Monday, January 16, 2006


Cities are interesting since they are found everywhere and serve the same purpose, yet each is different...but how different?

Coming to china and returning to the UK has reminded me what makes a city. In the UK most cities have been under redevelopment for over 30 years -it started after the War I guess with the economic restructuring of the economy away from manufacturing. Cities had to find new sources of employment and new sources of 'life'. Now the focus is on 'community'; designing whole districts, shopping, community services, transport and so on designed to create a sense of community, to reduce crime and so on.

In China, since so many bits of cities have been ripped up and rebuilt in just a few years (often without the previous occupiers having much of a say in the matter) and money has been spent 'willy-nilly' sometimes (i.e. our building will be the tallest, our hotel will have the highest revolving restaurant, our building will have the most glass, ours will have the most fancy shops inside etc), then it can be easy for a city to lose what identity or community it had.

In the last few days I have been back to Hong Kong which is a city that seems to not know what it is. More visibly Chinese than any city in mainland China but one where most people speak english, the signs are in both languages and you'll find the most advanced buildings or technology and the most diverse countries represented culturally in the residents, than any in the World. Maybe it will find its identity in the future. Right now everyone just works so hard, no-one has time to think about it!

I also went to Shenzhen, a small town that 25 years ago had 30,000 people and is now a city with a bigger population than London; full of China's richest (indeed its sometimes known as the play area of the rich -where hong kong and guangdong residents come to spend their money -though its no Monte Carlo at all, and nearby Macau draws teh gambling crowd) yet 8 million of the 10 million residents are workers..and mostly migrant workers (apparently). I was not there long enough to find out what the city is... but its nice enough to walk around, brand spanking new... probably not much community, culture or identity though.

Guangzhou is where i have been for a few more days, and this is the center of China's economic boom centred on manufacturing. Coming here last time it just seemed like shops (i was only here 6 hours!), but it actually is very Chinese. Lots of old Chinese appartment blocks and noodle shops around the corner from 5 star hotels, french style cafes and bars full of the weirdest bunch of foreigners you'll find. They come from all over on business trips..maybe as buyers, maybe as traders, maybe just to find a chinese girl who is looking for a rich westerner. But they are a motley crew -most seem to be here temporarily (on trips) whereas BJ and SH tend to have those who are more residents than travellers. So it might just be the most typical chinese city -the best expression of China now. It has an identity, but its losing it to skyscrapers and subway lines. Just outside it are both rice paddies and massive factories -inside it are a few beggars lining the wide streets and a lot of expensive taxis. There seems little Chinese history or culture, as is typical of China: beijing and a couple of other towns are the exceptions...

40% of china's population already lives in urban areas and the biggest migration in earth's history is continuing apace. Thinking about the cities is a great symbol of China in general. Changing quickly but somehow managing to keep it's sense of Chinese-ness -just. Hopefully there will forever be the old people playing cards, the local traders lining the streets with 'crap on a rug' (maybe i could trademark that sentence!) or 'fruit in a truck/bucket/box-on-shoulders', a cyclist running you over and people serving 'lunch-in-a-box'. But when i walk outside now I could just as easily go to McDonalds, get given a prostitute's calling card, buy a fake DVD or spend my disposable income on fashion.

Actually I think I need a 'lunch-in-a-box' one last time before zipping off to Shanghai


At 11:55 am, Blogger Flic said...

Ahhh "crap on a rug" indeed. I'm a fan :)


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