From Shanghai to Shenzhen: Which is Better?

From Shanghai to Shenzhen: A Tale of Two Cities

Written by Pete Cowell

Time and time again I am asked the same question: “Where do you prefer to live; Shanghai or Shenzhen?” The answer isn’t as straight forward as one or the other. Maybe it’s the fantastic art deco architecture in Shanghai; a remnant of bygone decadence, or perhaps it’s the truly inspiring cityscape in Shenzhen, a testament to modernity and progress. Certainly the experience of expatriates can be very different in each city.

The key to understanding how these cities give contrasting experiences to foreigners is the very different histories of the two places. Shanghai has been an important settlement for thousands of years, both in terms of trade and for its location. The original city had a defensive wall that has all but been torn down. Shenzhen, however, celebrated its 30th anniversary last September, graced by a visit from the premier Hu Jintao. What was originally essentially an experiment with capitalism has transformed Shenzhen beyond all recognition from the fishing village it was in the 1980’s. History underpins our present experiences.

An immediately noticeable trait of Shenzhen is that it seems to be completely devoid of local Chinese culture and tradition. This is largely true, as the millions of migrant workers who have flocked here over the years have swamped the original Cantonese inhabitants. You can still hear Cantonese being spoken, but it is likely by a person visiting from Hong Kong or Guangzhou. These settlers have brought their rich and diverse cultures from all corners of China. For an expatriate, this might only mean a wide variety of restaurants to choose from, but it explains the diversity of the city. Shanghai on the other hand, whilst still receiving migrants from neighboring provinces, has retained its Wu culture and language. There are even still a couple of very old Shanghainese who never learned Mandarin! What these cities represent is tradition and cultivation versus experimental modernity.

Now that we understand where the cities came from and who lives there, it is staggering exactly how many people live there. Shanghai has a population of around 23 million. This can make trying to catch a taxi nigh on impossible during rush hour and it certainly does make traffic conditions atrocious. You can be walking down a shady avenue in the old French concession during the sweaty zenith of summer when suddenly the rain begins to pour as it only rains in China. Traffic jars to a halt and not a free taxi will be found for hours. Shenzhen’s population is perhaps five million less than that of its more northerly rival, but because of its more modern layout it seems to be an easier place to get around. Don’t misunderstand me; it is still impossible to get a taxi here when the heaven’s open, but the general congestion is noticeably less than in Shanghai. Even walking down the street seems less traumatic.

Speaking of the weather (a great expatriate past-time), there are differences between the cities. In both places, it can be outrageously hot and humid in summer, with both areas experiencing typhoons or rain storms. It’s quite spectacular, actually. However, the real difference is the winter. Shanghai’s winter can be long, cold and wet, sometimes resembling a Scottish summer. The problem is that there is no central heating in the majority of apartments. The air conditioning will blow warm air so at least you can heat a room up, but you will probably resort to buying a plug-in heater. Shenzhen’s winter is much shorter than Shanghai’s and the temperature doesn’t drop so low, but the air conditioning units don’t even blow warm air! Unless you purchase plug-in heaters in either location, look forward to bracing mornings and very quick dashes to the bathroom.

Going back to taxis, one important difference is that in Shenzhen, the taxi fare begins at 10 Yuan before 11 pm, whereas in Shanghai it starts at 12. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that it is cheaper down south! In Shenzhen the government reduced the starting fare for taxi journeys by two Yuan. In order to redress the balance, taxi companies levy an additional ‘fuel tax’ on customers for, yep, two Yuan for all journeys. Once you understand this, you should have no problems but when I first moved to Shenzhen, I was convinced I was being ripped off by the taxi drivers until someone explained what the little yellow stickers on the dash board meant. In Shanghai, the fare starts at 12 Yuan, but many drivers will try and rip you off anyway. If in doubt, there is an English language phone service where you can lodge complaints. The number should be printed inside the taxi, somewhere, maybe.

Once you have managed to hail a taxi, you will probably want to go shopping. Both cities offer different options. Shenzhen has a few good up-market shopping centres like The Mix-C in Louhou and Coco Park in Futian where you can expect to pay astronomical prices. However, smart and thrifty residents can go down to Louhou Commercial Centre near the train station where they can pick up a tailor-made suit for a fraction of the shopping centre price, or perhaps a remote controlled helicopter for the aviation enthusiast. Be prepared to haggle though. Shanghai has two main shopping areas, Nanjing Lu and Huaihai Lu, both offering expensive and fashionable high street shopping as well as a selection of supermarkets selling imported goods. There is a gem on Huaihai Lu though. Imagine you have been shopping for two or three frustrating and sweaty hours. What more do you need to take out your inner rage than by firing off a few rounds from a Magnum at the Shanghai Military Sports Club. Conveniently located on the 8th floor above some shops and residential housing, they even have a locker where you can leave your shopping bags.

The original question at the beginning of this article essentially was ‘which is the better city; Shenzhen or Shanghai’? They both have their quirks, their advantages and disadvantages so it is impossible to come to a conclusion. I suppose the most important thing to remember is that they are both in Mainland China. Enough said.


What do you think? Team Shenzhen Standard is inclined to believe that we live in the greatest city on Earth, think Shanghai’s better? Them’s fightin’ words…

7 Comments for “From Shanghai to Shenzhen: Which is Better?”

  1. Shanghai is more impressive and interesting for tourists but Shenzhen has a much better quality of life if you have to choose living in one of these 2 cities. 1. The weather in SZ is way better than SH and there is practically no winter. 2. Traffic is much better. 3. Pollution is much less in SZ and this is verified by official numbers. 4. Hong Kong is very close. 4. People are friendlier due to the city being smaller but also many people being young. 5. SZ is much cleaner than SH. 6. SZ has a beach.

    In summary SZ is a big city which offers a lot in terms of shops, bars, facilities, etc, while being more clean, less crowded, less polluted than SH and with a much better weather.

  2. Let’s face it, if the discerning Pete Cowell has chosen Shenzhen as his city of abode, then that can only mean one thing: Shenzhen is the best city in the history of humanity, and that includes Inverness.


  3. Shenzhen might be more livable in terms of getting around and traffic, but cannot be compared to Shanghai in regards to culture, activity, access to expat lifestyle.

    And a conversation in Shanghai goes beyond how many containers of whatever.

    That said, the best of Shenzhen is that its right next to Hong Kong.

  4. I dig Shenzhen, as everyone is from eveywhere else, it’s kind of like we’re all foreigners.

  5. I’ve lived in both cities. I would tend to agree that Shenzhen is more livable city and I like it here. There are two things I didn’t like about Shanghai: terrible traffic jams and the flat landscape. However, it is much a more ‘international’ city in terms of the number of foreign companies and expats. Very dynamic. And just to throw a wrench into the works…..when friends and family ask me which city they should visit when they come to China, I tell them to go to Beijing. It’s a good place to visit, but I know many people who have lived in Beijing and even though it has lots of issues, I am told that it is a great place to live for expats. As always, it depends what you like and what you want to do and then you just have to make the best of it. Cheers.

  6. Shenzhen is a much more livable city than Shanghai and having people from all over leads to a diverse and interesting landscape. I have been to Shanghai a few times and it just does not feel as comfortable as Shenzhen.

  7. Shenzhen is by far the best city.

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The Contributor

Australian Business man living in Shenzhen for over 4 years. Well traveled in China and the rest of the world (not that anything outside of China really matters when you are inside of China). Currently involved in the Wine industry, but previously involved in Tobacco, Medical and Logistics Industries world wide.

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