Like New Yorkers, Chinese people just can't stop talking about real estate.

Commentary about business and finance.
Nov. 19 2009 11:37 AM

Shanghai Manners

Chinese are just like New Yorkers. They can't stop talking about real estate.

Chinese real estate models.
Housing models at the Shanghai Real Estate Exhibition and Trade Fair 

In Shanghai, which is China's New York, locals and expats are doing their best to foist American-style consumerism onto China's rising masses—with mixed results. Starbucks has opened several hundred stores, even though China has no coffee-drinking culture to speak of. As it spreads into China, Toys "R" Us is trying to convince higher-income Chinese parents that toys are a part of a childhood, not a distraction from preparation for the all-important national college entrance exams. Dickie Yip, executive vice president at Bank of Communications, lamented that 80 percent of the 11 million Chinese people who have opened up credit card accounts with the bank pay off their accounts in full every month. "We're encouraging our best customers not to repay," he said.

But there's one distinctly American habit the Shanghaiese seem to have picked up easily: talking about money, profits, and real estate prices without self-consciousness. I'm traveling in China this week and next with a group of American journalists. And we were instantly schooled by our interlocutors on the divide between the political capital (Beijing) and the financial capital (Shanghai). Beijing is all about politics, analysis, debate. In Shanghai, it's all pragmatism, getting things done, and making money. "To get rich is glorious," as Deng Xiaoping famously said. *

Advertisement

As in New York, real estate in Shanghai is a topic of near universal conversation. And as in New York, those fortunate enough to acquire property in the 1970s have done extraordinarily well. We visited the home of the Gao family on the 31st floor of a tower in Hongye Gardens, a 2004-vintage 12-building complex of high-rise buildings cleaved by gardens, fountains, and a children's playground—the sort of thing you might find on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The parents, in their 50s, are both longtime employees of Shanghai's public bus company—the husband a middle manager, the wife a retired laborer. Their daughter, Yang Gao, a recent graduate of Fudan University, is going to start work at Ernst & Young next month. They were happy to share details of their personal finances. The Gaos were given the opportunity to buy workers' housing elsewhere in Shanghai very cheaply a few decades ago. That apartment, which they still own and rent out, has soared in value. The apartment in which they currently live, with finishes and features typical of a nice Manhattan apartment (save the two turtles in a box on the terrace) is around 1,300 square feet, and  they paid about $200,000 for it a few years ago. The government workers, in other words, had morphed into landlords and residents of a fancy high-rise development. Their daughter, who majored in French, is about to join a global accounting firm.

Of course, there are ironies. Chairman Mao, unsmiling, peers out from every yuan bill—the pink 100, the green 50, the jade 20. (Shanghaiers of a certain ilk are frustrated that the highest denomination is the 100 yuan bill, only about $14.) The classless, harmonious society is in fact bifurcating—between urban and rural, between the prosperous coast and the modernizing interior, between those who were fortunate to get in on the ground floor of reform and those who are just now arriving on the scene. "Shanghai is not China," Dickie Yip of Bank of Communications told us. "What you see here is not representative." And as we left Shanghai I began to get a sense of that. On Tuesday, I sat in the Pudong airport, waiting to catch a flight to Chongqing *, the inland city that is the gateway to China's vast west. We were surrounded by well-dressed business travelers, black laptop carrying cases slung around their shoulders, worry-beading their phones and BlackBerrys. This could have been the holding area for the USAirways shuttle at Reagan National. Then around the corner came a group of 20 older travelers. Cheap plastic backpacks were strapped to their backs, and they wore hats, earmuffs, and scarves. They had the weathered faces and stooped posture of peasants.

Correction, Nov. 20, 2009: This article originally misspelled Deng Xiaoping's name. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, Nov. 20, 2009: This article originally misspelled the name of the city of Chongqing. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories on the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.