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The last time British prime minister David Cameron visited China, in late 2013, the Communist party-controlled official media let him know what the world’s most populous nation really thought of the UK and its capital. “Britain is no longer any kind of ‘big country’, but merely a country of old Europe suitable only for tourism and overseas students, with a few decent football teams,” the Global Times newspaper proclaimed in an editorial.
From London’s perspective, this was at least an improvement on its previous reputation as the source of evil opium-peddling imperialists.
Thanks to many decades of insistent state propaganda, any Chinese schoolchild can recite a litany of examples in Britain’s atrocious record of gunboat diplomacy and opium wars in China.
Despite this dismal reputation, the Chinese tourists now descending on Europe in ever greater numbers seem willing to forget, if not quite forgive, the city’s colonial adventurist past.
“London folk are courteous gentlemen, quiet but friendly. When you ask them for directions they will open up a big black umbrella and take you where you want to go,” says Wu Yujie, 26, a flight attendant.
Of course, not everyone who travels to London will meet such delightful clichés made flesh. Li Huahua, an engineer, visited once on a package holiday and was impressed by the history, culture and old buildings but felt the locals were rather aloof and walked very fast.
Wang Li, who runs a school teaching foreigners Mandarin, has never visited but thinks London must be a place where it is easy to relax and calm your thoughts. She has heard it has a very old and decrepit underground rail system that compares very unfavourably to China’s shiny new high-speed trains.
But charitably, she suggests that the shabby underground and the very old buildings are actually a sign of Londoners’ admirable frugality.
The reality is that only people in China’s biggest and most cosmopolitan cities are likely to have more than a dim idea of a place called London, even if they can recite the dates and details of atrocities committed by the British and other barbarian invaders in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd.
Suits and the sense of humour are among the first things San Franciscans think of when asked about London. In the laid-back US west coast home of technology companies, London is seen as more sophisticated, more international and funnier than their city.
Jessica Tsai, a 25-year old employee at a large technology company, says she sees London as “suits, the Underground and commuting”.
“My views of London are primarily anchored around the morning. I imagine people drinking tea, dressing for work and getting the underground,” she says.
Being well dressed in London is not restricted to the young, Tsai says, while “we don’t dress up at all here”. Sharp dressing is accompanied by sharp wit: Tsai describes British humour as “more biting and cutting and no-nonsense”.
Ted Ladd, a 41-year old who works at Salesforce, the customer relationship management company, in San Francisco, says when in London he visits pubs for a dose of the British humour that he usually gets only from imported comedy shows. “I like to catch a football match in the pub with a pint and get talking to people,” he says. “I love how open and funny they are. I lived in New York for many years and they are not as nice.”
London is a great “marriage of old-world traditions and a new modern city”, Ladd says, adding that he also tries to visit the Churchill War Rooms museum every time he visits. “We Americans love Churchill.”
To these techies, London is clearly nowhere near the technology centre that San Francisco has become, but they see some potential.
Tsai says London would be a good place to start a company because there is more time and space than in San Francisco. “It is crazy here — overkill. Every start-up is a different version of another start-up, with often nothing new coming out of it,” she says.
In the 15 years since Ladd first visited London, the technology scene has changed, he says. “Initially it was just international outposts of larger US technology companies, but now it has its own set of technology companies and a vibrant start-up community too.”
A couple of decades ago, when the fall of the Berlin Wall was recent history and the heart of Germany’s capital was crowded with cranes, Germans frequently looked at London with a mix of admiration and anxiety.
The UK capital had an intoxicating combination of heritage and hipness — appealing to Germans who found Buckingham Palace delightful but also those who wanted to cross Abbey Road like The Beatles.
London was what Germans call a Weltstadt, a world city. Unlike the sleekly bourgeois cities of western Germany or anarchic Berlin, London was a place of ethnic and cultural diversity. But since then, some of the shine has come off. “I don’t think it’s such an ‘in’ location any more because of the prices,” says Jakob Menge, a television producer in Berlin.
Peter Littger, author of The Devil Lies in the Detail, an exploration of Germans’ struggles with the English language, compares London now with Switzerland.
“It’s too stressful,” he says. “There’s too much thinking about money all the time.”
These days, young Brits are flocking to Berlin: the number of UK citizens resident in the German capital rose from 12,000 in 2013 to nearly 13,500 at the end of last year. There was a particularly sharp increase in the number of under-45s, drawn by affordable rents and the city’s creative atmosphere.
While Berlin is going through its own angst about gentrification, there is a growing feeling that London has become uncomfortably wealthy. “London is super-expensive and just out of reach for normal people,” Littger says. “All the families are being crowded out.”
Germans sense a division between London and their own capital. Despite a sweeping overhaul of its welfare system, Germany remains attached to the idea of the Sozialstaat, a social model in which the state intervenes to support citizens. The German government introduced legislation this year to limit rent increases, for example.
By contrast, some in Germany feel London is paying the price for a more liberal social and economic model: the swagger of the UK’s capital in the 1990s has culminated in a metropolis so desirable that many ordinary Londoners are priced out.
Every year, as India’s sweltering hot season begins, billionaire businesspeople and bankers head out from the financial capital Mumbai on an annual pilgrimage to London. Ties between the two cities date back centuries, having been forged in colonial times. But they have been reinvigorated by India’s emergence as a rising global power, complete with a wealthy upper social stratum from the world of business, many of whom find the cool British summer much more congenial than their own.
London is familiar too: there are few language difficulties, the locals enjoy cricket and many visitors have relatives close at hand, given that Indians are London’s largest immigrant group.
“You can just do much more in London as an Indian than in any other global city, and it has that familiar comfort level too,” says Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, a Mumbai-based author and editor.
For these reasons, among others, London tempts many to make the city their main home, including a fair smattering of India’s wealthiest business figures, from metals tycoon Lakshmi Mittal to the Hinduja family, who now sit at the top of the list of Britain’s richest citizens.
Some buy homes to live in for just part of the year too — a trend that has seen wealthy Indians become the most important foreign purchasers in upmarket areas of the capital. Wetherell, the estate agent, estimated in mid-2014 that Indians had bought more than $1bn worth of property in Mayfair since the start of 2013, accounting for a quarter of sales.
Anil Agarwal, the billionaire founder and chairman of metals conglomerate Vedanta Resources, is one such high-profile incomer. Having listed his company on the London Stock Exchange in 2004, he now lives in a Mayfair mansion for part of the year.
He says that when he spends time in London, he likes to entertain visitors from his homeland. “In the summer, it’s such a nice time. I must have seen The Lion King 30 times,” he says, referring to the West End musical, which he says he is “very confident” in taking his guests to see. “Because what can you do when people come from India?”
After his final exams at high school in June, 19-year-old Polish student Maciej Kryński had only one goal: to move to London and build a career in the arts. “There is no better place than London; there are so many possibilities, options, people,” he says.
A few years ago, Krzysztof Strzałkowski and Ania Szatyłowicz, both 25, were in the same boat.
“When I left for the UK after school, London seemed to be a totally different world — it represented this western style of life that looked so good on television,” says Strzałkowski.
Szatyłowicz was lured by the vision of a multicultural city with museums and charming cafés. “It was a city of possibilities where everything was easier and there was no problem with finding a job,” she says.
There are around 40 flights a day from Poland to London, the majority of which are operated by low-cost airlines. Those flights are full of bright young Poles with their eyes on the opportunities — and the way of life — London offers. In 2013, 4.4 per cent of London’s migrant population had Polish nationality, according to the Migration Observatory at Oxford university.
Now the director of a large insurance company in Warsaw, 32-year-old Tadeusz Prochwicz started his career with six years in London’s financial sector. “It is a very tolerant, proper and meritocratic city,” he says.
But today, looking back at their experiences, many returning Poles admit London was not always the dream town they had imagined. “Even though I miss London, I remember endless hurry, crowds, expensive living and high levels of criminality in some neighbourhoods,” says Szatyłowicz. “I would not like to live there permanently.”
Olga Kaczmarek, an anthropologist at the University of Warsaw, says that before Poland entered the EU, a visit to London was a sign of prestige. “Well-off families would travel there and send their children on language courses,” she says. Poles still go to London to sightsee, she says, “but more people go there to look for jobs”.
Strzałkowski concurs: “Ask a Pole for directions in London and as an orientation point he will probably choose a job centre, rather than the British Museum.”
Alonso Domínguez speaks English not only flawlessly but with a posh accent he picked up living in London. This has won him kudos in the world of luxury business as he prepares to launch a retail showcase for international couture brands that have until now have had no presence in his native Mexico. But he feels London’s days as a capital of creativity are over. “There’s nothing new coming out of London,” he says.
For many Mexicans, however, the UK capital is less about novelty than tradition. That was underscored by president Enrique Peña’s visit to the UK this March, in a year in which the countries have promoted and celebrated each other’s cultures. The president rode in the Queen’s golden carriage, visited Buckingham Palace and basked in the pomp that Mexicans who have not visited London expect of the city.
“London is for an elite that can afford to send their children there to learn English,” says Andrés Rozental, former deputy foreign minister of Mexico and ambassador to the UK in the 1990s. “But the average Mexican still has an anachronistic perception. Everyone knows Britain has a queen and that London is the capital, and they might be familiar with the London Olympics, but British people know more about Mexico than anyone in Mexico knows about Britain and London.”
Gabriela Méndez, a Mexican academic who studied for a masters and a doctorate in media and communication at Goldsmiths, University of London, equates the capital with “liberalism, colonialism, capitalism and other ‘-isms’ that are not entirely lacking in controversy”. She values, above all, “the cultural diversity of its inhabitants”.
Most Mexicans, though, live in the shadow of the US. “Because we are so used to the US, the fact that London is English-speaking makes some people think it’s the same thing, so we skip it and go to Paris,” Domínguez says.
But in protocol-loving Mexico, London has one enduring merit. “It’s the place where manners come from,” he adds.
As the capital of Kenya’s former colonial ruler, London arouses the gamut of feelings in the African country. Many Kenyans keen to visit London despair of visa woes, turned down seemingly without reason despite having waited in long queues and paid hefty upfront fees. But for many, London remains home from home. Kenya’s well-to-do still send their children to the UK’s private schools and universities, and maintain links with family and friends in Britain.
Chris Foot, the son of a Kenyan mother and an English father who took up Kenyan citizenship on independence from Britain in 1963, likens the relationship to home comforts. “When you visit it’s like going back to a favourite armchair, not something new and shiny that you’re trying out,” he says.
The entrepreneur, now in his early 40s, went to school in the UK aged 10. He still buys his clothes in London: “If you want a decent suit or shirt or brogues you have to go to London for them — Jermyn Street is still a place where we all go and hit the sales, which we look forward to.” Visiting Kenyans also do what Londoners appreciate in theory but rarely make time for, he says: attending outdoor opera at Holland Park, dining out, going to plays.
London has less urban crime than Nairobi and offers the chance to walk and cycle as you please — what Foot describes as the stuff of “pixie dust”. This is freedom of the sort most Kenyans with deeper pockets can find at home only when they travel outside their capital.
For 28-year-old Nonnie Wanjihia Burbidge, who lived in Notting Hill, west London, before homesickness drove her back home to Kenya, London was a playground filled by friends she now considers extended family. Mesmerised at first by anyone with the savvy to negotiate the underground, she soon grew to prefer walking and the bus. “My love affair with the tube didn’t last very long . . . eventually the novelty wears off,” she says. But she recalls fondly the welcome she received: “When I lived there I very much felt like a Londoner rather than like a foreigner.”