Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Beijing vs. Shanghai

Having now spent a semester in Bejing, and 57 hours in Shanghai, I feel qualified—and, indeed, obliged—to weigh in on the Beijing vs. Shanghai debate. Who wins? Let me tell you, it’s Shanghai, and it’s no contest. Allow me to lay out my reasons in the structure of an obnoxious list I’ll call the “8 W’s.”

• Weather: I certainly have a lot of respect for the hardy folk of Beijing. The winters are as dry and as cold as, say, Al Gore, the summers are hot and sweaty, and the spring brings blinding sandstorms that carry the Gobi desert closer every year. The fall, which is absolutely gorgeous, is three days long. Sure, Shanghai is pretty hot in the summer, but heck, we’re tropical creatures anyway, aren’t we?

• Width: These few days in Shanghai I cris-crossed the city on foot, finding the next neat-looking place on the map, and walking there. Yesterday, I began at the Moganshan art district, and after a morning there, moseyed my way to the other side of my map, arriving after a few hours at the Duolun Museum of Modern Art. In between, I passed through as much excitement and street life as I’ve seen in three months in Beijing. It is a big city, definitely, but it manages to feel quite small, broken up into dozens of smaller communities within the city.

This morning, back in Beijing, I thought I might walk from Tiananmen Square to Beida. After 35 minutes, I was still walking alongside the Forbidden city, and up to that point it had just been me, the wall, and the occasional policeman. No matter where you are in Beijing, it’s an hour’s drive to wherever you’re going. It was one of the more frustrating things about being there, and the idea of a smaller, walkable city, is an attractive one. Shanghai’s population is just as big, but they pack ‘em in better. It’s more of a New York, while Beijing exhibits more of a Los Angeles sprawl. Eulgh.

• Wuran: Wuran is Chinese for pollution. Shanghai’s air is dirty, and Beijing’s is way, way worse. Enough said.

• Water: History tells us it’s a bad idea to let Republican senators (Washington DC), eagles holding snakes (Mexico City) or anything other than common sense decide where we build our cities. Beijing is a case in point. There’s no river there, no sea, no ocean… it’s just there, in the middle of what was once presumably an endless sea of rice fields. Bad idea. It’s hard to exactly define, but Shanghai’s dissection by the Huangpu river and Suzhou Creek break it up in a way that makes it more manageable, more natural, and, really, more pretty. Plus, the proximity to the ocean allows the aforementioned reasonable weather.

• Women: Any Chinese can tell you that Shanghai girls are among the prettiest in China, and after three days, I can confirm this report beyond any reasonable doubt. Next stop: Chungdu—I’ve heard Sichuan girls are the most beautiful of all.

• Waiguoren: Again, with the Chinese—Waiguoren is Chinese for “foreigners,” but I don’t mean that in any bigoted or otherwise pathetic way. Shanghai has seen a lot of European influence in the past couple hundred years, and it has resulted in a fantastic array of architecture in the city, The city’s former French Concession is a gem, and the old Jewish ghetto is totally wacky and out of place—in a good way. Beijing is mostly filled with the ugly, blocky sorts of buildings one often finds in capital cities, especially communist capital cities. I do enjoy Beijing’s ancient influence, but Shanghai has some of that, too, in moderation. One of my favorite things about New York is the variety provided by such a vast array of different kinds of people, and Shanghai benefits from the same. At the same time, though, the waiguoren presence in Shanghai is not oppressive. Really, as long as one is not in any of about three places, the number of white faces will be next to nil.

• Wow: Shanghai’s wow factor is off the charts. The glitz and excess that come with sudden wealth are in full evidence there: take, for instance, the large LED displays one finds at some intersections, announcing the current sound level, in decibels. Or take the skyline, or the Times Square-like glamour of Nanjing Road, or the sweeping grandness of the Bund, Shanghai’s riverside park. It’s all over the top, in an impressive sort of way. There is definitely a lot of wow in Beijing’s Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and many of the sites that are really old. Really, though, they’re good for about one visit each, and after that, one begins to realize that they stay mostly the same—the same they have been for the past god-knows-how-long. Even the trees at Jingshan Park are the same trees that were planted 12 centuries ago. Christ.

• Wictuals: Although this may never have happened, if someone of Polish descent were to say the word “victuals,” this is how it might sound. An old Andover gal by the name of Michelle Miao treated me to a first-rate lunch on Sunday. Presently a resident of Shanghai, Michelle knows what’s up with the local cuisine, and now I do, too. It’s pretty darn good. Beyond the fine dining to be had, Shanghai is maybe most famous for its xiaochi—snacks—such as savory fried pancake things, and the succulent baozi—steamed buns— which will leave pork juice dripping from your hands. It’s better than it sounds, really. Beijing’s roast duck is amazingly good, but on the whole, northern food just lacks a bit in flavor.

Shanghai is, camera thieves aside, a great place, as you have no doubt inferred by now. There aren’t many cities I bother comparing to New York, but this one deserves the comparison. One other cultural observation I couldn’t squeeze in above is the omnipresence of pajamas on the city streets. One never sees this up north, or, really, anywhere else, but for whatever reason, Shanghai women love to go out in their jammies. It’s mostly women aged 40-60, and they mostly have very comfy-looking quilted pj’s. Not a bad way to live, I suppose.

Also, if you have never seen a rat run through a crowd of 200 Chinese schoolgirls, that is an experience I recommend you actively seek out.

Tomorrow at 1:55 PM I board a plane bound for Toronto, Canada, and arrive on the same day exactly 5 minutes later. The miracles of modern air travel! You can expect one more post here, a reflection on the semester and a consideration of the future of this website. But if that sounds dreadfully boring to you, well, then, zaijian!

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