China / Hot Issues

Pick your team: Beijing or Shanghai

By Matt Prichard (China Daily) Updated: 2016-05-16 08:38

Over the May Day holiday, I returned to Shanghai for the first time after two years in Beijing.

The weather was glorious, and the city was clothed in its finest spring attire.

Flowers ran riot, and crowds were out and in a festive mood. Some Shanghainese women were startlingly gorgeous, as if teleported from a catwalk in Paris or Milan.

Though time was too short, we stayed with some friends and had a great visit.

Of course, I'm well aware of the animosity between the cities, and this column may even get some hackles up. A Beijing friend confided that she "hates" Shanghai. A Shanghai friend offered me condolences when I said I'd been living in the North Capital.

An article I read online asked readers if they were on "Team Beijing" or "Team Shanghai", as if answering that question would define your personality.

Oddly, as we set out on our little holiday, I brooded a little on the bullet train after it left Beijing South Railway Station to head south. Sure, it had been an adjustment to leave Shanghai, but as I spent more time in Beijing, I became more and more comfortable.

The truth is, in some ways, I had never felt quite young, wealthy or cool enough for the Shanghai scene. Chinese people in Shanghai (including a Beijing native) had told us that the knock on Beijing is that everyone here is concerned about power, whereas Shanghai is a mercantile city, where compromise is paramount.

Well, like most stereotypes, there seems to be a grain of truth and a dollop of oversimplification to that. I liked a lot of the Beijingers I met, and mostly they seemed like the "regular" people that I'm comfortable with. Even the professionals I met did not seem stuck up.

While Beijing largely lacks the turn-of-the-century charm of Shanghai, it has amazing historical architecture and fascinating hutong areas.

As for weather, I actually like a drier climate, but, for comfort, Beijing's frigid winters pretty much offset Shanghai's humid summers.

The only real problem I have with Beijing is, of course, the higher level of air pollution some days. It is especially onerous once you have some blue-sky days here and see how gorgeous a city it is.

These two rival sisters have different climates, cuisines, personalities, advantages and disadvantages, but the wonderful thing is that they are a living demonstration of China's variety. China is not a simple place, and the definition of "Chinese" doesn't fit into a neat little box.

When I tell friends and family back in the States about these cities, I tell them to imagine Beijing as Washington and Shanghai as New York. It's a useful tool to help them understand, but it just barely scratches the surface of what these places are.

I feel very fortunate to have lived in both these world-class cities.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with a little friendly rivalry. When my wife rhapsodizes about Shanghai, you'll usually find me sticking up for Beijing.

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