Magic Middle Kingdom?

Stephen DeAngelis

April 13, 2007

One of the verities about China is that, although it has been occupied, it has never been culturally conquered. Chinese culture has been remarkably stable for millennia — until now. The developing coastal areas are becoming more westernized as they join the globalized economy. This phenomenon causes critics of globalization to decry its spread; but it is a self-inflicted not a coerced consequence of prosperity. The most intriguing aspect of China’s westernization that I’ve read about is the development of entire communities which assume the characteristics of western neighborhoods. It is like visiting Main Street in Disneyland. Ariana Eunjung Cha, writing in the Washington Post, discusses where these neighborhoods are sprouting [“West Rises In China’s Back Yard,” 11 April 2007]. Cha writes:

“The ding-dong from the neo-Gothic church next door signals to Wu Yuqing that it’s time to wake up. On her way to the grocery store each day, she walks past the Cob Gate Fish & Chip shop and bronze statues of Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale and William Shakespeare. Tall men decked out in the red uniforms of the Queens Guard nod hello. The place looks a lot like a small town on the Thames River, but Wu’s new home is actually in a suburb of Shanghai.”

The picture that accompanies the article looks like it came from a London side street. Some pundits insist this latest craze is not un-Chinese in flavor:

“As China’s modernization continues to pull hundreds of millions of people from farms to cities and suburbs, a construction boom has given rise to a vast landscape of foreign-looking settlements. These real estate developments are the latest manifestation of the technique that has fueled China’s economic boom: making copies.”

This Epcot Center-like pursuit is taking off in a big way:

“In Nanjing, there are Balinese retreats and Italian villas. In the southeastern city of Hangzhou, there are Venice and Zurich. In downtown Beijing, everything is about Manhattan, with Soho, Central Park and Park Avenue. ‘Many people in China today associate the exotic with wealth. They buy into these developments to differentiate themselves from ordinary people,’ said Tino Wan, a manager of ERA Real Estate in Shanghai. Shanghai’s plan is among the most ambitious, calling for a ring of satellite developments modeled after different parts of Europe, including German, Czech, Spanish and Scandanavian districts, in addition to the one that looks like London, known as Thames Town. Between now and 2015, about half the world’s new construction will take place in China, with as much as 6 billion square feet of space expected to be added each year. All over the country, block-like concrete edifices and empty fields are giving way to flashy architectural developments that promise to give the new middle class a taste of places most of them have never seen.”

As you can imagine, not everyone is thrilled about this. Traditionalists believe that such “theme park” developments will undermine Chinese culture.

“Some traditionalists, however, have lamented the trend, blaming it for the destruction of older, Chinese-style homes and attacking it as a form of ‘self-colonization.’ Yu Renze, 74, a retired government administrator from Shanghai, said she didn’t not understand the appeal of the Western-style developments and that she would not allow her family to live in them even if someone gave her a house. ‘We’re not foreigners,’ she said.”

Advocates of these developments note that the West has always been willing to assimilate aspects of other cultures (recall the European fascination, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with fine china graced by Asian floral and landscape patterns). In the same way, residents of these themed developments have been attracted by their “foreignness” as well as the upscale lifestyle they offer. According to Cha, these communities are exceptional in every detail.

“If not for the street signs with Chinese characters in Venice Aquatic City, it would be difficult to place where in the world you were exactly. Gondolas ply canals just below Hu Jun’s new apartment. Her view includes porticos with flowers and half-moon bridges. ‘St. Mark’s Plaza’ is a five-minute stroll away. … James Ho, director of Henghe Real Estate, which developed the downtown area of Thames Town, also talks about efforts to create an escape. Shanghai’s Thames Town is not an exact replica of anything in Britain but features a mishmash of hundreds of years of architecture, from Gothic to Tudor. ‘At the beginning we were afraid to build such a classic project,’ Ho said. ‘So we paid a lot of attention to detail.’ Some buildings were built and razed and then built again because they did not look authentic enough. Workers took three trips to Britain to learn different roof tiling, stone molding and other techniques. In the end, they were so skilled at old techniques, Ho said, that the team was asked to help work on a new Thames Town-like development — in Britain.”

Cha points out that many residents of these developments fail to appreciate the details (or even the incongruities) of their neighborhoods. They just know it is different and expensive — which means it must be good. I’ll leave to others the debate over whether these developments are culturally good or bad for China. It is patronizing for anyone to presume they know what is best for those who want a better quality of life. When people are prosperous they want to use that prosperity to improve their lives and boost their self-esteem. Buying something “unique” often accomplishes both objectives. The fact that the West is rising in China at the same time a peaceful China is trying to rise in the world is a good sign. It means that occidental things are not being dismissed out of hand and that the East and West can work together — using common rule sets — to foster globalization’s advance. That said, I believe China’s culture will remain as resilient as it has always been. Themed developments will only represent a minute portion of the development that is taking place in China.