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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


George Chen is the Financial Editor and Mr. Shangkong Columnist at the South China Morning Post. 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. More about George: www.mrshangkong.com

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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This article is now closed to comments

Who cares which is better? Hong Kong should just strive to be the best possible place for its citizens to live and work in. Why should we care whether we have better/worse public transport than London, a smaller/bigger finance industry than Singapore or a fancier/shabbier art hub than Shanghai?

The mindless pursuit of such rankings is oftentimes just the chasing of cap feathers by bureaucrats.

Would it be desirable at all to be the biggest art hub? No, not when it means spending such big piles of public money that a reasonable cost-benefit balance for Hong Kong citizens is lost. If Shanghai wants to outspend us on that count, let them go ahead please. And it is the same for having the biggest airport, container terminal, the largest financial centre and so on. For starters, Shanghai's population is over 4 times that of Hong Kong. Guess who will win any race that involves pure size or economies of scale?

Perhaps in future columns, you can step away from this quantitative competitive zero-sum focus and instead tell us about things we could learn from Shanghai, or vice versa. What government policies work particularly well there that could also benefit Hong Kong? Where do you see scope for cooperation between the two cities? What do we have in common, and on what interestingly aspects do we differ, and why?

A focus away from which city is (going to be) the bigger finance centre, arts hub or tourist destination would benefit the column. It's not a race.
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The main difference is that hongkongers are afraid of 1.3 billion mainlanders rushing into HK whereas shanghaiese have no such worry
Methinks not. A number of Shanghaiese even discriminate against their own inland "compatriots" too ...
Only if there is drastic reform or, if not, change if regime.
There's always been a lot of connections between Hong Kong and Shanghai, especially after World War II, probably more close-knitted than most people would realize. Both cities are well-positioned as ports and harbours for trade and commerce, eah city with its own character and historical background, each capable of playing a complementary role to each other, as rivals and friends. Without competition, we cannot improve.
This brings back childhood memories of TV drama of bridging the connections between Cantonesse and Shanghainese speaking people in Hong Kong.


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