It’s bad enough I have to admit there is a book out there making fun of what I like, now Modern Lei Feng is doing a series of China-fied blog posts doing the same thing.
I just love his second post in the series, entitled, “
Stuff Laowai Like 2 – Shanghai (老外喜欢的东西 2 - 上海)” [link no longer exists] because (like the book) it is both spot on and funny and because I have to cop to it.
As just about everyone knows, there has been a Quisp versus Quake like battle raging for years between expats regarding the better city between Beijing and Shanghai. I love it because I live in neither city and though I have probably spent more time in Shanghai than in Beijing, I still should be considered a neutral.
Modern Lei Feng nails the differences on how expats tend to view Shanghai:

Whether you judge her to be the Pearl of the Orient or the Whore of the Orient, laowai have a long history and deep connection with Shanghai. Whether forced to go there by your large overseas company or choosing the city due to its creature comforts and business environment, expat laowai from North America and Europe almost always prefer this more “sophisticated” southern city over us northern barbarians in Beijing.
Beijing has welcomed the world and hosted the Olympics, but it is still in-your-face Chinese at almost every turn, the same cannot be said about Shanghai, where you can easily forget you’re in China. Short term tourists love Beijing for its “authentic Chinese” feel, but long term expats tend to choose Shanghai.
It’s the “acceptably Chinese” city, where you can earn the big bucks, brag about being in China to your friends back home, and yet live no differently than you do back at home. The large foreign population and diversity of quality, foreign restaurants makes living in Shanghai easy for the expat, though its still not that hard to find “Chinese” experiences in the city. Just like Beijing expats lust over hutong housing, in Shanghai its the French Concession homes that are the things of their dreams, offering Chinese history and the comforts of modern living (very different from most of Beijing’s hutong housing).

I admit it. I prefer Shanghai to Beijing for the reasons mentioned above. I know Beijing is where the power/government is and it is where the news is and it is where the art is and it is where the writers go, but I prefer Shanghai for the following Laowai reasons:
1. It’s less polluted than Beijing.
2. There are more great restaurants.
3. The Bund is so cool. I love the Forbidden City and all, but the Bund is a much more repeatable experience.
4. Xintiandi is cool.
5. Shanghai has better Laowai-centric restaurants.
6. Shanghai just feels more…. Western, easy, sophisticated, action-packed….
7. It’s where my firm’s clients are, by maybe a two to one margin over Beijing.
8. I actually really like Shanghai cuisine and since I don’t eat meat….
This cushy boy says Shanghai.
What do you think?

  • Emily

    I can’t really pick one or the other, but one great thing about Shanghai is that it’s so much more walkable.
    And it’s got xiaolongbao!

    • Have you ever had Wuxi-style xiaolongbao? It’s sweet and WAY better than the Shanghai style.

  • Ashrey

    I actually preferred BJ. I felt like Shanghai put on too much of a forced effort to appear laowai friendly. BJ made no bones about being totally Chinese, and that’s what I think is so charmingly frustrating about it.

  • Leon

    As a ex-pat who lived in China for over four years, I always preferred Beijing for the opposite reasons that most foreigners like Shanghai. Having spent my entire life in the West, I just didn’t feel the need to travel 8,000 miles to attempt to replicate the experience of living in the US.
    Things I like about Beijing are:
    1. Walking around the Summer Palace at all times of the year
    2. Beijing people are far more 大气. Shanghai people not so much.
    3. Much more culture in Beijing
    4. I love Beijing cai. I am a vegetarian and Shanghai cai scares me.

  • Tony

    I like Shanghai better because my wife is from Southern China and lived in Shanghai for many years. So if I say Beijing is better (or anything about the North, such as their Mandarin), I get in trouble. (joking, but serious).

  • Yes, yes, please keep all the silly foreigners in Shanghai. Don’t let them know that there are fantastic second-tier cities out there like Ningbo, Xiamen, Qingdao, Dalian, etc. They’ll come here and ruin everything by turning our idyllic little cities into Shanghai copies.

  • LoveChinaLongTime

    I’ll take Guangzhou any day over Shanghai, after having lived in both cities (though I do like BJ quite a lot). To me, SH is no more than a fun weekend with your buds kinda place these days. Your gweilo buds going to gweilo hangouts, that is.
    GZ people are laid back, mind their own business and are totally unpretentious, regardless if they drive a QQ, the latest Bentley or take the gong jiao che.
    If you want that “cool, hip” nightlife with all its pretentiousness and exclusivity BUT also want to be able to have great service AND put your credit card at the bar to run the tab with peace of mind, you can take a short hop over to Hong Kong and be in a TRULY international city.
    Macau (used to be) a quiet little spot to go to on a Sunday morning, have lunch at the beach at Fernando’s while sipping a few Super Boks and be back in GZ by early evening. Not sure about now though with all the insane hyper casinos there.
    Service in GZ is usually excellent and if not diligent, at least friendly. GZ restaurants serving food from all over China are a lot better, in many cases, than the provinces where the food originates!
    No ‘tude. GZ people (and its immigrants) don’t suddenly think their s**t doesn’t stink like a lot of “Shanghainese” who are probably really Anhui, or Zhejiang refugees!

  • Preamble: I was working in a cafe last week and overheard a few American girls who were apparently in a semester-abroad program that had taught them enough Chinese to say “I want,” but not to say “coffee,” “sandwich,” “water,” etc. They were – fair play to them – attempting to order these things in Chinese from the waitress, who spoke English perfectly well. And not long after the needlessly complicated process of ordering ended, I heard one of them say to the others: “So did you know anyone who went to the Shanghai program?”
    “No,” one of the other girls said knowledgeably. “Shanghai’s not really as, you know, it’s not the real China the way Beijing is.”
    Moral of the story: the Shanghai/Beijing conflict is something people learn about as soon as they get off the boat, if not sooner, and it’s basically dumb. That said…
    Beijing ever, Shanghai never, as I think Kwame Nkrumah said. Every time I go down to Shanghai, I think to myself that it seems infinitely more livable than Beijing: the air’s slightly cleaner, the city is walkable — a big thing for me — and from what I understand, it’s got a better selection of Vietnamese restaurants. Taikang Lu even seems like a hipper version of Beijing’s Nan Luogu Xiang, which has been sliding downwards into a Houhai-level of crapulence (in both senses) for the past couple of years.
    But: Shanghainese food does nothing for me, and Beijing’s got a better range of Sichuan and Xinjiang joints. There are more bookstores here, and better ones, than in Shanghai (though the Classics Publishing House bookstore in Shanghai is nice to wander around). We get heat in the wintertime here, and there are a lot more simpatico locals and expats than in Shanghai. (I have a few friends who live in Shanghai and claim to like it; I can only assume that they are lying.) I love Beijing dialect, and I like the locals — they may be lazy, arrogant, and overly talkative (as they’ll proudly tell you themselves), but at least they aren’t a bunch of prissy compradors who desperately wish they’d been born white.
    Beijing offers plenty of its own frustrations too, and I’ve thought semi-seriously about decamping for Qingdao or Chengdu. Or Kunming, where a lot of people seem to end up: I’ve never been there, at least partly out of the fear that if I went I might not want to go back to Beijing. Guangzhou seems like it’s got a lot going for it, funny moon-man language aside, and Chongqing looks like it could be a fun place to check out too. If it’s an either/or decision between Shanghai and Beijing, though, put me firmly in the Beijing camp.

  • AndyR

    Give me Hangzhou, Suzhou, Qingdao, Shaoxing, Kunming, Chengdu, Xiamen and almost any other 2nd tier city above both of them…

  • James G

    Beijing and Shanghai both have a marvelous range of restaurants offering regional Chinese dishes, and I do mean marvelous. They may be off the beaten path and mostly inaccessible to people who don’t speak Chinese well AND have a strong network of Chinese friends from the 4 corners, but as the two powerhouses of China, you will not want for anything Chinese.
    Also, I never get the “Shanghai isn’t China” stuff. Shanghai is still well over 90% mainland Chinese, right? I think too many people, though they wouldn’t ever recognize it, still associate “real” China with poverty, drab and worn govt. issue housing and people who are wow’d by the sight of a foreigner. To be honest it makes me uncomfortable that so many foreigners have just wrapped their stereotypes in romantic nostalgia for the “authentic”.
    China is so homogenous that even a small smattering of black Africans, “westerners”, etc, makes people want to dust off the New York comparisons, but no way… for starters, I don’t think NY would ever enact a statue limiting the amount of space foreign language can have in shop/restaurant signage…

  • @James G | Yes, but Quebec has a law called Bill 101 that actually prevents English from being as large as (Canadian) French on their outdoor signs. I guess English in Canadian Quebec is still a “foreign” language…ach, those Canucks of ours.
    And I actually agree with you about the “what’s this thing about Shanghai being un-Chinese?” I spent most of my time in Shanghai — even though I was up in Beijing as well — and I found some SHA lilongs that were all-Chinese, all the time, full-on, with zero foreigner present except myself and my girlfriend, and we LOVED the attention we were getting.
    I also agree that it’s more than a bit demeaning to deny the development that the Chinese truly desire for themselves, as is patently clear. Most rural Chinese would willingly surrender their eye-teeth and one of their kidneys and a testicle for a fair shot at the good life which the State constantly blares is within their reach.
    What’s wrong with having creature comforts? And why is the concept of a Hermes, a Costa Coffee, and a Xinjiang kebab stand, and a hole-in-the-wall noodle joint on Taikang Lu, astride all of those sexy art and photo shops — all of these cheek-by-jowl — so repugnant? I think it makes for an easy entry for some expats that are in China not necessarily of their own volition.
    The whole world’s going “Western” — so why deny the obvious?

  • Sanya’s the best. You get Beaches, Surfing, Coconuts and hardly anyone speaks English. 😛