Shanghai’s ambience vs. Beijing’s

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?

The Discussion: 39 Comments

I frequently find myself thinking about the urbanism thats is being implemented in China and how, at most times, they end up being so cold and unappealing for those of us who like to take a walk. It usually lacks “coziness” and both the magnificent scale and sparse vegetation are undeniably the main reasons for that.
Great posts (your and your friend’s)!

March 23, 2009 @ 6:03 pm | Comment

Heh, I read that Fallows post too. A couple of years ago, I honestly thought that I’d made my last trip to Beijing – well, not really. But that I didn’t want to spend time there any more because the city had just gotten so absurdly out of hand (you have to remember that my first stay in Beijing was 30 years ago, so it’s been a little jarring at times to see the changes). With all the new subways, I feel like the city has made some real progress towards becoming more livable again. But maybe the key is to never (or rarely) venture outside the 2nd Ring Road.

Shanghai right now is so hard to get around that it freaks me out a little, but I really do like the colonial neighborhoods Fallows and you champion. But I wonder if the rest of the city, particularly the newer areas, are built more along the monolith model of Beijing? I mean, Pudong is pretty much alien skyscraper land, from my brief impression of it.

I don’t think that longing for smaller neighborhoods and cities built to a more human scale is a “Western” thing though. I think what’s going on is a sort of typical conflating of “modern” with “grandiose.”

March 23, 2009 @ 6:25 pm | Comment

And, hey, aren’t you working? 🙂

Yeah, I know. I should be sleeping.

March 23, 2009 @ 6:28 pm | Comment

For living? Shanghai over Beijing anyday…though the Beijing people have a great charm.

But I hate how these two cities are compared as the only 2 places to be in China…best place to live in my book hands down: Hangzhou followed by Nanjing or Qingdao…I’ve also heard many friends say Chengdu is a great city to live in. I just wish Guangdong would get with the program…I’ve been in Shenzhen for about 6 months now and cannot bring myself to see the silver lining of this city (people say “it’s close to Hong Kong”, but honestly I would put a lot of cities above Hong Kong in best places to live or even visit)…and as for Guangzhou well…although one of my best friends holds it dear, I try to stay as far away from it as I can.

March 23, 2009 @ 7:01 pm | Comment

Shangers all the way, Beijing doesn’t compare for living. On the other hand, the people . . .

March 23, 2009 @ 8:15 pm | Comment

Some of Fallows’ photos of Shanghai do remind me of Beijing 20 years ago. I think that Beijing’s viewpoint on what constitutes the look of a “modern” city is tall highrises and broad streets, and Shanghai’s view is more narrower streets and neighbourly. Beijing has always had wide boulevards that you could, if needed, drive a tank through. Many of those quaint streets of Beijing have been decimated by building its ring road structures. I don’t think there is much thought to preserving the old feel of Beijing, whereas in Shanghai they value old world charm. New is better is modern. It’s also possible that Beijing is also very much biased to handle more car traffic and less biased to pedestrian traffic. The new Beijing is very impersonal and not my preference for modern.

March 23, 2009 @ 8:23 pm | Comment

@Don Tai – “Beijing has always had wide boulevards that you could, if needed, drive a tank through”

In France, this process (widening the streets so as to allow the easier repression of uprisings) was called ‘Haussmannisation’, check it out:

March 23, 2009 @ 8:48 pm | Comment

Not, of course, that there aren’t plenty of other reasons why you would want broad streets in a city, but town planners take many things into consideration . .

March 23, 2009 @ 9:06 pm | Comment

After a visit to Guangzhou, with their narrow alleys that don’t allow much more than 2 cars to pass simultaneously, I returned to Beijing and the idea hit me. There is a sharp contrast between the narrow Beijing hutongs and the wide boulevards of New Beijing, so why the obvious waste of space? Still I have fond memories of these wide boulevards being clogged with 20 abreast bicycle riders in both directions, all going down to the Square. As if traffic laws mattered. Interesting times, 6-4.

To clog wide boulevards, add more people.

March 23, 2009 @ 11:19 pm | Comment

my view (hope) is that we will see more six to eight storey, suburban style developments with well thought out landscaping and urban design. These are economic to build and maintain and people actually want to live there, and are therefore perhaps more likely to survive a collapsing property market.

I doubt that planners have much control over what goes on and there is an almost complete absence of meaningful design guidance in China. Most of the deals are done between developers and the government behind closed doors and issues of Urban design simply dont feature in discussions. Its more about employment and money. There are signs that the situation is changing – developers putting more thought into design – western architects coming to china etc, but whether these trends survive the crash is another matter.

March 24, 2009 @ 12:45 am | Comment

Years ago I would have said Shanghai easily. These days it’s a harder question. I made most of my Chinese friends in Beijing. But I guess it would still have to be Shanghai for me out of the two.

But Andy makes a good point. The debate about “where to live” in China often gets unproductively focused on just those two places.

March 24, 2009 @ 5:10 am | Comment

I try to avoid Beijing as much as possible for most of the reasons cited in the articles and by those who have commented before me. Beijing reminds me of a populated version of Basilia, the artificially constructed capital of Brazil. It’s become cold and unfriendly (in its design, not its inhabitants). Shanghai has, dare I say it, a more western, more cosmopolitan feel to it. The problem there is that it seems to be losing its “Chinese” character. That’s something I really love about Guangzhou. It’s modern but much of the flavor of the past remains. Of course, if the best city contest is expanded beyond the two cities of Beijing and Shanghai, I’m sure Richard will agree with me that the Kunming wins, hands down!

March 24, 2009 @ 6:40 am | Comment

Xiamen is up there, too. Very comfortable and walkable.

March 24, 2009 @ 7:55 am | Comment

Xiamen is lovely. I really would like to go spend some more time there.

March 24, 2009 @ 9:11 am | Comment

“It needs soul.”

What do you mean by “soul”?

Do you mean an energy force that lives on after death?

Or do you mean the “soul” of the hit 1970s TV show “SOUL TRAIN”?

March 24, 2009 @ 10:39 am | Comment

“It needs soul.”

Yes…”soul” is very important.

When I returned to the US from my first trip to China many years ago, someone asked me quite seriously whether there are any “FUNKY Chinese” in China?

I thought about it for a while before concluding: “No, there are no FUNKY Chinese.”

March 24, 2009 @ 1:40 pm | Comment

I have never been to Shanghai but Chengdu, Guangzhou and especially Kunming are all much more livable cities than Beijing (though it’s like comparing apples and oranges between Chengdu and Kunming, and Beijing}). You’re right – except for some select places, Beijing is like a city designed with vaguely-humanoid robots in mind, not people.

Unfortunately for Beijing the damage is pretty much done and won’t be undone for a long time, if it is ever possible.

March 24, 2009 @ 1:42 pm | Comment

I find Beijing really quite livable. Really. But perhaps it’s a question of perspective. I don’t often bother with the city as a whole- taken as a whole, Beijing certainly is dauntingly inhumane- instead, I focus on my little corner of southern Chaoyang. Beijing changes dramatically when you look at the neighbourhoods that take up the spaces between all those broad boulevards and highways.

March 24, 2009 @ 5:31 pm | Comment

Having lived in Shanghai for about 4.5 years I was glad to move out of it to Changshu. Definately puxi has more to see and visit than Pudong. Other than century park and along the bund on the pudong side there is nothing there of interest to see and although almost all buildings are all of what 15-20 years old most of them look like they are over 50. The building quality is poor, even in the more expensive places. But the main thing about Shanghai is that the traffic just keeps getting worse and the cameras are multiplying like flies. but from the perspective of the foreigner you can pretty much get everything there which is not always accessible in the other cities in China. There are also many opportunities to get involved in other activites. Also the opportunities available for food in Shanghai is probably some of the best in china (except their version of beijing duck – plenty of skin but no meat to it)

From my time in Beijing i enjoyed many aspects of it, but this was 6 years ago so I have not clue how much it must have changed. I must be way out of date now.

Hangzhou is only really nice around the west lake but the city centre itself is not interesting in the least and the traffic is also a nightmare there. Would definately tend to go with some of the other points and stick with the smaller cities like kunming, xiamen, Guilin, etc. But even they seem to be going the same way. Huge shopping malls and skyscrapers going up. But with the population issues China has there is only so much the planners can do especially as more and more people flood to the cities.

March 24, 2009 @ 5:47 pm | Comment

I always felt that Shanghai was one of the places in China that was lacking ‘soul’, ‘character’, ‘ambiance’ or however else it can be described. I look forward to your post on Guangzhou, as I’ve always felt that despite it’s vastness in size and population, the diversity and openness of it’s people have made it one of the most ‘soulful’ of China’s major cities.

I feel that Shanghai’s commercialization has pushed it beyond the point where culture and character has been replaced by decadence and snobbery. I suppose it depends on what you’re looking for, foreigners can feel at home in Shanghai, but if you’re after a piece of China, then it’s most definetly the wrong place.

March 24, 2009 @ 7:28 pm | Comment

Shanghai’s soul and character can be found on its side streets. Most people I know, both there and in Beijing, tend to agree on this one point – that Shanghai’s streets are more conducive to a relaxed stroll. Fallows describes the winding roads of Shanghai compared to the horizontal-vertical grid of Beijing’s. Looking at some of the overpowering malls of Shanghai and the skyscrapers I’d agree, it is soulless. Walking down the charming streets dotted with attractive stores and restaurants and trees, I and many others wonder how Beijing got it so wrong.

March 24, 2009 @ 8:30 pm | Comment

@Chris Hearne

I feel sort of relieved to find out that I’m not the only laowai who has spent a considerable amount of time in China without ever going to Shanghai. People keep asking me whether I prefer Beijing or Shanghai. My personal favourite is Qingdao. I also like Chengdu, Kunming and Xiamen. And of course there are lots of smaller places which are really nice, but most people never heard about them, because they only have a population of 2-3 million people.

March 24, 2009 @ 9:09 pm | Comment

Beijing is, despite all its qualities, an incredibly ugly city. I think of it as Los Angeles meets central planning leveraged by monstrous real estate bubble. Shanghai has similar tendencies in Pudong (the Skyscraper Graveyard), but the Puxi side has a more approachable, beating urban heart. Funny though, I still preferred Beijing!

The great major cities in China? Xiamen, Qingdao, Kunming, Hangzhou (sort of, although I think it is overhyped- the city apart from the West Lake area is pretty run-of-the mill). Oh, and Chongqing just for its sheer craziness.

By the way, it is just me or do cities in China on average look more similar to each other than you would find in most other countries? It’s frankly uncanny. I mean here in Canada, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, etc. could not be more different from each other in terms of organization, vernacular architecture, high-rise buildings or what have you. But in China, whether you are in Urumqi, Chengdu, Jinan, Nanning, Beijing, Zhengzhou, Haikou, wherever, you will find the exact same monstrous public square, the exact same gov’t building type, the exact same “New City” that apes Shanghai, the exact new same housing complexes down to the weird “steel wave” trellis on the roof, the exact same oversized expo centre that looks like a velodrome parked on the outskirts in the dirt beside a long-distance bus station, etc. Maybe I need to travel more, but I’ve yet to visit/live in a country (especially one so huge!) where all the urban areas are so jarringly uniform.

And maybe that’s why people like me go overboard vaunting the merits of Qingdao, Xiamen or Kunming- because they offer something just slightly different from the cookie cutter option.

March 24, 2009 @ 9:17 pm | Comment

I found parts of Beijing more relaxed than Shanghai. I mean really more relaxed, to the point where it was if the streets were saying “we’re enjoying ourselves – we don’t care how we look”. Of course that was usually the side-streets, not the main roads.

But I agree with richard’s comment about taking a stroll. I once made a very stupid decision to walk somewhere in Shanghai and found out it was much further than I first imagined. But it was a nice walk in the end. Can’t remember when that happened to me in Beijing.

March 25, 2009 @ 12:17 am | Comment

I’ve lived in Beijing for a few years and I have to say that (unfortunately) this city is about as uncharming as it gets. It’s like the Chinese version of Dallas/Ft. Worth. Spread out and fairly uninspiring (apologies to Texan readers). A few people are comparing Beijing to LA….but atleast LA has beaches and 72 degree weather all year round. It’s like the communist party planners got together and said NOW, this is our idea of a city. All preplanned and dull.

I mean the city isn’t really awful so much as it’s “blah”. The highlights are HoHai, 798 and maybe one or two other districts. And I like the food and the people are fairly laidback. But, I do a bit of traveling and I feel total pang(s) of jealousy when I am in Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong, even the southern Chinese cities seem to be more charming. I mean HK, Shanghai, Tokyo feel and look like world class cities. Beijing is supposed to be the capitol of a future world power, but strikes me as an overgrown provincial capital.

I’ve sat around thinking what exactly is wrong with this place and I’d say it’s the utter lack of centrality, dependence on malls (instead of a more interesting main shopping district) and each district is a city unto itself. So, Beijing isn’t so much a big city as a collection of subunits. So you have Chaoyang, then you have the center of the city, then you have the Wadoukou area (sorry, I’m butchering the pinyin) And none of these subunits or cities are anymore interesting than the other.

March 25, 2009 @ 2:21 pm | Comment

I still haven’t been to Qingdao. I am putting that on my “must visit next” list.

I really like a lot of Beijing within the 2nd Ring Road, and the new subways have improved the city tremendously, IMO. I walked from…now I’m spacing on the subway stop name. Dongzhimen? Where the new express from the airport terminates…to south of Houhai where I was staying. It took about an hour, a little longer. Parts of the walk were on aforementioned ridiculously broad, grandiose boulevards but much was around Gulou Dong Dajie and that area is genuinely charming, IMO.

It’s interesting, but even thirty years ago, we did a lot of bitching about how ugly most Chinese cities were. The post revolutionary architecture in general was just really unpleasant. It’s amazing that I could even be nostalgic for the Beijing of that time period, but in some ways I am. All of those five, six story brick apartment blocks that seemed so featureless and cookie-cutter at the time, now they look kind of cute. Beijing was definitely built more to human scale back then, and I think most complaints about recent urban development in China come down to that.

Comparing it to Los Angeles? Wow, pretty unfair to Los Angeles. There are a lot of nice walking neighborhoods in LA, with varied, interesting architecture, unique businesses, etc., and with all the history of smog here, the air is much cleaner (especially by the beach, where I live). Though BJ has LA beat, hands down, in mass transit.

March 25, 2009 @ 2:57 pm | Comment

I’m so happy that Shanghai’s city gov’t (and its population, in general) really appreciate the city’s colonial architectural heritage, and are working hard to preserve it. This contributes so much to the city’s character, and provides a welcome counterpoint to the relentless Romulan futurism and gigantism of scale so typical of the more modern structures (many of which are striking in their own way). A great example is the recent effort put into removing, renovating and re-installing the Waibaidu Bridge (China’s first all-steel bridge).

I just love that in some parts of Shanghai, you can turn a corner and come face-to-face with a textbook example of an Art Deco skyscraper, Beaux-Arts apartment building, Tudor villa or a Jazz Age cinema. Plus there is still a great deal of the city’s local uniquely-styled 1920s and 30s housing stock, much of it on streets lined with leafy french maples.

On a late evening walk through back streets of the Bund area, along the Suzhou River, or in older local-style neighborhoods, you can really get a vivid sense of 1930s Shanghai. I really enjoy this aspect of the city’s two-tone personality.

March 25, 2009 @ 5:05 pm | Comment

[…] The always interesting and observant James Fallows recently wrote about the differences between Beijing and Shanghai in terms of architecture and ambiance, followed by another post with somewhat unflattering photos of the Jing. The Peking Duck followed suit, going as far as to say the JIng lacks soul. […]

March 25, 2009 @ 10:25 pm | Pingback

Intresting, I really perfer the newer buildings in contrast to old ones. The author focuses a bit on how he thinks that older buildings give cities a better feeling. I’ve came back from beijing recently, and i’ve seen the majority of laowai touring the hutongs then the whole city itself. In contrast, the newer buildings look much better. A new city can’t be new if it has too much old. The classical or old feeling to me doesn’t feel as comffy as newer ones.

March 26, 2009 @ 6:23 am | Comment

Xjv21: Are you Chinese? The only reason I ask is I have a theory that its only laowai like myself who enjoy seeing the old buildings and say stuff like “character” and “soul” when it comes to cities. My theory is that most Chinese could care less about the Shanghai Bund (including the one’s who are Shanghairen). Maybe it represents a past that was colonial in history and therefore foriegn. Whereas, the new buildings are a mark of the new economically strong China, despite foreigners various complaints about such bldgs.

As for Beijing, apart from the Imperial palaces and the hutongs, the old buildings generally recall the bad old revolutionary days, which apparently everyone seems to have amnesia about. Americans and Europeans talk about the old old days…and China’s history atleast for the past 2 centuries had very little “good old days”. So, bulldozing the old buildings and putting up these glass and steel bldgs, even if a bit generic looking, are something to be more proud of than the old stuff.

March 26, 2009 @ 7:18 pm | Comment

@ Robert – “My theory is that most Chinese could care less about the Shanghai Bund (including the one’s who are Shanghairen).”

My experience with locals does not support that. When I first moved to Shanghai I wondered if locals viewed the colonial architecture as historic symbols of foreign oppression, but soon learned otherwise.

Because I am interested in architecture, I have discussed this topic a number of times in my classes. My students are mostly middle class white collars, maybe 2/3 Shanghainese and 1/3 transplants.

To my surprise, I have found near universal appreciation for the colonial architecture. Reasons given by students included: the buildings are beautiful (one called them “works of art”), they give the city an international flavor, and they represent Shanghai’s historic openness to the outside world. Some students voiced more practical opinions, such as there was no reason to destroy them because they are really well constructed and still serve useful purposes, and that while they were designed by foreigners, they were actually built by Chinese.

In the case of historic Chinese housing stock, I think your theory is a closer fit. I have organized class debates on this topic, and found the students’ opinions split. Lots of foreigners find the “shikumen” and other old houses to be charming. Some students agreed, and felt that at least some should be preserved for historic and cultural reasons, while other students would just as soon see them bulldozed and replaced with modern residential structures. But even in the latter case, they felt that way not because the old houses were reminders of “the bad old days”, but for more practical reasons: the old houses have terrible electricity, poor or no plumbing, amazingly thin walls, etc.

March 28, 2009 @ 2:08 am | Comment

What about the fact that Shanghai has water and Beijing pretty much does not? I think that plays a big part in how a city develops.

April 13, 2009 @ 4:48 am | Comment

I just spent 6 months in Shanghai, and went for a trip in Beijing last week. It was not long, but my first impression was “bleh”. Huge uninspired boulevards, uber generic subway stations (white walls….), nothing really special about it. I prefered Shanghai.

June 5, 2009 @ 9:49 pm | Comment

I lived in Shanghai for five years and found that it had both old and modern and mixed. The only problem with it before I left was that too many Westerners were arriving (main reason for leaving) thus forcing wages down and rents up as well as turning the bars into Western style ones. You know the type, loads of guys and very, very few women. Bring back the days when Shanghai bars had a large majority of women and very few Western guys giving us guys the upper hand. Are their any large cities in China that aren’t filled with western guys fighting over the Chinese chicks that are interested in dating western guys? Seriously I would be grateful to know. Thanks.

May 18, 2010 @ 12:23 pm | Comment

Richard, it has been… 4 years? since we met up in Beijing at your dinner in Chaoyang, I hope you are doing well. I am reasonably sure that this has been covered a million times, but I hope you will not be angry if I divert conversation back to the topic once more for my own benefit (alternatively, just refer me to a relevant post).

There is a good (but not definite) chance of me moving to Shanghai in a month or so for work. I’ve never lived in Shanghai. I’ve been there. It struck me as kind of sterile, nice to look at, and the expats seemed a little more bland. Beijing has all these interesting artists and academics, politicos and crazy frisbee throwing banjo players. Of course, I’m not any of those really so maybe I belong in Shanghai.

Any thoughts? I guess I am interested in the expat scene in Shanghai. What people do on the weekends, where they go. And of course, dating, although probably mostly interested in dating native english speakers.


August 7, 2010 @ 7:16 pm | Comment

Laowai, good to hear from you. What it boils down to is this: if you like to party, pay higher prices and hang out with expats to whom material possessions matter a lot, go to Shanghai. If you want friends who are more philosophical, less rich and more interested in relationships as opposed to stuff, and if you don’t care so much about flash or glamor, I recommend Beijing. Sure, there are exceptions to these stereotypes, but after many, many trips to Shanghai and living for years in Beijing, those are my conclusions. I don’t think I could be happy in Shanghai.

August 8, 2010 @ 7:35 am | Comment

Haha Richard, yeah that sounds like what I’ve heard. Job’s not in Beijing though, and it’s a job worth moving halfway around the world for if I get it! Sooo I might be in Shanghai.

August 8, 2010 @ 8:22 am | Comment

Make the most of it. There are some fantastic people in Shanghai, like the bloggers of Sinosplice and Chinayouren to name just two. Truth be told, if I were offered a plum job in Shanghai I’d certainly take it, if it was impossible to do the same job in Beijing.

August 8, 2010 @ 8:25 am | Comment

I have no desire to do the Shanghai version of the Top of the Empire State Building experience so I don’t plan on visiting the major skyscrapers when I visit Shanghai. I’m more interested in local color and Beijing has plenty of that. And I want to know nice people and that has nothing to do with the number of skyscrapers in a city. Tall buildings block out the sun and air. I think walkability is important.

September 17, 2010 @ 3:53 am | Comment

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