Beijing vs Shanghai
Expats from different cities discuss what made them choose between China’s two major metropolises
Which is the cooler city, Beijing or Shanghai? This is an ageold question that neither Chinese nor expats get tired of discussing. Both of the Chinese mainland’s most appealing metropolises offer good opportunities and lifestyles for foreigners, but which one is the better fit?
To settle this dispute, Metropolitan has talked to expats who have had experience in both cities to see where their loyalties lie.
Emcee Heretic, a musician and veteran expat from New York, has been living in China for more than one decade and speaks fluent Chinese. Even though he has lived in Beijing for most of his stay in China, he has had his share of living in both cities due to work.
On his first visit to Beijing back in 2003, the 19-year-old Heretic felt that the city was different from what he had imagined.
“It was a ‘concrete jungle,’ different from Southern China with bamboo and other traditional Chinese cultural features.”
However, after living in Beijing for a few years, the city started to grow on him, and he came to realize that Beijing is the better city, in many ways.
His first impression of Shanghai, when he visited in 2009, was that the city was a bit “too modern,” he confessed.
Between the two distinctively different local cultures, Heretic prefers the more “down-to-earth and straightforward” Beijingers than the Shanghainess culture, which feels a bit “too flashy” for him.
“But it’s not necessarily bad,” he said. “I just personally prefer a culture where everybody is ‘ (buddies) with each other.”
It’s easier to be a foreigner in Shanghai, and it might spoil you, according to Heretic.
“People there are very nice to foreigners, sometimes too nice. They want to talk to you in English and if you try to speak Chinese, they will almost feel offended, because they feel their English is good,” he said. “So expats might become proud, or spoiled, even for those who are not very capable or diligent, and they can live a good life no matter what.”
Meanwhile in Beijing, he added, people are “cooler” with foreigners.
One way Shanghai triumphs over Beijing is that it is more international and more inclusive to different cultures, according to Heretic. “It’s a lot like my hometown, New York, in that sense. It’s a city of diversity,” he said.
It is especially so food-wise for Heretic and he thinks the cuisine in Shanghai beats Beijing. While Beijing has its distinctive features and snacks, he enjoys the more international food scene in Shanghai, where he can find all sorts of good restaurants from different food cultures.
“I feel Shanghai people are more stylish,” he said. “Shanghai is more developed and modern, which is good. But here in Beijing, it’s more ‘China-China,’” Heretic said.
A tale of two cities
It was Beijing that convinced Matthew Rea to come back to China after he spent a short time studying in the capital city. However, he chose to settle down in Shanghai.
“For me, it was because of the business opportunities in Shanghai,” he said.
Living in China since 2008, Rea now owns a restaurant in Shanghai that serves authentic Cajun and Creole food from his hometown New Orleans.
Upon moving to China, Rea wanted a completely different lifestyle than what he had back home, which was quite “laidback.” And Shanghai, with its rapidly growing trade section and fast-paced work and lifestyle, seemed to be the perfect choice.
However, there are things that he misses about Beijing.
“People are much friendlier in Beijing,” he said. “For one, the taxi drivers are nice and want to talk to you. They don’t talk much in Shanghai.” The expat communities are quite different too. “In Shanghai, foreigners are everywhere. In Beijing, they tend to gather in certain areas like Wudaokou, Haidian district and Sanlitun, Chaoyang district.”
Marco Brun del Re, who works in business development in IT, has been a resident of Beijing for eight years.
He has come across opportunities to living in Shanghai, including job offers that pay more, but unlike Rea, Beijing is his choice.
There is a common idea among expats that if you only go to Shanghai, you haven’t really been to China. Brun del Re explained that Beijing has been the imperial center for so long that there are way more things going on than what you would expect “stereotypical” China to be like.
“You come to Beijing because you want to come to China, whereas you go to Shanghai because you want to do business or you want a really nice nightlife,” he said.
For Brun del Re, the biggest difference between the two cities lies in people.
“There’s a sense of pride that the Shanghainess are more international, cosmopolitan and somehow different from most of the country. One indication is that they have pride in their culture by speaking their own dialect.”
As Northerners tend to be more forward and tough, he explains, Beijing appears to be a little bit more accepting of people around China and from the West.
When it comes to the expats from the two cities, they are different too. There is a common viewpoint among expats that Shanghai is more economically focused.
“If you go to Shanghai, you can meet people who are way more into business and career focused,” he said. Therefore, when it comes to lifestyle, Shanghai seems to be more upscale, which for expats including Brun del Re, is not as preferable as Beijing, which offers a more relaxing and down-toearth atmosphere. “I don’t have to worry too much about how I might be perceived as a career-focused or successful individual,” he said. “When I think of places to go to in Shanghai, they seem a little more refined. You want to show up there a little more nicely dressed.”
For many expats like Nick, a 26-year-old Russian chef, it is the classic concern of which city has better air quality. Nick has traveled to Beijing, and realized that pollution is a big concern. “There’s a lot of smog. In shanghai, it’s also sometimes difficult to breathe, but I think it’s better than in Beijing,” he said. He has also tried out several southern cities including Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, but has found that Shanghai has the perfect weather for him, neither too hot nor too cold. On top of the climatic reasons, it’s very important that the city he lives in has the most convenient facilities and modern temperament. “Shanghai is a modern city, and it fits better with my lifestyle. It’s a really big city and has everything you want,” Nick said, citing many of his favorite supermarkets, cinemas and clubs that are more to his taste. He confessed that he is drawn to mega cities. Shanghai’s location is also attractive. In the eyes of many foreigners, Beijing comparatively stands out, overshadowing its neighboring cities and towns, but Shanghai lies in the heart of the Yangtze River Delta, one of China’s great economic powerhouses. On top of the convenient facilities, close corporations and strong foreign trade in the region, it also leads in international business and tourism in the country. For example, a new policy starting January 2016 allows a 144-hour visa-free entry for international transit passengers in the region, the Global Times reported.
Nick sees the location as an important factor, which allows him access to more business and tourism resources in the region. He has been to cities near Shanghai such as Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province and Wuxi, Jiangsu Province.
Go where your heart leads you
For those who are considering coming to China and do not know where to start, or those who are faced with the dilemma of choosing between Beijing and Shanghai, Metropolitan’s expat interviewees offer their advice, and how they think the decision-making process works.
Brun del Re shared an “imprinting” theory, according to which, expats can be like geese, which imprint with the first animals or people they see as parents and follow them around.
“People who have lived in Beijing first see Beijing as their home, and vice verse for Shanghai. I think both have something to do with your imprint of China based on where you live first,” he said.
But more importantly, it’s also about what type of person you are, he added. While both cities offer a great life, they can be attractive to different types of people.
According to Brun del Re, while backpackers, students, English teachers and others who are more interested in cultural aspects of China usually come to Beijing, Shanghai tends to draw business-minded individuals.
“If you are all about business and you want a great nightlife, cocktails and awesome restaurants and you come to Beijing, I think you might be disappointed,” he said.
“And vise verse, I think if you go to Shanghai and all you want to do is meet Chinese, drink cheap beer and eat chuanr, Shanghai will also be disappointing,” he said.
To most people, it’s a trade-off situation and they would name and assess all the factors they want. However, when it comes to each individual, it’s often something personal that settles the tie.
As a rapper, in Heretic’s mind, Beijing, the music capital of China, would always win.
“While Shanghai has nice jazz and blues music scene, Beijing is the place where you find decent rock shows and clubs for rap music,” he said.
Heretic runs his own music studio and writes lyrics, and he looks deeper into both the merits and the problems such as the cut-throat competition or the declining human relations in the society.
“The longer I live here, the more interesting I find Beijing to be,” he said.
According to veteran expats, choosing which city to live in often comes down to what type of person you are and your pursuits.
Expats liking one city over another is a result of comparing many factors including lifestyle, cultural scenes, career opportunities, living conditions and more.