Shanghai, Beijing, and the face of Chinese cities

This is an incomplete, opening entry on a subject that's increasingly on my mind: who is responsible for the look and feel of today's enormous, expanding Chinese cities, and who is happy and unhappy about their emerging character.

Two reasons it's on my mind at the moment:
 - Spent several days again in Shanghai, my former home, after being away for eight months;
 - Recently went to the top of Beijing's first true skyscraper, the newly-opened Park Hyatt hotel, and saw the city from an entirely different perspective while on the building's 65th floor.

This is not a "which do you like better?" discussion, which I've learned to finesse in a way that is both politic and true. Having now spent an equal amount of time based in each city, my wife and I have learned to appreciate the virtues of both. Their virtues are different, as Chicago's are from LA's, but are both real. (In short: we've learned more from being in Beijing, and we enjoyed the texture of daily life more in Shanghai. We feel fortunate to have lived in each place.)

Rather the question is why the look and feel of Beijing seem so clearly to represent the direction Chinese cities are heading. To oversimplify what this means: although Shanghai probably contains more people than Beijing, it feels smaller. The roads are narrower, they're more likely to bend or twist, the city unfolds on a smaller scale of neighborhoods and courtyards and little houses. Beijing is bigger and squarer and broader and more grandly imposing. To illustrate: a photo of the intersection outside our building in Beijing, followed by a place we were walking ten days ago in Shanghai.

Crossing the street at the Guomao intersection, as I do when leaving my apartment each day in Beijing:

Looking across a street in the French Concession district of Shanghai:

Yes, yes, I could have chosen pictures of each city that looked more like the other -- a little hutong in Beijing, an elevated highway in Shanghai. But anybody who has been in both cities recognizes the difference in tone and scale. This view southward from the Park Hyatt's 65th floor China Bar -- which really is the first time this view of Beijing has ever been available (since airplanes almost never fly overhead) -- gives more of the idea.

A few more pictures, and the question they suggest to me, after the jump.


The 65th-floor view west toward Beijing's historic district (Forbidden City, Tiananmen, etc):

And northeast toward the famous CCTV tower (and, hidden behind it, the now-burned Mandarin Oriental Hotel):

For comparison, a 50th-floor view from the Tomorrow Square building toward People's Square in the center of Shanghai:

Here is the question, in the form of a series of postulates:

- As China develops, more of its cities look more like Beijing than like Shanghai. By which I mean: big roads, loads of concrete, imposing square buildings. In a sense that's natural, since some of the most distinctive parts of Shanghai's design were laid down by the Britons, French, Americans, etc who colonized it until the Japanese troops arrived. You don't find many of these structures in, say, Zibo, because it didn't have so many foreigners. Minor instances from Shanghai:


- While I am grateful to be living in Beijing and to have the chance to travel widely in China, on sheer architectural grounds I enjoy the look and feel of Shanghai most of all.

- And therefore I am forced to wonder: Do I like these small streets and human-scale settings in Shanghai because I am foreign? Am I being like the French visitors who love Vietnam because it's so easy to find baguettes there? Does the Chinese version of me really appreciate the huge grandeur of the Beijing-style approach? Or do I like them because I am human -- and because something in human nature fits better with structures of a manageable size? And if this is so, what does it mean for the hundreds of millions of Chinese human beings living in these big concrete cities?

I feel compelled to ask because so much of modern China is being built on supra-human unmanageable scale. And presumably someone, at some level, must be doing this intentionally. (Alternative theory, for later: it's all about construction contracts.)

I can't be sure of the answer. But you can't see these cities and their ongoing re-construction without considering the question. More if I come closer to figuring it out.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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