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How to Be a Better City?

2010. 18 May

by Guan Yu-Chien
( Living in Western society for more than 30 years and traveling to many cities worldwide, what has impressed me the most is that cities do have their own unique characters. For instance, Paris, as the uncontested cultural capital of the world, presents a strong cultural atmosphere everywhere, from music to art, from architecture to literature, and from classical to modern. I have been there more than 20 times, but still long to return.

If you go to Rome, which is steeped in more than 2,000 years of cultural heritage, historic sites and ancient buildings that can be found everywhere in the city, you will be less inclined to crow about ancient Chinese heritage. As for London and New York, you will marvel at the treasures in the museums there, although most of them, as we all know, were stolen from other countries. However, you still have to admit and appreciate their proper conservation of these cultural treasures. Moreover, cities like Kyoto in Japan, Barcelona in Spain, Cairo in Egypt, Athens in Greece and Singapore all have their unique cultural characters.

As an ancient capital with more than 2,000 years of history, Beijing should have been the best city in the Orient, maybe even in the world. Unfortunately, today's Beijing is neither fish nor fowl, with a regrettable lack of historic sites and heritage. However, with its special cultural character, Shanghai is different from Beijing, as it is a city built on the basis of Western colonial culture. Shanghai is an example of how a city dressed in colonial colors yesterday can transform into an international modern metropolis.

Generally, comfortable living conditions and well-equipped public facilities are necessary for a city to provide its residents with a high quality of life. But even more important to a city is its citizens' cultural quality, which greatly influences the city's culture. Thus, when considering how to be a better city, culture should be the emphasis.

The blind side of megalopolis

Big cities certainly have their advantages, but their shortcomings abound as well. For example, when I attended an international academic seminar in Paris, the organizers repeatedly warned us about theft in the city.

On the second day of the seminar, I found that the window of my car parked beside the campus had been broken, and my radio had been stolen. In Milan, the new Mercedes Benz we had rented and parked beside the Milan Cathedral was stolen in broad daylight.

As for Manhattan, my American friend also warned me that it was better not to take subway alone after 9 p.m.; otherwise you might be robbed or your life even threatened in this modern metropolis. And in London's Victoria Station, I have discerned that British police officers discriminate against black people.

It goes without saying that the bigger the city, the more difficult it is to handle social problems. Therefore, it is not easy to provide citizens with a better life in a short period of time.

People say Rome is well-known for its thieves, and it's true. My wallet with my passport, bank card, credit card and some cash was stolen while I was looking around a historic garden in Rome. I didn't expect to ever see them again, so you can imagine my surprise when the Hamburg Police Station phoned me three months later to tell me they had found my wallet with nothing lost.

Two years ago, I lost my passport again along with 5,000 yuan ($733) in cash at Shanghai Pudong Airport. I thought the thief would at least mail my passport back to me, but it never came.

In Germany, their traffic civilization impressed me the most. The traffic lights are the law in Germany, so everyone stops at the intersection until the light turns green, even if there are no cars passing by. If you run a red light, you will be fined.

But I found other aspects of German culture questionable. For example, you may see some old people around 80 or 90 years old walking or shopping alone on the road. They live by themselves, and their children may come back to see them only once a year. This is normal in German society.

Shanghai: How to be a better city?

Shanghai, one of the world's metropolises, now has more than 20 million people. For the Expo, the Shanghai Municipal Government improved and modified the city in every way possible. The city is indeed more beautiful than it was before, with flowers and grass lining clean streets, and bright, retiled roofs on the houses in the city center. It can be said that Shanghai is becoming the newest, most modern and most beautiful city among the world's metropolises.

In my opinion, Shanghai was able to make this transformation in just a few years thanks to the wise leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC). In capitalist societies with a multi-party system, a proposal might be discussed and argued among parties, taking years to be resolved.

But what is more important to a city is its spiritual construction. It is easy to change the external looks of a city but very hard to change its mentality, which is the key to being a perfect city.

I personally feel dissatisfied with Shanghai's public traffic, which lacks order. Bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers often randomly cross the road, ignoring the traffic lights. A police officer said there is no way to change this kind of thing. I disagree with him. I believe that if the police cooperated with the mass media, increasing the penalty or imprisoning violators, we would see changes after three months. In this aspect, we should learn from Singapore.

The Expo opportunity

The 2010 Shanghai World Expo has opened with valuable exhibitions from countries all over the world, from which we can learn a great deal. However, I regret that due to a lack of information for Expo visitors, some people with free tickets just see the Expo as a modern temple fair, joining for fun, while those visitors who really want to learn something from this big event can't afford the tickets or bear to elbow their way through the crowds. When I visited the Hanover Expo in Germany in 2000, almost every pavilion provided an introductory booklet. But at the Shanghai Expo, you seldom see such booklets, as it would cost too much to print them for 70 million visitors.

Now many pavilions in the Expo Site have to take in tens of thousands of visitors at one time, which is really a big challenge. I just hope that our visitors won't impress the staff working in the foreign pavilions as shopping crowds as opposed to culture learners.

Through the Shanghai Expo, I deeply feel that China, including Shanghai, needs to enhance cultural education, investing more in and cultivating better teachers for younger generations.

Furthermore, we need to strengthen our patriotism, as it is love for your country that pushes you to make it better. Since ancient times, compared with other countries, China has always been a civilized country. Our social ethic is based on loyalty, filial piety and kindheartedness, faith and peace, rite and honor, honesty, thrift and modesty, which is more profound than the Western concept of 'human rights.'

I think that the Shanghai Expo is a good chance to improve our cultural quality. Moreover, I hope that in the coming decades, Shanghai becomes the best city in the world.

About the author

Dr. Guan Yu-Chien is a professor, linguist, writer and translator. Born in Guangzhou, south China's Guangdong Province and raised in Shanghai, Guan now resides in Hamburg, Germany. He obtained a master's degree in linguistics in 1972 and a PhD in 1977 from the University of Hamburg, where he still teaches today. He is also a professor at Zhejiang University in China, president of the Association of Chinese Scholars in Europe, and a columnist for the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao, and Malaysia's Sin Chew Daily. He has more than 10 publications.