A few weeks ago a friend of mine with a sardonic wit and an acid tongue said we’d be better off if someone were to drop a neutron bomb on Shanghai, clear out the people and nuclear waste with a giant sponge and move in everybody from Beijing.
Wait; no outrage – my friend was, I am fairly certain, joking. But as I saw this blog post with striking photos and very sharp commentary on the state of
architorture architecture and city planning in “the new China,” and as I look out my window at Beijing’s singularly uninspiring skyline, I kept thinking about my friend’s remark.
I don’t know about getting rid of the Shanghairen (seems somewhat draconian to me). But having just returned from a trip to Shanghai, I do know that I feel insanely jealous of Shanghai’s charming neighborhoods, ample colonial architecture and winding streets designed for walking, strolling, window shopping and enjoying life. As opposed to Beijing’s massive boulevards that can take literally 20 minutes to get across (ah, those fences) and are, aside from a few choice locations mainly along 2nd Ring Road, devoid of any semblance of charm, comfort, user-friendliness or humanity.
I know, we’ve had the Shanghai-Beijing conversation before. But my trip brought it all back, and the timing of seeing what Fallows wrote — within minutes of arriving back in Beijing — was uncanny. From the Fallows post:
…I am forced to wonder: Do I like these small streets and human-scale settings in Shanghai because I am foreign? Am I being like the French visitors who love Vietnam because it’s so easy to find baguettes there? Does the Chinese version of me really appreciate the huge grandeur of the Beijing-style approach? Or do I like them because I am human — and because something in human nature fits better with structures of a manageable size? And if this is so, what does it mean for the hundreds of millions of Chinese human beings living in these big concrete cities?
I feel compelled to ask because so much of modern China is being built on supra-human unmanageable scale. And presumably someone, at some level, must be doing this intentionally. (Alternative theory, for later: it’s all about construction contracts.)
I have to believe most Chinese people would agree Shanghai offers a kinder, gentler, more human experience than Beijing, at least in terms of ambience. I can’t believe anyone would look at Beijing’s streets and buildings and conclude this is what all cities should be like. That this is what society longs to be surrounded by.
I just had a spectacular trip to Shanghai (and Guangzhou, for another post). While Beijing’s still my cup of tea, I do look with envy at how Shanghai managed to grow tastefully, with the human being in mind. I look at the concrete slabs that make up so much of Beijing and wonder how it could ever be reversed (it would take several stimulus packages to undo the damage). I know already that it’s too late. Maybe China can at least learn from the stark dichotomy as it continues developing, and remember that a city needs more than highways and buildings. It needs soul. I look at the new Chongqing, and I am skeptical the planners are getting this message.
Luckily, Beijing makes up for the imbalance by having such a splendid population. But is there a law stipulating that a Chinese city can’t have both?
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.