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Shanghai Rising

Shanghai versus New York

What makes a city great?

I just got back from a week in New York and I just love the place. I love that I can go to a place like Russ & Daughters, a Jewish food shop, staffed by South Americans and a Sherpa (yes a real Sherpa) who speak some Yiddish. I love that I can go to a home-style Japanese restaurant where everyone outside of my immediate group appears to be Japanese or Japanese-American. I love that there are literally hundreds of museums and cultural institutions. My best friend from college has a friend who when he retired said  he would go to a different museum every day for five days out of the week for a year and he did. I love the fashion and the stores. I love that I walk just about everywhere, without ever getting bored. I love the parks and the buildings. I love the history. I love the humor. I even love the cockiness. New York is unequivocally a great city.

London is a great city. Paris is a great city. Istanbul is a great city. This is just my own list of places that immediately spring to mind.  What they all share is that three months is not nearly enough time to take them in.

Does Shanghai belong among the greats? I kept asking this as I read Head of the Dragon: The Rise of New Shanghai. This article is an excerpt from A History of Future Cities, a book by Daniel Brook. The article on Shanghai is quite long, but also quite fascinating and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in China history, architecture or urbanism.

So is Shanghai a great city? Maybe.Its sheer scale is amazing.The Bund is great. Xintiandi is special. The Shanghai Museum is world class. But is Shanghai truly a great world city and, if so, what makes it so, and if not, why not?

What do you think?

26 responses to “Shanghai Rising”

  1. Shanghai is a World Class City, but its not among the greats as far as the criteria you gave. The humor? Ha
    It is up and coming, will become a great city, possibly over the next 10 years. Service and services must climb far higher. Not a place you step off and rest.

  2. Shanghai was one of the worlds great cities in the early part of the 20th century and it has once again become a city that can be mentioned in the same breath with London, Paris, New York without drawing attention. It has everything a great
    international city has, e.g., an international citizenry, world class cultural venues like the opera house and museum, great restaurants, its own local history and culture and a thriving subculture of artists and intellectuals. Although Shanghai lacks an architectural landmark which most great cities have ( the Orient Pearl Tower is something out of Ultra Man and hardly qualifies as architecture ) it does have a very interesting architectural landscape as there are probably more art-deco buildings in Shanghai than in any other city in the world. And architectural historians love Shanghai for this reason. I would add here that Tokyo, where I live, also does not have any longstanding architectural landmarks. Not really at least. Tokyo Tower was pretty much it – until last year when the Sky Tree opened. But it is debatable whether this is architecture or just a tower. I tend to think the latter.
    In some ways, I think Shanghai has surpassed Tokyo as the great city in Asia. Just compare the airports, what has to be somewhat of a measure of a city’s standing. Narita is dingy and remote. The arrival terminal feels like Sacramento. Like a clothing or department store Narita actually “closes,” its doors at 11:30. If you are in the terminal at that hour, you have to leave. When you arrive at Narita it then takes an hour and a half to get into town, unless it is late at night and there are no more buses. In short, flying into Narita is a visit to the minor leagues all the way around.
    The feeling is totally different when you disembark at cavernous but modern Pudong and take the Maglev into town. The experience is befitting of a great, world class city which Shanghai is, once again.

    • To be fair to Tokyo (which is also where I am based), they are gradually opening up Haneda to international service; it is closer to town than PVG, and will have long-haul flights around the clock starting next year. There are also plenty of great architectural landmarks here, places like the classic Tokyo Station, the Budokan, everything designed by Kenzo Tange, etc.
      However, I think that if you were to define a world city in Asia it would have to be either Hong Kong or Singapore. Tokyo and Shanghai are both wonderful places, but are almost exclusively economic and social hubs for their own countries, and have fairly minimal international relevance in comparison to New York, LA, London, Paris, etc.

      • The Kenzo Tange buildings are great and they add to the landscape just as do Shanghai’s art deco buildings. But they are hardly landmarks known outside of Tokyo. It seems the only landmarks here are Tokyo Tower, the Sky Tree and the Hachiko statue outside of Shibuya station ( which is oddly enough actually considered a landmark). My point is that Tokyo, considered a great city on all lists, nevertheless lacks a truly significant architectural landmark, like the GG Bridge or the Empire State Building or the Bank of China Tower in HK etc etc. I mean how many key chains do they sell here with the Budokan on them ?
        Haneda is still very provincial. There are very few international flights out of Haneda now. If you want to go to SF, for example, there is one flight that leaves at 1 am, and I am not sure it is a daily flight. Glad to hear that they are going to add more. Whenever I come into Narita, I am just flabbergasted with how dinky it seems. It cannot hold a candle to Pudong. To Gregorylent: Pudong is now Shanghai’s International and main airport. Hongqiao does not count. As far as I know it is used for domestic travel only. I was not aware that PVG airport closed at 10 pm. I checked several websites and they all say “open 24 hrs.” So I don’t know what is the basis of your statment that it closes at 10pm. If I am wrong then I stand corrected.
        In the end this is largely a subjective question. I have lived in SF, NYC, Rome, Tokyo and Shanghai and it is my experience that Shanghai matches up just fine with all those places. And if you were to ask me which place exuded the most energy I would answer in a heartbeat: “Shanghai”

  3. .Shanghai?- No way, A Great World City need to have high or satisfied living standard. Shanghai is just partially rich when compare with their huge 23millions. There are more poors than the rich or middle-class citizens.
    Moreover, the environment is bad with constant air pollution and choatic lifestyle.
    A great city doesn’t need to be full of skyscapers or vast population.

    • I love Seattle, but world class. No way. In fact, part of its charm is that it’s not world class. On the West Coast, the only three cities that might qualify are Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver, BC I think LA does, but not so sure about San Fran or Vancouver, as much as I love both places.

  4. shanghai is not even close .. not at all, not for years .. maybe not for decades … been here four years .. i go to paris for a week, come back to shanghai, not even close … no joie de vivre, no real energy, no shakti, no juice, no culture, nothing at all to compare with any of the cities you name ..
    xintiandi? a simulacrum. the bund? a bit like st. louis, not at all like the thames or the seine. shanghai museum? are you joking? the art scene? hong kong whacks it .. yes, lots of expat-focused restaurants, over-priced and under-qualitied .. culture? chinese or western, go elsewhere ..
    great public transportation, i will give it that. semi-decent party town for the young, from rural china or rural usa ..
    but .. crikey .. not even close to global in ambience, juice, aliveness .. eyes to the ground, focused, or resigned, that is the vibe here, til now.
    design-wise, though, there are some bright minds in the urban planning department of the local government. have seen some great decisions on traffic flow, pedestrian flow … the malls? only the owners are making money, i think.
    answering the last paragraph’s questions … the greatness, as such may be, is not organic, it didn’t evolve, not since the thirties .. it has been imposed, by party, by fiat, by expo … but the reality that comes from organic opening into larger possibility has just not happened.
    in short, it is a small town, dead, dull, boring.

    • If you think Shanghai has no energy you simply don’t understand Shanghai. I don’t know of any other city on the planet where you can walk into a restaurant at 3 am and see that all 200 seats in the place are taken and then go to 3 or 4 more restaurants and see the same thing. Hardly “boring” I would be inclined to argue.
      I suggest you stand in line at the taxi queue at the Hongqiao railway station on a Sunday evening and watch the queue of 200-300 people disappear in very orderly fashion before your very eyes in minutes. As I said to myself when I experienced it : “only in Shanghai.” It is brilliant and may give you some appreciation of where you are living.

      • Hongqiao is amazing. Taxis in Shanghai are great. The food is fantastic. East Asia Co. gets it. I wouldn’t rank Shanghai among the ‘greats’ but damn if it isn’t a great city.

      • Because standing in line at Hongqiao in the shabby taxi corridor is really one of the perks you can enjoy there. Forget the Met or the Opéra Garnier – this really is the place to be.

      • Shanghai is only a world class city in certain districts. Go outside of those districts and you are in a depressingly Chinese city.

  5. As someone who has visited over 70 countries and seen nearly all of the world’s great cities, Shanghai is absolutely a contender. I agree there is some room to grow in terms of overall lifestyle (I’ve lived in SH), but if you don’t feel the energy of a place like SH then you don’t understand the world around you.
    Sydney, Buenos Aires, Paris, NYC, Capetown, Hong Kong, London, San Francisco are the places that do it for me. It’s totally personal and objective but to say Shanghai isn’t alive is plain wrong.

  6. There are only TWO world class cities that truly match the definition of internationalisation: New York & London.
    While others may be charming (Paris for example) it remains very French.
    But even discussing that Shanghai is a world class city demonstrates some naievity over the nature of the place. For example, no money changers USD-RMB anywhere. It’s closed. And I don’t get that in one article last week you suggested China is “hostile” towards foreign investment and today it is that Shanghai is “World Class”. Could we have some consistency of views here please?

  7. There is nothing organic, or natural about Shanghai or Beijing. Both are the products of somewhat reformed Communist central planners with a chip on their shoulders, and a great deal of money to spend and the requirement to spend it quickly before the next apparatchik gets his hands on it.
    Old neighborhoods are bull-dozed, any culture and history are treated like potted plants and as we know, nothing happens that is not approved by the authorities or that is outside their gaze.

  8. Note to East Asia Co: The Shanghai Maglev doesn’t “take you into town” unless you classify “town” as Luijiahui. It doesn’t even cross the Huangpu. It stops in Pudong and doesn’t service the main CBD area of Puxi or Hongqiao Airport at all. It’s a white elephant populated by Chinese tourists and although speeds may reach 310km an hour for approxiamtely five minutes, the train interior is shoddy and second class shabby at best, and it definately does NOT service Shanghai.
    Typical Shanghai expats talking up the only city they know. Next: Shanghai will overtake Hong Kong soon. Yeah yeah yeah (yawn) heard it all before and it hasn’t happened yet. It isn’t going to happen any time soon either.

  9. Having lived in Shanghai, I feel the city has a lot going for it, but doesn’t quite match up to a place like London yet (I’ll focus on London because, of the cities Dan mentioned, it’s the only one where I’ve actually lived as well). A few specifics: Let’s say you enjoy good cinema. In London, you can easily find at least one, potentially good, movie to go see each week. Meanwhile, in Shanghai, at any given
    time there are just a couple of foreign films being screened, and not precisely
    the cream of the crop. (And, just in case someone is thinking this, watching
    the knockoff DVDs at home is not the same!) Shanghai also lacks good parks like
    Hyde Park and the other major London parks (or Central Park in NYC, not to
    mention the country parks in Hong Kong), which help take the edge off urban
    life (something you need to do more in Shanghai than in London). Moreover, the nightlife starts getting old fast: There just aren’t that many places that are appealing to a foreign professional in his 30s, especially if you want to get out of the expat bubble (although there are a couple of gems). To be honest, I wasn’t
    terribly keen on London nightlife, but at least there were always new places to check out. Even the run-of-the-mill neighborhoods had pubs where you could stop and have a drink; in large swathes of Shanghai the only option is a can of beer from a convenience store. Overall, much of “cool Shanghai” is a parallel
    city largely created for and by the expats and a small cosmopolitan sliver of
    the local community. The result is a lot of artificiality in Shanghai. I know some people will take issue with this but, face it, the city would look very different without all the expats and tourists. Tianzifang, Xintiandi, the lounges and fancy restaurants
    on the Bund, cool bars like Vue at the Hyatt… would there be enough local fuel
    to keep them going, as they currently exist? In London (and New York, and Hong
    Kong), there are of course large expat communities who help shape the city, but
    the fundamentals would remain in place even if there was a large exodus. To get
    an idea of what Shanghai might look like after such an exodus, just go to a
    Wuhan (it even has Bund-like buildings) or Guangzhou (though it has a lot of expats). The soul of Shanghai is not that different from that of those places, neither of which is widely considered a great world city (unless you have spent your whole life in the Hubei hinterland). As Dan said about Seattle, perhaps part of their charm lies precisely in the fact that they are not world cities.

  10. There are are rankings for this kind of thing, and Hong Kong outpaces Shanghai in every one of them:
    I expect places like Mexico City, Sao Paolo, and Mumbai to join that shortlist in the future. Shanghai suffers from China’s overall lack of soft power or global cultural appeal.

  11. Fascinating article. I sent a link to my architect/urban design colleagues. As and architect, I tend to judge a city’s greatness by the quality of the skyline. But that article made me think about what really makes a city great. Is it the skyscrapers? Shanghai seems to have one by each of the world-renowned firms. Tall shiny buildings make great photo opportunities. I don’t think they enhance people’s daily
    existence. Too cold and unfriendly. The article listed things such as cultural architectural history, accessible public spaces where you can lay in the grass and throw Frisbees, diverse entertainment, and personal human interaction. From the article, it seems like Shanghai, and other large Chinese cities, lack all of those. The city planners addressed these issues by transplanting the physical objects such as buildings but not the culture. I guess after living in Beijing a year, I miss my American neighborhood and city.

  12. Shanghai, world class? The air is disgusting, 90 percent of the restaurants are the same and the same percentage of people are rude and uncultured. World class ciites in Asia are probably places like Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and maybe Seoul. Shanghai is great if you’re an expat “looking to score” but besides that has very little to stake a claim among the world’s greatest cities.

  13. Shanghai seems to me similar to most Chinese cities. There are pockets of uniqueness but most Chinese cities on the Mainland have that same feel to them. Hong Kong is the only exception to this rule in China. It is more modern, more international, more expensive, more diverse than any other city in China. So if you label any city as great in China, Hong Kong would get my vote. Beijing and Shanghai have good qualities, but not on the scale Hong Kong does.

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