Friday, February 1, 2013

Throwdown: Taipei vs. Shanghai


So, last month we took advantage of the 48-hour transit visa allowance for foreigners transiting between countries via Shanghai. It was a great way to see the city without all the expense and trouble of getting a Chinese visa. Which, you know, is a lot of expense and trouble (I know, I'm American, I can't imagine how difficult it must be for a lot of Chinese to get visas to the USA - glass houses and all).

Before our trip had really begun, as we left Shanghai for New York, I was casually offered a job there while stretching my legs at the front of the plane and chatting with other passengers. Another friend said that during her visit to Shanghai, she had a job opportunity pop up too. Both would have been very well paid. For all the speculation on the Chinese economy, one thing is for certain: if you're talented and want to make it in Shanghai these days, you can.

And yet, this post is not my announcement that we're moving to Shanghai. I'm still here in Taipei. The thought though - the fact that it would be so easy to just make that happen, prompted me to consider the relative merits of the two cities. Why do I choose to stay in Taipei? What's the pull? What about Shanghai would be better? Let's take a look.

Because that's how my photos appeared, let's start with architecture/general environment:


That's a classic shot of The Bund, but people generally don't go to The Bund every day. That said, Shanghai is peppered, and not just in the French Concession, with gorgeous old buildings that have mostly been preserved:



These two are at the popular spots of Nanjing E. Road (above) and the heart of the French Concession (below). But there's more to it than that:


I love Taipei's older buildings and Japanese-built brick shophouses. I love the charm of the Western end of the city. And yet, I have to give this one to Shanghai: Taipei has its share of heritage buildings and charming architecture, but Shanghai has more of it, and it's more accessible throughout the city. Sorry Taipei.


The famous Yuyuan Gardens

Yuyuan Gardens' Starbucks gives you a good view of the tourist mayhem outside

Shanghai isn't the most tourism-site packed city in China. It's got a few great things (a fantastic museum, some shopping areas, People's Square, Yuyuan Gardens, Nanjing E. Road, The Bund, the river cruises) but it doesn't have, say, a great, I dunno, wall or anything like that. You could fill up a few days in Shanghai doing touristy stuff, but beyond that, it's a city to live in rather than visit.

That said...everyone seems to visit it anyway. I don't blame them - it really is a cool city. What this means, though, is hordes of tourists - more than you'll see at the National Palace Museum, Sun Moon Lake, Taroko Gorge or Taipei 101 - jammin' up Yuyuan Gardens and bringing out the touts. We got approached so many times by people who would just not leave us alone: "HEY LADY! Watch? You buy watch! WATCH WATCH WATCH WATCH WATCH! Watch!!!!" "Excuse me, can you take our picture?" (as a ruse to get you into a teahouse that will extort huge sums from you for a 'tea ceremony'), people approaching us with everything from fancy laser pointers to changepurses to in line skates (?) every minute or so. It got tiring. One thing I like about Taipei is that while there are tourists, I can enjoy the city unmolested. Point: Taipei.

Money Money Money $$$:


There are a quadjillion job opportunities in Shanghai, and with some of 'em you can make bank. Especially in recent years, a lot of my students who used to take business trips to Guangzhou now take them to the Shanghai area (more like Kunshan). It is, basically, the closest thing the world has to a Land of Opportunity right now. I don't know how long-termers deal with visas (can one even get permanent residency in China? Not Hong Kong - I know that's possible after 7 years - but China?) but if that's what you want - make it here, so you can make it anywhere - Shanghai's the place for you. I could quite possibly land my white butt up at the airport and get myself a corporate training or in-house position like...snap. That quick.

On the other side, my poor beloved Taipei. I *heart* you, Taipei, but your job market sucks. Unemployment is low, but underemployment is ridiculous (I'd emphasize that with a "ricockulous", but I'm pretty sure that went out of style 8-10 years ago. Young ones, what say you?). Almost everyone I know, including several of my colleagues and peers, and pretty much every Taiwanese person I know, is both underpaid and underemployed, with the bonus of being overworked. There's no end in sight: the government clearly doesn't give a damn. They think cut-rate skilled labor makes Taiwan "competitive". No, it just causes brain drain, stagnation and unrest. What I wouldn't give for a minute with Ma Ying-jiu to tell him exactly what I thought of his governance. I know I'm not the only one.

I mean, just don't even get me started on the job market for English training in Taipei. There are opportunities, but a lot of companies seem to think skilled corporate trainers should be happy with NT$60,000 or so a month (that's not my wage, if you're curious, but I'll stop there) or less than $1000 an hour depending on the contract offered. No, dude. I've worked my way up in this career and acquired mad skillz so I could get paid, not so I could be your butt monkey. I figure either freelance work or in-house training would be a better deal, so that's what I'm keeping an eye out for. I'm done with companies that would farm me out to different businesses and then pay me a (laughable) cut of the fee.

And why is all the skilled labor in Taiwan willing to work so hard for so little? Why? They think they have no choice. I hope it does erupt into real unrest. Maybe a rash of organizing, unionizing and strikes. Like "The Jungle" except without the mutilations and canned meat. Then maybe something will change.

In short: I love you Taipei, but no. Shanghai wins. Stay in Taipei if you love Taipei. I do. But if you want to really make it...go to Shanghai.


Shanghai has more and better Western and international options than Taipei, but the convenience store food can be downright gross (do NOT buy a sushi roll in a Shanghai Family Mart - and don't say you weren't warned. JESUS.) There aren't a lot of convenience stores, and there are very few street food choices. As a colleague once said to me: "in Taiwan it's like, if you want food, good food, just walk out on the street. It's practically on display - 'look at all our food! Come eat! Food!' In China it's like a mile of wall and then some dead buildings. Maybe a bank or some other shop. But no food. I was walking around and I was all like, ' the food?' Even searching for breakfast - near People's Square so we weren't sequestered off in the middle of nowhere or anything - I had to walk for several minutes longer than I would have in Taipei to pick up food and coffee, and even then I ended up at a Cafe 85.

We ate well in Shanghai - that dinner at Jesse was truly memorable, the crab changed my life - but otherwise, Taipei wins. Better food and more of it. You don't even have to look for it. And you can get that crab in Taipei if you want.

I mean, even when there is street food, they imitate Taiwan!





Both cities have their interesting characters - just see above - but I don't think anyone would argue that Shanghai has friendlier people, or even as friendly people - in Taipei. A friend of mine went to Shanghai for five days recently and said that people were not only brusque and unsmiling, they were downright rude - brushing her off even after asking something in Chinese. People warned us that service in restaurants was not exactly like what we've come to expect in Taipei. There are those ever-irritating "WATCH WATCH HEY LADY YOU BUY WATCH" people, too.

I didn't find Shanghai people quite that rude, however. Employees at restaurants and bars were mannered enough, although maybe not as inherently nice as those in Taipei (and let's be honest, there are some real jerks in Taipei). Nobody openly brushed me off. I did get the sense, however, that if I lived in Shanghai people would generally not be as friendly or welcoming as Taipei. It might well take me a lot longer to make local friends. I also get the feeling that there's a larger contingent of shady expats, just because there are more expats overall. I got the feeling there'd be more "I'll be polite to you, but we'll never be close because you foreigners can't understand our 5,000 years of Chinese culture" than in Taipei.

Winner: Taipei. Not even a contest.


Shanghai's subway is fine, but it closes far too early in a city with more expensive cabs. Some trains leave their origin station as early as 10:30. What the what? Taipei isn't much better, but the buses make some sense, the trains close at midnight, the MRT system is beautiful and clean, and taxis are cheap. Taipei wins.


Glamour Bar at M on the Bund

This is a tough one. Shanghai has cooler bars, a more international scene, more places to go, and a greater variety of choices. That said, those choices seem to be overrun with expats (not always a bad thing unless it's a meat market, which in Taipei it often is), are definitely too crowded and cover charges and drink prices are ridiculous. They rival New York. You have to wait awhile to get into some places. I've never had to wait in Taipei, and I rarely have to pay a cover charge. Drinks are not cheap, but not horribly expensive either. You can go out for a night in Taipei and not ruin yourself. The only time we went and got truly ripped at Saints & Sinners (a friend had just lost her job and was in a bad place) with a group, and got the insane bill, it was $8000NT ($260 US or so) for 5 people. That's not too bad, seeing as I collapsed on a pool table at one point.

But...but...cardamom mojitos! Try finding a regular mojito in Taipei! (you can, by the way: China White has them. But at that place you feel like you should be doing lines in the bathroom or the staff'll kick you out).

But..Taipei has a whiskey bar and I can actually afford to go to it!

Score: tie.


Don't even get me started. You can't see the end of the runway at the airport most days in Shanghai. It's not as bad as Beijing, but Taipei wins.


Well, I couldn't check Facebook or Blogger and had trouble with gmail (it worked on my iPhone app but not via regular Internet connections). You can see those sites, if you're willing to circunvent the law (and I was, because screw that, but with just one day it wasn't worth figuring out how). You can more or less say what you like in Shanghai, but you can't necessarily say it to a public audience and you certainly can't publish it consequence-free.

In Taipei I might be pissed at the current state of things, but at least I can say so. I can even protest. I can go online unfettered. Taipei wins.


Another tough one. Shanghai's got more Chinese-style stuff that foreigners like, and more options. Both cities have a varied and fascinating design scene. There are more choices in clothing for foreigners of different sizes in Shanghai, and more stores not available in Taiwan (Sephora, The Gap - not that I would go to The Gap). But everything is more expensive, and those super nice teapots and silk scarves can be found in Taipei if you hunt...and for less. Also, Taipei has night markets, but Shanghai has more "stuff from around China". While there's more variety and more to appeal to tourists in Shanghai, you can afford more in Taipei and still get some pretty cool, locally-made stuff. I think I'll give this one a tie.

One thing both cities have in common - people with tiny dogs:


In conclusion:

Shanghai gets points for nightlife, money, shopping and architecture. That's 4.
Taipei gets points for food, people, nightlife, shopping, transportation, freedom and pollution. That's 7, but I'm going to take away one point because wage stagnation and underemployment in Taiwan is so damn bad that it deserves to lose a point, because f*** you, government for not doing anything. Like, not even trying. Like, trying to keep it that way. So that's 6.

In sum: Shanghai's got a lot going for it, but I'll stick with Taipei. It wins 6-4. I do love it here. So friendly. So much cleaner. So much easier to get around.


J said...

You should also add a "ease of leaving the city/ getting into nature or at least someplace different" category, which should also be a clear win for Taipei, what with the huge variety of hikes and towns that can be easily reached in a day.

Ben said...

Shanghai has 22 million people, that's almost like the whole of Taiwan... or Australia. Are you maybe comparing apples and oranges here?

Jenna Cody said...

Possibly yes, that's one other difference, but in terms of them both being major cities in their respective countries in which one can have an urban lifestyle, and what with those two countries so close together, and both being popular destinations especially for English teachers and Chinese learners, I think it is worth it to compare them.

Especially as most people seem to always try to compare the relative merits of the two capitals: Taipei and Beijing. That's fair too - and a lot of fed-up Beijing expats make their way to Taipei and find they love it here - but Shanghai is always another city on the lips of some would-be expat who wants to move to (heh) "Greater China".

Anonymous said...

I am happy to read this! I will be going to Shanghai and I am so sad. 我用臺灣話在夜市點東西吃。 I will miss speaking Taiwanese in night markets, among other things. 我喜歡說臺灣話, 因為我覺得臺灣話很好聽。 :( The thing is, you're absolutely right. You get much better job opportunities in Shanghai than in Taipei. I will also be getting a job there. Just a matter of time. My husband already found one. Luckily, by law, the boss has to give workers two weeks off per year to go back to Taiwan. At least, there's that.

I told my husband that since we're going to Shanghai and can get much bigger space, he's getting me a cat. Just saying. :)

At least when I have a hard day, I can go home with a feline friend. (sigh) I've been told I am going to have a really hard time. I wonder, how tough.