A Tale of Two Cities: Chengdu vs. Shanghai

I’ve always been a Southwest China Laowai and will be ’till I die. And to narrow it down, I am a Dirty ‘Du (Chengdu) Laowai, which is different from a Kunming Laowai (holla!) or a Chongqing Laowai (holla!) or anyone else who isn’t Chinese and lives on the Horse and Tea Trade Route . We’re all different and different parts of China attract different types of foreigners. I have huge respect for Xinjiang Laowai, a little respect for Beijing Laowai and I feel an affinity of sorts for laowai out in Shaanxi, Anhui or Shandong – those rusty provinces without the Internet.

My Affinity With Chengdu

All my friends in China refer to Chengdu and me in the same breath and I am proud of that. Wherever I go, people say I speak Sichuan dialect and I am proud of that too. I am an alien in China and for me having a place that feels like home is important.

I have been moving from place to place all of my life and I fear that I will never find a place that I can truly call my home, but when I fly into Chengdu’s Shuangliu International Airport, breaking through the cloud blanket onto dusty south Chengdu, I feel good. I start beatboxing to myself, find the nearest cabbie and start spitting my dirtiest Sichuan hua. The cabbies are awesome because they take it in stride and just hand me a smoke.

I love Chengdu. But I gotta go.

I took a job editing Chinatravel.net in the antithesis of the ‘Du: glitzy, glamorous Shanghai, hereafter known as The Hai.


You know how you can tell a German apart from an Englishman or from an American with just a glance at his bearing, clothes, facial expression and the look in his eyes? The same thing exists for laowai.

When I see a Kunming laowai walk down the street I know it when I see it and he knows it too. He might be a little bit dusty and his dress code screams “Fuck a 9 to 5!” and when he swings his head around at the scent of Southwest cuisine a lone dreadlock might crack a passerby in the jaw. I know he is from the Spring City and he knows I am from the ‘Du.

When I see Beijing foreigners walk around I can usually tell that too, because although they tuck their shirts in and most likely do not sport dreadlocks, there is a grittiness about them that bespeaks underground clubs and a circle of friends dominated by thinkers. Laowai from the provinces inbetween Chengdu and the coast have that special lost look about them that says: I may have forgotten my mother tongue and my stomach can’t handle Mom’s cooking anymore.


The Shanghai Vibe

Shanghai is different from the rest of China in a way that isn’t exactly cool, although laowai in Shanghai would say that Shanghai is by far the coolest city in China.

There are a lot of ex-frat boys and MBA grads here: East coast boarding school cats with trust funds and famously rich grandparents and I have never identified with them or their hand-me-down sense of superiority. The Hai also has a large population of young, beautiful foreign women. This is a very unique thing in China, because as we all have noticed, beautiful foreign women don’t often venture out to Chongqing or Urumuqi. They tend to stay where the living is easy and the shopping diverse.

Way back in the day I read The eXile book: Sex, Drugs and Lies in the New Russia , founded by Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi and they mentioned a phenomenon known as “expatella,” which refers to Western women trying to live in places like China and Russia.

Western women tend to lose out to local girls in one-on-one confrontations over men, for a variety of reasons that I don’t really care to get into right now. So, in order to distinguish themselves from local girls, Western women tend to adapt a somewhat bitter, perhaps wary attitude towards Western men, maybe they go ahead and give local guys a shot, maybe they go all out and try and be the party girl, but basically, they change a bit in order to compete with local girls. No disrespect, I’m just calling it how I see it (and others have seen it as well).

Now in Shanghai there is a Western woman population with some confidence and some style — they might still display a few expatella traits, but its not the same as the Western girls out in Chengdu. Its interesting and merits further investigation.

Shanghai's cityscape is like a sprawling labrynth of new construction and development

Shanghai has a bit of Gotham to it, with all of the high rises that block the views for most people, but at the same time there are shopping districts like Xintiandi and the like where you can watch trophy ladies strut their stuff in high heels, swinging tiny little brand name shopping bags as they saunter by. Off the boat Europeans and rich Middle Eastern families are on display.

There are a lot of hot, nice cars cruising up and down the French Concession and you can hear them revving up and down the boulevards late at night, no doubt filled with laughing harlots in Daisy Dukes and ketamine addled rich kids who just don’t give a damn.

Every morning when I head to work, I take the subway (Line 10 to Line 2) and the 9-5 crowd really trips me out. I feel like a lurid observer, but then i look down at my key card dangling from my neck and realize separation is an illusion. I remember laughing haughtily at tales of stuffed subway cars and bobbin’ my head to Del’s Bob Dobalina (Youtube blocked? Freedur has the key!) track and now I find myself elbowing fat sweaty dudes out of my way so I can get to the escalator 2 seconds quicker.

Its just one of those types of towns: up and coming, flush with office workers, fast cash and loose women. The city feels like it is trying to prove to itself and to everyone else that it truly deserves to be mentioned along with New York and London and Tokyo by doing all the things expected of an up and coming city. Whatever I might think about offices and suits, you gotta give propers where propers are due: Shanghai is goin’ global and doing it in style.

Urban Analysis

ShanghaiNow, Hong Kong has a similar environment — riches, hard dialect, good shopping — but the vital difference here is history. Shanghai has the French Concession and a history of being the Pearl and such, but the Hai is constantly re-inventing itself. It lives in the trendy moment, just a hair’s breadth behind Tokyo and a length or two behind Paris or New York.

But Shanghai tries so hard to be those cities and that smacks of fakery and pretender-ism. Hong Kong has an elegance that permeates the trendiness of this Fall’s coming fashion, whereas Shanghai seems to be constantly  re-designing its own identity. It’s a fashion-money-sex city in many ways, but its the fashion of the 20-something sex kitten, constantly changing her hairstyle, not the more mature diva, whose honed style influences the kitten.

What is the Hai Exactly?

I am not sure yet. I go on the impressions I built in my many stays here. I have friends here that can fit in anywhere and will be my friends for life, transcending any No Coast – East Coast rivalry that really only exists in my head anyway. It is one heck of a leap, from down low country living to a 9 to 5 in the big city, but I remain adaptable and life here will most likely proceed according to Sascha Time as it always seems to.

I hope that over the next few months I discard my “Chengdu Spy in the Belly of the Beast” mentality and just be a missionary of Southwest culture out here or — which is much more likely — just accept the fact that repping your spot stems from fear and enjoy this new chapter of my life: Dirty ‘Du Veteran Chillin’ in the Hai.

63 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities: Chengdu vs. Shanghai”

  1. How do you think Kunming compares to Chengdu?

    I recently arrived in Beijing, wonder how long it will take for me to develop my ‘grittiness’ hehe.

    • Kunming is the chiller, sunnier version of the Du. They don’t have green tea down there, they got puer and I am not too sure how that influences character … but it does.

      There are grips of minorities in Kunming and they actually rule in a way. In SIchuan, there are also grips but they are marginalized and much more taken advantage of commercially … so there is a different Han-Minority dynamic working in Sichuan. Lugu lake is an excellent example of how they differ.

      Kunming Laowai don’t seem to dream about business as much as Du laowai do. More punks in Kunming (real punks) and they have a strong influence as well on music, style and venue. Not as many dreadlocks in the Du.

      So i would say, Kunming is the closest thing to Thailand and its geographic location (south and HIGH up on a plateau) make it a sunny and rather carefree place to live. the Du is cloudy and in a basin, surrounded by mountains and was often a battle ground, so although we gots all the good tea and such, its a bit grittier.

      Another cool thing: in terms of flora and fauna, they are rivals, but Sichuan has the more developed cuisine and such. In terms of touristy potential (mtns and such) also an even match but Yunnan did (not that much now) have a clear advantage in sustainable development …

      get drunk in an underground club, hit on a tall legged girl and fight her boyfriend. you’ll have some grit then lol

  2. Neat post. I wonder if one could tell a Dalian expat just by looking! Though from my experience so far, all the single expat women here definitely sound like the over-partying type.

  3. I’ve been living in “The Hai” (like the term) for 2.5 years doing the 9to6 thing. There is a little something for everyone here and it is easy living, but there is a distance or some how I’ve failed to truly connect here in these 2.5 years. Wish my company would open an office in Kunming – I’d gladly trade places!

  4. yeah i think i will be here for another year or so … i am just trying to stack as much money as I can before 2012 and then skidaddle off to some mountain fastness to wait it all out.

  5. Nice post – not sure how Ryan and I would characterise living in “the Zhou” (getting in fast there before Hangzhou claims it).

    A bit like Shanghai but without the glamour or style – fake or not! But fairly laid back I suppose …

    • yeah Suzhou and Hangzhou kinda feel similar to me — cities with their own glorious past, but now kinda living in the shadow of Pudong. Chilled out, tea and water and green …

      Even though culturally speaking, the Hai can’t hold a candle to either of the Zhous. Or can it? I’d like to know ….

      And I am not sure Zhou works my man. We say the Dirty Du, to distinguish Chengdu from any other Du that might spring up (not many). But there are countless Zhous …

      Su Sizzle?

    • I thought it was “the Zhous,” plural, since they’re all pretty much the same. At least in comparison to their larger neighbour. Though definitely a Shanghai expat, a year in a lesser Zhou (of the Chang variety) has had its effect on my, uh, swagger?

      Jiangnan, represent

  6. Having accented Chinese is NOT good. Think of finding a nice, respectable Chinese person in America, and then he opens his mouth and an Arkansas drawl comes out. You’re going to think he’s a redneck – even if you’re cosmopolitan it’s going to influence you subconsciously.

    • Hahaha. I agree with you, Harland.

      Sascha and I had a discussion about Sichuan dialect versus Putonghua in a podcast wherein we discussed Sichuanhua with someone who speaks it very well. It’s colorful and fun – lots of jokes and teasing – but outside of Sichuan it gets you stared at (especially as a foreigner).

      I made the exact same analogy as you, of a Chinese person in the States speaking with an Alabama accent.

      • so far i have never had that reaction. i think some people would think an alabama accent in a foreigner is interesting, others would call them rednecks. in china most people think a foreigner who speaks a local dialect is LI HAI …

        • I have to say when I’m in Australia/NZ, I find the down-under accent of the Australian/NZ-Asian people disturbing(“don’t you know that’s not proper English?!” comes to mind).

          However, at the same time, I feel like if I could speak some Shanghaiese/Shanghaiese-accented Mandarin I would be perceived as a total badass, even outside Shanghai.

        • Thats also what I always have, Chinese folks dont necessarily think negative when you speak with accent, but what I’ve always experienced is that they think its LI HAI indeed 😀 its like, you don’t think its weird/special when a chinese guy in america speaks proper English. But even in China when a foreigner speaks a lil’ bit of Putonghua they already think is Li Hai and when you speak with an accent they think its marvelous ! (Thats my experience though)

        • I don’t know, I’ve got mad respect for you for speaking Sichuan hua. My own Mandarin hits the Shanghai dialect (of Mandarin) pretty hard these days.

          If I met a Chinese guy who spoke English with a southern drawl I’d think it was badass. Is it really any worse than the typical Chinese accent? Not that the Chinese accent is a problem either

  7. Frankly I feel like if you can’t speak a dialect, you are just never going to be cool in China… you’re just going to get the ‘look at the trick pony kids!’ smile.

  8. Yeah there is nothing more enjoyable than meeting some Sichuan cats in Shanghai or Minneapolis or Paris and just dropping the Hua as hard as possible. I do the same when I meet American friends who speak a mixture of “skater in my youth, hipster before twas hip, diggin on all black music, came of age in 90s, quote mad movies” slang for which I do not have a term ready at hand. but ya’ll feel me.

    Jiangnan throw ya hands up!
    Xinan where my army at?

    feels good to scream it out doesn’t it?

  9. Well i am a traveler and i am heading to China in October.I’ve been reading your post for the last half hour, and it all has been really informative and well written.

    Thanks for Sharing this lovely post!!

  10. Being able to speak Sichuanhua is just priceless when living here. I still can’t get over the fact that listening to two locals speak it properly is like listening to two friends at 4am after 3 bottles of Jack straight in a club trying to talk. Listening to that drunken slur keeps me going some days.

  11. Nice post, Sascha! Seems you prefer Chengdu and Sichuanhua a lot. I think every place has its unique characristic. Try the fictions written by Zhang ailing (张爱玲),Wang anyi(王安忆),or essay of Yu qiuyu(余秋雨),you may understand more about Hai culture(海派文化). Or try the comic talk show of Zhou libo(周立波)which is hot now. But I am not sure you could understand the Shanghai dialect.
    By the way, have you noticed that some Shanghai locals like to walk on lanes wearning pajamas?
    Wish you happy in your new life!

    • thanks cecilia, good to hear from you … i do miss the Du. shanghai is wonderful in a few ways tho …the weather is much much nicer here — a nice wind, clear skies … hope all is well with you Prof. 😉

  12. Excellent post Sascha!

    I am in a situation that parallels yours. I just recently moved from Suzhou (aka The ‘Zhou aka Su Sizzle) to Guangzhou (aka The ‘Zhou aka The GZ). Like, you I went from a smaller Chinese city, to much larger and more cosmopolitan one.

    It’s strange how things that were once familiar are now so very different. I move and now there are different foods, different weather, different customs, and a different yelly dialect that I don’t understand. Quite the culture-shock within a culture-shock.

    I’m still getting used to which ‘Zhou I consider “my home in China” but I’m sure I’ll figure it out eventually…

    But keep up the great posts, not goign to lie I have considered borrowing (*cough* stealing) this post idea for one of my own comparing my two ‘Zhous.

    • Steal This Post!

      I would love nothing more than for you to drop a ‘Zhou on Zhou” post or Kellen to drop a Zhou on Hai Post or some other dude to be like “Beijing Foolz!” and drop his version. Qingdao, Tianjin where ya at?

      basically. Yes, steal the idea and write it up I am curious and will yell loud things in the comment thread.

      thx for the love every1

    • Dude,
      you where missed round the table this year, frizz just bounced to G’s and the wagon wheel creeks along, the docs been payin dues solo for 3 long ones and the big guy is redefining him self, feels like some old timey kids tossin rocks in a lake, chewin a sprig of wheat in sepia, just got older, had kids and moved to the big city, where the movie is shot through a crisp colder blue sony lens.

      • yeah i wonder how long the wagon wheel will keep turning … i still feel this is all temporary and we’re headed back to sepia times, just cant say when

  13. The Hai is really a cosmopolitan, it looked like babylon to me before I came here. But it’s not.
    When you feel a gentle breeze mixed the flavor of sunshine slightly stirred your hair, and you see the Big Mama’s Socks-repair shop right after the LV’s super luxury blingbling flagship store princkled your eyes.. It’s all good.
    You don’t have to get used to the so called Hai culture, and you can still find a comfortable place here for your own life. This is the beauty of the Hai.

  14. btw, people talking about the ewwwww hai food, it really is just EWWWWW. but at least you can get yourself almost everything you need to make delicious food at home, or just find a random foreign restaurant, will not be disapointed.

  15. I would never live in Shanghai, but there are some advantages it has over Chengdu. While the easy-going (lazy?) character of the locals here means it’s much more chilled-out, it also means you experience “The Shrug” alot more. What’s The Shrug, you ask? The Shrug means a bank in Chengdu woon’t even attempt to do a slightly complicated request. It’s “mei banfa”, whereas in Shanghai they will make sure it gets done. The Shrug also results in shop-assistant “mei you”, despite the fact that you KNOW the shop has what you’re looking for. The Shrug is the frustrating side of Chengdu’s easy-going character. But man, what are you gonna do? just gotta roll with it (and shrug along)…

      • You don’t get the Shrug here in the Hai as much as you get the Sneer. But the Sneer is reserved for all those lower life forms born within China, but outside of Shanghai. The Sneer turns into an ingratiating Smile as soon as a foreigner walks into the scene.

        Of course, the Shrug, Sneer and Smile only come out when you are dealing with an already unhappy person who happens to wield a mall bit of power — for a very short period of time — and is loathe to let that chance go without using at least one, if not all, of the Mighty Ss.

        Dude, can we do a tale to Two Cities Chengdu and Baltimore or something like that? Can we just take this show on the road or what?

        • Man, you mean Baltimore as depicted in The Wire? Holy shit! I love it when my Du pals say “the north train station is VERY dangerous! Dont go there at night!” Seriously, what a great city Chengdu is, that you can basically walk anywhere, anytime.
          BTW:you really have The Sneer in Shanghai? Man, I’ll take The Shrug over The Sneer anytime….

  16. Actually, i can sympathize with the shruggers sometimes. C’mon, an 18 year old waitress, on scandalously-low wages, yelled at all day by customers and the boss, you really expect her to find it in herself to give a 1000 watt McDonald’s smile? Stupidest thing i ever did was at the bank, after getting The Shrug, and demanding to see the manager. Of course, he “isn’t in right now”. I said i’d wait, which, you guessed it, elicited the mother of all Shrugs! Game over!

  17. I’m impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your blog. Keep up the excellent quality writing, it is rare to see a great blog like this one today..

  18. This is really really great! I am working for Leaders’Quest, a social enterprise based in London which tries to bridge different cultures and people.As a matter of fact, we will bring a group of “Laowai” to Chengdu and Shanghai in April and your article provides very interesting perspective.I’m wondering whether we could get in touch with you and have some more communication.You are more than welcome to check our website http://www.leadersquest.org

    Below is a short introduction of Leaders’ Quest:
    We are entrepreneurs, partners and catalysts. We are a global community that exists to improve the quality of leadership in the world and to influence the way leaders have impact.

    We recognise our common humanity and work to bridge divides – between sectors, nations, cultures and different perspectives.

    We want to stand in the shoes of others, understand the impact of our choices, and make wiser decisions. Explore who we are as people and how we can contribute. Connecting and engaging with inspiring leaders from all continents to make a difference – in themselves, their organisations and communities, and the wider world.

    ps. you dont have to post this “comment”, I’m just using this way to send a msg 🙂

  19. Man, I would kill to be called “Lǎowài.” ‘Round these parts of rural Sichuan (Renshou, charmingly coined “Oh No” by a friend visiting from Chengdu), the closest thing we get is “Guǐlǎo.” Well, but always said in the nicest way really. As there have been too few foreigners around here, the community too has had to adjust as much as my husband and me. I’ve taken to simply correcting folks, “No. no, it’s lǎowài”, which makes even the most perplexed looking local laugh. Oh well, what they lack in cultural sensitivity they far make up for with fantastic food, generosity and a mean sense of humor.

    Amen on the part about Western women. As one, I can say this and I see it too. I would love to see what you would do with that subject Sascha. Come to think of it, my wardrobe seems to have migrated from relatively decent to shamefully indecent at times, with hints of bling thrown in for effect as needed.

  20. Sascha, really interesting take! I’ve travelled a fair bit in Southern China including Chengdu and it’s most certainly true just how much Laowai differ from city to city. I love Shanghai, but my China journey started in a small rural city in Zhejiang province and even though I’m now in Shanghai I still feel like a small town China girl! Shanghai often feels like it’s full of pretentious Laowai or ppl who came to Shanghai who have absolutely no interest in learning about Chinese culture, could be here for 3 years and never venture out of the city! Shanghai really is just that a big city that could be almost anywhere in the world!

    Oh and I completely agree with you on your observation of foreign girls, being one my self I can definitely say that we do feel like it’s a competition and a fierce one at that. As foreign girls we have somewhat of a handicap in this country, we always have to try twice, if not three times as hard with the guys and damn right it makes us bitter! It’s a tough life being a foreign girl in China!

    • hey sasha beautiful name 😉

      shang hizzle …

      foreign ladies …

      man i said i’d write about that but its kind of a tall order … i would have never touched the topic but i’ve met so many fly foreign ladies here in Shanghai … i might have to do it in the spirit of Ceelo.

  21. Hi all,

    I have been staying in Shanghai for the last 5 years and so tired of all the life and all. I am moving to Chengdu in about a week from now.

    Would anyone be kind enough to point me to a right direction where I can find foreigners. Which district to reside, which street has bars where I can hang out and make friends.

    Thanks so much


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