Prior to moving to Shanghai, I was completely ignorant about what to expect of the China experience. As a relatively well educated American, the image I had of China was of a massive republic with billions of people, all in similar circumstances, living and toiling for their communist government in monolithic, uniform metropolises built of steel and concrete. I believed that once you visited one big Chinese city, you will have seen them all. Nothing at all like the diversity you see between cities in the United States
What I’ve found in China in the last four years is that cities here can be as different from each other as in the states. Contrary to popular Western belief, there is no one China experience. It is a country as diverse as the U.S., with every city and its people providing a unique experience to those who visit. This was driven home to us recently when, over four weeks, we spent time in four cities in Greater China: Shanghai (where we live), Hong Kong, Sanya, and Taipei, Taiwan. Our experiences in all four cities were unique and nuanced for a variety of reasons, including history, politics, and location.
Shanghai’s history shapes it today, from intervention by Western powers and events like the Boxer Rebellion and Opium Wars, to World War Two, the Japanese occupation, and Mao and the Cultural Revolution. Due to its history of intervention, Shanghai is probably the most Western-friendly city in mainland China. (Hong Kong and Taipei are not “mainland.”) While it generally adheres strictly to the governing rules and philosophy of the country’s ruling communist party, Shanghai is also know for its go-go economic mind set. At any one moment in Shanghai, you can feel like you are living in a rigid communist oligarchy, then the next like you are living in Chicago. It’s fun and freaky that way.
I have lived in Shanghai for nearly four years now, and anyone who reads this blog knows I’m in love with the city and its freewheeling people. Shanghai is the economic center of a communist country, and you see examples of that every day. There is a cadre of security guards in every residential housing and business development in the city. In ours, they mark down when we leave and when we return. It is neither an ominous or oppressive activity by the security people. It is just part of the system here that tries to keep an eye on everyone and everything. In a communist country, there is no such thing as unemployment and so the security business is just one of many that gives lots of people jobs. They are like the multitudes of “gardeners” and street cleaners here who roam the city trimming, weeding, spraying, or sweeping already clean streets with brooms that are made of straw taped to a stick.
Then there are the millions of entrepreneurs in Shanghai, both Western and Chinese, who thrive in the communist economy. I know many Western folks here who have built mini empires in the restaurant, health food, and beer industries, among others. And the Shanghainese, particularly the entrepreneurial class, are machines when it comes to work and building businesses. It’s like they never sleep. Shanghai is Chinese to its core, and most of its citizens are proud of their Chinese heritage and communist government. But they don’t let anything slow them down when it comes to economic growth. This duality of communism and capitalism makes it feel like you are living in two different countries in the same place, and it makes Shanghai unique.
To go from Shanghai to Taipei is a little jarring. While there are some physical similarities, Taipei is much more lush than Shanghai. (Of course, it is closer to the equator.) When you first arrive and get on the road in the city, you immediately notice the leafy and well designed boulevards abundant in Taipei. We recently spent 3 days there as part of the girls spring break. Without getting too deep into the history of the place, the Republic of China was established on Taiwan after WWII, and the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Today it is a thriving democracy just off the southern coast of the People’s Republic of China, and has the 21st largest economy in the world. China claims Taiwan is a renegade province, and the two exist tenuously side by side.
Where mainland China is rough around the edges, Taiwan feels more polished and sophisticated. Though you know immediately that you are in an Asian country, there is a feel of the West to Taipei. Much of it is cosmopolitan and you don’t see a lot of the 3rd world aspects of China that you do in Shanghai. I didn’t see any of the “garbage men” riding their beat up bikes and banging bells to alert folks to have their trash ready for pick up. No roving gangs of guys cleaning the roads, or questionable looking food vendors on the street dumping cooking oil into the gutter (or worse, harvesting it from there). With its temples, night markets, and Mandarin-speaking residents, Taipei felt like China “light” — with one foot in the West and the other firmly on the mainland.
In Taipei, we stayed at the beautiful Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza Hotel (shangri-la.com/taipei). We went to the Taipei 101 building, as everyone must when visiting the city. It is the fifth tallest building in the world and provides an incredible view of the city and the mountainous topography of the island. What I found most interesting about the observatory floor of the building, which proved to be a microcosm of Taipei, was the differences between the mainland Chinese tourists and the Taiwanese. The latter wait in orderly lines like in the U.S. The former don’t, just like on the mainland. They may be from two different countries, with different social norms, but they are both Chinese. A Chinese friend told me once that when you engage with the Taiwanese people, you can sense their Chinese souls. I agree, which is one of the reasons I liked Taipei so much. It has Eastern sensibilities with Western mores. Its the best of both worlds.
Because we only had three days and were just looking to wander Taipei, we didn’t hit a few of the must-see places that my friend Len Pritchett, who lives in Taipei, recommended such as Longshan Temple and Beitou Hot Springs. There were massive lines at Maokong Hill, where you ride a cable car on the four kilometer journey to the top and tour a huge tea plantation, and at the Taipei Zoo (zoo.gov.taipei) which has Pandas, so we skipped them. Nightlife and the food scene in Taipei are great, and we ate at several good restaurants. We also visited a couple of cool night markets, including the two most famous ones, Raohe and Shinlin (shilin-night-market.com). Both were big and full of a mix of tourists and locals with lots of interesting-looking Taiwanese food.
We flew from Taipei to Sanya, which is often referred to as China’s Hawaii. Sanya is located on Hainan island, China’s southern-most province, and at first it reminded me of the sleepy, tropical towns we encountered throughout Southeast Asia. However, as we got further away from the airport, it started to resemble Fort Lauderdale. As we got closer to the “resort” area of Sanya, relatively cheesy looking hotel and motel structures began to replace the crowded, store front shacks that reminded me of Cambodia. Then dense, lush groupings of palm trees appeared in front of clearly luxurious resorts and suddenly their was some resemblance to Hawaii.
Many of my Western and Chinese friends bluntly told me not to expect the same “luxury” resort experiences in Sanya as you get in places like Thailand or Vietnam. “You are still in China, after all,” I was told more than once. On the travel web sites like Trip Advisor there is almost no middle ground — people either love or hate Sanya. And the bad reviewers usually blame their less than satisfying visit on the fact that Sanya is located in China.
Tropical resort travel is still relatively new to China, which was apparent from our arrival at the stunning Sanya Mandarin Oriental (mandarinoriental.com/sanya/). Instead of Chinese, we were greeted by mostly Europeans, and delivered to our room by the same. Since we were there a few days before the national Qingming Festival holiday, which in English is called Tomb Sweeping day and is devoted to remembering and honoring ones ancestors, the resort was not full and they bumped us up to an Ocean Suite. It was gorgeous, with two stories and two bedrooms plus a big living area that looked out over the suite’s pool. It was very comfortable and we rarely left it.
As of last year, Chinese people are the most-travelled people on the planet, and Sanya is one of the many places they go. It is clear that the Chinese do tropical travel differently than Westerners. Unlike the resorts we have stayed at in places like Thailand and Bali, there was no super attentive servers poolside or at the beach, ready to sell you food or cocktails. There was a big, poolside bar at the main pool of the Mandarin, and never once did we see anyone serving behind it. As in most of mainland China, if you wanted something you had seek it out.
Though it is clear that Sanya resorts are trying to lure more foreigners, through Western-style restaurants and activities, about 90% of the guests we saw were Chinese. As we were shuttled around the grounds (the place is huge), we saw what often looked like generations of families coming out of the many villas throughout the resort. On our last day there, which was the first day of the holiday, we saw trolley after trolley of Chinese families arriving, with their European hosts driving them and pointing out the resort’s amenities. Tropical? Yes. Hawaii? Not so much.
Then there is Hong Kong, our fourth Greater China city in four weeks, and one we’ve been to before. We spent the May Day holiday there and, as always, were not disappointed. What amazes me about Hong Kong compared to other cities we visited is how non-Chinese it is and how generally proud the residents are of that. No local I encountered there ever refers to Hong Kong as part of China. It is always something to the effect of “they are from China,” or “it comes from China,” or “oh, you live in China.”
To China, Hong Kong is a “Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.” A British colony for more than 100 years until “returned” to China in 1997, Hong Kong has maintained many of its Western ways . Unlike the Taiwanese, who at least appear to enjoy interacting with their mainland Chinese brethren, Hong Kong residents seem to be mostly annoyed by them. There are street protests against the “parallel economy,” where mainland Chinese come into Hong Kong and buy up Western goods like baby formula and return to China to resell them. And commentary on the “bad habits” of mainland visitors is a weekly feature in the Hong Kong media.
It is an almost completely Western city instead of Chinese, from the way people drive there (calmly), to the evident multiculturalism of the diverse population, and the cleanliness of the insanely crowded streets. It is a very vertical city due to land space constraints, and there are tall skyscrapers everywhere. But it also has many cool, funky neighborhoods that remind me of New York, with incredible restaurants throughout. For this trip we stayed at the Four Seasons on the Hong Kong side of Victoria Harbour, a hotel that defines great customer service (fourseasons.com/hongkong).
On our first day there we split up, with Karen and Stephanie going across the harbor to shop, and Cassidy and I heading directly to Ocean Park, a huge amusement park high up in the hills of southern Hong Kong (oceanpark.com). Cassidy’s main objective on this trip was to go on the high, fast rides that she loves but had to forgo on her last trip to Hong Kong because her mother hates that stuff. (The three of them went last Thanksgiving while I was in the U.S. having surgery for a broken leg.) Cassidy and I are thrill freaks and love fast, scary rides. We got in early and quickly made our way to the section with roller coasters and scary rides. Our early arrival meant we had most of them to ourselves and we were able to quickly get on most of the rides that Cassidy had targeted on the map the previous night. We were even able to go around a second time on some rides because we were the only ones there. It was like a thrill freak fantasy.
Hong Kong has some of the best restaurants in Asia, and we had a couple of incredible meals. Our first night there, we ate at what I believe is Cassidy’s favorite restaurant in the world, The Steak House at the Intercontinental Hotel (hongkong-ic.intercontinental.com). We could see the light and laser show that goes on every night at 8pm between the Hong Kong and Kowloon sides of Victoria Harbour and, like the view, the food was excellent. I also had one of the best Sunday brunches I have ever had at a restaurant called Kinsale (kinsale.com.hk). It is in a funky neighborhood on the water called Kennedy Town and it has an Irish country vibe. (Kinsale is a village in the south of Ireland that is often called the “gourmet capital of Ireland,” and where Karen and I spent part of our honeymoon.) It was very family-friendly and the food, ambiance, and service were outstanding.
Our trip out of Hong Kong was not so excellent, as China closed its airspace around Pudong airport (as it often does), and our flight was cancelled after about seven hours of waiting in the terminal. (Thank goodness for Priority Pass airport lounge clubs, which have saved us in exotic, very out of the way places on more than one occasion — prioritypass.com.) We finally got out the next day and were soon back Shanghai.
Even after four years here, there are many places in China that we have not visited. It would be impossible to describe this giant country from the small selection we have experienced, but we have seen enough to know there is much more to see. My love for China stems from living in it, and my interactions with the Chinese people. It also comes from my ignorance, before arriving here, of how different the people, the cities, and the regions of this country are from each other. The same goes for the U.S. Yes, China is foreign and more exotic to an American, but the similarities of our two countries may be in their diversity. That is something exciting and fun to discover when traveling throughout both countries.