Shanghai State of Mind

What more could you ask for?
What more could you ask for?

Rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai goes back a long way. It’s often, in my experience, of a friendly sort: upon hearing that I’ve lived in both cities, Chinese will ask me (usually with a smile) which one I like better, and I’ll laugh as I declare that whichever one they come from is my favorite. (For the record—and this is certainly no secret—I’ve sworn allegiance to Shanghai. Beijing’s nice to visit now and then.) Expat friends will needle each other about living in one city over the other, debating the merits of Peking duck against Shanghai xiaolongbao, cleaner air (Shanghai) versus historic grandeur (Beijing). It’s much the same as the East Coast versus West Coast arguments I got used to while living in Southern California, as I stood up for public transportation and real bagels and my West Coast-raised friends proclaimed the superiority of mild weather and fish tacos (both of which I like, in limited quantities).

This Beijing vs. Shanghai competition has been institutionalized linguistically in the terms “Jingpai” and “Haipai.” Jingpai (the BeiJING faction) connotes the capital’s conservative, historically minded, scholarly leanings; Haipai (the ShangHAI faction), on the other hand, is linked to being cosmopolitan, commercially minded, and materialistic. Jingpai adherents will denounce the Haipai’s shallow conspicuous consumption, while those in the Haipai like to ridicule the Jingpai for being officious government bureaucrats.

Though I’ll proudly wear my Haipai team jersey (note: we really need Haipai team jerseys), I will concede this: when it comes to demonstrating love of city, Jingpai is kicking Haipai’s ass.

I reached this conclusion when Twitter exploded a couple of weeks ago, as nearly every Beijing-dwelling person I follow lavished praise on “Beijing State of Mind,” a music video produced by expats Mark Griffith and Andrew Dougherty. Over the course of 15 months, the pair made the video, a beautifully shot and performed takeoff of Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” and the results are impressive. I watched it twice the first morning it was released, thinking as I did so, “Nobody makes videos like this about Shanghai.”

Maybe the Haipai detractors are right and we’re all too busy making money and shopping down here to spend time working on such a labor of love? Maybe Shanghai expats don’t feel the same degree of attachment to their city? I don’t have a definite answer. But when I went on YouTube and searched for “Shanghai State of Mind,” just to see if anything popped up, I got nothing, though there are “State of Mind” videos for Chongqing, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Perhaps tellingly, the top result for my search was “Shanghai Dreams: A Scavenger Hunt,” which prominently features Hugo Boss, the Waldorf-Astoria, and a beautiful young woman in a black cocktail dress. In other words, pretty much the embodiment of Haipai ideals, for better and for worse.

These musical homages to Beijing aren’t new, either. Seeing “Beijing State of Mind” reminded me of “Zai Beijing” (In Beijing), a 2003 music video that my study abroad classmates and I watched again and again when we lived in the city two years later. There’s something about Beijing—its history? Its community of young expats? Its quirkiness?—that makes it a favorite setting for artistic tributes, in a way that just doesn’t seem to happen in Shanghai. Similarly, the books about living in Chinese cities that foreigners have written tend to take place in Beijing rather than Shanghai (in part, that’s because most foreign journalists live in the capital; comparatively few news organizations have Shanghai bureaus). The Last Days of Old Beijing, Foreign Babes in Beijing, Beijing Welcomes You … the list goes on, but I can’t come up with a comparable one for Shanghai, at least for the present day.

The lack of music videos and books about Shanghai isn’t a crisis, of course—it’s just a minor phenomenon I’ve been mulling since “Beijing State of Mind” hit the airwaves. Perhaps this imbalance is simply reflective of something else associated with Shanghai: its supposed arrogance. The Haipai knows its city is better; no need to rub the Jingpai’s face in it with musical tributes.

Update, 7/30/2013: I can’t believe I forgot another hit video about Beijing, Jesse Appel’s “Laowai Style,” which made a splash last summer.

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