Building Beijing


I have to provide a link to a tremendous William Gibson article from Wired, which is from 1993 and about Singapore but rings so many bells in terms the kind of place that the authorities currently want to build where China used to stand – a ‘single-party capitalist technocracy’, ‘a place where the physical past has ceased to exist’:

Singapore looks like an infinitely more liveable version of convention-zone Atlanta, with every third building supplied with a festive party-hat by the designer of Loew’s Chinese Theater. Rococo pagodas perch atop slippery-flanked megastructures concealing enough cubic footage of atria to make up a couple of good-sized Lagrangian-5 colonies. Along Orchard Road, the Fifth Avenue of Southeast Asia, chocka-block with multi-level shopping centers, a burgeoning middle class shops ceaselessly. Young, for the most part, and clad in computer-weathered cottons from the local Gap clone, they’re a handsome populace; they look good in their shorts and Reeboks and Matsuda shades.

There is less in the way of alternative, let alone dissident style in Singapore than in any city I have ever visited. I did once see two young Malayan men clad in basic, global, heavy metal black – jeans and T-shirts and waist-length hair. One’s T-shirt was embroidered with the Rastafarian colors, causing me to think its owner must have balls the size of durian fruit, or else be flat-out suicidal, or possibly both. But they were it, really, for overt boho style. (I didn’t see a single “bad” girl in Singapore. And I missed her.) A thorough scan of available tapes and CDs confirmed a pop diet of such profound middle-of-the-road blandness that one could easily imagine the stock had been vetted by Mormon missionaries.
Disneyland with the Death Penalty

The article, which is well worth reading right through to the end, could so easily in some places be talking about Beijing, Shanghai, or indeed Dalian, particularly when it compares the sterility of ahistorical Singapore with the spice and teeming variety of life in Hong Kong, which seemed to be, with the coming of the handover, under threat:

In Hong Kong I’d seen huge matte black butterflies flapping around the customs hall, nobody paying them the least attention. I’d caught a glimpse of the Walled City of Kowloon, too. Maybe I could catch another, before the future comes to tear it down.

Traditionally the home of pork-butchers, unlicensed denturists, and dealers in heroin, the Walled City still stands at the foot of a runway, awaiting demolition. Some kind of profound embarassment to modern China, its clearance has long been made a condition of the looming change of hands.

Interesting too that in Singapore they have realised that a city with no history is not just marketable but also something that can be franchised – to the Chinese:

In the coastal city of Longkou, Shandong province, China (just opposite Korea), Singaporean entrepreneurs are preparing to kick off the first of these, erecting improved port facilities and a power plant, as well as hotels, residential buildings, and, yes, shopping centers. The project, to occupy 1.3 square kilometers, reminds me of “Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong” in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, a sovereign nation set up like so many fried-noodle franchises along the feeder-routes of edge-city America. But Mr. Lee’s Greater Singapore means very serious business, and the Chinese seem uniformly keen to get a franchise in their neighborhood, and pronto.

It’s one thing setting up brand new privatised developments for the new rich; on the other hand, the process of quickly turning cities with millions of people and thousands of years of history into sparkling imitations of the world’s cleanest and most boring city is neither a straightforward nor painless one, especially for the people who happen to have spent their whole lives there, and especially when tens of thousands of hopefully high-spending VIPs will be spending up to three weeks in the city in, er, three years’ time. Part one of this excellent BBC documentary gives a very precise account of what is going on.

Of course it’s not something unprecedented in the modern world; the comments from the old man talking about the prospect of being shipped 20 or 30 kilometres away from his home in the centre to a place with no public transport or facilities reminded me of what someone told me years ago about being moved from the centre of Dublin to Crumlin in the south of the city in the 1950s – he compared it to going to live on the moon. The last number of years in Europe have seen a gradual hollowing out of the centre of our cities, making them more resemble cities in the US, destroying any civic sense and making us more dependent on private transport. The difference in China, I think, is to do with both the speed and the violence of the destruction.

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