I came to Shanghai last year from Washington, DC after a stint working at the State Department. We were back in the States after my wife and kids had spent 18 years in Asia. Our kids only knew Asia, and as much as we love it, my wife and I wanted to go back so the kids could ride yellow school buses and play football (not the kind where you use your feet).
Immediately before moving to Washington we spent three years in Shenyang in Liaoning Province. We loved everything about Northeastern China but subconsciously, over time, fell into the notion that wherever you lived in China, everything was chabuduo, or more-or-less like Shenyang. In fact, that was how we prepared our children for the move. We told them Shanghai would be just like Shenyang but with better weather.
But everyone knows that Shanghai is very different. The family came in with one set of expectations but were blown away. To contrast this, in the Northeast, in Dalian, we have a place called the Brooklyn Bar, that everybody in the region knows. If you were in Liaoning and if you wanted good pizza, there was only one place to go, and that was Brooklyn Bar in Dalian. Whereas here, you can have legitimate debate on who has the best NY style pizza. Is it Joe’s or NY Style Pizza, or Homeslice?
For me professionally, I had drunk the Kool-Aid of Dongbei. I remember, when I was in Northeastern China, I sent a letter to all 50 US governors and to key mayors, telling them that “the Northeast is the future”, and that they should come and look for opportunities there. At the time, I really felt that the difference between the Northeast and maybe Shanghai was maybe smaller than people were led to believe. It was a successful initiative. We had lots of delegations. But... coming to Shanghai, I realized the economy in Shanghai is so vibrant, whether in creative industries, research & development, marketing, innovation... there are a lot of good entry points and this place serves as a sort of “nexus of interests” for American companies from New York to San Francisco to the American Midwest. The opportunities are overwhelming.
As for what I do in Shanghai, because it is such a vibrant place, our operations here are actually much larger than most of our embassies around the world, by just about any metric. Whether it’s the number of VVIP visits, whether it’s generating investments in the United States, or investment coming into China, whether it’s the number of visas we issue, or whether it’s the number of governors or state delegations that we host, we are bigger than most.
So, this is what a day in the life looks like for me. Sometimes I start the morning meeting with Chinese businessmen who want to invest in United States, then have an afternoon meeting with American students, and then meet with government officials in Shanghai, or Nantong, or Anhui or somewhere else in our consular district.
Spare time? Shanghai has so many options. We talked about pizza. My kids are very adventurous on the culinary front. In fact, when we went to the States, my kids would say “we want to have real food — we want to have Chinese food” so we had to scour DC for real Chinese food that met the standard of my children, as opposed to the also delicious Americanized Chinese food.
Now we scour for the best food Shanghai has to offer. We take suggestions from local colleagues and neighbors. Or when we see a line of people waiting for xiaolongbao or jian bing, we make a mental note and check it out on the weekends. My kids and I wait in line and experience undiscovered local food joints. But it isn’t just Chinese food. In terms of other options, anything that Kelley Lee has touched we love, from Boxing Cat, Lil' Laundry, to Sproutworks, we’re regulars there. Austin Hu has done some neat things with Union Trading Company and Madison Kitchen. One of the family’s secret pleasures is taking the kids for breakfast at Diner.
When it is just me and my wife, there are two places we absolutely love, that we felt like we discovered because we stumbled on them wandering around town. Heyday is one of them. It is on a nondescript corner a couple blocks from my house and it totally feels like a New York Jazz club from the 1920’s. It has an intimate feel, but the musicians are absolutely, absolutely, absolutely world class. The other place is the Jazz at Lincoln Center. In the US, Jazz at Lincoln Center is the pre-eminent place to hear amazing jazz. When we found it here in Shanghai, we wondered “could they really have the same standard of artistry and excellence that Jazz at Lincoln Center is known for back in the US?” It absolutely does. The venue is small and accessible, so you are right there with the bands. Often on Sunday afternoons the musicians go there for talks and discussions. You can have conversations with the artists. As an American, I confess to being extra proud of jazz. In 1920, a man who called himself Whitey Smith came from San Francisco and created the jazz scene here in Shanghai — a legacy that continued all the way to today. More broadly speaking, whether it is food, music, or architecture, I’m proud of the American contributions to the internationalization of Shanghai.
Despite its vastness, Shanghai is filled with places you can discover and feel like they are your own. Another place not far from my house, near Jiaotong University, is a shop called Uptown Records. It’s small, incredibly well-curated and totally unexpected. Anyone who works there knows their stuff. They work there because they love it. If you are into music, this is the place to go.
Another thing that sets Shanghai apart from the rest of China is the abundance of international culture and art. Just this week, we went to an opening of a photography exhibition sponsored by the Fosun Foundation with work by a famous American photographer Cindy Sherman. She hates the word selfies, but every photo she stages and sets up of herself exploring different parts of American culture and society are absolutely arresting. If you go to the Shanghai Museum, there is currently an exhibition called “Pathways to Modernism”, which displays modern American art from the 1850s to 1949. Then there is the The Long Museum, Yuz Museum, and Power Station of Art, an epic contemporary art venue that can hold its place anywhere in the world.
Shanghai is a cool place to be a parent. It has a better collection of international schools than any other place I can think of. Shanghai American School, which is one of the great American schools in the world, Shanghai Community International, there’s Yew Chung International School where we have a lot of consulate kids, and many in Pudong like Wellington and Concordia. Shanghai is leading the way on education. For higher education, in addition to famous institutions like Fudan and Jiaotong Universities, and NYU Shanghai is truly extraordinary. If you look at their curriculum and the quality of faculty they have amassed, it has brought a global world class education to Shanghai. Also, one thing that is really great in Shanghai for a subset of parents, those who have children with special needs, whether its medical, or some other condition, the types of programs available in Shanghai dwarf those in Beijing, Hong Kong, in the whole region. Places like the Essential Learning Group and Olivia’s Place offer programs, and this is extraordinary about Shanghai. And these programs get a lot of support from the Chinese government, especially because China is looking to develop its capacity to support those with special needs.
As for Shanghai, and how I view its future, the thing that helps solidify Shanghai’s place in the very shortlist of truly global cities, like New York or Paris, is the Shanghai government.
I meet with government officials all over the country, and I see how their outlooks affect the development of their cities. I remember the first time I met with senior leadership in Shanghai... what the leadership wanted to talk about wasn’t “how to promote more US investment”, or “how do we bring in more American companies”. Instead what they wanted to talk about was “how do we bring in more culture to Shanghai, how do we make Shanghai better in terms of transportation, how do we improve our green space, how do we improve our air?” They said something that stuck with me that I think really permeates the thinking of the Shanghai government: “We know that if we can make Shanghai the best place to live for foreigners, for Chinese, that everything else will flow from that, because people will want to live here.” So, of course, foreign companies will invest, because they want to be in Shanghai, the best minds of China will come here, because this is where they want to be. I think the secret of Shanghai’s success for emerging on the global stage has come from this vision from the Shanghai government going back a generation, about how it was going to pursue development.
Many of us have seen that the first city that a foreigner spends time in, in China, tends to become their new laojia (second home). And to attract the best and brightest to Shanghai is going to mean that many of the best and brightest around the world are going to think of Shanghai as their second home. Looking ahead, when people have gone back to home country, when they look to invest, travel, when they look to find trade partners, or partners for innovation, their natural place to look to will be Shanghai. All of this is becoming an investment in the global future of this city, and I love it.