18 February 2019
Indie bookshops in Tokyo (left) help make the city edge up to the top of Monocle's livability ranking this year while Shanghai is one of the most liveable Chinese cities thanks to its metropolitan conveniences. Photos: Red Design, Sunny Sky
Indie bookshops in Tokyo (left) help make the city edge up to the top of Monocle's livability ranking this year while Shanghai is one of the most liveable Chinese cities thanks to its metropolitan conveniences. Photos: Red Design, Sunny Sky

City livability: the best in China and the world

Monocle, a London-based international lifestyle magazine for the well-heeled, has released its Quality of Life list, an annual ranking of the most livable cities in the world based on a survey of the living conditions in those areas.

This year sees a big shake-up of its ranking methodology with up to 22 new metrics added to its assessment of global cities.

The survey awards Tokyo as the top city in terms of livability, up from the second spot in 2014.

Of the 25 urban centers shortlisted, Berlin is chosen first runner-up, followed by three other European cities, namely Vienna, Copenhagen and Munich.

The rest of the top 10 are Melbourne, Fukuoka, Sydney, Kyoto and Stockholm.

Hong Kong is in the 18th spot, trailed by Singapore, which placed 20th.

The ranking has set its readers debating, as some find it hard to identify with the criteria.

The existing points system includes safety, infrastructure, environmental protection, public transport, ease of connection and cityscape aesthetics.

Last time the magazine introduced the well-being of small street-side shops in local communities as one of the factors to consider in gauging a city, and this year it added nightlife and the number of indie bookstores to the metrics of livability.

A sizable cluster of indie bookstores can be a truthful manifestation of a community’s own identity and independence from chain brands, and even the cultural upbringing of the entire local populace as well.

Unsurprisingly, three Japanese cities make it to the global top 10; the rest of the world may probably have to agree that civility and suaveness are second nature to Japanese people.

There are no less than 1,300 indie bookshops in Tokyo: they are everywhere, at every train station and even along the city’s narrow, intriguing lanes.

All individually run or family businesses, these bookshops reel in visitors to Tokyo, surely the most ideal city for booklovers.

But I see the high rankings of some European cities, like Vienna and Munich, largely undeserving as their cityscapes and cultures are monotonously similar while their nightlife is lacking in charm compared to their Asian counterparts.

And, I wonder, had it not been for their Scandinavian design and style, Copenhagen and Helsinki wouldn’t have scored high in the ranking as well: we all know how winter feels like in northern Europe.

Safe to park your bicycle, preferably with free bike sheds, a small hill next to the city center, a nice waterfront, a decent central commercial district, and clean streets and air. These are my own expectations for a livable city.

These are also the reasons why not a single mainland city can ever be on the Monocle list.

Just look at the pavements in most cities north of the border and you will know why.

But there have been separate rankings by China’s own think tanks.

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences regards the port city of Qingdao (青島) in northern Shandong province as China’s most livable city, followed by Kunming (昆明), capital of the southwestern Yunnan province; Sanya (三亞), a subtropical beach city on Hainan island; Dalian (大連), a port city in northeastern Liaoning province; and Weihai (威海), a picturesque town formerly leased as a British enclave in Shandong.

The China Institute of City Competitiveness has another list. Its top five are Guangdong’s Zhuhai (珠海); Xiamen (廈門), a port city in Fujian province; Zhoushan (舟山), an archipelagic chain in the eastern Zhejiang province; Hong Kong; and Haikou (海口), capital of Hainan province.

Again, these are all for reference only.

After extensive travels across the mainland, I have some recommendations of my own:

1. Shanghai (上海). Its strengths lie in its metropolis status with all the conveniences and sophistication of modern urban living; it’s the only mainland city that is edging closer to the international level of municipal services.

2. Chengdu (成都). The capital of the southwestern Sichuan province has a vibrant central business district and all the trappings of a hedonistic lifestyle.

3. Suzhou (蘇州). This thriving economic powerhouse near Shanghai has all the essence of Jiangnan (江南), or the Yangtze River Delta, a breadbasket for thousands of years. Its cityscapes and scale are perhaps among China’s best.

4. Qingdao (青島). It is known for its beaches, waterfront and the architecture of its former Germany-occupied district.

5. Kunming (昆明) boasts balmy weather and rapid urban renewal.

6. Guangzhou (廣州). You can feel the vibrancy of its nightlife as well as its urban sprawl and jumbles of squatter huts.

7. Xiamen (廈門). The walkable size of the city and its small community shops all add to its allure.

8. Dalian (大連). Its city planning is exemplary.

9. Shenzhen (深圳). The beaches and mangroves along its western coast are the city’s gems.

10. Chaozhou (潮州). It is the home of the Teochew people. The city’s somehow dilapidated yet dynamic urban area is also a gastronomic center offering a wide array of distinctive Teochew culinary choices.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal’s Lifestyle Journal on July 8.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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A Hong Kong cultural critic now lives in Beijing

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