A Tale of Two Cities: An Armchair Comparison of Beijing and London

A Tale of Two Cities: An Armchair Comparison of Beijing and London
May 13, 2013 By Owain Lloyd-Williams , eChinacities.com

For foreign urban dwellers in China, it may well be the “best of times” given the continuous excitement and opportunity that pulsates through the very fibers of Chinese cities throughout the country. Yet, the dense smog, food safety issues and boorish bureaucracy inherent in China’s mega-metropolises may have you identifying more readily with the “worst of times” latter half of the opening phrase in Dickens’ timeless classic instead. Consequently, some of us will ponder over what we left behind from time to time, fantasizing about the “promised land” of blue skies, a whole range of top class international services, bustling yet safe roads and commuters that whistle as they ride to work on trains that are not always operating way over capacity.

Comparison of Beijing and London 
Photo: baike.com; 17u.net

Granted, weighing up the pros and cons of the Chinese city we’re living in with our metropolises back home is an entirely subjective and open-ended thing. Nevertheless, I’d like to discuss some of the key factors that separate my Chinese home, Beijing, with my original home, London. Having lived in both cities for long enough to make a judgment that very nearly achieves the status of “marginally misguided”, I’d like to make a comparison of Beijing and London, the Anglo and Sino capitals, and see what each of them have and don’t have—all the while making grossly uninformed, sweeping comments in a vain attempt to come to some sort of overall conclusion that in my blinkered view represents the feelings and shared opinions of expats across the country!


Despite the Beijing’s subway system being relatively new (and in an eternal state of expansion), it is not without its certain charms. Sure, there’s the pushing, the shoving, and the general overcrowding, but I find the clearly signposted and easily-to-navigate layout of most stations a refreshing break from the complexities that the rest of the city’s transportation system so readily throws in your face. From the Chinglish platform announcements—the “weerrr arrirring at…” never ceases to bring a smile to my face—to the rays of light amid the chaos that randomly appear when an elderly citizen is offered a seat, daily trips on the Beijing subway are always somewhat of a spectacle.

The charm of the London Underground, for me, lies within its British-ness. While there’s the stereotype that everyone on the Tube is grey-faced and constantly staring at the floor to avoid eye contact, I’ve met colorful characters on the Tube at all hours. And one aspect which I miss more than anything here in Beijing is the seemingly automatic responses of “sorry” that come when you’re faced with the predicament of having to move past somebody, or accidently bump into someone. This is what kills it for me in Beijing – the everyman for himself, dog-eat-dog mentality where even an informal queue is still a rare sight. 

That being said, it’s hard to top Beijing’s subway in terms of convenience and price. I suspect that the convenience factor of the Beijing subway system is likely the result of the same Chinese urban planning that leaves the layout of many cities (particularly ancient capitals like Beijing and Xi’an) looking like they were strung together by a child with OCD who has mastered the art of assembling Lego blocks in an almost symmetrical pattern. This ease of use is particularly evident when comparing it to the 150-year old infrastructure of some parts of the London Underground, which is full of enclosed spiraling staircases and crypt-like passenger corridors and waiting platforms and the like. And let’s not forget about the dirt-cheap price for Beijing’s subway, which in my mind is another major plus—you certainly can’t beat a trip from one end of one of world’s most sprawling metropolises to the other for a mere 2 RMB! Traveling a comparative distance in London would cost you anywhere between 2 to almost 7 pounds (around 20-70 RMB).



If you’re anything like me, you’re probably as sick of hearing about how polluted everything is here as you are of dealing with the actual pollution. As such, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this comparison of Beijing and London, other than to say, that London has long suffered from many of the same environmental problems as Beijing and other major cities throughout the world. Fortunately, London has managed to clean up its smog problem more in recent years; let’s hope that Beijing (and the rest of China) do the same!


At the end of the day, which city you consider to have more entertainment options really depends on what you’re into. For me personally, at this point I couldn’t live anywhere in China except Beijing and would happily donate my left lung (which I probably already have; literal *cough cough*) to stay in the capital and soak up the excitement of the city’s growing music and art scenes.

London, of course, has it all—a long-established and cosmopolitan international entertainment scene that caters to almost any need. Perhaps simply because of that, London, New York, Paris or any other Western metropolis will always surpass any Chinese city regarding things to do. I’m aware (and I’m sure some of you are too) that by living in China I am making some degree of sacrifice with regards to what bands I can see, what festivals I can attend, and what parties I can get foolish at. I think this largely comes down to China’s censors, though at least it has caused me to turn my attention away from what I’m used to and instead indulge myself in the local creative boom that is currently underway in China, and Beijing in particular.

When the day comes that I leave this country, I will sorely miss being able to revel in the excitement that stems from this creative boom. Although London already boasts countless exciting music and art scenes, I feel that the current explosion in China is somewhat historic and groundbreaking given the country’s recent history as a closed-off authoritarian machine—and it feels great to be part of it. Whether or not this trend of creativity is limited to Beijing and other first-tier Chinese cities is up for debate, though I suspect that we’ll soon see the spread of China’s newfound musical and artistic innovation reaching the four corners of the country.

Availability of Services

With regard to China, this one comes as somewhat of a doubled-edged sword for me. Head out onto the street and you’ll no doubt encounter countless stalls offering anything from pig’s intestines to random pieces of metal that you’d normally find in the garden shed of an eccentric pensioner who’s got a penchant for collecting junk. The availability and comprehensiveness of shops and services in China is certainly impressive, with many shops open on a seemingly 24-hour basis and banks that are open nine-to-five, seven days a week. This is something that, save for all-night off licenses and kebab shops, London certainly lacks…though the availability of services in China doesn’t necessarily ensure a high level of quality.

Food is the main perpetrator here. Despite my street being filled with a plethora of cheap restaurants, I’ve found that you often have to go out of your way both geographically and financially to secure a meal that won’t have you on all fours face down towards the toilet sounding like the little girl from The Exorcist for the next five hours. At least in London, stricter safety and quality standards (not only regarding food) will ensure that I’ll get relative value for my money, regardless of how much I spend or how much of a trip I have to make to find a shop that’s open past 17:00. Still, I’m always going to be partial to a midnight trip to the barbecue stall and a 3 RMB beer from the shop—a guilty pleasure that I’ll miss dearly come the day I leave.    

All in all…

As with anything in life, there’ll always be varied pros and cons. Perhaps with China, these pros and cons are accentuated more aggressively than other places due to the utterly strange, unique and ridiculous situations that we encounter on a day-to-day basis while living here (certainly as compared to trying to weigh the pros and cons of the more comfortable simplicities of life back home). But even though China, being the unpredictable cocktail of chaos and contradiction that it is, offers a somewhat welcome departure from this, I do often find myself longing for the more orderly familiar comforts of life back in London.

No doubt the grass is always greener wherever you are however, and I’m sure I’ll miss the buzz, the excitement, and even of the frustration of life in Beijing come the day I leave. I’ve tried not to cast Beijing in a light that portrays it as merely a developing mega-city that is trying to play catch-up to London in terms of its sophistication, because I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. Instead, I hope that it manages to maintain all its charms and quirks as it shifts and changes over the coming years.

(Feel free to add to, agree or disagree with, or write about your own “two cities” comparison in the comments section below!)

Related links
Relaxing or Restricting? China’s Music Censors Confuse Yet Again
Does China's Materialistic Image Really Represent Most Chinese?
Experiencing “Real China”: Being the Token Foreigner in a Fourth Tier City

Warning:The use of any news and articles published on eChinacities.com without written permission from eChinacities.com constitutes copyright infringement, and legal action can be taken.

Keywords: comparison of Beijing and London


All comments are subject to moderation by eChinacities.com staff. Because we wish to encourage healthy and productive dialogue we ask that all comments remain polite, free of profanity or name calling, and relevant to the original post and subsequent discussion. Comments will not be deleted because of the viewpoints they express, only if the mode of expression itself is inappropriate.



I've stayed a few weeks in both cities at different times over the last decade or more. It never really becomes a comparison in my mind other than population. London is remarkably clean and I'm also surprised how efficient the traffic is considering the maximum concentration of vehicles in what are often highly irregular, narrow and tight roads! To me, Beijing is still a big broad grid with a wild-west rock and roll thunderdome roadways. London is a huge but highly compacted orderly system of pedestrians. Head forward, stiff upper-lip, do not dilly-dally, shields up. This is daytime of course. Drunks come later. And wow do they come later. Drunks crawling home everywhere in London. I have to say my great days of London was back in 2000 - it was the place to be. I'm not even a nightclub guy but I could sense and appreciate London was 'where its at'. The last time I was there most of that neighbourhood was burned to the ground because police defended themselves and looting and arsons ensued. Now it does feel like Beijing is the 'place to be'.

May 16, 2013 06:43 Report Abuse



I have travelled extensively in Southern China and even there in any city over a few 100,000, never saw a star and there was always the yellow smudge on the horizon. The optional extra of the face mask was off putting. I wouldn't care if i never visited Beijing [ don't 1000 new cars come on the road every day/ week] or Shanghai. Any city in Oz has environments to die for, and great food.

May 14, 2013 10:22 Report Abuse