I lived in Hong Kong for three years and spent around two days in Shanghai, so i'm not entirely sure that I really qualify to write a comparative article on the two places - but i'm going to do it anyway. I guess this is more like a musing on the aspects of Shanghai that strongly reminded me of Hong Kong, and others that did not.
A brief history..
Shanghai and Hong Kong historically share many similarities - they both started out as small fishing villages and changed dramatically following the Opium war. The difference here was in 1842 (after the Opium war) China handed Hong Kong over to Britain, whilst Shanghai was named a treaty port by the British. Following this, Shanghai was divided up into autonomous concessions - British, French and American, respectively. These concessions operated independently of Chinese law. During this time Shanghai really blossomed culturally, it became renowned for being a place of opulence and indulgence - it was the Paris of the east. The party was over following World War II when the city was occupied by the Japanese, by this time most of the foreigners had left Shanghai and the city's time as a treaty port came to an end. Shanghai's spark was further diminished when the Communists established the People's Republic of China in 1949, following this the city closed it doors to the world.
Hong Kong also suffered greatly during World War II during the Japanese occupation. However, after the victory of the Chinese Communists in 1949, when Shanghai fell into a deep slumber, Hong Kong became increasingly separated from China as a border was established during this time. It is in this period that Hong Kong really began to blossom as an independent region, it continued to open its doors to the world while Shanghai's remained firmly closed.
Shanghai was awakened in 1990 when leader Deng Xiaoping declared that Shanghai would be the leader of China's commercial revolution and aimed for it to rival Hong Kong by 2010, it has since been making up for lost time and has re-established its status as an international city.
Similarities of note..
The first thing that struck both me and Ben when we arrived in Shanghai is that there is definitely a very Hong Kong vibe going on. After all, they are both multi-cultural, financially booming, Chinese metropolises. Aesthetically, we saw many branded buildings which we were all to familiar with in Hong Kong - for example, a K11, The One and even an IFC. And of course, Shanghai, like Hong Kong, seems to be centred around the dramatic skyline which can be seen across the water. Although perhaps not as severe as in Hong Kong, there does seems to be a notable class gap, where the super rich live alongside the desperately poor, with little in between.
Here is really where I feel the similarities between the two cities end. To start with, the language, currency, cuisine, time zone and climate are all different. However, the most striking difference to me was the architecture. In Shanghai there are far more old, european style buildings, whereas Hong Kong is predominately a city of skyscrapers. I also noticed that the Shanghainese seem to work at a different pace, overall the population seems a bit more relaxed than the incredibly studious, work oriented Hong Kongers.
Which should I visit?
I have seen many articles and discussion pages comparing the two cities and many travellers wondering, which to visit? Hong Kong or Shanghai?
If you don't have time to visit both during your trip, which one would be better for you to visit depends entirely on what kind of traveller you are (obviously, I would recommend Hong Kong first - but I am biased). If you are interested in history and Chinese culture, Shanghai is certainly superior in this respect. Hong Kong is better suited to those looking for an outdoor adventure, a variety of high-end cuisine from around the world and tax-free gadget shopping. Shanghai is certainly more backpacker friendly, with a huge selection of hostels and everything being a fair bit cheaper. However, it is perfectly possible to have a good time in Hong Kong without spending a fortune.
One thing worth taking into consideration is the visa situation. If you are a UK citizen, it takes around 5 days to get a visa for China which allows you 30days in the country (and there is A LOT to see). For Hong Kong, you can stay for six months without a visa, for free.
One thing you can get from both places - seriously spectacular city views with an array of rooftop bars to enjoy them from, endless restaurants serving culinary delights of their respective regions and an international gateway to the incredible country of China.