Mr. Shangkong
PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 6:55am

A tale of two cities reveals the art of ambition and confidence

The traditional rivalry between Shanghai and Hong Kong has gone beyond finance to now embrace the world of high-priced culture

BIO

George Chen is Managing Editor for SCMP.com International Edition and Mr. Shangkong Columnist. George has covered China's political and economic changes since 2002. George is the author of two books: This is Hong Kong I Know (2014) and Foreign Banks in China (2011). George has been named a 2014 Yale World Fellow. Follow George on Twitter: @george_chen.
 

Many readers of my column know I am a native of Shanghai and have been working and living in Hong Kong since 2008. The column is called Mr. Shangkong, which combines Shanghai and Hong Kong into one word.

Given my background, I am often asked by friends in either city more or less the same question: "Which city is better?" Well, I have to say I can't offer a simple answer.

In all fairness, I think there is one thing that more and more people may come to agree on. It's that Hong Kong seems to have more internal struggles and less confidence than Shanghai right now. In other words, Shanghai is on the uptrend on many fronts, from the development of its financial industry to art and culture, while Hong Kong gives many people a feeling that it has been stuck in a time warp for some years.

After the big debate on which will be the better financial centre for China and even the world in the next decade, Shanghai and Hong Kong have recently taken their competition beyond the financial industry.

Now, it's also about art and culture.

Last week, Christie's chief Steven Murphy announced to the world that his firm would become the first foreign auction house to independently auction and exhibit on the mainland with a special licence issued by the central government.

Murphy chose Shanghai as the site for the branch company through which Christie's will host its first onshore auction this autumn. Previously, Hong Kong had been a natural venue for Christie's high-end auctions targeting mainland art collectors and investors.

In my interview with Murphy, he said that after the Shanghai branch was set up, "Chinese collectors, especially those new to the art market, will have the opportunity to participate in our auctions without having to travel overseas". Well, with more auctions and bidders on that side of the border, perhaps there'll be fewer on this side?

Industry sources say that, in fact, the Shanghai government has much bigger ambitions than to just have Christie's hold some auctions in the city. The city was lobbying Beijing very hard to quickly approve a plan to expand its free trade zone and to establish a world-class art and culture free trade and storage zone for Shanghai. Christie's new Shanghai office is perhaps just the catalyst for that city's hopes of replacing Hong Kong as Asia's art hub.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, we are still trying to figure out how much money needs to be spent on the West Kowloon Cultural District. Some legislators and officials are already shocked to find out the HK$21.6 billion project could cost up to HK$16 billion more. There has been too much bad news about the West Kowloon project since the beginning. The next debate may be about the budget for the city's largest arts and cultural project, which has been delayed a couple of times already.

While Hong Kong is engaged in debates about this or that particular matter, Shanghai is catching up faster than ever.

Now, let's go back to the question: which city is better? For now, Hong Kong is still better in many respects. In 10 or 20 years' time, the answer could be very different.

 

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

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