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WHY GO TO SHANGHAI WHEN YOU CAN GO TO LIVERPOOL?

Stunning architecture, vibrant nightlife and food lovers paradise – Liverpool really does have it all.
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The first time I went to Shanghai in 2005, almost the first thing I said was, ‘this doesn’t half remind me of Liverpool.’ The key similarity was the handsome sweep of magnificently pompous Victorian architecture along the Huangpu River front, the famous Bund in Shanghai’s case and the Mersey in Liverpool’s. In 18 subsequent trips to Shanghai and half a dozen to Liverpool, I’ve continued collecting often uncanny congruencies between the two cities.

In fact, I’m slightly obsessed by them. To be fair, I see echoes of other cities in Shanghai. There are areas very reminiscent of Paris. Other, of New York. Noël Coward said Shanghai reminded him of Brussels and, er, Huddersfield; I have no idea what he was thinking.

Now let’s shoo away the inevitable elephants in the room here. Yes, I have noticed that Shanghai has a population of 25m while Liverpool’s is 550,000. It also hasn’t escaped my attention that you could lose the entire centre of Liverpool in one of Shanghai’s many distinct districts; Liverpool, impressively big for a British city, is still like a model village version of China’s second (but biggest) city. The picky will also notice that the river bank opposite Shanghai’s Bund, which 30 years ago was scabrous fields and run-down factories is now the business hub of Pudong, a thick forest of some of the world’s tallest buildings. The riverbank opposite the grand edifices of Liverpool’s waterfront is mostly scabrous fields and run-down factories.

There’s a slightly climatic disparity, too. Shangahi is tropical, often 35 degrees and massively humid in summer, dank and miserable, but rarely cold in winter. The weather in Liverpool could be summed up as nautical but nice – but then I’m a bit of one for a sea-smelling wind, a spot of rain and nice cool temperatures. A final major distinction; Shanghai is the world’s biggest trading hub. To watch the 24/7 nose-to-tail line of container ships processing by the Bund, mostly heading out from China rather than into it, is to understand in one scene pretty much how the world today works. Once upon a time Liverpool was like that, when 40 per cent of the world’s goods passed through this Lancashire port. Now, to put it kindly, it’s not. Cruise liners are calling again at a new, purpose-built terminal, but the Mersey is still light on ships.

On to the similarities, then, between these cities, which have been officially twinned since 1999, but have been aware they are close cousins for 200 years. First up, the shipping and trading history, which led, of course, to Liverpool having Britain’s first Chinese population, which originated with sailors from Shanghai. Second, The Bund, which was modelled on the Mersey waterfront, which in turn, some say, was modelled on bits of Chicago’s. The Bund is bigger, of course, but the look and feel of the two are extraordinarily similar. Third, the remarkable match in position, both next to wide estuary rivers. This is reflected in the place names; the colonial word Bund (never used, incidentally, by the Chinese) is from an Anglo-Italian word for settlement on a muddy waterfront. Liverpool is a 12th century word meaning place on a pool or creek with muddy water.

Both Liverpool and Shanghai are, and have been for centuries, world cities. There is no sense of small-minded provincialism in either. Both have glorious antique buildings demonstrating their historic high self-esteem. Both cities are restoring these faded gems at a frantic rate. They both think big, like capital cities, and ambitious capitals at that. Shanghai’s blatant determination to be the biggest and most powerful metropolis in the world is evident in its massive growth. Historically, Liverpool had a similarly soaring ambition; they were on the point of building a Catholic cathedral bigger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome until the Depression of the 1930s intervened – sounds like a very Shanghai kind of plan.

For the past 10 years, Liverpool has entered a new resurgence, starting with a £5.5bn orgy of building. The construction crane has become as ubiquitous in Liverpool as in its twin. Five years ago, when the waterfront was undergoing a redevelopment, I counted 38 in the area; in the same month, when Shanghai was remodelling its (then) tacky and faded Bund, there were only 22. Fact.

Stunning modern architecture has been a feature of Shanghai for a while, although much of it is in distinctly flouncy style that can make the aesthetically sensitive feel a bit queasy. Liverpool, however, has built some of the most beautiful modern structures in the world. The new Museum of Liverpool on the Pier Head, is my favourite of many stunning new buildings.

And while Shanghai is decades into its spasm of building, Liverpool is just getting into its stride. There’s a 50- storey beauty – aptly called Shanghai Tower – planned for the waterfront, which could turn out to be the second tallest building in Britain. And there’s talk of spending a further £50bn on development by mid-century, which will include making some of Liverpool’s Pudong across the Mersey.

"And so to food. And bars. Liverpool is the most densely restauraunt-ed city I've ever seen outside of London - or Shanghai."

Both cities also know how to party. There is a vibrant bar and club scene in Shanghai, which varies from the frankly louche to the seriously flash, and goes back to the 1930s. It is reflected in Liverpool on a Friday and Saturday night, where, since the days of the Beatles, it’s been heaving, and mostly in good humoured, fun way. Liverpudlians and the Shanghainese also have their own, singular fashion style. It’s sometimes a tad gaudy to the outsider – there’s even a section in the Museum of Liverpool on the Liverpool Look – but this confident style has led to both cultures starting to make a mark in avant garde fashion proper. Both cities have a football culture, of course; Everton and Liverpool need no introduction, but Shanghai Shenhua FC, who play in front of 33,000 people at the Hongkou Stadium, are as big a cult. And like the top Liverpool teams, Shenhua are usually at the top of the top division or close by.

So, go, on let’s cut to the quick and see how, beyond the gentler weather and people being (almost) comprehensible, Liverpool is better for tourism than its twin, which is almost a byword for the exotic and exciting.

For a start, there’s more to do. Shanghai is a great walking city, with massive and beautiful areas where just being there is a treat. But in terms of interesting official activities, it’s limited. The refurbed area of Liverpool around the Mersey Ferry terminal and flagship buildings – the iconic Royal Liver, the Cunard and the Port of Liverpool HQ – is simply bursting with museums, galleries and restaurants. Not so on the Bund. And the Liverpool museums are top notch. Especially the Museum of Liverpool, the best small museum I’ve ever been to. I’m pushed to think of any city in Britain that could cram so much fascinating stuff – a Shanghai section included – into a local museum. And the place is incredibly well attended. Plus, don’t forget Tate Liverpool and the grand and lively Walker Art Gallery on William Brown Street.

The more I think about this, the more Liverpool’s culture knocks Shanghai for six. If the Beatles are your thing, as they are mine, any taxi driver will give you a knowledgeable tour of the remarkably suburban streets where they were born, brought up and started playing. John and Paul’s old homes are both National Trust properties (book well ahead). I can think of no Shanghai equivalent to the Beatles heritage trail. The house where Mao once lived on Maoming Bei Lu hasn’t been well preserved and just doesn’t compare.

My favourite part of Shanghai to wander round is the leafy, romantic old French Concession area, which is now arty and bohemian. The Liverpool equivalent, Lark Lane and surrounds, though winsomely charming, is on a minuscule scale, although I will stick my neck out and say that for the wandering tourist, it is still better. Just walk – free – into St George’s Hall, the Walker or the mind-boggling Anglican and Catholic cathedrals (of which there is not even the palest echo in Shanghai) or dozens of other attractions and you will struggle to feel bored or ripped off. The great buildings of the Bund are pretty disappointing inside.

Both Liverpool and Shanghai are cities of big and beautiful parks, and while Fuxing Park in Shanghai wins the prize for quirkiness – the community dancing and singing of a weekend are fantastic to witness – Shanghai parks are far from peaceful or very natural. Sefton Park by contrast is a real oasis. Its recently restored Victorian Palm House is a magical little place. And the love the locals have for it is touching. Years ago I copied down what one little philosopher/poet, aged about ten from the writing, put in the visitors’ book: ‘Beautiful, just beautiful. Like a summer dream on a winter’s day, dark chocolate in a milk chocolate world.’ Liverpool parks don’t get crowded, and although they can seem almost eerily under populated, it means, unlike in the crush for Fuxing or People’s Square Park, you could almost be in the country.

And so to food. And bars. Liverpool is the most densely restaurant-ed city I’ve seen outside of London – or Shanghai. People eat out a lot, and are comfortable with every cuisine going. I had a great eating adventure on my most recent revisit. My star Chinese places? Mei Mei in Chinatown – superb dim sum and a real Shanghai buzz from the 70 per cent Chinese diners. (Pop over the road to Bon Bon Bakery for exquisite sweet Chinese cakes and buns to eat later). Best restaurant of all, though  -and I think the best Cantonese and Szechuan food I’ve ever had anywhere – was the Tai Pan, a big place above a Chinese supermarket on an industrial estate three miles north of the centre. Completely bizarre and wonderful. For fancy British, try the highly rated (not to mention deeply, flouncily gay) Puschka on Rodney Street in the heart of Liverpool’s beautiful Georgian area near the universities, which has a quiet-but-quality Upper East Side Manhattan vibe.

Liverpool has a large number of smart, cool, or both, bars such as Alma de Cuba, The Panoramic on the 34th floor of the new West Tower, Mello Mello, Shipping Forecast or Keith’s. But for me, Liverpool is a pub town. And what pubs. The Philharmonic on Hope Street is the most extravagantly decked-out antique boozer in Britain, from the chandeliers to the inexplicably named ‘Grandé Lounge’, to its Grade I listed gents. For a pint and pie, though, I like the basic Baltic Fleet on Wapping, which some Victorian joker vaguely built in the shape of a ship. Best pub of all, though, for my spit and sawdust taste, has to be the über-cool Ye Cracke on Rice Street, which was also John Lennon’s hangout. Sublime. Perfect.

Finally shopping. Everyone who doesn’t know it says Shanghai is great for shopping. It’s not, it’s hopeless. Other than specialised things like Chinese art, communist memorabilia and antiques, for which you need a trusted local to help, there’s nothing beyond tourist tat to bring home.

Liverpool is another matter. I’m no shopping type, but its new £1bn Liverpool ONE shopping district in the city centre is said to be retail heaven. There are also stacks of interesting fashion stores, art galleries and antique shops on the ‘real’ city streets. My personal favourite on my revisit were two vintages stores just off and on Lark Lane, GASP and Larks. Then again, my idea of cool happens to be cushions embroidered in the 60s in the form of John, Paul, George and Ringo. And you can’t get them in Shanghai, either. 

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