Beijing vs. Shanghai vs. Hong Kong: Showdown of China's Big Three
    2013-06-13 09:40:08      Web Editor: Luo Chun
These Sino-metropolises have managed to seep their way into the global consciousness as representatives of the 5-billion strong countries.

Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, each with their own distinct personalities [Photo: Wang]

By William Wang

Outside of China, millions have never even heard of Chinese cities such as Chongqing, Chengde or Xian, yet one mention of Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong, and heads will nod enthusiastically. For better or worse, these Sino-metropolises have managed to seep their way into the global consciousness as representatives of the 5-billion strong countries. Proving that rivalries within a country extend beyond football and basketball teams, each of these three cities is keen to establish itself as a counterpoint to the other two.


In terms of history, the Chinese capital wins hands down. It has been an urban center for about 30 centuries, and an impressive amount of its extensive history remains on display throughout the city.

Yet despite all its palaces, temples and parks, Beijing is still dominated by a mass of bleak roads and grey rectangular buildings. Author Lionel Shriver even described Beijing as the ugliest city she'd ever seen.

It's true that people do not come to Beijing for its luscious scenery, but rather, its culture and history, which are the foundation of its reputation as China's art and music capital; every day rock bands and painters flock to the capital. Business is also booming, albeit in a less obvious manner than in Shanghai or Hong Kong.

Beijing is also strongly influenced by the presence of more than 70 universities, educating a mass of students from across China and the globe. Many students come from abroad to learn Mandarin, thus enabling an unprecedented number of "laowai", foreigners, to integrate into local communities and businesses.

Guo Chengxi has lived in Shanghai for 25 years and Beijing for over 60. She says that she doesn't feel that people from either city are that different, except on public transit. "Shanghainese people very seldom let old people sit down," she observes. "They just sit there and pay no attention. Beijing people are more polite, more courteous. It's true. And quite a few of my friends have also noted this."

Frank Yu, an entrepreneur originally from New York, lived in Hong Kong for years before settling down in both Shanghai and Beijing simultaneously. "Beijing people," he laughs, "are still a little bit, well, crude. They don't have very polished personalities¡­ and I like that. I like the fact that it's grittier and more authentic."

His views of the city itself follow his description of its inhabitants. "Beijing has much more of a New York grittier feel to it which I like. It's dark, it's grey, it's all polluted, and people are grumpier."

Hong Kong

The way in which the Special Administrative Region of the PRC fits into the wider concept of "China," and the challenge it presents to traditional notions of national culture and economics, are sources of constant debate. Once under British colonial rule, contemporary Hong Kong represents a unique blend of east and west, a city that seamlessly synthesizes modern and traditional aspects.

Hong Kong's pop culture has been embraced by fans across the world; it has spawned its own characteristic genre of martial arts films and spewed out a string of international celebrities such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li, to name a few. It is also the birthplace of the wonderfully sappy love ballads of the Cantopop genre.

However, Vera Song, a Shanghainese student at City University who has been studying in Hong Kong for three years, believes that materialism is also a defining aspect of the Hong Kong people. Her conflicted opinions mirror a love-hate relationship with the city; whilst she initially comments that Hong Kongers "are generally more polite than the Shanghainese in many respects," she goes on to add that, "Hong Kongers are the most xenophobic people I've ever seen." Indeed, it is widely known that the tribulations of learning Cantonese has always made it harder for foreigners or Mandarin speakers to break down barriers with locals.

"It really is a world-class cosmopolitan city," counters Yu, citing it as a launching point to Thailand or Western countries. Its natural scenery, exemplified by aqua blue ocean waters, dove white beaches and jagged cliffs somehow remains in the shadows of its blazing urban world centered on making and spending money, in the context of soaring real estate prices.

The city may have once been an opium war victim, but today it feels more like city on speed. "You're always working hard and playing hard," says Yu. "Hong Kong is a city built on money. It's not about culture or community. It's really about making as much money as you can, as quickly as you can" Business laws that reach international standards only encourage this flow of money.

"But Hong Kong is no longer the vantage point of China," Yu continues. He believes that when China's mainland was still closed, Hong Kong was the gateway to the mainland. But right now the Chinese mainland is open. "Slowly but surely, Hong Kong is being eroded and becoming just another Chinese city. It's still a good city, an exciting city, but you can feel that its go-go days are behind it," he says.


So where does this leave Shanghai? Is it just the middle child, caught between the eldest and youngest siblings? Yu seems to think so: "It's torn between being like Hong Kong, based on pure commercial moneymaking greed, to being something like Beijing, where there's culture and history and a sense of community that goes back not decades, but centuries."

Arguably, however, Shanghai appears to be more closely aligned with Hong Kong, and it could even be argued that it is aspiring to become that elder sibling. In both cities, models strut the sidewalks, and mention of celebrity-spottings regularly slips into caf¨¦ chatter. Both cities also tend to be more foreigner-friendly than the rest of the Chinese mainland in terms of not only the amount of English spoken, but also decent transportation, food and air quality, which are frequently listed as some of the city's main perks by expats.

"Hong Kong was a colonial city and Shanghai was more of a concession or port city," recalls Yu, "so I think that foreigners find living in these cities much more comfortable. They have a better interface. There's a lot more people there that speak English, along with more luxuries and better service in terms of restaurants and hotels¡­ And they have a really good social scene."

A local bartender commented, however, that the party scene is okay if you have money, but meeting people has its challenges. "Women in Shanghai want to know your salary on the first date," he complained.

Survey Says?

Of course Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong each have their pluses and minuses, with each being better suited for different kinds of people. Guo Chengxi even joked, "I don't go out anymore, so I don't care what city it is."

Yu is skilled at gushing accolades for the Shanghai and Hong Kong lifestyles, and no less so at complaining about Beijing's traffic congestion and air quality. But he saves his curveball for the end of the conversation: "At the end of the day I still prefer Beijing." He cites how mixing with locals in Hong Kong and Shanghai is a challenge, whereas in the capital, Beijingers and foreigners mix it up "like a Girl Talk DJ set". But that's just Frank Yu's opinion. "It's really not a fair question!" he insists. "It all depends on your personality."            

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