Mr. Shangkong

Hope highlights the divide between Hong Kong and Shanghai

Optimism among locals in Shanghai is palpable, especially after Beijing announced its plan for a free trade zone in the city

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 September, 2013, 7:36am

People always like to compare Hong Kong and Shanghai, partly due to the interplay between the two cities since the 1940s, when many wealthy Shanghai families relocated to Hong Kong.

If you ask me, the biggest difference between the two cities can be encapsulated nowadays in just one word: hope.

I was on holiday in Shanghai last week and my former Reuters boss, David Schlesinger, who first visited Shanghai in the early 1980s, was with me.

David and I went to Broadway Mansion, now a popular five-star hotel on the Bund, Shanghai's landmark waterfront. We went up to its top level to take in the view across the Huangpu river - a stunning skyscraper-studded skyline that symbolises Pudong's transformation from a village into a Manhattan-like metropolis in little over 30 years.

David first stayed at Broadway Mansion in 1982, when he was a Harvard graduate who had made some pocket money during an English-teaching stint in Hong Kong. He had decided to venture across the border and eventually landed in Shanghai.

David said the most common response he got from hotel waiters to his requests during that 1982 visit was " mei you", which literally means "don't have". Even ordering dishes that were on the hotel's menu got the " mei you" response, David recalled, partly because China was still a planned economy. Almost everything back then, from meat to rice, was tightly controlled by the government and supplies, even in decent hotels like Broadway Mansion, often ran out.

Today, the hotel, like any other in the city, has everything you could possibly want. Even if you can't find your favourite dish on the menu, just tell the waiter what you want and the hotel will quickly have it delivered.

The shift in roughly a single generation to having from not having, may well explain why most of the Shanghai locals David and I met during the trip felt hopeful about what Shanghai can achieve in the next 30 years.

They have already seen such dramatic economic change over the last three decades. Of course, they are concerned about the dark side of the city and the entire nation, too.

Just few years ago, the city's party boss, Chen Liangyu, an ally of former president Jiang Zemin, was jailed for corruption. More recently, several senior officials of a local Shanghai court were sacked amid a prostitution scandal. Local people say such things won't end but that they shouldn't stop Shanghai from improving living standards over the coming 30 years.

What's more, wherever David and I went in Shanghai, local people were keen to talk.

Beijing's plan to create a Hong Kong-like free trade zone in the city - the first such zone in the mainland - was a key talking point. Many people we spoke to regarded it as a game changer for Shanghai in its competition with Hong Kong. Some said its effects would be global.

Confidence and hope among local people about what the city could be in the next 30 years is running high. Shanghai might offer Hongkongers something to reflect on as they consider the challenges ahead of them in their city's effort to remain globally competitive.


George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. Like it? Visit