After years of research, The Chinese Dream – a society under construction edited by Neville Mars and Adrian Hornsby is finally published!
In the summer of 2004 I took part in a field trip with the research team of the DCF, and that resulted in a chapter titled Too much joy and Pleasure in this book, and in a series of photo collages. In this story I describe my encounter with young Chinese people and discuss their dreams and ambitions, against the setting of the fast changing Chinese cityscapes of Shenzhen, Chongqing, Suining and Beijing. This is the blurb:
In China, a new myth – the myth of The Chinese Dream*— is fast amassing dreamers. It’s is not unlike the American Dream — the core component is still the promise of a wealthy middle-class lifestyle: a family, a privately owned car, and a house with your name on the lintel. However, where the American Dream is anti-urban* and rooted in the suburbs and edge-cities, The Chinese Dream* is essentially connected to the city. The city is where The Chinese Dream* can come true. And its architecture is the ultimate vehicle to promote this myth. All these newly constructed cities tell a story of modernization and progress. The message is simple; This is a modern place for modern people in a new era of Chinese modernity!
The online version of this article can be found here,
the serie photocollages – titled Imagined Cities – here as well as after the ‘continue reading’-link below, and there is also a pdf-download of the story with the pictures.
Scene 1: The leisurely flying of a kite with a view of the modern city centre
A large lawn in a city park on a hill. The park overlooks a city that boasts an impressive skyline of modern skyscrapers. On the lawn, a father shows his son how to fly a kite.
What, on that late fall Sunday in 2003, could have been a better way to spend one of my last afternoons in Shenzhen than relaxing at the Flying Kite Square on the slopes of Lianhua mountain? There I finally understood what everybody had been telling me the last few days: that Shenzhen was a beautiful city. A green city. A modern, well-planned city. A city with a high quality of life for the new class of young college-graduated professionals. Until that moment my impression of Shenzhen had for the most part resembled its depiction in the literature: an energetic but rowdy, chaotic, and rather Dickensian City, where the over-the-top-opulence of golden skyscrapers contrasts with honking cars stuck in traffic, a vast army of one legged beggars, and shady men in dark suits who offer girlfriends for the night.
But here I happened upon a much more charming scene. I saw fathers who, accompanied by a cool breeze and their smiling wives, showed their sons how to fly a kite. Young couples strolled happily over the carefully tended lawn, holding hands, sipping a mint frappuccino-to-go, flaunting their Prada sunglasses, their Gucci tank tops. Or—for those still halfway along their paths to success—their Baleno shirts or Giordano polos.
College students leisurely climbed the meandering steps to the top of the hill, to have their picture taken with their hero: a giant bronze Deng Xiaoping. In Imperial fashion his statue was placed exactly at the end of the north-south axis of the newly constructed city centre at the bottom of the hill.
From here, the view was beautiful. Pink towers of luxury apartments flanked neat rows of middle class housing, all surrounded by lushly watered green strips. And although this was a city that owed its fame and fortune to its factories, there was hardly a single chimney in sight. On the contrary, the tall stand in the distance was the 384 vertical meters of green post-industrial mirrored glass known as Shun Hing Tower—the 8th highest building in the world! Not far from there a prestigious new civic center was under construction, whose impressive architecture of glass and steel expressed both a will to be modern, as—through its pagoda-inspired roof—a hint that that this new modernity is not a mere copy of a western ideology, but the beginning of a new Chinese era.
The happy couples with their kites, the beautiful light of the late afternoon, and the enticing view of this neatly planned part of town, altogether made for an almost perfect image of the city. One that at least corresponded with the one child policy propaganda paintings I had seen across the city, in which mothers wore sexy jeans and fathers carried trendy mineral water bottles against a back drop of colourful skyscrapers. It was a setting that was very much in line with newly minted official city slogans such as, ‘Shenzhen, city of joy—life and laughter can all be found there!’ or, ‘Shenzhen—represents too much splendors and wonders. A boundless ocean of joy!’
This was Shenzhen version 2.0, a perfect city for a perfect new generation of highly educated youngsters—the Cappuccino generation, the Gucci generation, the I Want generation, or whatever they had been called by now. This part of the city at the bottom of mount Lianhua was proudly presented as an upgrade for the city that was once known for its raw, wild west capitalism of the early eighties, its brutal sweat shops, and chaotic infrastructure. Not that those were all but gone, it was just that they were no longer supposed to be part of the dominant imagery. A few years earlier Shenzhen had developed the ambition to become a World City, to get plugged into the select network of international cities that command the global economy. And for that, it was decided, it needed a new, symbolic centre, specially catered to the tastes of the international service economy. Away from the old chaotic business district—away from the Shenzhen 1.0 that had sprung up next to the Luohu border in the cowboy years of the wild south, the eighties and early nineties and where I had spent my first few days in Shenzhen.
The scene made me think of the complementary tourism brochures I had found in hotel rooms across the country. In China tourism for a large part revolves around the collecting of “scenes,” like ‘the moonlight reflecting in the marvellous river,’ or ‘seeing the fisherman boat at the lake shore.’ Travel guides and brochures usually suggest a whole list of local famous “scenes,” that then can be crossed off one by one. My vista from the top of Mount Lianhua, ‘the leisurely flying of the kites with a view of the ostensibly modern city centre,’ could easily have easily been one. Only, this “scene” wasn’t a repetition of an eternal returning past, but a glimpse of how the Chinese imagined their future. It was a scene lifted from the Chinese Dream, the new unofficial ideology of this booming country that has captured the imagination of hundreds of millions of Chinese across the country: to live a wealthy and comfortable life in a modern, cosmopolitan metropolis.
The modern cities like Shenzhen that had sprung up all over China were not just the place where this dream was supposed to come true. These cities also strongly propagated that same dream. They tried their best to display the story of modernization and progress. Not unlike the passages or World Exhibition of Walter Benjamin’s Paris, the Chinese cities with their modern architecture, their luxurious shopping malls and modern infrastructure, promised a new, truly modern life. It was this dream that urged millions of Chinese to trade their hometowns in far away places for a new life in cities such as Shenzhen, Chongqing, Chengdu or Shanghai.
It was this dream that I was after when I started my trip. How was its story told? What were its promises and enticements? What did this mean for the expectations of the new generation? How realistic was this Chinese Dream? Where could we find counter dreams? What would happen if for too many people reality would not live up to the promises of the Chinese Dream? Above all I was interested in the relation between this Chinese Dream and the new Chinese cities that were arising all over China. How did its architecture and urban planning tell the story of the Chinese Dream? And how did the expectations of this dream influence the design and planning of the cities? What issues did urban designers have to take into account when designing ever newer versions of their cities?
To find an answer to these questions I would travel like a Chinese tourist. Like them I wanted to collect my own personal series of scenes. These scenes, taken from modern life in the cities, I hoped, would tell me more about the Chinese Dream, and the issues that had to be dealt with when designing the Chinese city of 2020.
Scene 2: Sipping a cappuccino in a designer coffeebar
A designer coffee bar, based on the popular Starbucks-concept, with a modern interior. At one table a young man works on his laptop. At another three men in suits are holding a meeting.
I met Toddy in one of the new Starbucks rip-offs that had sprung up all over Shenzhen. This one had orange designer chairs, white tablecloths and a menu that listed at least twenty varieties of coffee—this was after all the new Chinese era of abundance. Toddy was one of the three million college students that had graduated from university that year, a record number. Toddy belonged to a lucky cohort. He and his fellow students made up the first generation that was born after Mao’s death. To them, the bitter days of the Cultural Revolution happened in stories reluctantly told to them by their parents. In their life, every year on their birthday, the economy had grown by another five to ten percent. Now they were ready to start their career. By 2020 they would be the heart of the new Chinese middle class.
Toddy had graduated from university in far away Yunnan Province only a few days earlier. Right after the ceremony, he had packed his belongings in a few boxes and taken a plane to Shenzhen. This was the city that he had been dreaming about since he was a small boy. One of his former roommates had already moved here and offered him a place to stay. ‘I was so excited when I landed at the airport,’ Toddy said. ‘I felt the same way the Chinese who emigrated to America a hundred years ago must have felt. Shenzhen is the city of liberty. A city of opportunity. And now I am here!’ Toddy enthusiastically recited the unofficial Shenzhen Mythology that in the last decade of the previous century had taken the imagination of many Chinese. This was after all the city were the Chinese Dream was born. In the late 1970s Deng Xiaoping appointed this rural strip of banana plantations and rice paddies just across a muddy stream from Hong Kong’s New Territories as the first Special Economic Zone. Here, foreign investors were invited to set up factories and start joint ventures to sell their products. This was the place where capitalism entered China. Now it was a city of—depending on who did the counting— 4 to 7 million people.
Not long after Deng’s edict, stories about this new land of opportunity started to travel across the country. Somewhere in the south, it was whispered, there was a brand new city with plenty of jobs. A city with gold coloured high rise and moving stairs. In at least one small town far away across the country, a high schools renamed itself ‘Shenzhen High,’ stressing the aspirations its education could fulfil. Soon people started talking about Shenzhen-speed—the until-then unheard of pace of development—or the Shenzhen-generation—those who had taken advantage of this speed and got rich first.
Toddy himself remembered when he was a little boy, he heard the grown-ups talk about this city. ‘There,’ they said, ‘is a place where you can become rich.’ These stories were fuelled by recruiters who travelled to remote villages to hire farmers for the new factories. And by migrants who returned to their villages with both stories of success and their trophies of modernity—watches, TV sets, money.
Since then, the Chinese Dream had evolved into at three different packages. There was a Chinese Dream Lite, that held the aspirations of uneducated farmers from undeveloped regions who migrated to the cities in search of mere economic betterment. For them cities like Shenzhen were places were they could make some money in its factories. There was the medium-sized pack, the Chinese Dream Family Edition, which held the dreams of middle class life for urban professionals. For them the city was a place where they could realize their new lifestyle. And then there was the Supersize XXL edition, that promised tycoon-style living for the very rich. For them the city was the place where they could show-off their wealth in its ever more luxurious hotels, restaurants and real estate. Toddy and most of fellow graduates belonged in the second category: striving towards a comfortable modern life in the city.
‘We are a new generation,’ Toddy continued while taking a little sip of his cappuccino. He had only recently started drinking coffee—one of the insignia of belonging to that new generation—but hadn’t quite grown accustomed to its bitter taste.
‘We don’t care about politics,’ he continued. ‘We care about the economy.’ Toddy, like so many others, had come to Shenzhen because this was an apolitical city, across the high mountains, far away from the capital Beijing. That at the flying kite square I had seen so many youngsters lining up to have their picture taken before Deng Xiaoping’s statue quite paradoxically only seemed to reinforce that attitude. To them, Deng was the founder of China’s economic reforms, the father of this cosmopolitan and hard line capitalist city at the border with Hong Kong. Their university education, those Gucci’s and frappuccinos, the small private cars with which they had come to Mount Lianhua, the freedom not to have to worry about politics, they owed it all to him. ‘We want to work hard and make a fortune,’ Toddy concluded. ‘We want to build up our country. That is the dream of all the young people in Shenzhen. We want to buy a car and an apartment and raise a family.’
Scene 3: City with concrete carcasses, city with golden towers
View on downtown from a slightly elevated position. The skyline holds both fancy new skyscrapers with pastel or gold tinted mirrored glass, as well as bare concrete structures of 20 or more stories that were never finished.
Chinese cities are not unlike software packages: they are continuously being updated to keep pace with the ever increasing processor speed of the economy and the ever increasing expectations of its users. Like software that is being rushed to the market, glitches and security risks only come forward after it has been widely distributed and installed, thus increasing the demand for patches and updates even further.
The designer coffeebar was one of the new features of Shenzhen 2.0. But when later that afternoon Toddy showed me around the rest of Shenzhen, the city quickly started to look different. Gone was the picture-perfect look from Lianhua Mountain. Here, in the Luohu district near the border with Hong Kong, we could sense the rush in which this city was put together. Different parts of this district were awkwardly connected to each other. In one street they had forgotten to plan the sidewalks. Two blocks further they had hastily inserted an elevated highway, that suddenly had cut the neighbourhood in two. The cityscape of blue and green and gold mirrored glass was interrupted by a handful of incomplete bare concrete towers. During construction, the developers had run off with the money or failed to come up with a profitable business plan. The broad boulevards were full of cars. The shops, packed with fake brand name backpacks, shoes, and T-shirts, spilled on the sidewalk. On almost every street corner hawkers offered cheap DVDs and inexpensive “girlfriends.” We had entered Shenzhen version 1.0, the older part of town that was built mainly in the eighties and nineties.
A group of young girls clapped their hands, trying to lure passers by into a big tent that was set on one of the little squares. Inside they showed us large photo albums with wedding pictures. They were not taken in a traditional Chinese style—a couple happily smiling in front of a waterfall, but resembled the photography style of glossy magazines. On the day of your life, you could pretend to play the lead in a lifestyle ad for an expensive perfume or high-end fashion brand. Beggars without arms or legs— victims of long working days and lax enforcement of safety regulations in Shenzhen’s industry—sat on the pavement. Some of them had written the tragic endings of their Chinese Dream on large sheets of paper posted in front of them.
The chaotic look of downtown Shenzhen was not caused by a lack of trying from the city officials. Patches—in the forms of campaigns- were being distributed regularly. Official policy tried to encourage Shenzhen citizens to keep up the tidy postcard look of the city that I had seen on Mount Lianhua. In the ‘Spiritual Civilization Campaign,’ prizes were awarded for streets and neighbourhoods without informal shops or illegal immigrant housing. Although this campaign was officially started to counter the unwanted by-products of modernisation, in recent years the state has changed their interpretation of Civilised Activities. It now promoted leisure consumption such as going out to the movies or acquiring computer skills. All sorts of campaigns were continuously staged to promote Shenzhen as an international city. One of the vice-mayors had set up a campaign to improve English-language skills. 57% of Shenzhen residents, he had found, believed they needed to improve their English. Official policy promoted, as Carolyn Cartier observed, not only the picture-perfect urban appearance, but also a modern urban lifestyle. A new ideology that according to Cartier ‘would mould the populace to live daily life under a kind of Chinese Fordism in which daily activities are hinged to the temporal and spatial conditions of mass production and consumption.’
As we walked on, past Japanese noodle chains, DVD outlets and karaoke-parlors, we came across a small bookstore that doubled as another lounge bar. La Vie Materièle, the shop was called. It had the usual features of a Shenzhen bar: large TV screens showed a live broadcast of the English premier league, another menu with 20 sorts of coffee, a choice of 5 types of whiskey and three brands of beer, the latter promoted by three young girls in sexy Formula 1-style outfits with the logo of their employers printed all over. The collection of books was however remarkable. Most bookstores I visited in China always had the same foreign books on display: Harry Potter, and a handful of biographies of remarkable men and strong women like Hilary Clinton and David Beckham. This shop featured books on Dada and film history. Business, however, did not fare well. ‘People don’t read much in Shenzhen,’ the owner told us. ‘They are too busy with their career.’ That was an observation I came across more often in Shenzhen. Just after the Chinese new year of 2005, Shenzen museums complained they received far fewer visitors than museums in other cities in the country. ‘The reasons leading to this weird phenomenon relate not only to the makeup of the city’s population, which has young migrants from all over the country as its majority, but also to the priority the city has put on economic development during the past two decades,’ noted Sun Zhenhau, president of the Shenzhen Sculpture Institute.
‘There is no culture here,’ the owner of the bookshop acknowledged. But Toddy refused to agree. ‘No culture is also a culture,’ he said. ‘Do you think when America rose to power, there was much culture there? Shenzhen has its own specific culture.’
For a moment, I thought I understood what Toddy meant. From the early eighties on Shenzhen had become known as a rowdy city, that attracted all sorts of vagabonds looking for quick money. According to some stories, the city was full of gangsters, prostitutes and drug addicts. Some apartment towers were completely occupied with young single girls: the mistresses of Hong Kong businessmen who had another family on the other side of the border. It was a dangerous city as well: between 1991 and 1998 127 businessmen were kidnapped and released for ransom. It was this culture that could be seen on the photographs of Shenzhen artist Yang Yong. He portrayed rich youngsters, lying on their expensive sofas in their flashy new apartments. Their closets were filled with designer labels, but the bored look with which they stared into the camera could only mean one thing: their lives were empty.
I found more or less the same atmosphere in Mian Mian’s much hyped novel Candy. ‘A lot of lost people came to Shenzhen from elsewhere,’ Mian Mian stated in an interview in the English translation of her book. ‘They all dreamed of using money to save their life. That kind of existential void, in a place with no history and consequently no family or community ties, resulted in a cannibalistic society. It is such a cruel city. It has no heart, there is no such a thing as friendship there. No one is your friend.’ Yang Yong, when I had visited him on another occasion had said almost the same. ‘The new generation is spoiled and egoistic. They want to get rich quick, but they also give up quickly, and then they get depressed. You don’t read about that in the newspapers. There they only tell you that life is getting better.’ Could his work then be seen as a criticism to the mainstream? I had asked him ‘No,’ he said. ‘I am just an observer. Besides, there is nothing wrong with egoism. I am a big egoist myself.’
Was this the Shenzhen culture that Toddy referred to? Toddy smiled awkwardly. I had clearly embarrassed him, bringing this up. This was not a topic he liked to discuss, and certainly not the idea of a new culture he had in mind when he came to Shenzhen.
‘This is what I mean,’ Toddy said, when we were back on the street, pointing at the construction sites of luxury condos that we were passing. ‘Many young people are creating a miracle here, because we have created a new city in a very short time,’ he claimed. ‘In Shenzhen there are no old buildings, and no old people. We want to build up this country. It is good that the old buildings have been destroyed. They would clash with the modern architecture. We don’t need history here. We are creating it. And we are proud of that. That is our culture.’ Toddy hadn’t come to Shenzhen for its sleazy nightclubs or its easy money. He had come their in order to build up his own life, and his country. To become part of a new mainstream culture, not to rebel against it.
In the next few days I came across many more examples of the almost manic optimism that accompanied Toddy’s goals. Hardly anybody I met mentioned the prostitutes or the night clubs. Of course, they were still there. And of course, people still visited them. But they seemed no longer a part of the 2.0 version of the Shenzhen myth. Instead I heard this same mantra over and over again: ‘Shenzhen is a new city. A city where you can buy all sort of things. A city with nice restaurants and parks. A green city, a pleasant city. A city without history,’ which in Shenzhen is meant as a positive attribute. ‘Shenzhen is nowhere,’ wrote Ian Buruma. ‘But for many young Chinese that is precisely its attraction. To be relieved of the burdens of home, history and tradition is a form of liberation. Opportunities await at the frontiers of the wild south.’ Whether or not Shenzhen still was nowhere could be argued about. Over the years its new 2.0 architecture was giving the city a distinct identity. But it certainly was a timeless city, a city without history, a city that looked forward rather than backward, where the difference between “now” and “new” had almost ceased to exist.
It was this culture of the new, where every moment seemed to promise a better life that had made Toddy almost intoxicated. But listening to Toddy, it almost seemed as if the process of change had become a goal in itself. It wasn’t so much the eventual outcome of the modernizing process that enthused him. It was rather the idea of being part of a generation, the feeling of belonging to a collective, that was about to change the world that energized him so much. Newness, modernity and change in itself had become the main force of this optimistic, collective energy, that I could feel everywhere in Shenzhen.
Scene 4: City of joy, carefully decorated with plants and flowers
View of a billboard along a new highway, whose shoulder is remarkably green, thanks to its freshly sprinkled lawns and flowerbeds. The billboard promotes the city as a place where young people can have a good time, both in Chinese and English, and is accompanied by pictures of happy, smiling youngsters hanging out together.
From the downtown area, Toddy decided, it was better to take a taxi to the neighbourhood where he lived. Since it was already a little later, most of the traffic had disappeared by now, and the taxi sped along the broad boulevards, between impressive skyscrapers. As we came onto the ramp to the highway, Toddy announced that we would soon understand why he liked Shenzhen so much. ‘You see,’ he said, ‘Shenzhen is a green city.’ And indeed, as long as we stayed on the freeway it was. The shoulders of the road had been turned into small parks. Flyovers were covered in ivy. The empty spaces within the clover leafs were flowerbeds. ‘Shennan Avenue,’ I later read in a brochure that was meant to point out all Shenzhen’s amenities, ‘is the longest parkway in China. The green area along the road is as large as 300 football fields and the over five million plants have helped to add a fantastic look to it. Every intersection and each block along the road is carefully decorated with plants and flowers.’ Critics later told me that this was the easy way to puff up the statistics. You can have an impressive number of square meters of parkland in your city, yet without wasting precious building grounds. And while I thought it was somewhat paradoxical that the only way to experience a park was by riding on the freeway in your car, Toddy did enjoy these parkways. For him, it was one more proof that he lived in a modern city, where people owned private cars which gave them the freedom to go wherever they wanted. He proudly pointed at the billboards, that again affirmed the culture of the new. Here, the old fashioned billboard on which political leaders such as Deng or Jiang posed in front of the impressive new skylines that their policies had fathered, had been replaced by images of modern houses on sale, golf courses, shopping malls of the future, and young people enjoying city life.
I started wondering: Could this “culture of the new” be seen as a Chinese variant on what Richard Florida had called the culture of the creative class ? In the United States, his theory states, cities that are economically doing well, are known for their high score on his ‘bohemian index’—a measure of artists, writers, and performers and the presence of their subcultural lifestyle, such as cafés with open mike evenings, squatters that organize popconcerts and art galleries. The presence of these often underground venues attracts people that Florida has named the creative class: people who work in universities, at design-firms and ad-agencies, with consultancy firms or software development companies. According to this theory, status is attributed to creative artists that refuse to conform, who follow their own insights or inner drives and often even question and critique mainstream culture and practices. People in this creative class, even if they don’t belong to this narrow group of artists, feel attracted to these countercultural values and the proliferation of different lifestyles in a city.
At the beginning of this century, almost all of China’s cities scored very low on this bohemian index. But could they make up for that with their culture of the new? Toddy himself had told me that he did not want to place himself outside the mainstream, but rather help to build it up. Toddy and most of his generation didn’t particularly care for the countercultural ideas. For them, a city did not become attractive per se, when it hosted a wide range of alternative and bohemian lifestyles. Instead, they were mainly excited but by the fact that they were creating a new, consumerist mainstream culture.
This is a slight, but important difference: in the United States, espresso bars are popular because they have a certain bohemian atmosphere. They have a symbolic rather nostalgic value that refers to the places where artists and writers used to make wild plans for alternative societies. Where they discussed Sartre while sipping black coffee. Even present day businessmen feel attracted to this attitude—it was after all all the rage when they grew up in the sixties. Even if you wear a tie and formal suit, when ordering coffee, you can shortly imagine yourself to be a revolutionary avant-garde artist.
In China, Starbucks is popular because it is a modern and professional place where it is appropriate to hold business meetings. Here people discuss plans to build up the economy rather than dream of an alternative society. Here patrons discuss plans while drinking cappuccino, and imagine being the CEO of a large multinational company.
For now Shenzhen’s new urban policy seemed geared toward the values of this new Chinese professional avant-garde. One of the main goals of Shenzhen 2.0 was to efface the chaos of its earlier versions, to impose an almost perfect order on the city. Shenzhen’s city branding campaign stressed Shenzhen not as a creative city with many lifestyles, but as a mainstream consumerist city, ‘a city of joy,’ where young Chinese people have new experiences, like going to theme parks like Windows of the World. Shenzhen, its brochures promised, was a city where you could play golf in fancy new resorts, or enjoy a day at the beach.
I wondered however whether that would also be a smart decision for the longer term. Would future generations remain interested in this culture of the new? Or would they, growing up in even greater wealth than Toddy’s generation, become interested in less material goals? Would they—as some artists in Beijing and Shanghai had already started—develop a more critical eye, and an interest in more alternative lifestyles? Would their growing wealth lead to more playful and experimental expression of their identities? Would they long for an urbanism that much more than the postcard Shenzhen 2.0 allowed for small pockets of resistance? The ordered and sanitized reality of Shenzhen 2.0 was of course more pleasant than the chaos of the earlier incarnations. But would future generations like it as much as everyone in Shenzhen now did? Or would they become rather bored? Of course they still could find whatever their urge was in the old downtown. But was there not a way to carry some of the action and energy of Shenzhen 1.0 into its updates?
I asked Toddy what other cities he had considered moving to. For a short while he had considered Shanghai. ‘It is also a modern city. But it is a lot harder to make it there. You have to have connections. Here in Shenzhen it’s easier. Because it is a new city, nobody has connections, so you have more opportunities.’ Had he considered moving back to Lanzhou, the capital of one of China’s inland provinces, where his parents lived. ‘No,’ Toddy said. ‘Life is cheaper there, but for young people it is not an option. There are no career options. And more important: you can’t enjoy yourself. In the coastal cities you can go to concerts and musicals. Last time I was in Shanghai to visit a friend we went to Les Miserables. You know, the real Jean Valjean from Paris was there! It was great!’
More questions started to come up. By the time we arrived at Toddy’s apartment, I couldn’t help wondering how often one would have to renew a myth like the “culture of the new.” The aura of newness that surrounded Shenzhen was at least partly imagined. Toddy’s apartment block certainly did not look new to me. In fact, he lived in one of the oldest buildings in the city, an early 1980s concrete block, drawn by architects who still worked with the algebraic logic of efficiency for which the communist housing of those days was known. It was almost an anachronism against the skyline of coloured glass.
But how long before these new apartment towers that were now surrounding Toddy’s simple apartment would in turn become anachronisms as well? I thought this question especially relevant, since many buildings in China are constructed with such haste, that already after a year or two they start to deteriorate severely. When in mid 2005 I visited Pudong, the new development across the Hangpu river in Shanghai, on its fifteenth birthday, I was struck by how they had already started tearing down the first new settlements which, barely more than a decade ago, they had so proudly presented as emblems of the future. In such a short space of time, they had become completely outdated and worn down. Was this going to happen across the rest of China as well? Would there also be a Shenzhen 3.0, a Shanghai 4.0, a China 7.2 once the newness of 2.0 started to wear off? In this country of continuously rising expectations, how do you plan and build for anything except the immediate future?
That seemed an important question, since so much seemed to be based on the culture of the new. Even the communist party was relying on the appeal of the Chinese Dream and its promise of the new. Would China just keep on reinventing itself, constantly tearing down everything that was older than ten years for the new new thing? It would be hard, but might not be impossible. After all, The United States has already been a country ‘without history,’ but with a vibrant mythical dream of opportunity for more than two centuries.
The city of Shenzhen at least seemed to be following this update strategy. At the time I visited, the city was going through a difficult time. As more parts of the country opened up for foreign investment, Shenzhen had become too expensive. Factories looking for cheap labour supplies moved further up-country, large companies chose sexy Shanghai over chaotic Shenzhen. To them Shanghai 3.0 seemed even newer and sexier than Shezhen 2.0. Cities within China had entered a fervent competition, trying to outdo each other with ever higher towers and newer versions of their cities.
Shenzhen was now trying to rebrand itself as a hi-tech center, a place with leading universities and research labs. Hence the new city brochures, that no longer showed images of Fordist assembly lines, but instead boasted pictures of young academics in white coats behind their microscopes. Numbers crunched out by the University of Hong Kong underwrote these aspirations. ‘In 2005, for every 100 people, there will be 85 mobile phones; cable TV will reach over 95% of the city’s population; over 50% of its residents will have access to digital TV; for every 100 households there will be over 80 computers; for every 10,000 people there will be 4,600 subscribers to the Internet.’ The new Shenzhen also had an eye to becoming a green Shenzen. Brochures emphasized the quality of the new city and the attention the city government had for the environment, as one of the main features of the new Shenzhen. ‘High Quality buildings have won the city numerous prizes, including the nation’s top Luban award and 38 other awards of or above the ministerial level in China as well as the first international prize from the Union Internationale des Architects,’ one of the brochures claimed, with the usual Chinese fondness for classification systems. Air quality and environmental soundness were amongst the most important new features of the updated version of the city, as were the parkways we had rode on the way to Toddy’s house.
Scene 5: Learning from Yang Liwei
An organized march or staged event celebrating one of China’s official new heroes, seen either live on TV, or on the streets downtown. Often followed by a commercial adaptation of the new hero, found on supermarket displays and advertising billboards.
We climbed the stairs—there was no elevator—to Toddy’s apartment. Apart from a shiny, brand new refrigerator it was empty. The only other furniture was an unsteady kitchen table and two purple stools, made of bright plastic. That this building was a little run-down and old fashioned didn’t seem to matter to Toddy at all. After all, this was just a temporary place to live. No need to buy real furniture. In a few years, he dreamt openly, he would own his own nicely decorated apartment.
After we had been sitting on the small caged balcony for a while, Toddy turned on the television. The news showed a clip of Yang Liwei—the astronaut, or taikonaut in official jargon —who was launched into orbit two weeks ago to become the first Chinese in space. On his return, the communist party awarded him the official title “space-hero.” Together with his capsule Yang was sent on a tour through the country, appearing in cities such as Shanghai and Hong Kong. And it wasn’t just a political propaganda campaign. Clever businessmen had also embraced the new hero the communist party had spin-doctored. Watchmakers, mobile phone companies and dairy farms all advertised their official space-branded products. Their supermarket displays featured a space theme, urging customers to buy their brand of milk.
The television news had been showing bits of Yang Liwei every day since the successful launch. By now, we knew everything we could possibly want to know about him. We learned that as a young boy he had worked hard and helped his classmates, that he had always wanted to become an astronaut, and that thanks to his devoted study he had made his own dream come true.
Although Yang is a hero of the new China, his canonization fitted perfectly in the communist tradition. But the lessons to be learned from Yang Liwei were different. Once, Chinese were supposed to ‘Learn from Lei Feng,’ the manufactured hero of the People’s Liberation Army who had proclaimed the true communist spirit: ‘I am a screw that never rusts—sticking to the place where the party assigned me.’ As Michael Keane has pointed out, in the days of Mao, people were regarded as raw material. They were denied the right to express feelings or personal aspirations.
Yang Liwei however told a different story. At first of course his space trip was a symbol of modernity. China was no longer just the factory of the world, but a modern country with modern technology. Time and time again it was stressed that only two other countries in the world were ever able to put a man into space. Yang Liwei gave the Chinese once more a reason to be proud of the achievements of their country. His canonization is symbolic of a shift in the official imagination. As Jasper Becker has noted, in the Mao years, the Chinese were told that they belonged to the Collective of Communists. In schools across the country there were portraits of famous Communists: Lenin, Marx, Mao. But in the last two decades the position had moved from ‘We are all communists’ to ‘We are all Chinese.’ Schools in their halls now displayed portraits of famous Chinese: inventors, poets and politicians. Yang Liwei was just a new portrait in the pantheon of outstanding Chinese.
But there was also another level at which people must ‘Learn from Yang Liwei.’ Yang was not just a screw put there where his country needed him. He was presented as a hero who did have personal ambitions, who set his mind to them and realized them. He always dreamt of being an astronaut, he had said in many interviews. His whole lifetime he had studied hard to realize these goals, and now he was the first Chinese in space. In other words, in the new China it was no longer the state that was responsible for your life. It was the individual itself that had to take charge. When the Yang Liwei tour landed in Hong Kong a few days earlier, he had said so himself. In a fully packed sports stadium, he was interviewed by a few students. ‘You must always believe that you will realize your dreams,’ he stated, ‘even if they seem impossible.’ At the end of the ceremony the famous actor Jackie Chan joined him on stage. Together they sang a song, that combined the communist tradition of self-critique with an almost American optimism—A Person Has To Better Themselves Forever.
The Yang Liwei-campaign struck a note in a larger chord. After decades of forced conformism, it had now become the goal of many Chinese to become a special person, someone who stood out from the crowd. After decades of just surviving, this was a time where you could go out and try to realize your dreams. In one of the newspapers, the editor of the newly introduced Chinese Guinness Book of Records spoke about the enormous number of entries that they had received, ranging from an eighty year old man who could stand on his head to ten thousand school children in Shenzhen who had simultaneously brushed their teeth. ‘As Chinese people live more comfortable lives,’ the editor stated, ‘they have more time to do things they like. They have the time to live out their dreams. Everyone wants to be the best.’
I asked Toddy what he thought about the space program. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You might like a certain delicious dish. But if you eat it every day, even the most delicious dish becomes a little bit boring.’ Did that mean he didn’t care for China’s endeavours in outer space? ‘No, I think it is great that we have achieved this. It is a great scientific achievement. Only two other countries can do this. And Yang Liwei also proves something else. If you set you mind to something and you work really hard, than you can achieve it.’
Even though Toddy was enthusiastic about the program, he was not completely uncritical. Not long after the return of Yang Liwei China had announced plans for trips to—and even a permanent base on—the moon. ‘Did you see this week’s The Economist?’ he asked. ‘On the front page it said, “If China is indeed a modern country, is it still eligible for development aid?” But there are still many poor regions in China. What good does a man in space do for them. Wouldn’t they rather have had a new road?’
A good question. The well orchestrated media event around Yang’s space trip was another promise that China was on its way to become a modern country, a message that fuelled the imagination even in poorer and backward regions, that renewed the promise of progress and newness. But I also wondered how long a regime could get away with constantly promising a better future without improving the actual living conditions in many poorer parts of the country. But here in Shenzhen the question could almost seem irrelevant.
But it did make me wonder, whether a city like Shenzhen should address those issues. How long would it be able to get away with just updating itself, without concern for the larger environment it was a part of? Over the years, the city was no longer a stand alone application, but had become integrated in both regional, national and international networks, that operated at different speeds. There was the international network of global cities that Shenzhen wanted to become part of. There was the regional and even national network through which raw materials, finance, goods, ideas and people circulated, all driven by their own logic, at their own speed. The network of uneducated migrants—poor villages in hard to reach regions connected to Shenzhen by slow rail, bus connections, and a light information flow—had a completely different dynamic from the network of Toddy’s generation—formed by university cities connected by air, and a high information flow. The Chinese Dream of these two groups were not only of different sizes, but also acted at different speeds. Rather than just updating the city itself to the ever increasing demands of this last group, maybe the question should be how to find the right balance, how to keep these different networks operational at the same time, how to find the right conversion program between all these different operating speeds, between these different levels of imagination, between the Chinese Dream Lite, the Chinese Dream Family Edition, and the Supersize XXL.
Scene 6: Developing Chengdu into a modern city
A downtown redevelopment plot, surrounded by white fences to which billboards are attached. These billboards show pictures of modern buildings, with young professional people wearing suits, ties and briefcases. In real life, provincial construction workers with yellow and red hard hats are having lunch, squatting on the sidewalk just in front of the building site.
In the summer of 2004 I visited Chengdu, a city of around eight million in Sichuan province. Sparkle, an energetic 23 year old girl, had promised to show me around. She was a university friend of Toddy’s, and now lived in Chengdu. I met her in the lobby of my hotel, not far from Chengdu’s main square. While we walked there, Sparkle told me that she had grown up in a very small village in the backward province of Guiyang. It was there that she had taken on her remarkable English name. ‘At high school in English class we hade to make up a name,’ she said. ‘Sparkle sounded good.’ Her best friend went by the name Apple. Another friend called herself Bubble—until recently. She now worked in an international hotel and the manager found her name unsuited to communicate with foreign guests. He had renamed her Wendy.
‘We didn’t know much about English then,’ Sparkle excused herself. ‘One of the boys called himself Robot. Another KFC. One guy even called himself Rose, because he was a fan of Guns N’ Roses.’ Sparkle had worked her way up and was now an English teacher herself in one of the better middle schools in Chengdu. When her students took on English names, she tried to make sure that at least the boys wouldn’t pick a girl’s name, she said.
I found this name game an interesting metaphor. Over the last ten years or so the Chinese, in their drive to be modern, had started to copy everything western they could get their hands on, without knowing much of the context or its true application. Not only in their names, but also in interior design, in product packages, in the development of restaurants and nightclubs, in architecture, in, well, almost everything. But over the last few years a small elite of Chinese had grown more sophisticated. Satellite television and international magazines showed them what the west—or Japan in the East—really looked like. A first group of cosmopolitans had even travelled their themselves. Little by little, this elite had now started to develop a more refined sense of style, which was slowly starting to trickle down into all aspects of life. But was it also happening in architecture?
When we arrived at Chengdu’s central square, it turned out to be mostly off-limits. It was currently under reconstruction. Even Mao’s statue on the north side of the square was scaffolded to receive a fresh, new look. Chengdu had been a quiet provincial back-water for a long time, Sparkle explained. It was famous for its mild climate, its laid back atmosphere and its spicy, traditional Sichuan food, notably its hotpot. But recently Chengdu had found itself right at the front of a new modernization campaign.
In the first round of China’s opening up policies, foreign investors mainly turned to the coastal cities and former foreign concession ports such as Shenzhen, Xiamen, Ningbo, Dalian and Shanghai. Now, it was hoped in provincial capitals throughout China, the inland cities would get their share. An idea that was encouraged by the central government. These days, “Go west,” was an official motto. This, officials hoped, would somewhat close the poverty gap that had sprung up between the coastal regions and the rest of China.
And thus, to prove that this new future would indeed arrive, that they too were part of the culture of the new, all over western China, old cities were being torn down to make way for a more convincing modern look. As an advance on the Chinese Dream, fancy skyscrapers were being put up at an incredible speed. Numerous cities simply called their own hi-tech zones into being, whether there actually were hi-tech companies or not. Large infrastructural projects such as highways and new railways were under construction to connect all these newly modernized cities. But where in Shenzhen the new city centre was all but finished and the economy had indeed taken off, Chengdu was only half way to realizing its own version of the Chinese Dream. If they were just finishing up Shenzhen 2.0, then Chengdu was the Chinese City version 1.5.
Sparkle suggested a taxi ride through the city. From the back seat, she started to point out the recent changes. Many of the infamous concrete communist worker’s housing—or at least those facing the through ways—had received a fresh layer of deep red or bright green paint over the last few years. The modernization process hadn’t stopped there. Like everywhere in China, in a Haussmann-like operation, old city blocks were cleared to make room for tall skyscrapers and broad boulevards. Ringroads were added—at the time of my visit they just finished the third circular artery around the city—in a loosing race to keep up with the growing number of private cars. ‘The whole city is being redeveloped right now,’ Sparkle proudly announced, pointing to the numerous fences that surrounded the numerous construction sites.
These fences made it quite hard to see the actual transformation of the city. Large shining metallic screens were wrapped around old hutong-style villages. Wooden fences kept bare wasteland waiting to be developed off screen. White stone walls withheld constructions sites from the public image. And if the emerging structures grew taller than their fences, they were draped in Christo-style green construction curtains. Large parts of the old city were encapsulated in a cocoon, just like a caterpillar waiting to emerge as a butterfly.
I asked Sparkle what she thought of this modernization campaign. She liked it.. But when she first arrived here, the shock was quite severe. ‘I remember when I first came to Chengdu,’ she recalled. ‘I was frightened and amazed at the same time. Those tall buildings, the beautiful lights at night. And then the shops. In one of them I saw a watch that cost 10,000 RMB! It takes people in my village twenty or thirty years to make that kind of money!’
Around noon, we stopped at one of the construction sites. It was lunch time, and the construction workers were released from work. Their yellow and red hard hats made it easy to recognize them. Not only for us, but also for a few local entrepreneurs who had travelled on their bike carts to the site to sell home cooked meals—rice with cabbage and a little meat. The workers ate the food squatted on the sidewalk, using their helmets as a stool. ‘These workers come from small towns in the provinces, like mine,’ Sparkle said. ‘Usually they live in small barracks on the construction site, or they camp on the unfinished floors of the towers they are building.’ That, I realized, was probably the closest they would ever come to Chinese Dream, Family Edition they were building right here. One of the younger workers, who was 17, didn’t seem to mind that. Just like Toddy, he seemed impressed by the culture of the new. ‘We work hard he said,’ he said. ‘But we have a good time. We are all from the same village. We work together, and we live together. At night we all huddle together, and tell each other stories. There’s really a good atmosphere. And I get to see the big city. It’s an adventure.’
By then I was getting curious to find out what the new city so mysteriously under construction behind all these fences would look like once it was finished. But when we tried to peek in at the construction sites, we were quickly sent away by security guards. To get an idea of the future look of Chengdu, we had to make do with the ever present billboard-urbanism. Large signs everywhere in the city showed pictures of the new, coming city. They showed tall apartment blocks. Or horizontal American style suburbs. Both were deliberately modern and surrounded by ample green, landscaped spaces, where modern people (business men in suits, or young women dressed for leisure) could relax and find refuge from the hectic city outside.
These would be places, they showed us, for successful people. To stress this point, these developments were given voluptuous names: The Rose Garden, Dragon Village, Purple Jade Village, Seasons Park (‘Home of Tycoons’), Moon River (‘Private houses of the type of the seven-star hotel’) or Haoyang Plaza (‘The world-class Architectural Designers Masterpiece, feel the peace in such a pleasant and harmonious environment’) or Yuppie International Condos. One even directly advertised itself as Place Realize The Dream.
With a few exceptions, the buildings imagined on the billboards mimicked western styles. They reflected the luxury of European baroque architecture. Pastel colours, pillars and other roman ornaments were also popular. Most of them were still rather crude, kitschy copies. Others promised the glass and steel cosmopolitan attitude of modernism combined with the Chinese fondness for soft toned colours.
In a way the atmosphere these billboards promised was somewhat reminiscent of the European modernist movement of the 1920s. Western modernism as epitomized by Le Corbusier was a utopian program. As Mario Gandelsonas wrote in Shanghai Reflections, it ‘proposed replacing the dreary, ugly and unhealthy fabric of the historical city with a modern green city of gridded avenues and crystalline Cartesian skyscrapers.’ It promised a new city with a rigid functional division for a new, modern man.
The Chinese architecture as presented on these billboards made a similar claim. History and traditional building styles were swept away with a stroke of the wrecking ball, to make room for an architecture of the future. But the architecture of these new buildings also had another function. They had to provide the city and its inhabitants with a certain prestige—hence the often lush and opulent ornamental additions to the rigid demands of modernist architecture. It was indeed a new architecture for a new man and a new society. But it was made clear that this new society revolved around becoming successful in the market economy. A society in which it also became more and more important to show off your success, and flaunt your status. It was—as Scott and Venturi would say—a modernism built for man, not for mankind. It was a Chinese Moderni$m.
And this Chinese Moderni$m was all over the place. It had become a gimmick, eagerly adopted by developers. The housing market in China had changed over the last few years. ‘Housing construction is no longer driven by housing need for basic accommodation as defined in the socialist era but rather by demand for the ownership of lifestyles,’ concluded academic researcher Fulong Wu. Since the start of the 1990s the focus of housing construction had turned from simply meeting accommodation needs to enhancing and improving the quality of housing. The average space per person had shot up from less than 3m2 per person to a little more than 17m2. But these numbers by themselves were not impressive enough any more. Project developers tried to appeal the new class of home buyers by differentiating their products. They weren’t selling mere housing and shelter solutions any longer. They started selling a lifestyle, a modern forward-looking lifestyle that resonated with the new middle class. ‘Developers turn to globalization as a new source of imagination to foster suppressed desires,’ Fulong Wu wrote. Some projects were even sold as “authentic” copies of developments in the USA. In Beijing the suburb of Orange County prided itself on being an exact copy of a Californian neighbourhood that, according to the brochures, won the prestigious New Homes in the USA 1999 prize. Or when the project itself wasn’t a direct copy of something western, it was at least popular to give it an English sounding name. The Chinese “townhouse” is a case in point. Prior to the nineties this form of housing did not exist in China. But rather than creating a new term, developers just transcribed the English, using three Chinese characters which when pronounced sound somewhat like “townhouse”: Tang hao zhi. Literally this means ‘mouse in the soup.’ This confusing name is part of the process of modernity distinction. Just like the various English acronyms in common use in Chinese—SOHO, CLD, CBD—it is comprehensible only to an initiated in-crowd, who speak a little English, and flaunt their modernity by using these terms.
Scene 7: Developing Chengdu into a historical city
A decayed historical neighbourhood, downtown. The clamour of construction sites a few blocks away. The noise mingles with the soundtrack of everyday street-life: hawking newspapers, roasting kebabs, playing mah jong.
During my stay in Chengdu, every day I was woken up at exactly 8am by the stern sounds produced by the morning protocol of my hotel’s security guards. Two of them marched up and down the street in front of the hotel. A third one carried a megaphone and shouted his instructions at the other two. From that moment on, a long array of different sounds rose up from the small streets in downtown Chengdu. There was the constant stream of hawkers who announced the products they had stacked on their bike carts: ‘Lotus Leaves!’ ‘Eggs!’ ‘Toilet paper!’ When one of the newspapers arrived in the little kiosk across the street, the owner started a home made tape that repeatedly broadcasted the same sentence: ‘The newspaper is in!’ In the early evening, right after dusk, in front of one of the small shops, middle aged women carrying large coloured fans got together for their daily dance routine. Melancholic melodies rung from an old cassette player, guiding the women through their synchronized movements. These were just some of the more engaging themes that rose up from the constant background murmur of honking taxis, ringing rickshaw drivers, buzzing air conditioners, and the clamour from the countless small shops. To this soundtrack the wind added the clatter of a handful of construction sites a few blocks down the street: the humming machinery, the hammering drills, the growling concrete trucks.
For “the old one hundred surnames,” as the common people in China are often called, living in the small allies underneath my hotel balcony, the echoes from the construction sites must have sounded both ominous and promising. It was the Chinese Dream—size medium and large—under construction down the street, and the locals here knew that their neighbourhood was next in line for an upgrade. Some saw the forthcoming change as a possibility to realize their own Chinese Dream. Others—as the new Chinese Dream is a very middle class event—were reluctant to leave their old lives and neighbourhood behind.
It is estimated that two million people will be displaced in the modernization process of Chengdu, Sparkle said when she joined me for breakfast in one of the small restaurants near my hotel. Most of them were happy to move to a better place, she continued. ‘But sometimes the newspapers have to help the government a little. If a few people refuse to leave, the news doesn’t report on them. Rather it shows us stories of people who proclaim that they are so happy they left their old houses behind.’
Not all of these two million had to make room for modernity. The people in the neighbourhood of my hotel were being moved out to make place for history. The small and chaotic street where we were eating our steamed buns with bean paste—called Old & Narrow Street—was appointed as a monumental site. It was planned to be renovated in the coming years, and to be restaged as an emblem for the historical Chinese way of life in Chengdu, that has all but vanished in the modernization projects in the rest of the city. The renovation also had another goal. Chengdu wanted to plug itself into the (inter)national network of tourist destinations. Some tourists were already showing up. At one of the temples, I had seen several Chinese tour groups. Their patrons wore yellow and red baseball caps with ‘Merry Holiday’ and ‘Happy Vacation’ embroidered on them. The resemblance of their hats to the hard hats of the construction workers we met earlier that day was another reminder that China had become a country of two distinct social groups, the poor ruralites who travelled to the cities out of necessity, and the richer urban middle class for whom travel is a luxury they now can afford.
After our breakfast, Sparkle asked one of the shopkeepers what he thought of all the changes. ‘About two years ago a government worker showed up in our neighborhood,’ he told us. ‘He went from one family to another. The government had decided to turn this area into a tourist area, he had said, and that we had to move to a modern apartment building.’ The shopkeeper did not like this idea. ‘I don’t like the modern Chengdu. Ten years ago, we lived here very comfortably. We enjoyed the neighbourhood. We drank tea in our garden. But now it’s a mess. Everyday when I walk inside I feel bad. Everything is so dirty now—it used to be clean. I’ve lived here for over twenty years. In the modern shopping malls I always loose my way, and I don’t like the tall buildings. I want some space to tend to my garden. I used to know everybody here, but now most of them have left.’
The shopkeeper acknowledged that he was the exception. Most people were happy when they received an offer for a new apartment. They were happy finally to embrace modernity themselves. ‘These buildings are old, there is no sewage system, we have to cook outside.’
‘But,’ he added, ‘the new apartments are far away, beyond the third ring road.’ Some of the people who had moved out earlier had lost their enthusiasm by now. They miss the social side of the old neighborhood. ‘One of them was a shopkeeper. He took the compensation money from the government. But the new neighbourhood is quiet; he doesn’t have a shop over there. He has no income. He wants to come back. But there is nothing he can do.’ The shopkeeper wanted to stay in this neighborhood. ‘I will start a tea house and sell tea to the tourists. Then I can make good money too.’
It is however unlikely that in the redevelopment scheme there will be room for his tea room. In their book Hong Kong Lab, Gurierrez and Portefaix describe how the tourist industry emerged in Hong Kong. They quoted Victor Burgin who stated that tourists develop a ‘popular pre-conscious,’ a preconceived idea of the places they plan to visit. This pre-conscious is fed by circulating images on television, brochures and through stories of friends and families. Tourism itself, as John Ury has noted, often becomes a pilgrimage to ‘collect’ these images, and reproduce them oneself, through which they start becoming part of the recirculation.
In order to attract tourists, the renovation of Old & Narrow Street thus needed to satisfy the expectations of the (inter)national tourist class. This time it was their imagination of China that partly set the agenda for its historical preservation. The small grocery shops, the people roasting meat skewers on their outside barbecues, and the simple restaurants were to be turned into gift shops and more luxurious tea houses. The small kiosks, the hawkers with their lotus leaves had to disappear into their new apartments beyond the third ring road. Their authentic sounds were most likely to be replaced by the muzak that features in so many similar historic shopping districts across China. The watermelon vendor whose façade is made of broken wood panels, the improvised street cafés with bamboo tables and plastic garden chairs, the brightly neon lit mah jong salons in decayed brick buildings, they did not fit the tourists imagination of an authentic historic neighbourhood. The old streets were to be redeveloped to appear what tourists, most of them Chinese, consider “authentic China.” The authentic had to be removed and sanitized to become “authentic.” Or rather, an old authenticity—that of daily, working class life in the margins of modernization, had to make room for a new one—that of the middle class, who in their roles as tourists wished for idyllic vacation spots.
Every time I had a discussion with the locals of a soon to be demolished area about their removal, it almost felt we were discussing a natural phenomenon. As though it was not the outcome of a political decision made by other humans, but rather an inevitable, external force. A tidal wave, an earthquake, something that just happened to you, that you just had to deal with. ‘Of course,’ Sparkle said when I discussed my thoughts with her, ‘you can’t do anything. Politics in China is something that just happens to you. They decide, and there’s nothing you can do. It’s like Confucius said, you can’t really control your circumstances. The only thing you can do is try to make the best of it.’
I was wondering however whether this was changing. I had read reports of one lawyer in Shanghai taking up lawsuits against the government and project developers. In other counties, people had started to organize around environmental issues. So far, the numbers weren’t impressive. One lawyer in a country of more than a billion with the guts to take on the government statistically comes down to 0%. Most of the local actions had been suppressed by the government. And the Shanghai lawyer had ended up in jail. But the numbers were on the rise. Through the whole of China, a Hong Kong newspaper had counted 74,000 demonstrations in 2004 alone. Would the government be able to continue suppressing these movements?
I asked Sparkle what she thought about this. To my surprise, she had even heard about the Shanghai lawyer. ‘I read about him in the Washington Post, on the internet,’ she said. ‘You know, I don’t like our government so much. They do not inform us well. When we had the SARS-epidemic, it was very hard to get real information. But now we have the internet. There we can find the truth. Or at least we can find different angles to the truth.’ This sounded interesting to me. Over the years I had read many reports about how the advent of computer communication and satellite television had helped to topple the communist regime in the Soviet Union. Could the internet do the same in China?
‘You western people think too big,’ Sparkle answered. ‘You talk about human rights all the time. Here in China for most people that is not the most important issue. Politics is not that important. We are much more interested in information about for example food safety. There are a lot of scandals where companies are making money by selling bad quality products. On internet bulletin boards we can now exchange information about this.’ She had another example of the way in which the internet was empowering her generation: ‘A friend of mine just bought a house. But when it was finished, it didn’t look at all like the billboard advertisement ….’ There was no communal swimming pool, and the roof was leaking. She used the internet to contact the other owners in the project, and they started a homeowners association. ‘Before you could hardly do anything if you were cheated by a developer. But now you can organize more easily.’ In the United States homeowners associations are often accused of promoting solely the homeowners’ interests, rather than the interests of society or the city at large. But in China, at this point in history, could they be the beginning of a form of local empowerment that enables citizens to stand up against corruption? Toddy and Sparkle didn’t show that much interest in politics. But would the rising economic standards and the new stress on individual responsibility lead to a growing political awareness? Would they keep up their Confucian posture if they had the bad luck to be cheated by a project developer or a corrupt official? I had the feeling they would not. After all, had they not by now learned from taikonaut Yang Liwei to take their lives into their own hands?
Scene 8: Listening to the sound of music in the suburbs
An almost finished modern-style suburb just outside the third ring road. Its townhouses are surrounded by little gardens in which speakers are hidden. They broadcast muzak versions of popular evergreens. The complex is separated from the rest of the city by a white wall.
The next day, Sparkle and I had lunch with a small group of Chinese architects. They had invited us to a restaurant that resold tradition in an ostensibly modern way. The outside featured historic architecture. The menu listed traditional Sichuan hotpot. The interior however had a retro-industrial look. Parties were seated along a shiny metal conveyer belt usually found in trendy sushi-restaurants. Small dishes of quail eggs, rice noodles, mushrooms, slices of cow stomach and lamb meat floated along the tables, which all boasted a boiling pot of chilli peppered broth. Large television screens on the walls showed video clips of black rappers, followed by a commercial that advertised Oil of Olay skin whitener. It’s very modern to have a sense of history, seemed the overall message of this popular restaurant.
While we boiled thinly sliced strips of beef in the hotpot, I told the architects about my observations on Chinese Moderni$m. They nodded. ‘That is exactly what has been happening over the last few years. We call it Eurostyle.’ The architect made a sour face when he pronounced that term. ‘It is really ugly,’ another said. ‘The market is mainly developer driven,’ he explained. ‘They come up with the demands for new projects, which are based on market research.’ Architects are usually confronted with two important demands. In order to get a higher return on investment, they are asked to keep densities high. And to lure prospective buyers, the new Chinese middle class, the design has to be modern. ‘Young people don’t want to live in the traditional courtyard houses with collective spaces. They want their privacy, and their own apartments. But most of all they want to show off that they are modern.’
‘But it is changing,’ the third added. ‘Eurostyle was very popular, but the over the last years the modern architecture has become more sophisticated.’ What I had seen so far was Eurostyle 1.1, still popular, but gaining competition from versions 1.3 and up. ‘Also, architecture is getting more traditional. People have started to wonder whether it is really a good idea to throw all of our history away, and only look forward.’ After the initial enthusiasm for the modern, people were starting to look for their roots. But they did not crave genuine historical styles. ‘One of the new popular designs is historically inspired architecture, but with large modern glass facades.’ It was a historical modernism, a desire to express modernity, but at the same time acknowledging that this is a modernity with roots—not just a transplanted global modernity, but a Chinese articulation of this modernity.
After we had finished lunch, the architects showed us one of their recent projects. They drove us from the centre past the third ring road, a trip that turned into a short history lesson in different Chinese Moderni$ms. First we passed the simple white tiled blocks that were most popular in the late eighties and early nineties. Then we passed a number of Eurostyle housing projects. One of them was dominated by pink coloured townhouses with large balconies, which were ornamented, and carried by symmetric sets of Roman columns. When we drove farther out, the urban density started to decrease. We were entering Chengdu’s hi-tech zone, Sparkle pointed out. And in this zone, the city suddenly started to sprawl. The highway connected isolated lots that hosted factories and research institutes. Chengdu had done well attracting international companies. One of the lots featured a research division of Motorola. On another Intel would build a new Chinese research campus. ‘Chengdu is a good place for hi-tech companies,’ our hosts explained. ‘We have good technical universities. But there are not that many companies out here yet, so it’s easier to retain employees than in Shenzhen.’ The urban landscape out here reminded me of the exurbs I had seen in California and Arizona. Just like there, the business parks were interspersed with gated housing developments. It was one of these that our hosts had designed.
The project was formed by of a few blocks of townhouses and apartments that indeed looked modern. They were also a lot more stylish than the Eurostyle buildings we had just seen downtown. Light coloured bricks, wood panels, and large windows gave the houses an attractive exterior. Each house had its own lawn, and was surrounded by a light brown picket fence. The streets were curved and lined with lush trees and bamboo. The scene was reminiscent of American or even Dutch suburbia.
Like most recently built housing projects in China, this was a private community. The young Chinese did not only like their privacy inside their houses, they also like their public spaces to be semi-private, and home owners collectively employed a large staff of guards and gardeners to keep the premises lush, clean and safe. It was however not as quiet as you would expect in such a suburban setting. Some of the flowerbeds hid small speakers that diffused a soft background muzak alternated with artificial nature sounds. ‘The developer thought that Chinese people couldn’t handle the silence,’ one of the architects explained. ‘We are so used to having people around us all the time, that we would feel lost if it were completely silent.’ Like in many places in the world, the new middle class preferred order and privacy over the chaotic public downtowns. The SARS-epidemic of a few years ago had made the crave for private, controllable spaces even bigger. But the so un-Chinese complete silence of suburbia also frightened them.
The architects explained that the rise of private, walled communities was not a completely new phenomenon in China. The patriarchal house economy of traditional China was already made up of courtyard houses that faced the outside world with windowless brick walls. The danwei—working units—in communist China were also orderly planned communities where everything and everybody had its own place, fenced-off from the rest of the city. The new private housing projects fitted in this tradition, they claimed.
When the architects took us back to the car, we passed the billboard advertising the houses they had just shown us. On a giant poster, a man was resting comfortably in a hammock above an endless stretch of grassland. His son and a dog accompanied him. Remarkably, this time there was no city, not even a building in sight. It reminded me of the billboards I had seen in the endless burbtowns around Phoenix, Arizona, that also tried to sell houses by showing pictures of happy families. ‘Here,’ they promised, ‘you don’t buy a house. You buy the lifestyle of the American Dream.’ ‘That’s right,’ the Chinese architects stated. ‘That is what we are doing as well. You must know, the Chinese Dream is not that much different from the American Dream. It only has a higher density.’
Scene 9: The I want generation
The interior of a recently built apartment, decorated in accordance with both minimalism and traditional Feng Shui.
‘Would you like to live here?’ I asked Sparkle after we had said goodbye to the architects. ‘I like the houses,’ she said. ‘But it is quite far from the centre.’ Some of her friends had just bought a house nearby. ‘They complain that while the developers build nice houses, they forget to build the roads to them. Everyday they are stuck in traffic.’ Sparkle did hope to buy her own apartment soon though. ‘It is my dream to one day own my own house. Next time you visit, I hope I can receive you in my own apartment’
‘But maybe I will first visit you,’ she continued. ‘Yesterday I walked past a travel agent. They advertised trips to Europe; they only cost 10,000 RMB. If I save some money, maybe in two years time I can go to Europe. I can see Venice. Paris! And Amsterdam!’ Sparkle’s European ambitions startled me. When I met her for the first time, a little over a year ago, we had an ice cream at Häagen Dazs. That was very special for her, she then said. Häagen Dazs, like Starbucks and Pizza Hut had become symbolic markers of distinction for young urban Chinese. For local standards their coffees, pizzas and strawberry shakes were expensive. But your money did buy you the feeling of belonging to a new class, to take part in the culture of the new. ‘If you save up for one or two months,’ Sparkle had told me then with great enthusiasm,’ ‘You can invite your friends and have a great dinner at Pizza Hut!’ A mere fourteen months later her ambitions had already changed. She was now dreaming of her own house and even saving up for a vacation. Pizza Hut didn’t do it anymore. By now she wanted to eat real pizza in Italy.
Sparkle suggested we visit one of her middle school students, whose family lived in one of the new townhouses a few blocks away. A few quick text-exchanges on her mobile phone and we were invited. Rebecca—the student—would meet us at the perimeter of her block, so the guards would let us in.
Rebecca was fifteen years old. She wore a white sweater that displayed a large American flag and blue jeans. She was one of her better students, Sparkle said. Her family moved here two years ago. Their new apartment was tastefully decorated, in a style that was yet another amalgam of tradition and modernity. There was a large white sofa, a glass table and a large vase with a carefully arranged bouquet of flowers and twigs. The walls and ceilings were ornamented in a minimalist fashion, but this was done according to traditional Feng Shui rules. Feng Shui was forbidden under the communists. Mao did not like it’s principles, since it implied nature’s rule over mankind. The communist rather had it the other way. If nature didn’t behave according to the party’s wishes, the brain power of its smartest engineers would tame it with their bold dams, long canals and stunning bridges. But now Feng Shui had made a comeback. Not in the least via the boomerang of western fashion magazines. Glossies like Elle and Vogue had discovered the somewhat orientalist mystery of traditional Feng Shui years ago. Since these monthly’s started writing about it, the practice became popular again with trendy younger generations in Chinatowns around the world, and in China itself.
Rebecca was watching an exercise show on the large television screen. A group of four young people performed dance exercises, while encouraging the viewers to move along. The scene looked like the middle-aged women who congregated on the block of my hotel for their daily dance routines. Only, on television, the youngsters were performing not in an old hutong, but before a painted backdrop depicting the skyline of a hypermodern city. Even here Chinese Moderni$m had taken over the imagination. I asked Rebecca if she ever joined a group of dancing people on one of the many squares. ‘No,’ she smiles shyly. ‘That is for old people. I go to the gym.’
Rebecca volunteered to show me her vacation pictures. There she was, on the Great Wall. And here she posed in the tourist resort of Yangshuo. She had also been in Lijiang, one of the several historic towns that call themselves the Venice of China. She had her picture taken in the traditional dress of the minorities that live in that area. On the other pictures, she posed the in same way the Chinese popstars did in magazines lying around her room. She leaned slightly towards the camera with a broad smile, and her hand supporting her chin. Or she had tossed her jacket casually over one of her shoulders, just like Coco, Kelly, and Elva did in Cosmo, Miss, and MeiMei.
One of these magazines has recently called the girls of Rebecca’s age the ‘I Want generation.’ Did she feel that label applied to her? ‘I think that is the right term,’ she agreed. ‘We are very different from our parents. They always had to do what they were told by the communist party. They couldn’t decide anything for themselves. We are different. We set our own goals. We want certain things, and we work towards them. Sometimes, it seems my parents don’t understand our generation. We are international, we like Hollywood films and pop music. We read Cosmo, and learn about successful business women who drive a BMW. That’s my goal. I want to work hard to be able to afford a villa later in life.’
It was the same mantra I had heard so many times over the course of my last few visits to China. But Rebecca was one of the first who also included a what-if scenario in her imagination: ‘I am optimistic about my own future, but I am also a bit worried. I am afraid the gap between the rich and the poor will become too big. And I worry about the situation with Taiwan. I am afraid at some point this may lead to war.’
I asked her how she saw her future. Would she live in the villa with her husband? Her parents? Or would she prefer a career above a married life? She smiled shyly. My question was perhaps a little too personal. ‘Of course I want to be married. But on my own conditions,’ she said. Sparkle helped her out. ‘In China it is a tradition to take care of your parents when you are old. I think our generation will still do that. A lot of people always tell us we are the “little emperors,” the first generation of one-child households, and that we are selfish. I don’t think that is true. I would feel obliged to look after my parents. Only, I don’t want them to live with me, not in the same house. But I would like them to live near me. I hope in the future I can convince them to come live here in Chengdu.’ That was the I Want generation’s not uncommon condition: they would take care of their parents, provided they followed them wherever there ambition was going.
Rebecca’s comments resembled a small article I had clipped out of the newspaper a few days earlier. In it, the ambitions of a mother and daughter are compared. ‘When I was young,’ the mother said, ‘my only dream was to become a worker. At that time, of course, it was the working class who had the best social status. All I ever wanted was to get a job to make a living. Most families were in dire economic straits back then and a job was enough to satisfy anyone. My heroes were all the revolutionary martyrs.’
‘My career is the most important part of my life,’ the daughter replied. ‘I’ll make a detailed career plan before I graduate. I will take the entrance exams for postgraduate studies next year. People with higher education degrees are much more welcome in the job market these days. Further study is an essential way to sharpen your competitiveness. Initially, at least, I will not care too much about my salary. What is most important is the prospect for development.’
The generation that was growing up in China was a lucky generation. For them the future looked bright, and chances abounded. But it was also a pressured generation. They had not only to realize their own dreams, but those of their parents and grandparents as well. Some even claimed that they already expect too much, that their imagination had run off with them. ‘Shanghai,’ I read in one of the newspapers ‘is full of young people with overblown expectations, who actually have nothing much to do. The high streets shimmer with wealth and luxury,’ the paper wrote, ‘and all the locals have become so arrogant that they are unwilling to do any sort of hard graft at all. Work is something that is done by migrants from Jiangxi and Anhui. To be born in Shanghai might be like winning first prize in the lottery of Chinese life, but the “stamp” of the city also means having entirely unrealistic expectations about one’s own personal worth.’ Would the I Want generation end up as a disillusioned generation?
When Rebecca’s mother returned home from work a little later, I asked her about her ambitions when she was Rebacca’s age. She didn’t have too many. ‘When I was about to go to the University, I was sent to the countryside. This was the time of the Cultural Revolution. Because of this, I never got a good education. My husband and I want to make sure our daughter gets the chances we didn’t. We sent her to one of the most prestigious middle schools. Her niece is already in Beijing, studying in one of the best universities in China. We hope she will be accepted there as well.’
For most of her life Rebecca’s mother worked in the state bureaucracy. Only recently had she quit her job to start her own business: a driving school. With China’s growing dependence on automobile transport, to her the future looked promising. But like her daughter, she was also aware of the drawbacks of the quick modernisation. ‘In a short time, China has become very commercial. Everything now seems to revolve around the amount of money you can make. Not so long ago, you could also be admired by being good at something like chess. But now people will tell you: why bother? Why waste your time with a game? You see, we are all doing so much better these days. We used to be poor, but at least we were secure. Now, if you get sick, or you loose your job, who will take care of you? Life is better now. But it is not always easier. The economy is growing and we are so much wealthier than we used to be. But nobody really knows for sure how long this will last, so everybody tries to get the most out of the current situation, while it lasts. There is no long-term planning; just the rush of get-it-while-you-can.’
The new city across the river
Scene 10: Garage Door City
A street in an average provincial town. The housing blocks are covered with white tiles. The bottom row of these blocks host garages with silver coloured doors. Half of them are open and reveal that inside these garages people have set up small businesses: DVD rentals, shoe-repair, and informal restaurants.
Travelling through China, Chinese director Xiaolu Guo stated in her film The Concrete Revolution, is like travelling through time. And indeed, after having visited Shenzhen and Chengdu, my entrance in Suining, a small provincial town in Sichuan felt like arriving in an earlier incarnation of the Chinese Dream. The train ride from Chengdu to Suining had taken a few hours in a crowded but reasonably comfortable train. Soft Chinese pop music accompanied us while the cityscape of balconies, roman pillars, glass and steel—still under construction—slowly transformed into the concrete factoryscape, the suburbs, and then into the countryside where villagers were ploughing the earth, walking behind their oxen. And thus, while the ticket collectors—young girls with pony tails in blue uniforms—played games on their mobile phones—when we arrived in Suining, a city of a few hundred thousand, it felt as though I has been sent back at least one or two decades in time.
Suining’s main architectural features turned out to be low concrete buildings, some of which were surfaced with white bathroom-style tiles. A style that to the Chinese must have looked very modern when it was introduced in the 1980s, but was surpassed by the taller, fancier, and more luxuriously decorated Chinese Moderni$m of the big cities. The pyramid shaped railway station with its small white tiles and dark blue glassed windows was constructed less than a decade ago. But it already looked out of date, a relic from an historic period. If Shenzhen was the Chinese Dream 2.0, and Chengdu was version 1.5 then Suining was version 0.7. Its architecture was made not for the global information city, but geared towards a local, street economy. Most buildings featured an array of silver garage doors that opened up to apartment-sized spaces, housing a workshop, a small factory, or a store. There were the usual string of activities and the Mom & Pop stores that you find in most Chinese towns: the DVD store, small noodle restaurants, furniture workshops, iron recyclers, hairdressers, and mah jong cafés. In one of these spaces, an old man had started his own karaoke salon. He’d invested in a television, a DVD player, and a few tea cups. As I passed by, two girls were singing a sweet sounding Chinese love song.
These garage doors gave the city a two layered dimension. The ground floor is for work, industry and leisure. The more private living sections are one flight up. The street was the place where all these different functions met each other, and most of the streets were filled with people, working, selling, or just hanging out and passing the time. But although clearly lagging behind the other two in architecture and economic growth, I did find the same vitality in Suining, the same fondness for the new and the now, that had struck me so much in Shenzhen and Chengdu.
In the city itself, this 0.7 version of the Chinese Dream, was slowly being supplanted by newer versions. To the pride of many young people in town, a popular international restaurant chain had recently found Suining on the world map: just a few years ago Kentucky Fried Chicken started serving the Colonel’s favourite meals in a downtown outlet. Some investors had set up a tourist attraction nearby: The Dead Sea of China—a themed swimming pool, where you can have your picture taken with actors dressed up as authentic Arabs. Reports on China’s rising night-life tend to focus on the exclusive bars and trendy clubs in the coastal cities, which cater mainly to a small community of expats and super rich Chinese in pursuit of their Supersize Chinese Dream. But in the past few years China has also seen an enormous rise in entertainment options for the common man. This local version of the experience economy is admittedly less spectacular, trendy, and media savvy, but probably more important in its overall impact. My first night in Suining I had dinner in one of these places, the newly opened franchise of a Sichuan hotpot restaurant chain.
The hotpot restaurant I visited looked like the Chinese version of the Rainforest Café. The ceiling was completely covered with flamboyant red and yellow coloured plastic leaves. It was meant to give the impression of a city park in the fall. It was a popular formula, copied from nearby Chongqing, the manager explained. ‘To give people living in the city the feel of nature.’ Like in most local restaurants, the atmosphere was very lively. Orders for beer were shouted loudly across the large space; the clamor of the animated conversations ricocheted off the walls. The clients were having a good time, that much was certain. At least 40 hotpots were fired up in the restaurant, all of them surrounded by large groups of locals. The boiling pots and the spicy broth made the place feel like a steamy sauna. Most of the male visitors had taken off their shirts, as if this were just another informal noodle shop. It made a spectacular sight: more than a hundred bare, sweaty torsos, hunched above steaming hotpots and underneath the fire red sky of plastic leaves.
The hotpot restaurant was an example of how the informal spaces of the garage door economy were slowly being replaced by a more organized, scripted version of the city where customer-employee interaction was prescribed and overseen by a managerial class. The restaurant was neatly themed according to the plans made up, tested and marketed through the chain headquarters in Chongqing. The workflow process wasn’t improvised as it was in the small garage door restaurants, but actually managed according to centrally prescribed procedures. Like all over China, also in Suining life was slowly becoming more formalized, according to the logics of the consumer society.
Scene 11: The city on the other side of the river
An empty lot of farmland just outside a medium-sized city. A motorcade of black luxury cars stops and unloads government workers and investors. The first start to gesticulate enthusiastically and try to convince the other party that on this site soon a brand new post-industrial city will be built.
In my hotel I learned that Suining hosted a number of large factories, to be found slightly further out of town. One of the city officials that I had contacted had given me some promotional brochures and a VCD-film. By now I had a whole collection of these, since every self-respecting town and city had made at least one promotional film. Chengdu had even hired internationally acclaimed director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero). Most of these films followed the same pattern. They always started with a short historical introduction. Already in the days of the Tang or the Ming or the Qin dynasty, they claim, the concerning area was known for its vitality or innovation. This was usually followed by a few scenes that showed us the natural beauty of the region, claims that were underwritten by lyrical verses in which poets from the same historical dynasties celebrated the sunset over the local lake or mountains. Then followed the part in which the city was portrayed as a very modern place, where only the most modern machinery and infrastructure was used, and that welcomed investors in a hospitable climate. This was usually complemented with political slogans that referred to the new policy of opening up, and a long list of awards and ISO-standards that the city complied with.
Suining’s film was no exception, although in one aspect it did differ from the films I had seen in Shenzhen and Chengdu. These last two cities featured their tradition in hi-tech and R&D as their competitive advantage. Suining mainly boasted about its industrial strength. Here the narrator focussed on Suining’s factories and presented the city as a ‘Food City,’ and a ‘Textile City,’ where people were used to work hard. Poets from the Qing-dynasty already sung about the beautiful clothes fabricated in this region, the voice-over stated. These claims were supported with the upbeat music from the American film Flashdance and the imagery of the industrial revolution. Images of pipelines were alternated with the ballet méchanique of rotating weaving looms inside a modern factory.
The next day, I discovered, the city officials dared to dream even further ahead. ‘The VCD we gave you is a little bit outdated,’ one of the officials excused himself when they came to pick me up for a tour of the city. ‘Today we will show you the new Suining we want to build.’ A black luxury car with its engine still running awaited us outside the hotel. But before we could enter, we went through the Chinese business card ritual. Cards were exchanged with two hands and carefully studied. That was not just a matter of politeness. In China, I had found, it was important to belong. To a family, a company, a government, a network of influential people, if you did not have an official place in one sort of hierarchy or another, you wouldn’t be taken seriously. And a business card did just that, it provided the proof that you belonged, that you had a place inside an official system.
Our first stop on our official tour was a bare piece of farmland, just across the Fujiang river from the downtown area. A long strip of asphalt divided the yellowish grasslands along the river bank. The road was unusually broad, and even had two separate tracks for bikes. But apart from our small official motorcade there was hardly any traffic. Just a few motorcycle drivers who offered their back seats as a taxi. One of the local farmers used the asphalt to dry his grain, hammering it manually with his flail. That scene didn’t curb the enthusiasm of the tour leaders. ‘This is where the new government centre will be built,’ they explained. Over there a large square with a park like atmosphere would arise, flanked by two skyscrapers for the city workers. Their list went on: to the left, a top-end high school was planned, on the right a boulevard along the river for tourists. At the end of the road: offices for hi-tech industry.
At the next stop, the planning office for the new district … more stories like this followed. The office itself was a small, neglected concrete building with scruffy carpet on the floor. But along the walls, there were pictures of what the new Suining would look like: tall, impressive skyscrapers, pleasant boulevards with fountains and romantic park benches, and luxurious Eurostyle buildings with tiled roofs and classical pillars. The contrast with the real garage door Suining that I had seen the day before was enormous. I even got to see a fully fledged animated film—the architecture department of a prestigious Chinese university had visualized their new cityscape. The camera glided through spacious parks, past prestigious towers, along pleasant boulevards, round impressive roundabouts, and up and down multiple fly-overs.
The project looked amazing. Imagine the architecture and urban planning of a project like Canary Wharf in the London Docklands. Multiply that by four, and add two giant Buddha statues that will be constructed on the hills behind the new city as a tourist attraction. Then you’ll get an idea how these city officials envisaged their own future. If they get it their way, which I found hard to believe, they would develop 7.36km$$$$$$$$$$$2 in the first phase, and a further 20km$$$$$$$$$$$2 in the second. One hundred thousand inhabitants would initially find their new home in Suining 2.0, a number that would be extended to almost half a million. And all of this, the planners claimed, would be built within the next five year plan, here in provincial Suining. A new city slogan is already minted: ‘Suining, a Rapid Rising Pearl in Central Sichuan.’ The farmers that we saw sitting in the shade next to their modest brick houses will be moved elsewhere, they’ll just have to make room for the future.
By now, this must be a familiar scene in cities and towns all over China. I saw a similar presentation only a few days earlier in Chengdu where the city government was building a new hi-tech zone, south of the city. 82km$$$$$$$$$$$2, the promoters boasted, and large international companies like Intel and Motorola had already signed a contract or even build a research campus.
The stories and images of modern China have not only fuelled the imagination of migrants and upwardly mobile city dwellers. Also government officials have acted upon their imagination. They too want a piece of the future. Fifteen years ago every city in China wanted to be like Shenzhen 1.0 and have their own Special Economic Zone, their own factories and foreign funded industry. Now even small provincial towns like Suining were trying to convince investors that they would be the next Silicon Valley of China, or at least a major tourist destination. According to Hong Kong newspaper The Standard, 183 cities in China then had the official goal to become a ‘modern international metropolis’ All of them very likely with their own empty river banks, their own VCDs and fly-through computer-animations.
Every city and county wanted to be plugged into the global economy. They all wanted to become top level Global Cities, afraid to miss out, to become what Manuel Castells calls the ‘fourth world.’ These ambitions were not always completely unselfish. The newly built cities with their signature towers and luxury plazas and waterfront developments also functioned as a tribute to the personal leadership of the city officials. It’s a public secret in China that their career is closely linked with the performance of their cities. All over China these leaders wished to demonstrate their visionary leadership and what better way to do this than to plan a hi-tech zone or new government district, preferably one that was just slightly larger than the plans of a neighbouring town or city?
For cities like Chengdu, with good infrastructure, universities, and a high service level, plans like this might prove to be a realistic and achievable goal; most other cities probably needed a reality check. That did not mean that the general ambition to lure investors to cities like Suining is a bad idea. The 500 million or so farmers that within the next twenty years will leave the country side in search for a better life, can’t all go to Shanghai, Shenzhen or Beijing. Places like Suining could become an alternative destination, in fact they already have. Suining was granted the city-status in the early 1980s. Now there were 3.4 million people in the administrative district. New highway constructions had brought the megalopoles of Chengdu and Chonqing withing reach of a comfortable drive. What used to be a five hour bumpy bus ride, is now at most two hours away by a new highway. Suining is thus, as investor-brochures state, ready ‘to grasp the historical opportunity sticking to the guideline of opening-up to push forward economic development.’
At the same time, this push for development, this urge to be plugged in, had changed the character of the Chinese cities dramatically. ‘This will be the new Suining,’ proclaimed one of the city officials after the animation film of the new district was finished. ‘The current city is an industrial city. This will be a city for the service industry. We want to attract the tertiary industry—no more polluting industrial companies.’ The brochures that were handed out told the same story in slightly awkward English: ‘The city is of elegant overall arrangement with rare trees being found everywhere,’ it promised. ‘The garden and its shade, reinforcing steel bar and concrete, the natural greenness and wind, all these appears to be so harmonious that it forms an integrity of human nature, and architecture, which realize the conception of construct a human city of city with water, city with mountain, and city with greenness.’
In other words, the chaotic, industrial garage door city where people work in open workshops, live on the streets, and make a modest living by hawking small snacks and cigarettes, was discarded as old fashioned. The old city was literally left behind in the minds of Suining’s Planners. It was telling that in the animation I had just seen, the location that held the present city centre of Suining was a blank spot of green pastures. It had vanished altogether. Rather than upgrading Suining 0.7, they simply started over on the other side of the river, creating a modern hi-tech city from scratch. The farm land was turned into a tabula rasa for their dreams of a modern China. The chaotic industrial city will be left for Suining’s working class, as an undeveloped backstage area.
The borders between these different zones might be even harder than they already look. The whole idea of a hi-tech zone, for instance, was to lure investors by providing them with better facilities than they would receive in the rest of the city. Energy supply was guaranteed in some of the hi-tech zones around the country—whereas in case of energy shortages the other parts of the city might suffer blackouts. Stephen Graham calls this phenomenon ‘splintering urbanism.’ At one point, he claims, cities were guided by the principle of ‘universal access,’ by which every part of the city was awarded the same level of infrastructural support, in terms of water, electricity and communication. ‘Street, power, water, waste or communications networks,’ Graham writes ‘are usually imagined to deliver broadly similar essential services to (virtually) everyone at similar cost across cities and regions. Fundamentally, infrastructure networks are thus widely assumed to be integrators of urban spaces.’ But in recent years, in a world wide trend, utilities and infrastructure have become more and more regulated through a market system—no longer mere public services equally accessible for all, but producing marketable commodities sold or offered to specific interest groups. Rather than integrating the city as a whole, the new grids of communication integrate different spaces across the world. They do not so much connect different parts of the city, but connect the preferred hi-tech zones around the world with each other. ‘The planet is being segmented into clearly distinct spaces, defined by different time regimes,’ Manuel Castells wrote. ‘The global economy will expand but it will do so selectively, linking valuable segments and discarding used up or irrelevant locales and people. The territorial unevenness of production will result in an extraordinary geography of differential value making that will sharply contrast countries, regions and metropolitan areas.’
Suining 2.0 would be fully connected to this new network, Suining 0.7 just a few miles across the river might be left out. Most Chinese cities, as they were imagined and constructed would sharply follow this scenario. They might become what David Mangin calls Ville Franchisées , cities that are build up of different controlled zones, made up of franchised shopping malls, gated communities or government controlled areas such as hi-tech zones.
These zones seem to neglect the spaces in between them, the older industrial parts of the city, the chaotic streets of the working class city, or the improvised illegal housing of poor migrants. But, I wondered, could we not also read this theory the other way around? Suining 0.7 never had a chance of being connected to the global economy. The new 2.0 version of the city, just might be plugged in. And could it then not function as a bridge between the global and the local economy? Would it be possible to design future updates of the Chinese city in such a way that these zones would be more connected? Would it be possible to develop a Suining 3.0 from which the 0.7 version and its inhabitants would also benefit? Could we think of the new Chinese city as a layered space, where old zones are not shut-off as backstage areas for cheap labour, but connected to these new cityscapes? In other words: would it be possible to design Suining 2.0 to be become backwards compatible with version 0.7?
Scene 12: Eating bitterness
A improvised tent, put up on the sidewalk next to a construction project. Inside the tent, ten beds are joined together. Outside one man is cooking rice in a large pot on a camp stove.
That afternoon I met a small group of rural migrants, who were camping on one of the streets near my hotel. They were repairing the streets around a newly erected apartment block, and lived in a small tent they had set up on the sidewalk. While the others lined up the cobblestones in the sand, Zhang was watching their belongings, and prepared their dinner: boiled rice with some vegetables. He came from a small village in the countryside, about twelve hours away by bus. He was recruited by another villager who said he had a job for him. They had worked in Chengdu for a while, but now moved to another job in Suining. Unlike the young construction worker I had met in Chengdu, Zhang didn’t really like life in the big city. ‘The people are very unfriendly. They treat us like dirt.’ In addition to that, his days were long, and the work was quite hard. And rather than spending his money on the attractions of the city, he was saving it all up. ‘I never go out, it’s so expensive.,’ he continued. ‘In China we have a saying: No matter how beautiful the world is, there is no place as beautiful as home.’ If he wasn’t here out of the pure necessity to make some money, Zhang would go back to his village right away, to the Chinese Dream 0.0, the dream of an undisturbed life in a small village in the countryside.
Zhang’s experiences were not unusual. In most cities the migrant workers were regarded as an inferior class of people by the locals. They were seen as ‘two-legged tools’ wrote Michael Dutton in Streetlife China. Or worse as criminals, as an uneducated societal residue who had no official rights. They had no place in the system. And since the strictly organized days of the communist danwei, in which everybody was appointed a regimented place and outsiders were vilified, these kind of people were frowned upon. There was even a special word for them: Liumang, people without a place.
I asked Zhang what he thought of all the new buildings. Zhang couldn’t picture himself in one of those new apartments, he said. They were just too expensive. ‘We are just ordinary human beings,’ he answered. ‘What can we do?’ In his imagination, there was no brightly lit future. Not that he had completely stopped dreaming. His hopes were set on his only son. ‘Next year my son will go to university,’ he proudly stated. However, that turned out to be an expensive affair. Tuition would cost 7,000 RMB a year, and he was only making 500 RMB a month. ‘I am worried how we are going to pay for that. My wife will have to come to the city to find a job as well.’ Just like Rebecca in Chengdu, Zhang’s son had to live up to the unfulfilled dreams of his parents. It was again a story I had came across more often. The older generation considers itself a lost generation. They see the country striving forwards, but more or less accept that they will not be able to participate. All their hope is placed on the next generation. It is not unusual to find people who spend more than 50% of their income on their children’s education.
Zhang’s story also reminded me of what Sparkle had told me in Chengdu, when we were talking about the village where she had grown up. None of her childhood friends had gone to university. Some of them instead went to Shenzhen looking for a job in one of the factories. The first Chinese new year, when they came back, their imaginations were fuelled. They talked about the high buildings, the escalators, the expensive merchandise in the department stores. But after a few years their stories started to change. They started to realize that they would never make enough money to buy those expensive brand name clothes they had boasted about on their first holiday. Let alone a car or an apartment. When they grew older, they also found that their employers started to find them less and less attractive. Many lost their jobs, and they were now back in her village, making a very modest living working the fields. ‘And now, what will they do?,’ I asked. ‘Is there a chance they will one day revolt?’ Sparkle didn’t think so. ‘Its better to try to adapt to the circumstances than to try to fight them.’ But I kept on wondering what her story meant for the Chinese imagination. When too many people stopped believing in the dream, would the machinery of economic growth come to a halt? Recent newspaper articles seemed to indicate that this might already be happening. After the Chinese New Year in 2005, many migrant workers did not return to their factories in the southern province of Guangdong. The workload was too hard, the payment too low. Is the reservoir of labour, that only a few years ago seemed so vast, now starting to dry up?
Just before my trip I had seen the documentary film A Decent Factory, in which the mobile phone company Nokia tried to improve working conditions in the Chinese factories of their subcontractors. In one of the early scenes, high placed executives from Finland and Japan exchanged thoughts. ‘In Japan,’ the latter stated, ‘it is very hard to find people for simple production work. People are just not interested in doing that kind of work anymore.’ The Japanese generation Y wants to live an interesting life, with an interesting lifestyle. How long, I asked myself, before young generations in China will come to the same conclusion? In the newspaper, Liu Kaiming , director of the Shenzhen-based Institute of Contemporary Observation, had already pointed out that the migrant workers’ attitude had started to change.
‘This generation of migrant workers was born in the 1980s. They haven’t been through many difficulties in their lives and maybe less willing to put up with hardship,’ he said. ‘Their fathers faced huge economic pressure from their families, but the younger generation can quit when they want.’ The first generation of workers, other analysts claimed, were veterans of the Cultural Revolution. They knew how to eat bitterness, they were used to work hard and receive just enough to get by. But the new generation of workers that had grown up with continuous economic growth, with success stories and pictures of the Chinese Dream, what would they do when they find out they are not getting a piece of the cake? When surrounded by the culture of the new, how long will they be satisfied to keep working their repetitive, uninteresting jobs? Will they indeed, as Sparkle suggested, comply with the circumstances and just keep on projecting their hopes onto the next generation? Will they maybe start organizing and negotiate better wages and working conditions for themselves? Or will they one day decide that the heavenly mandate of the current ruling party has expired, and like the suppressed farmers in the previous century, revolt?
At night I watched a DVD that Sparkle had recommended. Is there no criticism at all at the current developments? I had asked her. Is there no counterweight to the never ending optimism, to the cheering stories about modernity that I had found everywhere around me? She pointed me to the work of a young generation of film makers, notably Jia Zhangke. Now I was watching his film Unknown Pleasures. Officially the film was banned in China, but it wasn’t hard to pick up a copy in one of the many DVD stores.
The story took place in a provincial town, a city not unlike Suining. Even though this city is far from the cosmopolitan centres of the New China, the presence of the Chinese Dream could easily be felt. Invisible speakers advertised a new lottery, that used ‘modern methods’ and promised a quick way to become rich. A campaign team for a Mongolian wine proudly presented girls who performed a ‘modern dance’ to promote the alcoholic beverage. The television news also promised progress: a new road—a metaphor of course for moving onwards—was constructed and would soon be completed. Just like in Suining 0.7, there were hardly any modern buildings in Jia’s provincial town, no design architecture or fancy shopping malls, no lush green parks along broad highways. Instead the city in Unknown Pleasures looked grey and unattractive. The apartments were small and crowded, the shops were unsophisticated and in the cultural centre the paint was peeling of the walls. It was another reminder that the city, once the stage for culture—was now an arena for commerce. An event promoting the Mongolian wine took place next to a giant billboard depicting the construction of a new highway—a symbol for the road that China had taken toward blunt commercialism, toward Chinese Moderni$m.
The characters in Unknown Pleasures dreamt hopefully about this commercialism. When they found a one dollar bill hidden in a bottle of Mongolian Wine—a gimmick of the marketing department—they thought themselves truly rich. But in reality, the new society was out of their reach. The main characters lived in a deteriorated concrete apartment block. When they walked to the bus stop, they had to traverse a dusty open plane, surrounded by old houses that were almost completely demolished. Jia made his position clear: the old system is torn down, but most people—in spite of all the promises—get nothing worthwhile in return.
After a failed robbery—inspired by Pulp Fiction—one of the main characters headed out of town on his motorbike, smoothly riding on the asphalt of the now finished motorway. After only a short ride, his bike broke down. The road might be finished, but he just didn’t have the right means to travel on it. The promise of a road to modernity might be there, but like most people, he was going nowhere.
Scene 13: One game, one continent, one goal
Workers’ Stadium, Beijing. The stands are packed with Chinese supporters, waving their large red flags. Every kick forward is greeted with great enthusiasm by the crowd.
In the summer of 2004 Beijing hosted the Asian Cup soccer tournament. On the black market I was able to buy a ticket for the match between China and Iraq, the quarter-final. That night the Workers’ Stadium was packed with people. Their faces were painted with red stripes and many of them were waving large red flags. A sign displayed the somewhat mysterious official slogan of the cup: one game, one continent, one goal.
The fans cheered their team with great enthusiasm. When the referee gave the home team a penalty, they collectively held their breath. The tension was visible on their faces. It amazed me that every kick forward—successful or not—was greeted with enthusiastic cheers. Every attempt to get the ball in the general direction of the opponent’s penalty box was answered with applause. Every action—no matter how well executed—was greeted with great encouragement. Go China go! But when the enthusiasm of the crowd seemed to get out of control, when people stood up from their chairs to cheer, uniformed guards forced them to sit down again. The authorities were firmly in control. But it was a thin line that the stadium police were guarding between excitement and chaos.
After I had collected my 13 scenes, I found the reactions of the crowd telling for what was happening in China. In China, also in the economy, every effort to strive forwards and every attempt to progress seemed to be greeted with an enormous enthusiasm, no matter how well directed. After decennia of economic depression, every small step towards a more affluent future, every new update of their economy, every new version of their cities and their lives was applauded. This was not a time, it seemed, to be critical, or to reflect. This was a time to take your chances while they lasted. It was these opportunities, and maybe even more so the process of change than the change itself—the culture of the new—that had excited Toddy in Shenzhen, Sparkle and Rebecca in Chengdu and even Zhang in Suining just like the soccer fans in the Workers’ Stadium.
I had learned more on the several trips I had made to China in the last few years. For many Chinese, I had found, it was important to belong; to be part of something greater than themselves, whether that was the crowd in Workers’ Stadium or the feeling of being part of a new generation building up the country. For many, it was important to show off that you did belong. That you were materially successful in this new society. It was important to show that you were modern, that you did take part in the culture of the new. Initially the markers of difference for these new collectives had been rather crude copies of western symbols, but at the time of my last visit there was a rising interest in Chinese traditions—as long as they were packaged in a modern way.
At the same time, this new generation had grown more individualistic. Some even boasted about their egoism. Within the collectives they had chosen to join, they started to claim their private spaces, their private lives, their private goals. Some, like the homeowners associations, dared even to organize the private goals they had in common with others, starting to challenge the central authority and the crude market forces.
The new cities that I had visited followed these trends. Gone were most of the dreary, grey cities that foreign travel-writers had seen in the eighties. The architecture of the new city centres, versions 1.0 and up, reinforced the culture of the new. They were exciting although somewhat chaotic places to dwell, and full of energy. Earlier versions had shamelessly copied Eurostyle western architecture to prove their modernity. Newer versions, like Shenzen 2.0 had grown more self-confident and infused Chinese traditions into their modernity. They even attempted to organize the chaos that made up the modern cities. Tourist districts became “authenticized” and sanitized, little informal shops made room for scripted experiences, and new gated communities provided an organized communal private space for the new middle class. They also gave its members a sense of distinction and identity. Older versions of this city however, once updated seemed to be discarded and neglected, just like the many outsiders who didn’t have an official place in the system.
About two weeks after the quarter-finals, China played again. The national team, coached by the former Dutch soccer star Arie Haan, had made it all the way to the final—another proof of China’s rise on the international stage. But this time the outcome of the game was less fortuitous. After a disputable decision by the referee, China lost 3-1. Outside the stadium some of the supporters started to riot to show their frustration and discontent. The government policy of nationalism seemed to turn against itself, the riot police had to come in to calm the mad crowds that were shouting anti-Japanese slogans.
Again it seemed a metaphor for the broader dynamics in China. While official media blurt out a never ending stream of mostly optimistic images of a bright future, a tale of national progress, the stability of this bright future is threatened by at least two factors. First, the enthusiastic crowd might get too optimistic, might get drunk on their own success, and demand more and more. Toddy, Sparkle and Rebecca when they grow up and reach middle age, might challenge the authorities to share the political power.
On the other hand the stability was also threatened by those who were frustrated because they lost their jobs. Because they were thrown out of their houses. Because they were treated unfairly by the officials. Because, like Zhang’s son or Sparkle’s village friends, they started to realize that the newly minted Chinese Dream will never materialize for them.
Would the myth of the Chinese Dream, just like in the United States—in spite of abundant evidence of the contrary—remain believable? Would new generations keep on dreaming up their own success stories? Would they keep on seeing the newly constructed cities, versions 2.0 and up, as reachable goals? Or would they start to wonder why so many of them are so ostensibly excluded from this picture?
Or will all of these scenarios play out at the same time? Will the economy continue to grow, producing a new middle class demanding more and more rights, at the same time that disenfranchised groups start organizing and trying to transform their fate, while new cities just keep on going up?
That would leave one big challenge, both socially and spatially: how can all these different developments be incorporated into one coherent system? How to design new versions of the city that stretch around the present as well as into the future?
Note: This chapter belongs to the genre of faction: all the events and characters in the story are based on real persons, observations and events. However for the sake of the story and the anonymity of those interviewed, sometimes their names and the order and places of these events are changed or combined.