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Sibling rivalry
(China Daily)
Updated: 2009-06-02 09:32

Sibling rivalry

New landmark buildings at Lujiazui, Pudong district in Shanghai.

If there are two famous waterfronts in the world that in the past century have provided mirror images of each other, they are Shanghai's Bund and Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong.

These days, the lampposts and Renaissance-style architecture that lined those waterfront promenades and gave rise to the two cities' reputation as ultimate Asian funhouses in the 1930s have partly gone, replaced by glass-and-aluminum-clad skyscrapers, potent symbols of not only their financial prowess, but also an ambition long shared.

Ever since the State Council announced its plan to establish Shanghai as "a global financial centre and shipping hub by 2020", the long simmering debate of Hong Kong Vs Shanghai has been catapulted to new heights. The prevailing sense, at least in Hong Kong, is that Shanghai holds the trump card and "the Pearl of the Orient", as a result, is losing out.

An exhibition, "Modern Metropolis - Material Culture of Shanghai and Hong Kong" is on at the city's History Museum. Spotlighting the first 100 years (1840-1949) of a still-unfolding "tale of the twin cities", it demonstrates their relationship as one characterized by emulation, rivalry and some strange version of love - a pas de deux with a tricky choreography and a constantly-changing lead.

Before 1840, Shanghai was a prosperous county with a population exceeding 100,000, while Hong Kong was a speck of land, an isolated fishing village with no more than 5,000 permanent residents. But the First Opium War, and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Nanking, changed all that. Shanghai became a trading port and Hong Kong Island ceded to the British. A new chapter had begun in which the memories of the two cities became interwoven.

"I couldn't say it was pure coincidence but Shanghai could have paired with any other Chinese city," says Chan Shing Hon, assistant curator of the Hong Kong Museum of History, who helped organize the show. "Given its prime geographical location in the center of China's coastline, Shanghai would have risen to prominence whatever course the country's contemporary history may take."

Hong Kong, on the other hand, was a totally different case - the British only reluctantly took the island after their demand for Zhoushan, a port city near Shanghai, had been stubbornly refused by the Qing government.

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