Beijing and Shanghai

A colleague from work asked me in an email what I thought of Beijing and Shanghai, and I ended up sending her a rambling email of my impressions. Figure it is worth posting here as well:

My impression of the two cities is that they have their own distinct character. Beijing apparently has more construction cranes on the go than in the whole of Britain (never mind Canada), and I can well believe it. The scale of the city dwarfs that of the GTA — actually, the size is about the same, but imagine high-rises and commercial buildings everywhere. All of which have been built in the last 10 years or less. But there’s still room for a mix of the traditional amidst all of the building and construction, with such sites as Tianamen Square, The Forbidden City and other older sections of the city preserved.

The sense I get of Shanghai is of a somewhat rootless city: one comment someone from the localization firm I visited said that he didn’t think it a very Chinese city, since there are so few bicycles and that the city is clearly laid out with cars in mind. I get the sense that it is more vibrant and cosmopolitan, but perhaps more root-less. I just came back from a boat tour and the towering skyscrapers seem to tussle with each other to get your attention with multi-story hi-def displays, sparkling lights, illuminated spires, or endless neon razzmatazz. It is also one of the first cities I have been in where I just have not been able to get my bearings — I couldn’t tell you whether or not a certain location is north, south, east or west of another. I tried to walk from People’s Square to the Bundt area, got lost, gave up and flagged down a cab. You have to understand that I’m pretty good at reading maps, and that the street signage is bilingual Simplified Chinese + English. Still, have had a good time here and I would return here (or to Beijing) in a second if given a chance.

The cost of labour here is exceedingly cheap, sadly so at times. At a golf game some of the people from the localization conference went to, four female caddies were attendant on every player, helping to look for lost balls, holding the flags, carrying the golf clubs, etc. I saw a showroom apartment whose wood-work, tiling and finish was executed with a precision and care that you simply don’t see at home, and at I price that, were it back home I (or you) could easily afford. I learned new term from one of my guidebooks which I think is applicable: “Marxist-Thatcherism” — there’s a sense that all of the mad rush to build is for the good of everyone, but there are a lot of people who see very little direct benefit from it. China’s middle-class is apparently now about the size of that of the United States, but the underclass is very poor indeed. In some ways the country I would compare China to most is Mexico, specifically Mexico City — riches aplenty, but still people hawking their wares or presenting vouchers for luxury condos to passing cars at intersections.

I also don’t doubt that this situation will not stay this way — I think it is fair to say that the 21st century belongs to China.

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