Aspects of urbanization in China

This book, edited by Gregory Bracken (TU Delft), offers impressive arguments on the subject of Chinese cities and their evolution. Contributions deal mostly with architectural aspects of Chinese urbanization1. However, architecture is not an end in itself, for it is used by the authors as a tool to study the transformation of Chinese cities from post-colonial to global megalopolises.  The collected texts highlight the relations and conflicts between local and global interests and their consequences on Chinese urban society, as well as examining the impact of architecture on the social environment.

The three Chinese cities studied in this book share a common trait: they were colonial or semi-colonial cities. Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997; Shanghai was divided into foreign concessions; Guangzhou’s commercial relations with the Western world date back to the Ming dynasty, and foreign merchants enjoyed special rights there (as described by GuoXiangmin and Liu Changtao),. These cities maintain a complex relationship with their history (Lena Scheen wonders whether or not this is nostalgia) and tend to use their Past to move from post-colonial cities to global cities.

The book is divided into three sections, entitled “global ambitions”, “cultural expression” and “architectural expression”.

Contributions to the first section examine the efforts made by Chinese cities to become global cities. Leslie Sklair (LSE) studies the influence of capitalist globalisation on architecture. His view is that iconic urban monuments are used by a “transnational capitalist class” to ensure the development of global consumerism. After decolonization, cities attempted to develop a national style of modernist architecture, but this was often determined by the Western world. According to the author, although postcolonial architecture was thought to be a factor of national identity, it in fact strengthened  global consumerism   Leslie Sklair illustrates his point with several examples of cities in developing countries

The second contribution was written by Jacob Dreyer (NYU) and focuses on the creation of a new image for Shanghai. The author describes China’s efforts to transform Shanghai into a modern city with Expo 2012, using urban planning, but postponing political reforms.  The vision of the authorities is that of an ideal city. However, “a city is much more than buildings – it is a way of social relations”. These have to be taken into consideration in order to successfully transform Shanghai into a beacon of modernity. In the author’s opinion, Shanghai has the necessary infrastructures to become a global city, but needs to empower her inhabitants if she wants to acquire this rank.

Guo Xiangmin and Liu Changtao analyse discuss how Guangzhou can retrieve its status of global city without detriment to its regional role.  For the authors, “Guangzhou has to find its own special path towards being a global city in the post-colonial era”.  Throughout her history, Guangzhou has actively taken part in China’s openness to the world; this southern city was at times forced, both  by China and by foreign countries, to get involved with the rest of the world. Since the reforms, Guangzhou has become very dependent on foreign trade, and the development of the city was affected by 1997 Asian crisis, as well as the 2008 international crisis. The authors advocate a better balance between global and regional development, by expanding domestic demand and strengthening regional cooperation. In their opinion, this would increase Guangzhou’s international influence.

The second part, entitled “Cultural expression”, looks at the way Chinese cities are perceived and represented in contemporary fiction. Ana MoyaPellitero (StudioMEB) has chosen to study how contemporary Chinese film makers (Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Jia Zhang-keand Wang Xiaoshuai) depict relations and migrations between rural and urban China. Migrants’ daily lives in metropolises and urban dwellers’ bonds with their native rural homes have increasing become subjects of interests for the Chinese cinema. These movies illustrate the increasing inequalities between countryside and cities. The fifth generation of filmmakers (1980’s and 1990’s) tried not to openly criticise governmental policies on issues such as the hukou system, for fear of censorship and retaliation, whereas contemporary (sixth generation) filmmakers, using underground methods and digital cameras, have more freedom to point out the gap between rural and urban realities. The author is confident that this new fiction, as well as the new documentaries, will greatly contribute to the opening of a social debate in China.

The next text was written by Tsung-yi Michelle Huang (National University of Taiwan), who argues that in postcolonial cities such as Hong Kong, localness is a creation. To illustrate this statement, Huang chooses to analyse the movie “Little Cheung” directed by Fruit Chan in 1999. In this movie, the story of a young boy in Hong Kong in the 90’s up to the handover of Hong Kong to China, the city’s landmark symbolising its global does also represent localness.

Lilong in Shanghai, Goulard Sébastien

Lena Scheen (Leiden University) has studied the revival of old Shanghai in contemporary literature. As Shanghai is again becoming a global metropolis, the people of Shanghai seem more and more interested in learning about their city’s recent history. Lena Scheen analyses a novel, Song of Everlasting Sorrow: A Novel of Shanghai, by Wang Anyi, and the symbol in fiction of the “longtang”, which is a typical Shanghai lane house. According to the author, in this particular novel there is neither a criticism of the large-scale demolition of traditional houses, nor a sense of nostalgia for colonial Shanghai, but rather nostalgia for a typical lifestyle. Although the “longtang” seem to be transformed into characters in this novel, Wang Anyi does not plead for their preservation.  She is aware that this is an irreversible process, and although she may regret the sociability offered by the “longtang”,as well as and her own youth, she realizes that there are some things preservation programs cannot bring back.

The last part of this book is entitled “architectural expressions” and focuses on both old and new buildings in Chinese cities (Shanghai’s lilong and Hong Kong’s shopping malls).Like Lena Scheen, Non Arkaraprasertkul (Harvard University) focuses on Shanghai’s typical lane houses: the “longtang” or “lilong”.  The author does not call for the preservation of the “lilong” at all costs. Indeed, he presents  us with the drawbacks of these traditional houses, such as the poor conditions they offer to their inhabitants and the need for local authorities to increase the density of Shanghai’s city centre. However, he regrets that the social societies and residents are too often excluded from the process of decision making in matters of “lilong” preservation. He also stresses the informal heritage that the lilong offer.  When a decision is made in favour of preservation, it should not only concern the buildings, but also the residents’ social life.  The author calls for more research to be done on the lilong.

The last text, written by Jonathan Solomon (University of Hong Kong), looks at shopping malls in Hong Kong and their role as links between local and global spheres. This symbol of global cities can also be re-appropriated by locals. Although shopping malls are not meeting places where the different communities could mix together, they provide public space (a rare commodity in Hong Kong) for everyone.

This book should be read by everyone interested in Chinese cities, and not only by architects, as it demonstrates the consequences of architectural choices on many aspects of Chinese urban society. A point to remember is that cities are empty shells without their inhabitants and social activities.  Only when its inhabitants are closely involved in decision making can a city become truly global.  This book also gives us some hints about what a global city really is. It needn’t follow a Western recipe;  Chinese cities must develop their own models.

We hope that the contributors’ next studies will also include other cities in China. Because of their  history, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangzhou are different from other Chinese cities. These three cities have been strongly influenced by foreign powers, and are now trying to revive their Past in order to become global cities again. But these cities are not the only ones to aspire to a global destiny. Building an international image has become the concern of many other cities that also have to strike a balance between preservation and development, local concerns  and global.

Concerning the style of the book, we should like to mention the cohesion of the contributions; this book is clearly the result of team work, and the authors complete one another, making the reading of their work all the more interesting.

Full text available online

  1. Gregory Bracken, Aspects of urbanization in China:  Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangzhou, Amsterdam university press, 2012, 212 p. []

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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