Appreciate diversity in China's megacities

As a Chinese friend of mine was helping me buy a plane ticket from Kunming to Chongqing, I read aloud from my guidebook: "...the (city) has little appeal. Overcrowded and fast-paced, the city is plagued by oppressive pollution, winter fogs and summer humidity. Nor is there much to illustrate Chongqing's history…"

Chinese megacities have horrible reputations yet, over the last few years, I've tried to visit as many of them as I can. Why?

First, Chinese megacities are associated with the greatest migration in human history, namely the movement of several hundred million people from the countryside into urban areas. This has created over 100 cities with a population of more than one million. And while Westerners tend to see only the harmful effects of that transformation, it has gone fairly smoothly. Wages and living standards have risen to create the biggest rapid boost in prosperity the world has seen, ever. Surely it's worth taking a closer look at that.

Second, it is a myth that these megacities all look or feel the same. Chongqing has a Blade Runner-like feel, with flashing light displays on some of the taller buildings, a fast pace, and lots of friendly shouting and screaming.

Kunming, in contrast, comes across as friendly and gentle, and the city is full of ethnic minorities from south-western China.

Qingdao is well groomed and set on the water, with a lot of open space, while Zhengzhou, formerly a ghost city with empty apartment blocks, is now a major manufacturer of iPhones. Xian, home of the famed terracotta warrior statues, is dusty and harks back to the Old Silk Road.

A visit to Nanjing and its memorial site drives home the tragedy of the war with Japan. Dalian has a Russian quarter with an old Orthodox church and lovely water views.

Chongqing's city skyline across the Yangtze River. It is a myth that China's megacities all look or feel the same, says the writer, who has visited many of these megacities and finds them quite distinct. Chongqing, for instance, has a Blade Runner- like feel and a fast pace, while Kunming comes across as friendly and gentle, and Qingdao is well groomed. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Shenyang has Japanese modernist architecture from the 1930s, and the city's economy is in retreat, some- what akin to America's Rust Belt. Shenyang's broader surrounding municipality has more than eight million people, making it more populous than many countries.

If you spend a few days in these places, they will stand out as quite distinct. To suggest otherwise is actually to repeat a common Western imperialist meme about the Chinese, namely that they "are all the same" in some underlying manner. Observing and understanding diversity is a skill, and the Chinese megacities are one of the best places for cultivating this capacity.

The uniqueness of each Chinese megacity is reflected in the food, which in turn mirrors the culture and the surrounding natural resources. In my admittedly subjective opinion, China, along with India, is one of the two best countries for food. It has far more internal culinary diversity than France or Italy, standards are very high, and some of the best meals cost less than US$5 (S$7).

Within the Sichuan region, the cuisines of Chengdu and Chongqing are distinctly recognisable. For instance, you cannot easily find good Sichuan chilli chicken in the former, and the latter uses more garlic for the hot pot sauce.

It is hard to get quality Yunnanese food outside the province itself; even within Yunnan, good luck trying to get the southern dishes, with their lime and coconut milk and South-east Asian slant, in the rest of the province. I find this a welcome relief from contemporary "fine dining", in which the fancy meals of London, New York and Paris seem increasingly interchangeable in their trendiness.

Most Chinese megacities attract few Western tourists. I can walk around for a whole day, typically in the centre city or at various tourist sites, and see only a handful of Western travellers, if any. There are often many Chinese tourists, but that can be as interesting as the place itself. If you watch the Chinese making pilgrimages to Qufu, the burial site of Confucius, you'll learn just how strong the long-term continuity of their history is.

What about Beijing and Shanghai, the two parts of China (other than Hong Kong) that foreigners most visit? The central cores of these cities have much to offer, but go see their outer rings and edges for a better sense of typical daily life.

And while English speakers can be hard to come by, most Chinese are adept at using the "translate" function on their smartphones, for communication into English. Travel should be a challenge anyway.

In short, there are always more wonderful places than you might think. BLOOMBERG VIEW

  • The writer is a professor of economics at George Mason University. His books include The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest For The American Dream.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2017, with the headline 'Appreciate diversity in China's megacities'. Print Edition | Subscribe