Same, same but different – What makes one city better than another?

Recently, I moved from Beijing to Shanghai. An inevitable question almost everyone asks is: Which city do you like better?

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Capital or not
Trade and tourism, change or continuity
A never ending story

The rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai is quite real. Of course, this is not limited to China. Worldwide many cities compete within a country to be ‘the best’, whatever that might mean. But where do these comparisons come from?

This blog is a short quest to see what I can find out about the orgins of these city rivalries. Coming from the Netherlands, my first thought is to compare the competition between Beijing and Shanghai, to the one between Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Let’s look at some aspects of these cities to find an answer.

Capital or not

Type in “Beijing vs Shanghai” in Google and you get 179 million hits. Many articles talk about the best sightseeing spots in both places, differences in food and varying characters of their citizens. But something that I’m more interested in, is what we can find in their history.

Beijing became China’s capital during the Yuan dynasty, in the 13th century. The Yuan dynasty was one of China’s foreign dynasties, in this case established by the Mongols. Ever since, Beijing has been the capital or one of the capitals.

Being the capital of a country, is of course an important element of a city’s identity. BBC reported earlier this year that “the capital needs to be protected, but also able to exert control and project unity. For that reason many capitals are built in the center of countries – they need to be seen as representative and accessible.”

Since the capital is often also the place where the government resides, that adds another element to the mix. A research paper from the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) mentions that “Beijing has benefited from efforts by the Chinese government and Beijing’s municipal government to elevate the city’s international reputation, and from Beijing’s legacy and position as China’s political and cultural center.”

Shanghai, on the other hand, has never been China’s capital. It has, however, been the backdrop for important historical events, especially in the 20th century. When the first Opium War ended and foreign powers started to enter China, Shanghai was named a treaty port by the British. With foreign powers such as Great Britain, France and the United States entering the city, it became the center for art, architecture and business.

After several wars, it resumed its position as being a prime spot for business, fashion and finance. It’s currently China’s largest city and its regional economy is growing faster than Beijing’s, with its Gross Domestic Product hitting 3 trillion RMB last year.

Thus, it’s no wonder that these tensions arise between both cities. Are the reasons the same on the other side of the ocean?

Trade and tourism, change or continuity

Amsterdam and Rotterdam are quite antagonistic. Luckily, most people don’t hate each other as much as the soccer fans do, but there’s definitely competition. However, in this case the different images of the cities are even clearer. Amsterdam is the capital city, with a rich history and well-known among international tourists. Whether it’s the canals, tulips or weed, Amsterdam is sure to be most people’s first association with the Netherlands.

On the other hand, although it’s winning popularity as a touristic hotspot, Rotterdam is first and foremost a trade city. With its huge port, it attracts many international businesses. Due to the bombing of its city center during the Second World War, the buildings and environment are literally newer. Compared to Amsterdam’s more traditional, historic city center, Rotterdam has a more modern, creative vibe.

Reportedly, rivalry between Amsterdam and Rotterdam can be traced back as early as the 17th century. This Golden Age period brought about unparalleled wealth and riches to a large part of the Northern Netherlands. This was of course earned by the lucrative slave trade and rich colonies, which were heavily exploited.

But the two cities not only competed in trade, they also did so in infrastructure. However, even with being heavily bombed, Rotterdam managed to revive quicker from this blowback than Amsterdam and prospered after this period.

In Dutch newspaper NRC, cultural history researcher Patricia van Ulzen thinks part of this rivalry is fueled strongly because both cities have always been the largest in the country, and are thus compared to each other all the time. She adds: “Amsterdam has a glorious history and benefits the most by keeping the status quo. (…) However, Rotterdam as the second city has had to prove itself all the time and is thus better off with continuous changes.”

A never ending story

Looking from a historical perspective, we can see that there are clear differences between the Chinese and Dutch cities. Shanghai and Beijing were of a very different size up until the middle of the 20th century.

Moreover, in the Chinese case there’s an emphasis on geography. Beijing and other former capital cities like Xi’an were partly chosen because of their strategic location. Shanghai is of course near the sea and thus much more vulnerable in that sense.

On the other hand, Amsterdam and Rotterdam have a similar size but also a very different character. The rivalry between these two seems to stem from a difference in values and city images. Amsterdam emphasizes its rich history with its canals and well-preserved heritage. Rotterdam focuses on trade and exuding its modern vibes with innovative architecture.

For all the differences and (friendly) rivalry between these cities, it does seem that there’s no real position being challenged. And perhaps that’s what lies at the bottom of it all. It’s a way to make cities’ characteristics clearer by juxtaposing them to each other. Comparing a large metropole to another one, can elevate its position and legitimize its importance. And in this day and age, city marketing also takes a smart approach in nurturing a city’s image.

So, just to add some fuel to the fire I’ll say it on the record: Beijing wins in my book.

One thought on “Same, same but different – What makes one city better than another?

  1. Pingback: Familiar flavors: Chinese crepes – Bitesized Writing

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