Chen Weihua

Cities more than just a skyline

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-06-28 07:50
Large Medium Small

The rumbling and shaking subway cars and the dirty and smelly stations in New York often come as a big surprise to visitors from Shanghai, who are used to their city's brand-new subway system.

Even Times Square, which New Yorkers proudly call the "Crossroads of the World", seems a disappointment to these visitors because it lacks the grandiose scale of People's Square in Shanghai or Tian'anmen Square in Beijing.

But this is a superficial view of the Big Apple.

It is indeed laudable that Shanghai has been able to catch up with New York by building a modern, indeed futuristic, skyline and transportation system. However, that is one dimension of the city. Just as it does not make a school the best in the world simply because it has the tallest towers on campus, Shanghai or other Chinese cities will never become a top world city if they only pursue catch-up in appearance.

City leaders and planners have to study carefully why New York, despite all its problems, continues to be ranked the top global city in various surveys.

It's not just about New York's economic clout, social and cultural factors play more significant roles, but these are often overlooked in China.

For instance, on Friday night, New York again showed the world that it is one of the most progressive and tolerant cities, after Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Marriage Equality Act into law, legalizing same-sex marriages.

Supporters for the law go far beyond the gay and lesbian community. Surveys found that 58 percent of New Yorkers and 53 percent of US citizens support same-sex marriage and that support is growing fast among young people.

However, most comments by Chinese readers on a China Daily story about the new law smacked of misunderstanding of, if not hostility toward, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. It means that we have a lot to learn about social tolerance - how to embrace and respect people who are different.

New York has so much to offer others seeking to become a world city, and on how to make city life rich for every resident and visitor.

On Sunday there was the annual gay pride parade in Manhattan, which drew 2 million spectators. In fact, there is a parade almost every month from Macy's Thanksgiving parade and the St Patrick's Day parade to the Puerto Rico National Day parade and the Chinese Lunar New Year parade. They are great fun for participants and spectators.

Just a few decades ago, parades were common in China, yet they were mostly political rather than cultural ones. Today, the only one parade I can think of in Shanghai is during the city's annual tourism festival.

And then there are the street fairs and outdoor markets, which are all pleasant parts of New York life and which were once a part of the daily life in Chinese cities. In Shanghai at least, the outdoor markets have all been moved indoors as a sign of "being civilized."

There are also the street artists - painters and musicians - in New York's parks, tourist attractions and subway stations. They are a lively and vibrant part of city life. In Shanghai, street artists have been declared illegal.

While Shanghai's parks are usually places for elders and children, parks in New York schedule all kinds of free concerts, movie nights, walking tours and sports activities, making these places a magnet for people of all ages, especially the young.

The free after-work jazz concert at Pier 45 along the Hudson River and the Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island I attended during the past week reminded me of the huge gap between my hometown Shanghai and New York.

Shanghai, for all its glitzy skyline and efficient subway system, has a long way to go to catch up with New York.

The author is deputy editor of China Daily US edition. E-mail:

(China Daily 06/28/2011 page8)