Shanghai vs Beijing

Shanghai and Beijing have an intense city rivalry. It goes something like this.

Beijing: We’re arty and cool, Shanghai is soulless and the people are really snooty.

Shanghai: Oh yeah!? Well we’re the most international city in China and have a super glamorous nightlife. Beijing is polluted and dirty.

*fight fight fight fight*

Over the past two years I have become a proud “Beijing ren” trotting out the typical arguments when someone asks me which city is better. A lot of my Chinese friends in Beijing – none of whom are actually from Beijing, tell me they chose to move to the capital over Shanghai because they worried they wouldn’t make friends in Shanghai. That they would struggle not speaking the local dialect and seemed to hold the impression the people would look down on them.



My foreign friends in Beijing scrunch up their noses at the mention of Shanghai. “Not Chinese enough,” is a common complaint. And “Beijing is more interesting.”

I would agree with that – but few places are as interesting as Beijing.

Thing is, up until two months ago it was easy to pledge my undying love to Beijing because I had only ever visited Shanghai, finding it pretty – but a little dull. But then my company decided to move me down to Shanghai for a three month stint, and now, one month to completion, they are asking me if I would like to stay permanently – to become a Shanghai ren.

So two months in, what do I think? I have met several foreigners in the city who have moved to Shanghai from Beijing and without exception, while they claim love for the capital, they say living in Shanghai is easier. And in terms of ease I have to agree – I live opposite a gym that opens at 6am (the earliest I found near me in Beijing was 9am, usually they open at 10am). There is a lot more English spoken throughout the city, to the point where I have almost stopped speaking Mandarin altogether, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. There are a lot more Western restaurants everywhere, and generally the standard of food in them is slightly higher than in Beijing. However, I am yet to find a great range of Chinese restaurants and I think in that regard Beijing has the edge.

What gets me about Shanghai, is that often I feel I could be, well, anywhere. There are whole drinking streets with foreign bars, filled with foreigners. Giant shopping malls that could have dropped straight in from Hong Kong, Singapore or Dubai. Many people have told me that the divide between the foreign population and the Chinese is much wider than it is in Beijing.

I sort of feel about Shanghai how I feel about Melbourne – I get that it’s a great city, and I see lots of really cool things about it. But when it comes down to it, I just struggle to see what all the fuss is about, although I would quite like to find out.

But on Sunday I went for a cycle and chanced upon a packed street in the former French concession. The whole street had been turned into an open air wet market, with fruit vegetable, fish and meat being sold on the street, there were also a bunch of other wild and wonderful vendors, including an open air dentist. It reminded me there is plenty still to discover in Shanghai.



So I have to decide this week whether to return to Beijing or stay in Shanghai. There are a couple of quite dull administrative issues – we have quite a nice apartment in Beijing and in Shanghai we would have to find our own place, which considering the budget we have been given, will not be as nice.

Anyway, here is my pro and cons list

BEIJING: Get coffee at little cafe in university across the road, barista’s recognise me, know my order and indulge my attempts at Mandarin. Coffee costs 10 yuan

SHANGHAI: Walk past Louis Vuitton and Apple store to Starbucks, order in English to woman who looks like she hates her life. Coffee costs 27 yuan.

WINNER: Beijing

BEIJING: Live in compound next to my office with colleagues and friends, can walk between friends apartments with bottle of red wine.

SHANGHAI: Live in high rise in middle of the city. Every evening two elderly Shanghai women sit in the lobby with their pet bird in a cage. Plan to slowly cultivate friendship with women in which they pass along wise, yet earthy pearls of wisdom which I will eventually turn into a best-selling self help book, appear on Oprah, make millions.

WINNER: Hard to say

BEIJING: Get to pretend I am a pirate when speaking Mandarin, a lot less English so get to speak Mandarin more, and also a little more used to the accent.

SHANGHAI: Rarely get to speak Mandarin, a lot of English is spoken. Not so many foreigners speak Mandarin in Shanghai though, so when I do speak it people are waaaaay more impressed than they are in Beijing.

WINNER: Beijing

BEIJING: Cost of cocktail in Gulou, between 35 and 50 yuan. Occasional free drink because we know the bar staff.

SHANGHAI: Cost of cocktail everywhere, between 70 and 120 yuan. No one knows us, bar staff laugh at our shoes.

WINNER: Beijing

BEIJING: Have a clutch of favourite restaurants and bars, which is nice but easy to get stuck going to the same places.

SHANGHAI: Walking around clueless much of the time, some hits, some misses.


BEIJING: Deathly insane cold, dry winter. Everything inside is heated.

SHANGHAI: Much milder winter, nothing inside is heated.

WINNER: Hard to say as have not lived in an unheated apartment during a Shanghai winter yet, but I doubt much could be more brutal than a Beijing winter so… Shanghai.

BEIJING: Often nice and clear, but occasional intense pollution which is The Worst.

SHANGHAI: Pollution is bad, but a lot better than Beijing, rarely gets above 150.

WINNER: Shanghai.

So Beijing or Shanghai? What should I choose?



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