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Images © Tong Lam
The Ordos Dreamby Tong Lam
When travellers enter the terminal building of the Ordos airport, they immediately see a mural at the base of the ceiling featuring a smiling Genghis Khan, who seems to be welcoming them into his empire. The departure hall, which looks like a yurt, further conveys a sense of local history and culture as imagined or perhaps invented by its architects. This idea of Ordos being an all embracing, outward-looking, expansive, and ambitious Inner Mongolian city is equally prevalent in Ordos’s Kangbashi new district, an instant city that has been designed to showcase the region’s newfound wealth. 
 The new Ordos city, while a very contemporary creation, incorporates many elements of imperial urban design. The city is made up of concentric circles. Cutting through it is a central artery, nearly 3 kilometers long and 200 meters wide, linking the municipal government complex at the one end and the financial district at the other. Meanwhile, the central plaza in front of the government complex (known as Genghis Khan Square, of course) is a vast space that is 1.6 kilometers long and 400 meters wide. At the center of it are two sets of gigantic statues with figures linked to stories of Genghis Khan’s birth and his heroic conquests. Then, further along the central axis, in addition to a library, a museum, a performing arts center, and a theater, there are additional statues of the Great Khan and known or imaginary figures and animals associated with his life and myth. To be sure, these monuments and statues do not merely articulate a sense of Mongolian heritage and pride. In some cases, their designers also try to emphasize the idea of ethnic harmony and reconciliation between different ethnic groups, especially between the Han and the Mongols. The celebration of China’s minority cultures in various cultural establishments here, as elsewhere in China, is done in a way that symbolically reinforces the political domination of the Han majority. Yet, just like China’s imperial past that constantly returns to haunt the present, there is something in Ordos’s urban design and architecture that seems to suggest a geopolitical vision that is greater than the People’s Republic or even the idea of China in general. Symmetrical, stately, grand, sublime, and uncannily empty, in its central district at least, Ordos looks more like the capital of an imaginary 21st century Mongol empire than just another prefecture-level city in a part of the PRC known as Inner Mongolia. Near the southeastern end of the central axis, there is even a theme park displaying sculptures from all over Asia, presented as if they were trophies of the Mongols’ imperial conquest.  These are leftover from an Asian sculpture exposition hosted by the city a few years ago, but their inclusion and placement near the core of the metropolis is telling. Nevertheless, whatever sense of an old type of “imperial” power urban planners of the new Ordos are trying to project, the overall effect is quite benign. While many of the statues and monuments have serious and dignified appearances, some, like gigantic statues that stand on a chessboard the size of half of a soccer field, are playful, humorous, and have a sort of postmodern feel to them. Even the happy Genghis Khan portrayed in the airport mural seems too friendly to be ferocious, which makes his imagined empire less formidable than the historical one he created was in its day. In the end, Ordos’s global outlook seems driven by touristic concerns rather than a renewed sense of imperial ambition. Still, one wonders to what degree the imperial fantasy revealed in the design of Ordos is an articulation of the desire for greatness that finds resonance with the central government’s recent discussion of the “Chinese Dream,” a cultural project that calls for a national renewal that will transform China into an all-round great power. 
lareviewofbooks:

Images © Tong Lam
The Ordos Dreamby Tong Lam
When travellers enter the terminal building of the Ordos airport, they immediately see a mural at the base of the ceiling featuring a smiling Genghis Khan, who seems to be welcoming them into his empire. The departure hall, which looks like a yurt, further conveys a sense of local history and culture as imagined or perhaps invented by its architects. This idea of Ordos being an all embracing, outward-looking, expansive, and ambitious Inner Mongolian city is equally prevalent in Ordos’s Kangbashi new district, an instant city that has been designed to showcase the region’s newfound wealth. 
 The new Ordos city, while a very contemporary creation, incorporates many elements of imperial urban design. The city is made up of concentric circles. Cutting through it is a central artery, nearly 3 kilometers long and 200 meters wide, linking the municipal government complex at the one end and the financial district at the other. Meanwhile, the central plaza in front of the government complex (known as Genghis Khan Square, of course) is a vast space that is 1.6 kilometers long and 400 meters wide. At the center of it are two sets of gigantic statues with figures linked to stories of Genghis Khan’s birth and his heroic conquests. Then, further along the central axis, in addition to a library, a museum, a performing arts center, and a theater, there are additional statues of the Great Khan and known or imaginary figures and animals associated with his life and myth. To be sure, these monuments and statues do not merely articulate a sense of Mongolian heritage and pride. In some cases, their designers also try to emphasize the idea of ethnic harmony and reconciliation between different ethnic groups, especially between the Han and the Mongols. The celebration of China’s minority cultures in various cultural establishments here, as elsewhere in China, is done in a way that symbolically reinforces the political domination of the Han majority. Yet, just like China’s imperial past that constantly returns to haunt the present, there is something in Ordos’s urban design and architecture that seems to suggest a geopolitical vision that is greater than the People’s Republic or even the idea of China in general. Symmetrical, stately, grand, sublime, and uncannily empty, in its central district at least, Ordos looks more like the capital of an imaginary 21st century Mongol empire than just another prefecture-level city in a part of the PRC known as Inner Mongolia. Near the southeastern end of the central axis, there is even a theme park displaying sculptures from all over Asia, presented as if they were trophies of the Mongols’ imperial conquest.  These are leftover from an Asian sculpture exposition hosted by the city a few years ago, but their inclusion and placement near the core of the metropolis is telling. Nevertheless, whatever sense of an old type of “imperial” power urban planners of the new Ordos are trying to project, the overall effect is quite benign. While many of the statues and monuments have serious and dignified appearances, some, like gigantic statues that stand on a chessboard the size of half of a soccer field, are playful, humorous, and have a sort of postmodern feel to them. Even the happy Genghis Khan portrayed in the airport mural seems too friendly to be ferocious, which makes his imagined empire less formidable than the historical one he created was in its day. In the end, Ordos’s global outlook seems driven by touristic concerns rather than a renewed sense of imperial ambition. Still, one wonders to what degree the imperial fantasy revealed in the design of Ordos is an articulation of the desire for greatness that finds resonance with the central government’s recent discussion of the “Chinese Dream,” a cultural project that calls for a national renewal that will transform China into an all-round great power. 

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Images © Tong Lam

The Ordos Dream
by Tong Lam

When travellers enter the terminal building of the Ordos airport, they immediately see a mural at the base of the ceiling featuring a smiling Genghis Khan, who seems to be welcoming them into his empire. The departure hall, which looks like a yurt, further conveys a sense of local history and culture as imagined or perhaps invented by its architects. This idea of Ordos being an all embracing, outward-looking, expansive, and ambitious Inner Mongolian city is equally prevalent in Ordos’s Kangbashi new district, an instant city that has been designed to showcase the region’s newfound wealth. 

The new Ordos city, while a very contemporary creation, incorporates many elements of imperial urban design. The city is made up of concentric circles. Cutting through it is a central artery, nearly 3 kilometers long and 200 meters wide, linking the municipal government complex at the one end and the financial district at the other. Meanwhile, the central plaza in front of the government complex (known as Genghis Khan Square, of course) is a vast space that is 1.6 kilometers long and 400 meters wide. At the center of it are two sets of gigantic statues with figures linked to stories of Genghis Khan’s birth and his heroic conquests. Then, further along the central axis, in addition to a library, a museum, a performing arts center, and a theater, there are additional statues of the Great Khan and known or imaginary figures and animals associated with his life and myth. 

To be sure, these monuments and statues do not merely articulate a sense of Mongolian heritage and pride. In some cases, their designers also try to emphasize the idea of ethnic harmony and reconciliation between different ethnic groups, especially between the Han and the Mongols. The celebration of China’s minority cultures in various cultural establishments here, as elsewhere in China, is done in a way that symbolically reinforces the political domination of the Han majority. Yet, just like China’s imperial past that constantly returns to haunt the present, there is something in Ordos’s urban design and architecture that seems to suggest a geopolitical vision that is greater than the People’s Republic or even the idea of China in general. Symmetrical, stately, grand, sublime, and uncannily empty, in its central district at least, Ordos looks more like the capital of an imaginary 21st century Mongol empire than just another prefecture-level city in a part of the PRC known as Inner Mongolia. Near the southeastern end of the central axis, there is even a theme park displaying sculptures from all over Asia, presented as if they were trophies of the Mongols’ imperial conquest.  These are leftover from an Asian sculpture exposition hosted by the city a few years ago, but their inclusion and placement near the core of the metropolis is telling. 

Nevertheless, whatever sense of an old type of “imperial” power urban planners of the new Ordos are trying to project, the overall effect is quite benign. While many of the statues and monuments have serious and dignified appearances, some, like gigantic statues that stand on a chessboard the size of half of a soccer field, are playful, humorous, and have a sort of postmodern feel to them. Even the happy Genghis Khan portrayed in the airport mural seems too friendly to be ferocious, which makes his imagined empire less formidable than the historical one he created was in its day. In the end, Ordos’s global outlook seems driven by touristic concerns rather than a renewed sense of imperial ambition. Still, one wonders to what degree the imperial fantasy revealed in the design of Ordos is an articulation of the desire for greatness that finds resonance with the central government’s recent discussion of the “Chinese Dream,” a cultural project that calls for a national renewal that will transform China into an all-round great power. 

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Black Earth*by Tong Lam 
Northwestern China’s Loess Plateau has long been regarded as the birthplace of Chinese civilization, but it is also seen as a source of the country’s deep sorrow. In particular, the yellowish loess of the region, found beside the Yellow River, is often associated with cycles of ecological erosion, floods, and droughts and has come to represent China’s poverty and backwardness. Nowhere is such hardship better depicted than in Yellow Earth (1984), an epic film that was the joint product of two giant figures in Chinese cinema, since Chen Kaige directed it and Zhang Yimou was its cinematographer. Among other things, the internationally acclaimed film, which is set during the 1930s, offers a vivid portrayal of Chinese villagers in a desolate region trying to eke out a living on unpredictable loess land.
Until a decade ago, the area located just south of the Ordos Loop of the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia was no different from other poverty-stricken regions in the Chinese Loess Plateau. Local conditions were so harsh that residents were often unable to sustain themselves and had to rely on government subsidies. But the discovery of one of China’s largest coal deposits in the region, coupled with skyrocketing coal prices, have elevated Ordos from one of the poorest places in the country to one of the wealthiest in less than a decade.  
Today, the prefecture-level city is filled with designer architecture, new SUVs, wide avenues, and construction sites with hoardings that promise an even better future. If China’s agrarian civilization was once built on the “yellow earth,” the future of Ordos is built on a thick layer of black deposits under the loess. It is estimated that Ordos is home to about one-sixth of China’s national coal reserves. The sudden arrival of wealth has subsequently led to the development of an overbuilt city and widespread real estate speculation. Indeed, until the central government tried to tame the out-of-control real estate market nationwide a few years ago, it had seemed that only the sky was the limit for Ordos’s hysterical expansion.
In a certain sense, Ordos is the wild west of 21st century China. And only time will tell how this urban economy rooted in black earth develops from here.
Photo 1: Goats grazing along the Yellow River at the northern edge of Ordos. © Tong Lam
Photo 2: In the Ordos region, there are approximately six meters of coal deposits below the yellowish loess. However, a drop in coal prices has led to the slowing down of coal extraction in these open pit mines in the past few years. © Tong Lam
lareviewofbooks:


Black Earth*by Tong Lam 
Northwestern China’s Loess Plateau has long been regarded as the birthplace of Chinese civilization, but it is also seen as a source of the country’s deep sorrow. In particular, the yellowish loess of the region, found beside the Yellow River, is often associated with cycles of ecological erosion, floods, and droughts and has come to represent China’s poverty and backwardness. Nowhere is such hardship better depicted than in Yellow Earth (1984), an epic film that was the joint product of two giant figures in Chinese cinema, since Chen Kaige directed it and Zhang Yimou was its cinematographer. Among other things, the internationally acclaimed film, which is set during the 1930s, offers a vivid portrayal of Chinese villagers in a desolate region trying to eke out a living on unpredictable loess land.
Until a decade ago, the area located just south of the Ordos Loop of the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia was no different from other poverty-stricken regions in the Chinese Loess Plateau. Local conditions were so harsh that residents were often unable to sustain themselves and had to rely on government subsidies. But the discovery of one of China’s largest coal deposits in the region, coupled with skyrocketing coal prices, have elevated Ordos from one of the poorest places in the country to one of the wealthiest in less than a decade.  
Today, the prefecture-level city is filled with designer architecture, new SUVs, wide avenues, and construction sites with hoardings that promise an even better future. If China’s agrarian civilization was once built on the “yellow earth,” the future of Ordos is built on a thick layer of black deposits under the loess. It is estimated that Ordos is home to about one-sixth of China’s national coal reserves. The sudden arrival of wealth has subsequently led to the development of an overbuilt city and widespread real estate speculation. Indeed, until the central government tried to tame the out-of-control real estate market nationwide a few years ago, it had seemed that only the sky was the limit for Ordos’s hysterical expansion.
In a certain sense, Ordos is the wild west of 21st century China. And only time will tell how this urban economy rooted in black earth develops from here.
Photo 1: Goats grazing along the Yellow River at the northern edge of Ordos. © Tong Lam
Photo 2: In the Ordos region, there are approximately six meters of coal deposits below the yellowish loess. However, a drop in coal prices has led to the slowing down of coal extraction in these open pit mines in the past few years. © Tong Lam

lareviewofbooks:

Black Earth*
by Tong Lam

Northwestern China’s Loess Plateau has long been regarded as the birthplace of Chinese civilization, but it is also seen as a source of the country’s deep sorrow. In particular, the yellowish loess of the region, found beside the Yellow River, is often associated with cycles of ecological erosion, floods, and droughts and has come to represent China’s poverty and backwardness. Nowhere is such hardship better depicted than in Yellow Earth (1984), an epic film that was the joint product of two giant figures in Chinese cinema, since Chen Kaige directed it and Zhang Yimou was its cinematographer. Among other things, the internationally acclaimed film, which is set during the 1930s, offers a vivid portrayal of Chinese villagers in a desolate region trying to eke out a living on unpredictable loess land.

Until a decade ago, the area located just south of the Ordos Loop of the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia was no different from other poverty-stricken regions in the Chinese Loess Plateau. Local conditions were so harsh that residents were often unable to sustain themselves and had to rely on government subsidies. But the discovery of one of China’s largest coal deposits in the region, coupled with skyrocketing coal prices, have elevated Ordos from one of the poorest places in the country to one of the wealthiest in less than a decade.  

Today, the prefecture-level city is filled with designer architecture, new SUVs, wide avenues, and construction sites with hoardings that promise an even better future. If China’s agrarian civilization was once built on the “yellow earth,” the future of Ordos is built on a thick layer of black deposits under the loess. It is estimated that Ordos is home to about one-sixth of China’s national coal reserves. The sudden arrival of wealth has subsequently led to the development of an overbuilt city and widespread real estate speculation. Indeed, until the central government tried to tame the out-of-control real estate market nationwide a few years ago, it had seemed that only the sky was the limit for Ordos’s hysterical expansion.

In a certain sense, Ordos is the wild west of 21st century China. And only time will tell how this urban economy rooted in black earth develops from here.

Photo 1: Goats grazing along the Yellow River at the northern edge of Ordos. © Tong Lam

Photo 2: In the Ordos region, there are approximately six meters of coal deposits below the yellowish loess. However, a drop in coal prices has led to the slowing down of coal extraction in these open pit mines in the past few years. © Tong Lam

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Disaster Tourism*by Tong Lam
A massive earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale struck the Province of Sichuan on May 12, 2008, killing more than 90,000 people. In response to the disaster, the Chinese government launched the largest rescue mobilization in recent history. While the government’s swift response initially elicited widespread praise from domestic and international media, the shoddy construction of many of the collapsed buildings, particularly schoolhouses, soon became a focus of public attention. According to official estimates, more than 5,000 students perished in the earthquake due to the fall of school buildings alone. Tormented by unspeakable pain, many parents of deceased children spoke out against greedy local officials, construction companies eager to cut corners, and the cozy relationships between the two groups. These parents called for inquiries into the engineering failures and forms of corruptions that may have contributed to the fall of hundreds of school buildings. 
Corruption aside, there is no doubt that the substandard infrastructure of areas in the disaster zone was also a product of how this remote mountainous region had long been neglected by China’s rapid economic growth. Not surprisingly, infrastructural development has since become a key priority in post-quake reconstruction and recovery. In addition to new highways, residential buildings, and schoolhouses, the government has constructed many state-of-the-art earthquake or geologically related museums as part of a larger program to bolster tourism in the region. The most curious structures in this drive are the large-scale urban earthquake ruins preserved as memorials, shrines, and tourist destinations. In the old city of Beichuan, for example, the entire ruined city has been preserved and turned into a theme park. Tourists can take an eco-bus to the center of the abandoned city and wander along the newly paved roads and walkways between the collapsed buildings. In the case of the old town of Yingxiu in Wenchuan county, which is even closer to the epic center, hotels, restaurants, and shopping strips have been built within a short walking distance from the rubble where thousands of residents were buried alive.  
There are placards everywhere that remind visitors to be respectful of the deaths in these sites, yet the idea of turning massive earthquake ruins into theme parks seems to raise serious ethical questions. This is particularly the case since memories of this natural and manmade catastrophe are still hotly contested. There is an extraordinary tension between the needs of tourism and that of commemoration, and these theme parks also represent an unprecedented kind of disaster tourism. But then, there are many ways in which this fast changing country is venturing first into uncharted territory with profound implications. 
*Photos © Tong Lam. For captions, click on the images.
lareviewofbooks:


Disaster Tourism*by Tong Lam
A massive earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale struck the Province of Sichuan on May 12, 2008, killing more than 90,000 people. In response to the disaster, the Chinese government launched the largest rescue mobilization in recent history. While the government’s swift response initially elicited widespread praise from domestic and international media, the shoddy construction of many of the collapsed buildings, particularly schoolhouses, soon became a focus of public attention. According to official estimates, more than 5,000 students perished in the earthquake due to the fall of school buildings alone. Tormented by unspeakable pain, many parents of deceased children spoke out against greedy local officials, construction companies eager to cut corners, and the cozy relationships between the two groups. These parents called for inquiries into the engineering failures and forms of corruptions that may have contributed to the fall of hundreds of school buildings. 
Corruption aside, there is no doubt that the substandard infrastructure of areas in the disaster zone was also a product of how this remote mountainous region had long been neglected by China’s rapid economic growth. Not surprisingly, infrastructural development has since become a key priority in post-quake reconstruction and recovery. In addition to new highways, residential buildings, and schoolhouses, the government has constructed many state-of-the-art earthquake or geologically related museums as part of a larger program to bolster tourism in the region. The most curious structures in this drive are the large-scale urban earthquake ruins preserved as memorials, shrines, and tourist destinations. In the old city of Beichuan, for example, the entire ruined city has been preserved and turned into a theme park. Tourists can take an eco-bus to the center of the abandoned city and wander along the newly paved roads and walkways between the collapsed buildings. In the case of the old town of Yingxiu in Wenchuan county, which is even closer to the epic center, hotels, restaurants, and shopping strips have been built within a short walking distance from the rubble where thousands of residents were buried alive.  
There are placards everywhere that remind visitors to be respectful of the deaths in these sites, yet the idea of turning massive earthquake ruins into theme parks seems to raise serious ethical questions. This is particularly the case since memories of this natural and manmade catastrophe are still hotly contested. There is an extraordinary tension between the needs of tourism and that of commemoration, and these theme parks also represent an unprecedented kind of disaster tourism. But then, there are many ways in which this fast changing country is venturing first into uncharted territory with profound implications. 
*Photos © Tong Lam. For captions, click on the images.

lareviewofbooks:

Disaster Tourism*
by Tong Lam

A massive earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale struck the Province of Sichuan on May 12, 2008, killing more than 90,000 people. In response to the disaster, the Chinese government launched the largest rescue mobilization in recent history. While the government’s swift response initially elicited widespread praise from domestic and international media, the shoddy construction of many of the collapsed buildings, particularly schoolhouses, soon became a focus of public attention. According to official estimates, more than 5,000 students perished in the earthquake due to the fall of school buildings alone. Tormented by unspeakable pain, many parents of deceased children spoke out against greedy local officials, construction companies eager to cut corners, and the cozy relationships between the two groups. These parents called for inquiries into the engineering failures and forms of corruptions that may have contributed to the fall of hundreds of school buildings.

Corruption aside, there is no doubt that the substandard infrastructure of areas in the disaster zone was also a product of how this remote mountainous region had long been neglected by China’s rapid economic growth. Not surprisingly, infrastructural development has since become a key priority in post-quake reconstruction and recovery. In addition to new highways, residential buildings, and schoolhouses, the government has constructed many state-of-the-art earthquake or geologically related museums as part of a larger program to bolster tourism in the region. The most curious structures in this drive are the large-scale urban earthquake ruins preserved as memorials, shrines, and tourist destinations. In the old city of Beichuan, for example, the entire ruined city has been preserved and turned into a theme park. Tourists can take an eco-bus to the center of the abandoned city and wander along the newly paved roads and walkways between the collapsed buildings. In the case of the old town of Yingxiu in Wenchuan county, which is even closer to the epic center, hotels, restaurants, and shopping strips have been built within a short walking distance from the rubble where thousands of residents were buried alive. 

There are placards everywhere that remind visitors to be respectful of the deaths in these sites, yet the idea of turning massive earthquake ruins into theme parks seems to raise serious ethical questions. This is particularly the case since memories of this natural and manmade catastrophe are still hotly contested. There is an extraordinary tension between the needs of tourism and that of commemoration, and these theme parks also represent an unprecedented kind of disaster tourism. But then, there are many ways in which this fast changing country is venturing first into uncharted territory with profound implications. 

*Photos © Tong Lam. For captions, click on the images.

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Image 1: The screening of a Sino-Japanese War film in a village outside of Chengdu, Sichuan Province by a government projection team. During the past decade, the central government has initiated a new project that promises to deliver one film to each village in each month. © Tong Lam    
 Image 2: A commercial drive-in theater in Beijing showing Star Trek into Darkness (2013). This theater alone has four screens with showings every day until after midnight. © Tong Lam
Outdoor Film Screeningsby Tong Lam
In China, there is a long history of intellectuals and the government bringing literature and films to rural areas as part of nation-building projects. In the early 1950s, for example, right as the Communist government was consolidating its power, the party sent thousands of trained projectionists into the country to deliver entertainment as well as propaganda to China’s vast rural populace. In those days, villagers greeted projection teams with excitement, and outdoor screenings were among the most anticipated cultural events for them. In recent decades, rural film projections have dwindled drastically as a result of changing social and economic conditions, as well as the popularization of televisions, satellite discs, VCDs, DVDs, and the Internet.  The government has begun, however, to reactivate the program of rural film projections in the past decade. It even guarantees now that there will be at least one screening in each village in each month. 
Currently, there are more than 40,000 projection teams nationwide, delivering domestic films to almost all villages. This extensive use of films for cultural engineering is not something found at present in other places, but the contemporary rural screenings do not occupy the same prominent role in village life that their precursors did in the Mao era. Not only are audiences significantly smaller now, they also tend to be made up of old people and children, since so many young and middle-aged villagers are off in cities working on construction sites, in factories, or in service jobs. 
Meanwhile, in addition to government-sponsored screenings, there are also outdoor film shows sponsored by corporations, construction companies, and NGOs for purposes of branding and marketing, increasing migrant workers’ morale, and community building. While films for migrant workers are generally similar to those screened in villages, corporations and NGOs are more willing to show movies that could appeal to the urban middle class.
The starkest contrast to government sanctioned outdoor screenings is provided by the new drive-in theaters that have sprung up in China. Catering to a niche market, there are now nearly a dozen of these commercial drive-ins. Here, the self-selected middle-class moviegoers can enjoy the latest domestic and international releases inside their private cars in suburban parking lots that look as though they could exist virtually anywhere in the world. 
lareviewofbooks:

Image 1: The screening of a Sino-Japanese War film in a village outside of Chengdu, Sichuan Province by a government projection team. During the past decade, the central government has initiated a new project that promises to deliver one film to each village in each month. © Tong Lam    
 Image 2: A commercial drive-in theater in Beijing showing Star Trek into Darkness (2013). This theater alone has four screens with showings every day until after midnight. © Tong Lam
Outdoor Film Screeningsby Tong Lam
In China, there is a long history of intellectuals and the government bringing literature and films to rural areas as part of nation-building projects. In the early 1950s, for example, right as the Communist government was consolidating its power, the party sent thousands of trained projectionists into the country to deliver entertainment as well as propaganda to China’s vast rural populace. In those days, villagers greeted projection teams with excitement, and outdoor screenings were among the most anticipated cultural events for them. In recent decades, rural film projections have dwindled drastically as a result of changing social and economic conditions, as well as the popularization of televisions, satellite discs, VCDs, DVDs, and the Internet.  The government has begun, however, to reactivate the program of rural film projections in the past decade. It even guarantees now that there will be at least one screening in each village in each month. 
Currently, there are more than 40,000 projection teams nationwide, delivering domestic films to almost all villages. This extensive use of films for cultural engineering is not something found at present in other places, but the contemporary rural screenings do not occupy the same prominent role in village life that their precursors did in the Mao era. Not only are audiences significantly smaller now, they also tend to be made up of old people and children, since so many young and middle-aged villagers are off in cities working on construction sites, in factories, or in service jobs. 
Meanwhile, in addition to government-sponsored screenings, there are also outdoor film shows sponsored by corporations, construction companies, and NGOs for purposes of branding and marketing, increasing migrant workers’ morale, and community building. While films for migrant workers are generally similar to those screened in villages, corporations and NGOs are more willing to show movies that could appeal to the urban middle class.
The starkest contrast to government sanctioned outdoor screenings is provided by the new drive-in theaters that have sprung up in China. Catering to a niche market, there are now nearly a dozen of these commercial drive-ins. Here, the self-selected middle-class moviegoers can enjoy the latest domestic and international releases inside their private cars in suburban parking lots that look as though they could exist virtually anywhere in the world. 

lareviewofbooks:

Image 1: The screening of a Sino-Japanese War film in a village outside of Chengdu, Sichuan Province by a government projection team. During the past decade, the central government has initiated a new project that promises to deliver one film to each village in each month. © Tong Lam   

Image 2: A commercial drive-in theater in Beijing showing Star Trek into Darkness (2013). This theater alone has four screens with showings every day until after midnight. © Tong Lam

Outdoor Film Screenings
by Tong Lam

In China, there is a long history of intellectuals and the government bringing literature and films to rural areas as part of nation-building projects. In the early 1950s, for example, right as the Communist government was consolidating its power, the party sent thousands of trained projectionists into the country to deliver entertainment as well as propaganda to China’s vast rural populace. In those days, villagers greeted projection teams with excitement, and outdoor screenings were among the most anticipated cultural events for them. In recent decades, rural film projections have dwindled drastically as a result of changing social and economic conditions, as well as the popularization of televisions, satellite discs, VCDs, DVDs, and the Internet.  The government has begun, however, to reactivate the program of rural film projections in the past decade. It even guarantees now that there will be at least one screening in each village in each month.

Currently, there are more than 40,000 projection teams nationwide, delivering domestic films to almost all villages. This extensive use of films for cultural engineering is not something found at present in other places, but the contemporary rural screenings do not occupy the same prominent role in village life that their precursors did in the Mao era. Not only are audiences significantly smaller now, they also tend to be made up of old people and children, since so many young and middle-aged villagers are off in cities working on construction sites, in factories, or in service jobs. 

Meanwhile, in addition to government-sponsored screenings, there are also outdoor film shows sponsored by corporations, construction companies, and NGOs for purposes of branding and marketing, increasing migrant workers’ morale, and community building. While films for migrant workers are generally similar to those screened in villages, corporations and NGOs are more willing to show movies that could appeal to the urban middle class.

The starkest contrast to government sanctioned outdoor screenings is provided by the new drive-in theaters that have sprung up in China. Catering to a niche market, there are now nearly a dozen of these commercial drive-ins. Here, the self-selected middle-class moviegoers can enjoy the latest domestic and international releases inside their private cars in suburban parking lots that look as though they could exist virtually anywhere in the world. 

lareviewofbooks:

Image 1: Far away from the ocean, the New Century Global Center in the Sichuan city of Chengdu nonetheless features a marine theme. Not only does its undulating roof call waves to mind, but the completed building will have inside it: an artificial beach, a water park and fountains, along with many other amenities. (© Tong Lam)
Image 2: A banner in an old Chengdu neighborhood reads: “Fortune Global Forum: A Global Event at the Doorstep.” The invitation only forum will be attended by the CEOs of the Fortune Global 500 companies, as well as political leaders from around the world. Many people in the neighborhood have heard of the forum, but few understand what it is all about. (© Tong Lam)
The Ultimate Pleasure Dome
by Tong Lam
In the immediate wake of World War II, George Orwell published a short essay called Pleasure Spots in which he predicted the arrival of large-scale pleasure facilities that people would be able to visit to escape from the real world. The “pleasure spots” of Orwell’s imagination would be enclosed and mediated environments with regulated temperatures, constant music, and endless entertainment. It would be a place where sensual pleasures and excitements were generated, while the individual’s thinking and curiosity was desensitized. In our times, pleasure spots such as resorts, theme parks, and cruise ships are no longer novel.
However, the ultimate pleasure spot exclusively for the super-rich and powerful has yet to arrive.  The wait, though, is almost over. Roughly 1,000 km from the Chinese coast, a giant pleasure dome called New Century Global Center is rising from the bottom of the Sichuan basin in the new financial district of Chengdu. The building has 1.5 million square meters of floor space, or nearly three times that of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. It is now the world’s largest standalone structure, indeed, large enough to fit 20 Sydney Opera houses inside. 
According to the plan, the building will have a water park, an artificial beach, commercial complexes, shopping arcades, an IMAX cinema, a skating rink, and two luxury hotels with “seaside views.” It is no coincidence that the complex will be one of the venues used when the Fortune Global Forum is held in the city next month. The annual conference organized by the Fortunate Magazine will be attended by the CEOs of the Fortune Global 500 companies, as well as Chinese and international leaders.  
When these leaders arrive in Chengdu in early June, the pleasure dome will not only shelter them from the smog that often blankets the city, it will also insulate them from experiencing the rising social discontents and economic disparity of this aspiring megacity. The Foxconn plant in Chengdu, for instance, has had its share of riots and industrial accidents since its opening a few years ago. Then, during the first weekend of May (a politically sensitive time, as it included the anniversary of one of China’s most important early twentieth-century protest waves, the May 4th Movement of 1919) thousands of police officers swarmed to key locations in the city, including its central square, after some local netizens called for demonstrations against the construction of an oil refinery near the city. At the end, there was no Jasmine Revolution-like event, no significant rally, in part perhaps because, in addition to ramped up security, the authorities (in a touch NPR’s Louisa Lim called “Orwellian”) shifted the start of that week’s “weekend” to Monday, so that students had to attend school and some workers had to work on what might have been a protest day. 
For now at least, China’s “economic miracle” is still enabled by heavy-handed state policies, low cost labor, diverting forms of consumption and entertainment, and an array of contradictions. For now, the Global Center, a simulacrum par excellence, will shield global business leaders and state officials from the mounting social pressures for change. The ultimate pleasure dome, in a way, is also a counter-pressure dome.
Next week at the New School: Dissent Magazine presents China’s 99%. A panel discussion featuring Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, and Megan Shank. Get more info here.
lareviewofbooks:

Image 1: Far away from the ocean, the New Century Global Center in the Sichuan city of Chengdu nonetheless features a marine theme. Not only does its undulating roof call waves to mind, but the completed building will have inside it: an artificial beach, a water park and fountains, along with many other amenities. (© Tong Lam)
Image 2: A banner in an old Chengdu neighborhood reads: “Fortune Global Forum: A Global Event at the Doorstep.” The invitation only forum will be attended by the CEOs of the Fortune Global 500 companies, as well as political leaders from around the world. Many people in the neighborhood have heard of the forum, but few understand what it is all about. (© Tong Lam)
The Ultimate Pleasure Dome
by Tong Lam
In the immediate wake of World War II, George Orwell published a short essay called Pleasure Spots in which he predicted the arrival of large-scale pleasure facilities that people would be able to visit to escape from the real world. The “pleasure spots” of Orwell’s imagination would be enclosed and mediated environments with regulated temperatures, constant music, and endless entertainment. It would be a place where sensual pleasures and excitements were generated, while the individual’s thinking and curiosity was desensitized. In our times, pleasure spots such as resorts, theme parks, and cruise ships are no longer novel.
However, the ultimate pleasure spot exclusively for the super-rich and powerful has yet to arrive.  The wait, though, is almost over. Roughly 1,000 km from the Chinese coast, a giant pleasure dome called New Century Global Center is rising from the bottom of the Sichuan basin in the new financial district of Chengdu. The building has 1.5 million square meters of floor space, or nearly three times that of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. It is now the world’s largest standalone structure, indeed, large enough to fit 20 Sydney Opera houses inside. 
According to the plan, the building will have a water park, an artificial beach, commercial complexes, shopping arcades, an IMAX cinema, a skating rink, and two luxury hotels with “seaside views.” It is no coincidence that the complex will be one of the venues used when the Fortune Global Forum is held in the city next month. The annual conference organized by the Fortunate Magazine will be attended by the CEOs of the Fortune Global 500 companies, as well as Chinese and international leaders.  
When these leaders arrive in Chengdu in early June, the pleasure dome will not only shelter them from the smog that often blankets the city, it will also insulate them from experiencing the rising social discontents and economic disparity of this aspiring megacity. The Foxconn plant in Chengdu, for instance, has had its share of riots and industrial accidents since its opening a few years ago. Then, during the first weekend of May (a politically sensitive time, as it included the anniversary of one of China’s most important early twentieth-century protest waves, the May 4th Movement of 1919) thousands of police officers swarmed to key locations in the city, including its central square, after some local netizens called for demonstrations against the construction of an oil refinery near the city. At the end, there was no Jasmine Revolution-like event, no significant rally, in part perhaps because, in addition to ramped up security, the authorities (in a touch NPR’s Louisa Lim called “Orwellian”) shifted the start of that week’s “weekend” to Monday, so that students had to attend school and some workers had to work on what might have been a protest day. 
For now at least, China’s “economic miracle” is still enabled by heavy-handed state policies, low cost labor, diverting forms of consumption and entertainment, and an array of contradictions. For now, the Global Center, a simulacrum par excellence, will shield global business leaders and state officials from the mounting social pressures for change. The ultimate pleasure dome, in a way, is also a counter-pressure dome.
Next week at the New School: Dissent Magazine presents China’s 99%. A panel discussion featuring Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, and Megan Shank. Get more info here.

lareviewofbooks:

Image 1: Far away from the ocean, the New Century Global Center in the Sichuan city of Chengdu nonetheless features a marine theme. Not only does its undulating roof call waves to mind, but the completed building will have inside it: an artificial beach, a water park and fountains, along with many other amenities. (© Tong Lam)

Image 2: A banner in an old Chengdu neighborhood reads: “Fortune Global Forum: A Global Event at the Doorstep.” The invitation only forum will be attended by the CEOs of the Fortune Global 500 companies, as well as political leaders from around the world. Many people in the neighborhood have heard of the forum, but few understand what it is all about. (© Tong Lam)

The Ultimate Pleasure Dome

by Tong Lam

In the immediate wake of World War II, George Orwell published a short essay called Pleasure Spots in which he predicted the arrival of large-scale pleasure facilities that people would be able to visit to escape from the real world. The “pleasure spots” of Orwell’s imagination would be enclosed and mediated environments with regulated temperatures, constant music, and endless entertainment. It would be a place where sensual pleasures and excitements were generated, while the individual’s thinking and curiosity was desensitized. In our times, pleasure spots such as resorts, theme parks, and cruise ships are no longer novel.

However, the ultimate pleasure spot exclusively for the super-rich and powerful has yet to arrive.  The wait, though, is almost over. Roughly 1,000 km from the Chinese coast, a giant pleasure dome called New Century Global Center is rising from the bottom of the Sichuan basin in the new financial district of Chengdu. The building has 1.5 million square meters of floor space, or nearly three times that of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. It is now the world’s largest standalone structure, indeed, large enough to fit 20 Sydney Opera houses inside.

According to the plan, the building will have a water park, an artificial beach, commercial complexes, shopping arcades, an IMAX cinema, a skating rink, and two luxury hotels with “seaside views.” It is no coincidence that the complex will be one of the venues used when the Fortune Global Forum is held in the city next month. The annual conference organized by the Fortunate Magazine will be attended by the CEOs of the Fortune Global 500 companies, as well as Chinese and international leaders. 

When these leaders arrive in Chengdu in early June, the pleasure dome will not only shelter them from the smog that often blankets the city, it will also insulate them from experiencing the rising social discontents and economic disparity of this aspiring megacity. The Foxconn plant in Chengdu, for instance, has had its share of riots and industrial accidents since its opening a few years ago. Then, during the first weekend of May (a politically sensitive time, as it included the anniversary of one of China’s most important early twentieth-century protest waves, the May 4th Movement of 1919) thousands of police officers swarmed to key locations in the city, including its central square, after some local netizens called for demonstrations against the construction of an oil refinery near the city. At the end, there was no Jasmine Revolution-like event, no significant rally, in part perhaps because, in addition to ramped up security, the authorities (in a touch NPR’s Louisa Lim called “Orwellian”) shifted the start of that week’s “weekend” to Monday, so that students had to attend school and some workers had to work on what might have been a protest day. 

For now at least, China’s “economic miracle” is still enabled by heavy-handed state policies, low cost labor, diverting forms of consumption and entertainment, and an array of contradictions. For now, the Global Center, a simulacrum par excellence, will shield global business leaders and state officials from the mounting social pressures for change. The ultimate pleasure dome, in a way, is also a counter-pressure dome.

Next week at the New School: Dissent Magazine presents China’s 99%. A panel discussion featuring Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, and Megan Shank. Get more info here.

lareviewofbooks:

Cute Policingby Tong Lam (photo © Tong Lam)
A lot has been said on the rise of China’s soft power in the international arena. What is less often discussed is the rise of police soft power in urban China in recent years. Indeed, although policing has always been a central component of the government’s penetrating apparatus of social control, Chinese police forces have recently begun to adopt a softer image in certain contexts. For example, residents of Chongqing still vividly recall the young, heavily made-up female traffic cops introduced by the former local party chief Bo Xilai. Similarly, when Bo was the mayor of the city of Dalian in the 1990s, he also instituted the idea of having young and good-looking female police officers patrolling the city center on horseback, a practice that has apparently outlasted Bo’s political career.
Indeed, while many observers have associated the use of young female police officers with Bo’s peculiar populist policies, the idea of cultivating a benign image for the police has become routine in Chinese cities. Generally, the emergence of a neoliberal economy since the 1990s has resulted in a fundamental restructuring of China’s social and economic landscape. In urban areas, this involves the growing disparity between middle class residents and migrant workers who do physical labor and perform service functions. Meanwhile, the gentrification of city neighborhoods has also led to the creation of new urban spaces dedicated to leisure and consumption.
Yet, these newly created public spaces (or, more accurately, these privatized public spaces) are never really designed for the masses in the broad sense. On the contrary, the highly visible presence of security guards, police officers, and various forms of surveillance apparatuses, such as closed-circuit television cameras, in these spaces is part of the neoliberal regime of social inclusion and exclusion, of the sort described so famously, with reference to California’s biggest metropolis, in the Mike Davis classic City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. In this context, the urban poor and “undesirables,” such as migrant workers, are made to feel unwelcome in what are purportedly “public” spaces. At the same time, the constant presence of the panoptic gaze does not just reassure the rich elites and middle class citizens of their safety, it also helps to instill a sense of fear and insecurity among them, making them appreciate the role of the state in maintaining law and order.  The rise of cute-looking police surveillance apparatuses is therefore part and parcel of contemporary China’s strategy of constructing a “socialist harmonic society” in an increasingly tension-ridden society. And while comparable cute-looking surveillance apparatuses can be found in other East Asian societies such as Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan, they should also be seen as part of a larger global trend of masking the ever penetrating state power with softer and more benign images.
Recommended Reading
Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953  by Janet Y. Chen (Princeton University Press, 2012): a study of how the Chinese urban poor were managed by the government in the first half of the twentieth century. 
Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution by David Harvey (Verso 2012): a critique of the historical relationship between global capitalism and the city, and a discussion of how to create alternatives to the current system.   
 
lareviewofbooks:

Cute Policingby Tong Lam (photo © Tong Lam)
A lot has been said on the rise of China’s soft power in the international arena. What is less often discussed is the rise of police soft power in urban China in recent years. Indeed, although policing has always been a central component of the government’s penetrating apparatus of social control, Chinese police forces have recently begun to adopt a softer image in certain contexts. For example, residents of Chongqing still vividly recall the young, heavily made-up female traffic cops introduced by the former local party chief Bo Xilai. Similarly, when Bo was the mayor of the city of Dalian in the 1990s, he also instituted the idea of having young and good-looking female police officers patrolling the city center on horseback, a practice that has apparently outlasted Bo’s political career.
Indeed, while many observers have associated the use of young female police officers with Bo’s peculiar populist policies, the idea of cultivating a benign image for the police has become routine in Chinese cities. Generally, the emergence of a neoliberal economy since the 1990s has resulted in a fundamental restructuring of China’s social and economic landscape. In urban areas, this involves the growing disparity between middle class residents and migrant workers who do physical labor and perform service functions. Meanwhile, the gentrification of city neighborhoods has also led to the creation of new urban spaces dedicated to leisure and consumption.
Yet, these newly created public spaces (or, more accurately, these privatized public spaces) are never really designed for the masses in the broad sense. On the contrary, the highly visible presence of security guards, police officers, and various forms of surveillance apparatuses, such as closed-circuit television cameras, in these spaces is part of the neoliberal regime of social inclusion and exclusion, of the sort described so famously, with reference to California’s biggest metropolis, in the Mike Davis classic City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. In this context, the urban poor and “undesirables,” such as migrant workers, are made to feel unwelcome in what are purportedly “public” spaces. At the same time, the constant presence of the panoptic gaze does not just reassure the rich elites and middle class citizens of their safety, it also helps to instill a sense of fear and insecurity among them, making them appreciate the role of the state in maintaining law and order.  The rise of cute-looking police surveillance apparatuses is therefore part and parcel of contemporary China’s strategy of constructing a “socialist harmonic society” in an increasingly tension-ridden society. And while comparable cute-looking surveillance apparatuses can be found in other East Asian societies such as Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan, they should also be seen as part of a larger global trend of masking the ever penetrating state power with softer and more benign images.
Recommended Reading
Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953  by Janet Y. Chen (Princeton University Press, 2012): a study of how the Chinese urban poor were managed by the government in the first half of the twentieth century. 
Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution by David Harvey (Verso 2012): a critique of the historical relationship between global capitalism and the city, and a discussion of how to create alternatives to the current system.   
 

lareviewofbooks:

Cute Policing
by Tong Lam (photo © Tong Lam)

A lot has been said on the rise of China’s soft power in the international arena. What is less often discussed is the rise of police soft power in urban China in recent years. Indeed, although policing has always been a central component of the government’s penetrating apparatus of social control, Chinese police forces have recently begun to adopt a softer image in certain contexts. For example, residents of Chongqing still vividly recall the young, heavily made-up female traffic cops introduced by the former local party chief Bo Xilai. Similarly, when Bo was the mayor of the city of Dalian in the 1990s, he also instituted the idea of having young and good-looking female police officers patrolling the city center on horseback, a practice that has apparently outlasted Bo’s political career.

Indeed, while many observers have associated the use of young female police officers with Bo’s peculiar populist policies, the idea of cultivating a benign image for the police has become routine in Chinese cities. Generally, the emergence of a neoliberal economy since the 1990s has resulted in a fundamental restructuring of China’s social and economic landscape. In urban areas, this involves the growing disparity between middle class residents and migrant workers who do physical labor and perform service functions. Meanwhile, the gentrification of city neighborhoods has also led to the creation of new urban spaces dedicated to leisure and consumption.

Yet, these newly created public spaces (or, more accurately, these privatized public spaces) are never really designed for the masses in the broad sense. On the contrary, the highly visible presence of security guards, police officers, and various forms of surveillance apparatuses, such as closed-circuit television cameras, in these spaces is part of the neoliberal regime of social inclusion and exclusion, of the sort described so famously, with reference to California’s biggest metropolis, in the Mike Davis classic City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. In this context, the urban poor and “undesirables,” such as migrant workers, are made to feel unwelcome in what are purportedly “public” spaces. At the same time, the constant presence of the panoptic gaze does not just reassure the rich elites and middle class citizens of their safety, it also helps to instill a sense of fear and insecurity among them, making them appreciate the role of the state in maintaining law and order. 

The rise of cute-looking police surveillance apparatuses is therefore part and parcel of contemporary China’s strategy of constructing a “socialist harmonic society” in an increasingly tension-ridden society. And while comparable cute-looking surveillance apparatuses can be found in other East Asian societies such as Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan, they should also be seen as part of a larger global trend of masking the ever penetrating state power with softer and more benign images.

Recommended Reading

Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953  by Janet Y. Chen (Princeton University Press, 2012): a study of how the Chinese urban poor were managed by the government in the first half of the twentieth century. 

Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution by David Harvey (Verso 2012): a critique of the historical relationship between global capitalism and the city, and a discussion of how to create alternatives to the current system.   

 

In spite of being called the “world’s manufacturer,” China has been moving toward a consumption-led economy in the past two decades. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen uprising in 1989, the government has worked hard to create a consumer society as a way to divert the attention of the expanding middle class from its rising political demands. The emphasis on consumption, particularly household consumption, has taken on new significance in recent years as the government uses domestic demand to counteract the ongoing global financial crisis. Yet the story of consumption in China also involves foreign tourists, transnational corporations, and consumers elsewhere. In effect, China is now a circuit of global consumption. And the various types of consumer products and information that saturate everyday life, as seen in this online photo essay, are some of the evidence.

William Gibson: meet Tong Lam

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image

by Jeff Wasserstrom

Once upon time (well, say a century ago), when people thought about the excitement and terrors of the urban future, the cities they would focus on were likely to be European or North American ones – places such as Paris, London, New York, and Berlin. During the decades following World War II, new cities, mostly ones perched on the Pacific came into the mix, including Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Singapore and Tokyo. Most recently, Chinese mainland cities, which seemed anything but futuristic as recently as the 1980s, have become important symbols of the dreams and nightmares of the contemporary age. In particular, Shanghai’s skyscrapers and superfast maglev train have led to comments about its ahead-of-the-curve features by everyone from urban theorists to celebrities. To cite just one of the latter, Paris Hilton, upon arriving in the city for the first time a few years ago, exclaimed simply: “Shanghai looks like the future!”

Read More

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Ghost Malls of the Instant Cities
by Tong Lam
When the South China Mall (later renamed the New South China Mall) opened its doors in Dongguan, Guangdong province in 2005, the Western media hailed it as a symbol of China’s new consumer age. With more than 7 million square feet of leasable space, the mall was supposed to have over 2,300 stores and was meant to be the largest in the world. The developers estimated that the mega mall would attract at least an average of 70,000 visitors a day. As a comparison, the Mall of America in Minnesota, the largest in the US, is only about one-third of that size. Even the massive West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, the largest in North America, pales in comparison. In their initial promotional material, the developers boasted that the mall would become a “one stop consumption center” and “a global business model.”However, since its opening, the mall has no more than a few dozen, mostly small tenants at any single time. Over 99% of the retail space has been vacant and will probably remain so. As a result of its disappointing performance, the planned luxurious Shangri-La hotel was never built; nor were some of the supporting facilities. Yet, given the magnitude of the project, the mall is not allowed to fail, and has even been designated as a tourist destination by the government. For now at least, the mall has stayed open, and it is essentially the most deserted mall in the world. On a regular day, most of the people on the premises are maintenance and service personnel.   During the past decade in China, close to a hundred new shopping malls have been built each year. While some of them have become modern ruins, there are also many thriving and successful cases. The failure of the New South China Mall is therefore not an indication of the lack of consumer culture in China. Quite the contrary, after the Tiananmen uprising in 1989, consumption became the government’s major answer to the growing political demands of the middle class and the rising social tensions in general. When the global financial crisis began to unfold in 2008, the central government further emphasized the importance of using domestic consumption to bolster the national economy. The failure of the New South China Mall can instead be attributed to problems of speculation and overdevelopment, poor urban planning, as well as the absence of organic growth in these “instant” cities. For instance, although Guangzhou, the provincial capital, together with the neighboring cities of Dongguan and Shenzhen, have a population of over 25 million, New South China Mall was built on agricultural land on the outskirts of Dongguan, reachable only by car. Given that the prefecture-level city of Dongguan is made up of new factories and low paid migrant workers, the failure of the mall is no mystery.
Deserted mega malls like this are only the tip of the iceberg. All over China, there are instant cities that are becoming “ghost cities” with plenty of unoccupied residential buildings, office towers, and shopping complexes—all deemed too large to fail, at least for now. Recommended ViewingsUtopia, Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall. A short documentary film by Sam Green and Carrie Lozano, about the New South China Mall. The film premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and was broadcasted on PBS’s acclaimed POV documentary series.Images of a vintage poster depicting Shanghai No. 1 Department Store in the 1950s. These images reminds us that a vibrant urban consumer culture did not just exist in early twentieth century, it lingered on at least in Shanghai into the early years of the People’s Republic.   
Read the rest of LARB’s China Blog here.
Images © Tong Lam
lareviewofbooks:

Ghost Malls of the Instant Cities
by Tong Lam
When the South China Mall (later renamed the New South China Mall) opened its doors in Dongguan, Guangdong province in 2005, the Western media hailed it as a symbol of China’s new consumer age. With more than 7 million square feet of leasable space, the mall was supposed to have over 2,300 stores and was meant to be the largest in the world. The developers estimated that the mega mall would attract at least an average of 70,000 visitors a day. As a comparison, the Mall of America in Minnesota, the largest in the US, is only about one-third of that size. Even the massive West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, the largest in North America, pales in comparison. In their initial promotional material, the developers boasted that the mall would become a “one stop consumption center” and “a global business model.”However, since its opening, the mall has no more than a few dozen, mostly small tenants at any single time. Over 99% of the retail space has been vacant and will probably remain so. As a result of its disappointing performance, the planned luxurious Shangri-La hotel was never built; nor were some of the supporting facilities. Yet, given the magnitude of the project, the mall is not allowed to fail, and has even been designated as a tourist destination by the government. For now at least, the mall has stayed open, and it is essentially the most deserted mall in the world. On a regular day, most of the people on the premises are maintenance and service personnel.   During the past decade in China, close to a hundred new shopping malls have been built each year. While some of them have become modern ruins, there are also many thriving and successful cases. The failure of the New South China Mall is therefore not an indication of the lack of consumer culture in China. Quite the contrary, after the Tiananmen uprising in 1989, consumption became the government’s major answer to the growing political demands of the middle class and the rising social tensions in general. When the global financial crisis began to unfold in 2008, the central government further emphasized the importance of using domestic consumption to bolster the national economy. The failure of the New South China Mall can instead be attributed to problems of speculation and overdevelopment, poor urban planning, as well as the absence of organic growth in these “instant” cities. For instance, although Guangzhou, the provincial capital, together with the neighboring cities of Dongguan and Shenzhen, have a population of over 25 million, New South China Mall was built on agricultural land on the outskirts of Dongguan, reachable only by car. Given that the prefecture-level city of Dongguan is made up of new factories and low paid migrant workers, the failure of the mall is no mystery.
Deserted mega malls like this are only the tip of the iceberg. All over China, there are instant cities that are becoming “ghost cities” with plenty of unoccupied residential buildings, office towers, and shopping complexes—all deemed too large to fail, at least for now. Recommended ViewingsUtopia, Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall. A short documentary film by Sam Green and Carrie Lozano, about the New South China Mall. The film premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and was broadcasted on PBS’s acclaimed POV documentary series.Images of a vintage poster depicting Shanghai No. 1 Department Store in the 1950s. These images reminds us that a vibrant urban consumer culture did not just exist in early twentieth century, it lingered on at least in Shanghai into the early years of the People’s Republic.   
Read the rest of LARB’s China Blog here.
Images © Tong Lam

lareviewofbooks:


Ghost Malls of the Instant Cities

by Tong Lam

When the South China Mall (later renamed the New South China Mall) opened its doors in Dongguan, Guangdong province in 2005, the Western media hailed it as a symbol of China’s new consumer age. With more than 7 million square feet of leasable space, the mall was supposed to have over 2,300 stores and was meant to be the largest in the world. The developers estimated that the mega mall would attract at least an average of 70,000 visitors a day. As a comparison, the Mall of America in Minnesota, the largest in the US, is only about one-third of that size. Even the massive West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, the largest in North America, pales in comparison. In their initial promotional material, the developers boasted that the mall would become a “one stop consumption center” and “a global business model.”

However, since its opening, the mall has no more than a few dozen, mostly small tenants at any single time. Over 99% of the retail space has been vacant and will probably remain so. As a result of its disappointing performance, the planned luxurious Shangri-La hotel was never built; nor were some of the supporting facilities. Yet, given the magnitude of the project, the mall is not allowed to fail, and has even been designated as a tourist destination by the government. For now at least, the mall has stayed open, and it is essentially the most deserted mall in the world. On a regular day, most of the people on the premises are maintenance and service personnel.   

During the past decade in China, close to a hundred new shopping malls have been built each year. While some of them have become modern ruins, there are also many thriving and successful cases. The failure of the New South China Mall is therefore not an indication of the lack of consumer culture in China. Quite the contrary, after the Tiananmen uprising in 1989, consumption became the government’s major answer to the growing political demands of the middle class and the rising social tensions in general. When the global financial crisis began to unfold in 2008, the central government further emphasized the importance of using domestic consumption to bolster the national economy. The failure of the New South China Mall can instead be attributed to problems of speculation and overdevelopment, poor urban planning, as well as the absence of organic growth in these “instant” cities. For instance, although Guangzhou, the provincial capital, together with the neighboring cities of Dongguan and Shenzhen, have a population of over 25 million, New South China Mall was built on agricultural land on the outskirts of Dongguan, reachable only by car. Given that the prefecture-level city of Dongguan is made up of new factories and low paid migrant workers, the failure of the mall is no mystery.

Deserted mega malls like this are only the tip of the iceberg. All over China, there are instant cities that are becoming “ghost cities” with plenty of unoccupied residential buildings, office towers, and shopping complexesall deemed too large to fail, at least for now.

Recommended Viewings

Utopia, Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall. A short documentary film by Sam Green and Carrie Lozano, about the New South China Mall. The film premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and was broadcasted on PBS’s acclaimed POV documentary series.

Images of a vintage poster depicting Shanghai No. 1 Department Store in the 1950s. These images reminds us that a vibrant urban consumer culture did not just exist in early twentieth century, it lingered on at least in Shanghai into the early years of the People’s Republic.   

Read the rest of LARB’s China Blog here.

Images © Tong Lam