi drivers mostly know where they're going. I love the fact that the grass is actually green there.

However, it is expensive, pretentious, and it rains all the time. It doesn't seem to have such a lively cultural scene as the capital, with a particularly notable deficiency in live music venues. The city has two of the worst airports in the world. Shanghai natives are notoriously snooty and exclusionary towards outsiders - even (especially!) other Chinese. And did I mention how bloody expensive it is??

On other issues - such as the purported superiority of Shanghai's women and of its cooking - I'm not really experienced enough to comment. I suspect these views have a lot of truth in them, but it's not enough to save the city for me. Good for a holiday, terrible place to live!

Most people I know share this overall assessment. But then, I live in Beijing; and most of the people I know who have a strong opinion on this topic are people (both Chinese and foreigners) who have moved from Shanghai to Beijing and have found that they prefer it here.

What about the great blog-reading public out there? Let's hear your views.


Orthodox Scouter said...

BeiJing is better, but neither are great. The Real China can be found in ChangSha, ChonQing, YuanJiang, and other cities that have not been so Westernized IMO.

Froog said...

Gosh, finally, after all this time, a comment! Thank you so much - er, Nick?

I did say that the discussion would get way too complicated if we opened it out to other cities, but, since you've started it, my response would be....

I've visited most - well, many - of the major cities in China now, and find almost all of them to be depressingly homogeneous, in the style of modern architecture especially (it seems like everything built anywhere in the country during the 70s, 80s, 90s was following the same templates and using exactly the same standard materials), but also in the traffic, the style of dress, the proliferation of Western brands or Western knock-offs. Qingdao (away from the sea) looks much like Hangzhou (away from the West Lake) looks much like Xi'an (away from the Drum Tower Square) looks much like Harbin (away from the river) looks much like Kunming (almost everywhere), and so on. It's only the advertising - local brands and local chain stores - which changes much from place to place, and foreigners probably aren't very attentive to this for the most part. Aside from that, I always feel that if I were kidnapped, drugged, blindfolded and dumped on a typical street somewhere in the middle of any Chinese city, it would be very, very difficult for me to work out where I was just from the appearance of my surroundings.

I've been to Chongqing and Changsha, and didn't find them noticeably less Westernized than anywhere else. KFC, Starbucks, and Carrefour are everywhere now. Maybe in some of the smaller second and third tier cities you might find a simpler, more traditional slice of China, but in the big cities..... I think not.

China is so diverse, I don't think you can readily identify elements that represent "the Real China". There are so many differences between the north and the south, the east and the west, and between the different provinces, and even within a single province. And of course, the biggest difference of all is between the urban and rural populations. If you want to see a China where western influence is minimal and the old traditional ways of life still dominate, I think you've got to head out to the countryside.

Chongqing is one of the few places I've visited that had more of an individual character about it: much of the architecture there does have a unique style because so much of the downtown is built on the precipitous slopes at the far end of the peninsular. I gather the weather is appalling, though: even foggier than San Francisco, but with terrible pollution and sultry summers too.

The only Chinese city I've thought attractive enough and characterful enough to be an enticing alternative place to live for a while is Kaifeng - but it's so small compared to Beijing that I think I'd go stir-crazy before long.

In praise of Beijing, I would say that I like it here because it does have more of a sense a "real China", the China of the countryside, than any other city I've been to. Even after all the Olympic gussying-up of the city, there are still large areas of it that feel more like a country market town, with grubby, rundown little rows of shops, itinerant vegetable hawkers out on the streets, donkey-drawn carts coming in from the villages not so very far away.