Shanghai Love

I just got back from my eight-day business trip, which included a fascinating four days in Shanghai. Maybe in my earlier trips I hadn’t noticed just how glitzy and glamorous the scene there has become. This time – perhaps because I was there working on a fashion product – it really hit me: you can’t distinguish the people shopping on Rodeo Drive from those on Huaihailu.

Last Sunday morning I sat at a coffee house in the French Concession and began counting the number of passers-by using iPods, wearing designer sunglasses and knee-length Italian boots. It was a fashion show, and the Chinese yuppies seemed even more brand-conscious and willing to shell out vast sums for the latest trends than their expat counterparts (and a lot of the expats seemed quite brand-conscious as well). So, so different from Beijing. Sure, there are some pockets in the city like Sanlitun that are more brand-derangedconscious than others, but all in all Beijing seems to have far different priorities. Which is why I am glad I’m living here. (And it’s not like these are dazzling insightful observations – we all know the Shanghai-vs.-Beijing debates. It’s just that this trip drove home the differences more dramatically than before, and I was somewhat amazed.)

I am sleep-deprived and caught a cold yesterday, but I can’t shut down the PC until I put up this link to an absolutely must-read piece by Chinese author Mao Jian about Shanghai and how it has transformed and become glitzified, its priorities turned upside down compared to the 1980s.

My classmates and I look at one another, heavy with nostalgia. The ’80s swim in front of our eyes, yet we blink and find ourselves in a new century. In the ’80s, all was quiet by 8 p.m. The old man at his dumpling cart and the old lady selling eggs poached in green tea had quit their hawking. That’s what passed for nightlife. By 9 p.m., everyone was in bed. Now the fun starts at 9 p.m.

Shanghai is once again leading China. And in Shanghai, life gravitates toward the night; consumption follows not far behind. If you close before 10 p.m., you don’t qualify as a major establishment. Of course, there are plenty of places to go after 10 — cafes, bars, nightclubs. No wonder friends who returned after living overseas in the 1990s exclaimed, “Wow, look at how decadently you live!”

Before, we took our dates to a public park — entrance fee: a penny — and simply strolled the night away. Now the soiree extend from restaurant to movie theater to coffee shop, and you’d better be prepared to shell out $150. To be modern is the highest goal in life, and today’s interpretation of modernity means a Shanghai babe wearing Calvin Klein underwear. The whole of China follows in the footsteps of Shanghai. We’re giving our 5,000 years of history a facelift; time to lighten up and move on.

And be sure to read through to the end where Mao Jian writes about what the cash-oriented Shanghai psyche has done to the traditional concepts of love, when a woman seeking to get rich by sticking her claws into a foreigner was scorned and derided. 180 degrees. Now she’s put on a pedestal.

It’s a funny article that’s really quite sad. I love Shanghai for a weekend. I am really glad I chose not to live there. At this point in my life, that’s not the kind of place I belong. (In fact, I doubt there’s any point in my life at which I belonged in a place like Shanghai.) This trip made me appreciate Beijing more than ever before. Despite the torturous winter.

The Discussion: 48 Comments

As a young twenty-something, I’d much rather pack my bags for Shanghai than Beijing. I spent this summer interning with Apple in Beijing and the job was great, but the city itself was simply terrible. Business trips to Shanghai and Seoul were the only things keeping my sanity..

November 12, 2007 @ 6:35 am | Comment

If we strip away all the industrial advancements of the world would it stay the same and be unaffected.

What role are we doing to preserve society so that future generations can live odinary lives with small worries at the same time enjoy the advancements of the world.

That article reminds of the show “Wife Swap. Where they traded a suburbian workaholic mother for a cabin bound mother who lived in solitary. Watching that episode makes me think which one was closer to heavan.

Imagine 100 or even 1000 years from now. Will it a be our world or just another Zone1, Zone2, Zone3 with buyers and sellers walking around with the same trademark labels that is made by somebody around the corner.

November 13, 2007 @ 1:34 am | Comment

This sounds kind of mean, but I used to always joke with friends after vacations that upon my returns to Shanghai (where I lived for far too many years), I would always be disappointed to find that the city was still there.

November 13, 2007 @ 9:18 am | Comment

Although you Beijingers tend to talk more (a lot more) about the differences of the two cities than do the Shanghainese, your underlying analysis is still correct. I’ve only been here half a year and I’m already longing for another locale, if only to get away from the stench of yuppie angst that wafts through overcrowded streets. And, so help me god, if one more Shanghai hipster rolls her eyes at me for not knowing where this or that shopping center is…

By the way, Kaiser Kuo at his blog even went so far as to call all Shanghainese “philistines.” I tend to agree with him, but I’ve got to keep pursed lips and a fixed smile so my provincial colleagues won’t squash my “guanxi.”

What a damn wasteland. Who knew the “pearl of the orient” would become so… lackluster.

November 13, 2007 @ 10:40 am | Comment

Shanghai hipster rolls her eyes at me for not knowing where this or that shopping center is…

You’ll shoot them all? Please do it.

November 13, 2007 @ 11:20 am | Comment

Hmmm. I think among non-Chinese I may win the contest for Lao Beijingren (first time in ’79). I didn’t get to Shanghai until 93. Even in 79, the attitude was, the stuff made in Shanghai was the best stuff in China (even though not all that much was being manufactured – we are talking the best quality ballpoint pens here!).

Anyway, I’ve always had my pro-Beijing prejudice, for the culture, for the dialect and because it was the first place (and so far the only place) in China that I called home.

I have been favorably impressed with how Shanghai has managed its development in recent years, especially when I see what’s happened to Beijing – I mean, how many souless skyscrapers and malls does one city need? I think that Shanghai has done a better job maintaining/creating walkable, human-scale neighborhoods than Beijing has.

But Beijing still has the real arts scene, and I’m with Richard in that I could give less than a hoot about designer labels. To the extent that Beijing is less concerned with such things than Shanghai and that it maintains its cultural supremacy, it will probably remain my China home.

That said, walkable neighborhoods, people! Jeez….

November 13, 2007 @ 1:48 pm | Comment

Rupert Murdoch calls Beijing “home” too:

I guess if Murdoch and his CCP Princess wife can call Beijing “home”, that’s a sign of progress. But progress toward what? Diseases and toxins also make “progress”.

November 13, 2007 @ 3:28 pm | Comment

I don’t think what’s happened in Beijing is progress, for the most part. I think much of what gave the city its unique character has been bulldozed in the name of modernization, and what’s replaced it hasn’t been well-thought out or built to human scale. I don’t think I could live there for any great length of time. The pollution and the traffic are pretty unbearable to me.

But if you are interested in contemporary art and culture, Beijing still seems to be the place.

November 13, 2007 @ 3:45 pm | Comment

Ivan, at the moment I call Beijing home as well. I think Lisa’s point is simple and accurate: Beijing is a nicer place to live than Shanghai because of the quality of the people and their tendency to put more value on the things that really matter in life.

November 13, 2007 @ 4:05 pm | Comment

Yes. I don’t know about “nicer” but more what I’m interested in, certainly.

November 13, 2007 @ 4:10 pm | Comment

But Richard, (I’m ignoring Lisa – who hates me, and no, Lisa, don’t you DARE respond with any Californian Oprah-winfrey bullshit; Lisa, you really hate me and you would just be lying if you pretended otherwise – Good God, I prefer an HONEST enemy over a dishonest person who pretends to be “fair and balanced” – when I go to Purgatory for ten thousand years, I would prefer to be a roommate of an HONEST man like Stalin, rather than DIShonest incarnations of Nurse Ratched…)

… ANYway….and I will expect the same courtesy from Lisa, to keep the peace on Richard’s blog.
On Richard’s blog, I propose a policy of “refraining from launching an attack”, between me and my “TPD-Cold-War” enemy Lisa. Lisa and I can peacefully co-exist on Richard’s blog, yeah?

ANYway. So, between you and me as friends, Richard: isn’t comparing Beijing to Shanghai like comparing a less-smelly cesspool to a more smelly one?

Richard, you wrote:

“Beijing is a nicer place to live than Shanghai because of the quality of the people and their tendency to put more value on the things that really matter in life.”

…and, okay, a PART of me really DOES understand what you mean! After all, Richard, you know I lived in Beijing for around three years (a hell of a lot longer than Lisa did.) And yes, to be fair to Beijing, yes I DO understand what you mean by Beijingers traditionally putting “more value on the things that really matter in life.”

But, Richard, the problem is, that THAT kind of Beijing is 90 percent dead now, and now it’s facing extinction.

And so I just want to remind you, Richard, and other Western lovers of Beijing (of whom I am one), that everything that was (and in some residual small measure, still is) most beautiful in Beijing, is now under threat of extinction BY THE CHINESE COMMUNIST PARTY – which, dare I say (I WILL dare, as Richard’s friend) is buttering Richard’s bread right now.

But to be even more clear – with 20/20 acuity – yes, I know, I of all people know, I KNOW that the CCP is NOT a monolithic entity. (Dare I say, I know this far better than Lisa does, as I’ve spent exponenially more time and energy dealing with the CCP – and with my FRIENDS in the highest ranks of the CCP – than Lisa has ever done.)

Yes, surprise surprise, “Ivan of TPD” has many friends in the highest ranks of the CCP. And many of THEM have told me, personally, that they
wish for MORE openness between China and the West – and more openness in China – and none of my friends in the highest ranks of the CCP believe in the CCP’s nationalist bullshit propaganda about the Olympics, or any nationalistic propaganda at all.

Most of them, my friends in the top ranks of the CCP, DESIRE for the rest of the world to take China to task for its abominable Human Rights practices – because, around 60 percent or more of the HIGHEST ranks of the CCP, really DO believe in free speech and democracy, and we Westerners are not helping them at all when we act like “useful idiot” cheerleaders of CCP propaganda.

So, Richard (and Lisa and CLB et al), please, just knock it off. Please, just STOP promoting the propaganda of the CCP – because the MAJORITY of the CCP’s leaders DISAGREE WITH CCP PROPAGANDA! And they need us Westerners of goodwill to carry on helping them to guide China, in the long run, to become a truly great country and a beautiful civilisation, like it used to be.

But praising China’s “economic miracle” and emphasising “how much progress China has made since Mao”, is just counter-productive, and it is against the interests of China, a brilliant civilisation on the edge of rebirth.

November 13, 2007 @ 7:45 pm | Comment

PS, and so, paradoxically, I am the most “fair and balanced” commenter on TPD.

I believe that for the near future, it will be best for China to continue a one-party dictatorship.

But neither I, nor my friends in high ranks of the CCP, believe that it is in the interests of China to promote propaganda of the “Chinese economic miracle” – which the highest ranks of the CCP know willl end very soon, and THEN China will need many REAL friends in the West…

…and Western boosters of China’s “economic miracle” will NOT be among China’s friends, when the day of honest reckoning comes.

November 13, 2007 @ 7:57 pm | Comment


Please, just STOP promoting the propaganda of the CCP.

Please excuse my ignorance on this issue (as you clearly have a longstanding relationship/conversation going with some of the other respondents), but what exactly is your beef here? I’m confused.

Are you upset that people don’t like Shanghai? Or that they prefer Beijing? Or is it something else altogether?

Would you kindly explain it again? Feel free to leave out that part about your important friends in the Communist party. Point taken. Thanks.

November 13, 2007 @ 8:30 pm | Comment

@ rynsa, who wrote:

“Please excuse my ignorance on this issue (as you clearly have a longstanding relationship/conversation going with some of the other respondents), but what exactly is your beef here? I’m confused.”

I cannot, and will not get into it all now. But for now, I will tell you that when I arrived in Beijing in 2002, I was hounded and followed by a DESIPICABLE Chinese Communist Party Whore, who sat me down for MANY meetings during my first weeks in China, and that little insect tried very hard to impress upon me:

“Oh. OHHH! DO NOT TALK ABOUT POLITICS! If you talk about politics in China, oh, OHH, MANY BAD THINGS CAN HAPPEN!”

And I shit upon him (heh, as I now live in the Free world, I can tell you his name: Professor Wu (born in 1969, just to distinguish him from others), a PhD in International Relations at RenMin University in 2002 et seq.

When I met “Dr” Wu in 2002, he had never been outside of his home province until he moved to Beijing, to take up his post as a CCP whore at RenDa in Beijing. He told me that I was the first
“Foreigner” he had ever met. And yet, THAT man, that IGNORANT man, was, and is, a bloody PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS at China’s main Communist Party University (RenDa)
in Beijing!

That man – that creep – my “tail”, the spy who was assigned to look after me at RenDa – he had never met ANY “foreigner” until he me me! And yet the stupid CCP assigned HIM to look after me and to spy on me.


Oh yeah, on and on he went (while he smoked cigarettes in a silver cigarette-holder, because he had fantasies of being a “Chinese intellectual”…

….on and on this bloody INSECT went, puffing on his silver cigarette holder:


Well, “rynsa”, you asked me for my “beef”. And here is my “beef”, my complaint:

When I worked in China, in good faith and with good will, I was BULLIED by the Communist Party of China who tried (and failed) to keep me in line with their dead, abstract, life-destroying CCP doctrines.

I refused to cooperate with the CCP, and consequently I suffered major damage for it, both personally AND financially.,

And so, now I wonder how much of other Westerners’ hearts and souls have been purchased by the CCP?
Just wondering…..I never sold out to the CCP, and I have paid for my integrity. What about you, Richard? Hm?

November 13, 2007 @ 8:52 pm | Comment

Rodeo Drive must be a shabby place if Shanghai is ahead of it. I was so disappointed with the so called fashionable Shanghai. It didn’t live up to the hype at all. Yes maybe it is more fashion-conscious than the rest of China but even towns in HK’s New Territories have more style than most of Shanghai.
I still saw rolled up vests, trousers and people wearing pyjamas to go out. in the daytime.
Shanghai people aren’t stylish they are pretentious. Beijing has a rough kind of style without trying.

November 13, 2007 @ 9:41 pm | Comment

Ivan, there is more than one “CCP.”Just as there is more than one US government (for example, there’s the one that battered Jose Padilla, and the one that saved Europe from the Nazis). I hate the odious CCP and I respect the achievements of the better CCP now that I have seen them up close and see the good they have done. And the not so good. It’s when we start seeing things in black and white that we’re in trouble.

I hate any kind of dogmatic thinking, whether its ultra-liberal or arch-conservative. The CCP is in many ways bad, especially since by its nature it must always consider self-preservation over the well-being of its people. But to deny the amazing transformation of China is an act of self-deception. I just spent a week out in a relative backwater and saw the pride and dignity and achievement of more than 5,000 workers who have learned skills and are helping their families rise out of the most wretched poverty. Maybe it’s all fake, an illusion – but I don’t think so. I saw them and talked with them and spent four days with them and I love them, their energy, their optimism. I also know how successful they are and how much money their company owners in Europe are investing in them, giving them language lessons and cooking classes. Now, does that mean there isn’t slave labor and suppression and censorship and state-sanctioned murder in China? No. But there are signs of true reform, and I’m now thinking that those who don’t see it don’t want to see it and never will see it. But i know China is improving, and moving in the direction I always dreamed it would, toward gathering the knowledge and courage required to break free of the CCP and demand true freedom. It’s a gray, murky picture (what government isn’t?) but seeing only the bad is, as I said, an exercise in self-delusion.

November 13, 2007 @ 10:01 pm | Comment

Tang, it depends where in Shanghai you are. It’s a huge city. Hang around the French Concession or the ritzy part of Huaihailu. You’ll see what I mean.

November 13, 2007 @ 10:03 pm | Comment

Richard, my friend, you wrote in reply to my above comment:

“Ivan, there is more than one “CCP.”

…But why do you need to tell me this, unless you did not really read my comment, or perhaps you have begun to think in robotic ways of the CCP without even thinking?

My above comment SAID that there is “more than one CCP”. Oh dear. Richard, if you can’t see that, then I fear that you are transforming into an unthinking mouthpiece of the CCP. And, Richard, be honest – you DO work for a specialised propaganda campaign of the CCP now, DON’T you? Be honest, man….

…and Richard, isn’t THAT one of the MAIN reasons why you no longer blog so passionately about the depredations of the CCP? Because now you live in Beijing and your work involves cooperation with CCP propaganda?

November 13, 2007 @ 10:14 pm | Comment

Ivan, you’re really off-base. I don’t need to cooperate with CCP propaganda in my job. I still use my blog to slam the CCP – see my posts on the Shaanxi brick factory this year and many others that were less than drunk with praise of the party. I write about what I see. In 2002-3 I saw the Party at its most foul. If and when I see that again I will right it up as I always have. The main reason for the evolution of my viewpoint is, again, what I see and experience in my life here. I think you are truly wrong in thinking China will collapse like a stack of cards, And I base it, yet again, on my own experience and observations here, where I’ve seen factories running with the same standards and efficiencies as the best in Singapore or Japan or Italy. China is in many ways a hopeless clusterfuck, and while it will not fall to pieces it also will not become “the next superpower.” But its strides toward the betterment of the mass of its citizens is a matter of fact and not speculation.

The main reason I don’t blog much anymore and perhaps have lost some of my fire is quite simply my backbreaking schedule, which is about to force me to sign off for the night.

November 13, 2007 @ 10:24 pm | Comment

Ivan, right on, I like your partisan approach. Most people staying in mainland for an extended period need a reminder or wake-up call from time to time, to remember the harsh reality under the surface. Too many get soft and blinded by make-believe, cash and pussy.

November 14, 2007 @ 1:20 am | Comment

I’ve never watched Oprah Winfrey, actually.

As for who’s hatin’ who here, I’d look to the person who can’t seem to stop the irrational personal attacks, but you know, that’s using logic, which seems to be over some folks’ heads.

November 14, 2007 @ 1:36 am | Comment

Hey Ivan,

You experience is so funny. Sorry for your trauma but it makes me LOL. I do not really think that professor was assigned to spy on you. What a waste! Anyway, maybe you should see a therapist and talk about it. Good luck.

November 14, 2007 @ 2:19 am | Comment

Hey fatbrick,

your retardedness is so funny, LOL. I do not really think you mean what you write. What a waste! Anyway, maybe you should lock yourself into a room and throw the key out the window. Good luck!

November 14, 2007 @ 3:47 am | Comment

It is always good to know that my writing has some impact on somebody. One way or another, lol

November 14, 2007 @ 4:52 am | Comment

And they need us Westerners of goodwill to carry on helping them to guide China

No. Any help is welcome, but don’t presume that your foul, genocidal murderer nations are a model for any large country. The last thing China needs is hypocrites with a messiah complex coming in and preaching to them about how to act or what to buy.

Shanghai is already an overly Westernized hellhole; with all the egotism and irresponsbility it brings. You can see it in the disgusting West-obsessed prostitutes and hipsters in the streets.

Rather, international pressure (as useless as it is) should be directed in such a way that the CCP is split with public and international support behind any true reformers. Then they can finally have the political leverage they need to remove all remnants of Maoism and Communism.

But for all of China to turn into a America-loving, hedonistic craphole.. that’s almost as bad as a total collapse of the country. Things like Roman Catholicism and democracy over a culture of merit are definitively anti-Chinese; just like Marxism was.

November 14, 2007 @ 6:26 am | Comment

Hey Ivan

Seriously, I do not know your whole story. But according to what you just said, it just too funny.

That guy, Dr. Wu, graduated from the same university, was 33 at 2002. He can hardly make professor in China at that age given the background you introduced. I do not think he can make a professor even today, probably just a lecturer or instructor in 2002. As a young faculty member, it is usual that the department let him deal with students. Given that he never met foreigners, I would guess that he was so excited that he got the chance to talk to you, maybe because he wants to practice his English, or he considered it was an honor that his boss chose him to look after a young foreign student. The warning about politics, according to your description, sounded more like a friendly reminder about how to stay out of trouble, something like “always put $20 in your wallet in case you are robbed” in USA.

Yeah, it is pretty annoyed that someone talked too much and went on and on… That you called him an “insect” really reminds me a famous fantasy Chinese movie (Da Hua Xi You, people lived inside China can ask your friends about it). In that movie, a monk talked way too much and so annoyed that it literarily drives people crazy and suicide. The monk’s student cannot stand him and call him an “insect” and think of cutting the monk’s stomach open, pulling out his intestine, and using intestine to strangle the monk to death…It was one of the funniest movies I have ever watched.

In your case, Ivan, that poor guy Wu, he would never know that his little talk would drive a foreign guy so angry that the foreign guy still furiously curses him after 5 years!!!

November 14, 2007 @ 7:14 am | Comment


I have a hard time with this debate (again, back to SH v. BJ). I first landed in China via Shanghai back in ’99 and spent about 6 months there. I’ve been back often. I have lots of friends there. Shanghai is seriously the ONLY place in China for a guy to shop. I know people have a rep for being snobby, and I know some Shanghai-ren like that – however, I know just as many Beijing-ren that are the same way.

Now, on the BJ side, I lived there for 5 years, own property, worked a stone’s throw from the Forbidden City and some of my closest friends live there. So here’s my take…

Go live in Wuhan or Changsha or Zhengzhou or Heilongjiang and then say you wouldn’t like to be sitting having a coffee on EITHER Huaihailu or Nanluoguxiang/798 (richard, much more fashion there than Sanlitun) if you had the choice. SH & BJ are just so far removed from the rest of China, that comparing their “fashion” or “livability” is kind of inane – they are leaps and bounds beyond any other city in China (as a disclaimer, I’d say that Guangzhou and Shenzhen are more or less extensions of HK, so I’m not including them here). And please, please, please, no one throw Dalian into this debate – if you’ve actually lived there you’ll know what I mean.

November 14, 2007 @ 8:29 am | Comment

Sorry, meant “Haerbin” for “Heilongjiang” – typo.

November 14, 2007 @ 8:30 am | Comment

How’s about Chengdu, JadeBJ? I liked it a lot last time I visited.

November 14, 2007 @ 8:44 am | Comment


You make an interesting point, and I agree with you that people should visit/live in other parts of China. The Middle Kingdom is vast and diverse, indeed. We expats tend to forget that there’s life outside China’s two most prominent urban centers.

That said, I must disagree with your idea that “…they [Shanghai and Beijing] are leaps and bounds beyond any other city in China.” The word “beyond” implies a value judgment; it’s a perspective in which all other locations in China are somehow diminished. I respect your opinion here, but I certainly don’t share it.

In 2005, I had the good fortune to live and work in Wuhan. Although the climate was not to my liking (too damn hot!), in some ways I found the city, the people, and the cultural elements of the region to be far more interesting and unique than the same offerings in either Beijing or Shanghai. The people of Wuhan especially have earned a reputation as being very direct, unpretentious, intellectual (one of the highest per capita education rates), and even a little revolutionary (historically so). They are leaders, among other things, of Chinese punk rock–three-chord, snarl-toothed head-bangers on par with any band in Beijing, I might add. And to this day, I have yet to find a noodle dish anywhere in China that compares to Wuhan’s curiously addictive “Re Gan Mien.” I’m salivating just writing about it now. But perhaps I’m thinking too much with my belly.

Back to my point… I assume when you say “beyond” that you are referring to the many creature comforts of a western lifestyle: internet access, international foods, commercial goods, more efficient public services, and so on. If this is your definition than I can see why you would laud Shanghai and Beijing. But my definition of “beyond” is a little different.

Quite frankly, it has to be, doesn’t it? Don’t you think it defeats the purpose of living in a foreign country if I you have to whitewash everything with an outsider’s paintbrush; a foreigner’s privileged bias? It’s like the Northern Americans (retirees, mainly) who move to my Southwestern hometown of Tucson, Arizona, a beautiful desert city, and insist on bringing their finely manicured green lawns with them. It is not only an environmental nightmare, what with all the water issues facing the U.S., but an insult to the landscape, people, and culture of that region. Is it not good enough for them, or what? I mean, why come at all?

So, I’ll ask you: does your appreciation of Beijing and Shanghai rest on the idea that it has been “improved” with western attributes? Or have I misinterpreted your statements?

Anyway, I have a soft spot for many other cities in China (Xi’an, Nanjing, Urumuqi). I have strong memories of unique experiences, and at the end of the day, I just don’t think I could say the same thing about Shanghai. It’s, well, so predictable.

I mean, really. Shanghai is just “china-town” on a cocktail of steroids and soma. It’s a corporate-sponsored tourist trap, a city of neon whores and IPO hustlers, a monument to neo-liberal homogeneity, a soulless, red-painted machine with the singular, short-sighted goal of monetary transaction.

Nope, Shanghai is not anywhere near the China I’ve seen in other parts of the country. In fact, I would venture to suggest, it’s not beyond, as you suggest, but beneath any other city in China.

God, I need to get out of here.

November 14, 2007 @ 11:20 am | Comment

i live in Xi’an, and i can’t think of anything worse than “sitting having a coffee on EITHER Huaihailu or Nanluoguxiang/798”. and i don’t even know where the bollocks that is.

im guessing though its some fashionable district, a place to drink over-priced coffee and talk to over-dressed friends about over-hyped things – a place to be seen.

a place to be seen by other complete cretins. Jesus wept.

who moves to China for fashion and the trappings of modern living?!

rynsa, totally agree with you, China has so much more to intrigue than Beijing vs. Shanghai. questioning where id rather live is like questioning if id prefer a punch on the nose or a kick in the mouth.

Xi’an is more of a wet finger in the ear hole.

November 14, 2007 @ 1:05 pm | Comment

Ok now, here it goes…

First of all, I want to limit the discussion if we could to cities, urban and rural China are completely different and almost completely impossible in my mind to compare.

So, Chengdu, Wuhan and Xian all have a lot going for them. There are some really kick ass places, culture and people in all three (hell, I’ve spent so much time in Wuhan I understand and even speak a little of the dialect). I could say the same for Xiamen, Suzhou, Kaifeng, Chongqing, Kunming, Shenyang, Qingdao and a slew of other very interesting places that I’ve had the pleasure to spend time in and are both nice to visit and nice to live. However – I will stick by my assertion that BJ & SH are “beyond” all of these cities, in the same way that NYC and San Francisco are “beyond” other US cities (Portland, Seattle, Boston, DC, Chicago + any number of wonderful places to visit and live included).

No other cities in China are more metropolitan. None have more museums. Beijing has nearly a university around every corner. There is nowhere in China like 798 (dylan – I suggest you find out where the bollocks that is). People DO dress better in Shanghai. The coffee is better (I shouldn’t have used such a cliche as sitting around people watching with a cup of coffee in my first post, but it is what a lot of people – including me – do), there are more beers on tap, there is more TO DO. Are there lots of interesting and/or “Chinese” things to do in all the other places in China – absolutely yes. But they are limited and after a short time repetitive. I’ve spent probably 3 months in Wuhan, and there is absolutely nothing left there for me to see or do other than wander – I spent 5 years in Beijing and I never ran out of actual things to do. Other people might be bored to shit in SH and BJ – I’m not. I haven’t played golf for many years. I don’t live in a villa. I don’t go clubbing that often. I don’t go to embassy balls. I don’t hang out with models (too often). These are not my criteria. What separates these cities them is that you can actually DO things, melt into the crowd (somewhat), go about your business like it’s nobody’s business and get a Hoegaarden on tap. Just like in any metropolitan city in the world. Not your cup of tea/coffee, fine. Are SH and BJ “Chinese” cities – of course they are – there are nearly 40 million Chinese people in these cities. Foreigners can hum and haw all we want, but in the end we’re drops in a very big bucket. It’s the Chinese who build their cities. What’s different in these two cases is that they’ve built the epicenters of contemporary China, the cities that – for good or for bad – are going to shape the 21st century. I’d call that “beyond” any day.

November 14, 2007 @ 5:01 pm | Comment

One last thing – I’m interested in hearing about how long people in this forum have lived in cities that are not SH and/or BJ. I read one summer/year in Wuhan and an undisclosed amount of time in Xian. Just wondering.

I’ll go first. I spent about 18 months bored out of my mind in Dalian in 2000/2001.

November 14, 2007 @ 5:18 pm | Comment

understand JadeBJ, didn’t mean to jump down your throat, just came out that way.

i’ve been nearly 3 years in Xi’an, im 27, and really there isnt all that much to do here cept walk the streets (which still fascinates). and i wouldn’t say i even like it, like is too strong a word. but i know certainly id hate Shanghai, it seems exactly for the reason that some people are enamoured by it (fashion ‘its the only place a guy can buy clothes!’, scenes, clubs, glitz, modernity, you can buy cheese…) who chooses a city based on cheese availability?

actually i do miss cheese. but i dont miss being surrounded by copybook fashionistas, artful decadence, and people too cool to smile. when i see designer brands walking past the coffee shop window i just dont think about the economic miracle. i think ‘tosser’.

“People DO dress better in Shanghai.” not to jump down your throat again, but who really gives a horses cock?

i suppose some move to China to experience difference (or expect to), and some move to experience that also but with a larger safety blanket, and some are just aimless arseholes (moi). and while i love still having a shower and a computer and a camera, a lot of the many trappings of modern living only ever left ya feeling trapped. to escape it all a little IS liberating, however hippy that sounds.

i agree about museums and such, i do miss a good museum. and a library. and a cinema. and a guiness.

as for Beijing, its got more government officials than any other Chinese city. and for this reason alone id rather eat my underwear than live there more than 2 days.

in all honesty (the same reason id never choose London), I just don’t like the idea of being a nobody in a somebody place and would far rather be a nobody in a nobody place.

p.s. ive just discovered where the bollocks 798 is, some beautiful images, thanks.

p.p.s. they’ve just opened starbucks and walmart here in the last few months. praise the lord. progress.

November 15, 2007 @ 12:16 am | Comment

Dylan, the thing about not just 798 but the Beijing art scene in general – it’s really interesting if you like or care about contemporary art. 798 is pretty yupped up at this point and as I understand it you will find more interesting art in Caochangdi (that was my experience). I’ve also been to Jiuchang though that was a couple of years ago – I’ve heard it’s taken off quite a lot but don’t know from first-hand experience if that’s true or not.

November 15, 2007 @ 2:03 am | Comment

I haven’t spent much time in Shanghai the past couple of years, but I think too many of you are falsely portraying it as a soulless, money-obsessed city. What I like about Shanghai, believe it or not, are the Shanghairen: nowhere else in China do you find a more cosmopolitan group. The Shanghaiese have a greater sense that their city is an international one, and that the days of a China isolated from the world are over. I find their trend-setting ways refreshing in a country that remains quite conservative.

Granted, I haven’t really spent as much time in Beijing, so I’m not qualified to compare the two. Yet from my brief experience, the capital seems less accessible- I second Lisa’s “walkable neighborhood” comment. Beijing seems vast and confusing compared to Shanghai, to me.

But alas- I live in Kunming, thousands of miles from each. To reinforce earlier points, it would be a shame to restrict your time in China to just its two marquee cities. Kunming has a lot to offer (including a contemporary arts scene by the way) with half the cost or hassle as anyplace on the coast.

Just my two cents…

November 15, 2007 @ 2:26 am | Comment

@ dylan,

I understand where you’re coming from – I get it. Again, this to me is not a debate about “safety blankets” – I really don’t give a damn about that stuff (sic). What I’m saying is that lots of China is simply bland – the buildings, the way people dress, the entertainment, the culture, the beer – I do not find this to be true in either SH or BJ. I like a little variety and excitment in life, sue me.

To address a couple of points – first when I say it’s the only place to shop for a guy, I’m not talking about brands – I’m talking about stuff that is actually comfortable, quality, reasonably priced, and doesn’t look like a spacesuit. I’ve been all over China and have yet to find a better concentration of places to buy clothes.

And as far as all of the government workers in Beijing goes, it’s not like they wear different color skull caps anymore or that we have to step aside when they walk down the street or frankly have any interaction with them in any way whatsoever. I’d say you’re chances of running into an “official” are just as high in Xian. If that’s your main objection with BJ, you need to visit there more often.


Kunming is really a nice place – if I were to choose anywhere to live in China, I would probably live there – the only problem is the lack of work. Guess I could fly around all the time, but I’m not too into that. Otherwise, damn good choice.

As far as BJ being confusing, I’m not sure I agree – I’ve gotten lost in SH more often (of course, unlike BJ, getting lost in SH is usually fun). The trick with BJ is to take the subway or a taxi to a sector (for instance Houhai, 798, Wudaokou, Xidan) and then walk from there – try that the next time your there.

November 15, 2007 @ 4:22 am | Comment

The Shanghaiese have a greater sense that their city is an international one, and that the days of a China isolated from the world are over.

If it turns into some kind of Chinese New York it’s better off going the way of Hiroshima. They have no sense of reality and are rushing into things they don’t understand whatsoever.

November 15, 2007 @ 5:42 am | Comment

“If it turns into some kind of Chinese New York it’s better off going the way of Hiroshima”

This is quite a provocative statement- can you elaborate a bit further? How do they have no sense of reality and what things are they rushing into? I don’t get it.

November 15, 2007 @ 12:51 pm | Comment

I always liked Hangzhou the best and had a good overall impression of Xian (at least the south side outside of the south gate), but Shanghai is important as a “mold breaker” to get those stodgy, crusty, old commies out of their mindset.

November 15, 2007 @ 12:53 pm | Comment

Xian is doing some nice development – one of the only places in China I’ve ever been that seems to have gone out of its way to create true “public” spaces – open parks, plazas with fountains, no gates. It’s rare.

November 15, 2007 @ 1:36 pm | Comment

Seems like they’re rushing into Americanism and trying their hardest to imitate.

So much for having independent cities, independent thinking, a unique culture.. oh well, I’m getting way off topic.

Let it be overrun by disgusting, shallow hipsters, elitists and yuppies.

I don’t think China is closed off to the world though. Unless you mean accepting ” Western multiculturalism”, which is disgusting and hypocritical.

November 16, 2007 @ 8:17 am | Comment

Huh? In Xian? I thought it was cool because the developments I mentioned are really for the local residents – places to hang out where they don’t have to pay for entrance.

November 16, 2007 @ 8:53 am | Comment

Well “me”, I don’t think this is a point worth arguing over. But if you don’t mind, what would you envision as an ideal Chinese city?


Perhaps I’m being unfair because I really haven’t spent that much time there, but in Beijing a lot of the areas I drove through all started looking the same after awhile. In Shanghai I’ve always liked how the neighborhoods have a bit of individual character

November 16, 2007 @ 3:22 pm | Comment

i guess, one where there’s at least something chinese about the city. not stuff like food or pop culture, something meaningful like thought and art. that and all migrants should be checked on some basis of objective merit.

people like nanhe wouldn’t be allowed into the country.

November 18, 2007 @ 10:52 am | Comment

雖有舟輿 無所乘之
雖有甲兵 無所陳之
甘其食 美其服
安其居 樂其俗
鄰國相望 雞犬之聲相聞  
民至老死 不相往來

Let me know when you find it.

November 18, 2007 @ 3:25 pm | Comment

A small small nation of cities and shires
Air so clean Oh, lovely fields of flowers
Charming chalets and crystal clear brooks
Like pictures out of many Children’s books
Rolling hills filled with sleepy cowbell chimes
Milkmaids, yodeling men & educated minds
An Army best known for its pocketknife
Shops usually closed at precisely five
Best bakeries & chocolates made anywhere
Homes so quaint that none’d dare compare
A wonderland great for practicing skis & Zen
Friedlich, Schön Leben und Auf Wiedersehen

雖有舟輿 無所乘之
雖有甲兵 無所陳之
甘其食 美其服
安其居 樂其俗
鄰國相望 雞犬之聲相聞  
民至老死 不相往來

November 19, 2007 @ 1:57 pm | Comment

Hey, I like it! Will EU citizenship get me in?

November 19, 2007 @ 7:14 pm | Comment

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