East Asian Cities and Globalisation

At the end of last week I was invited to take part in the four-day PhD summer school ‘East Asian Cities and Globalisation: New Challenges, New Approaches’ at the University of Warwick. A fantastic opportunity that came after a bit of hectic time last week…what with one thing and another…the “one thing” being a chest infection that has manifested into taking over my body and soul for nearly two weeks now giving me now a very strange voice…and the “another” being having the builders in to do structural repairs on the house whilst I’ve been trying to write conference abstracts, articles and redesign my website (all in progress). Things always happen at once right? That’s a standard with me though…on Saturday I had no choice but to stop as you will soon find out. Rachel doing nothing? Right…I know you’re thinking that’ll be the day. A lot of academic chatter to come first though…

I drove down on Thursday morning to the University of Warwick, getting caught up in predictable M6 traffic courtesy of a three-tiered lost ladder in the fast lane…how did that get there? Seriously, people just stop and STARE at these instances…a very British thing. It was incredibly random for first thing in the morning. Anyway, I got there in enough time to freshen up, grab some fruit, a peppermint tea and meet the five other international delegates from the UK, Singapore, USA…although all originally from elsewhere including Hong Kong, Thailand and Holland – Jennifer Choo from UC Berkeley (‘Going Global and Yet Remaining Local: An Analysis of China’s Real Estate Industry’), Non Arkaraprasertkul from Harvard University (Shanghai Urban Housing: An interdisciplinary approach for understanding an East Asian City’), Marijn Nieuwenhuis from the University of Warwick (‘Producing Space, Producing China’),  Sarah Mak from UC Santa Cruz (‘The identity politics of urban renewal in Hong Kong’) and Kim Ji Youn from the National University Singapore (‘Space of Difference: Itaewon from ‘Americanised Ghetto’ to ‘Multiethnic Community”).

The morning began on the theme of ‘Comparisons/General Themes’, with Dr. Anne Gerritsen (Lecturer (Associate Professor) in the Department of History) and Dr. Christian Hess (Assistant Professor/RCUK Fellow at the Department of History) discussing ‘The global and the local’…something very familiar to me as I have very recently discussed this in a conference paper, largely regarding the notion of the [slightly grotesque] term “glocal”. I’m not going to recall a full dialogue here of what happened, instead key points and phrases that jumped out. Anne began by looking into the notion of globalisation…the “connectedness” of the world and its basis through industrialisation to the global. The influence of material culture in European contexts…an object is read as having meaning in themselves and more within different contexts…subaltern approaches to globalisation. She raised many questions including what are the implications on the local? What does that place become? What happens to the local when there is a global context? Locality no longer has an “inner logic”…what are the implications for it and to the local?

“Local is the global at the same time…”glocal”…the local to global as a way to read locality” – Anne Gerritsen

Local narratives should be read as a way of questioning and resisting global narratives…a way of critiquing uniform society. We are entirely shaped by political relations in local museums and galleries…the local power and political struggle to the way in which material culture is handed down. We need an awareness to local, national, global levels of commodification. Christian followed talking of his research into Dalian’s aspiration to gain a global status…hypernationalistic and patriotic contexts come into play, including the complexities of colonial and socialist legacies. Why is Dalian a re-globalising city? The local/global are historical stages branded by the political powers who own them…”lucrative frontier region”. Does Dalian have a weak local identity? It is an instant city created by colonial powers with negative connotations…history or no history. Sense there is a generic response that there is no local identity…difficult to live in a city taunted by colonialism where now it is a form of capital.

From these introductions, we started a discussion into ideas of “preservation” and “nostalgia” within China…”preservation” versus “authenticity” and its relationship to the documentation of history, urban developments, culture and architecture. History needs to be aware of whose history? Are they overcompensating on documentation today purely for commercial gain? “Structural nostalgia” (which I think I need to research)…only structural when it brings pain to the present…I liked this notion. Is the past more important than today? We somehow need to historicise “authenticity”…a transcendence towards the presence, its relationship to the commerciality of the nation. Is it specific to location? Tourism? Economic growth? What is the importance of preservation of architecture, art, the urban landscape?  Does the use of buildings and spaces in different ways alter the way in which we construct nostalgia? The trajectory of an object throughout time without change – idealisation of the past. The search for the truth versus the real. Is “authenticity” a Western notion? What might the “authentic” be? By using these terms how much is bought in from Western perspectives and Western historical roots? It is automatically positioned in the Western academic sphere…as part of Chinese writing is it “politicised authenticity”?Is there no unified “authenticity”? Can you talk about “authenticity” within a nation-state? Or a local culture? Non quoted ‘Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value’ by Michael Thompson…again something that I think I need to research.

The afternoon session was with Jennifer Robinson, Professor of Geography at UCL and her paper ‘Cities in a World of Cities: The Comparative Gesture’…basically comparative urbanism. She focussed on the post-colonial critique…how can we build an account of international cities? Dis/locating urban modernity…difference distributed as diversity rather than categorisation, where are cities can be seen as sites of creativity. Urban population is overtaking rural population. She went on to highlight past and present strategies for comparison as shown in the table below…

© Jennifer Robinson

This I found was a very helpful model…and I’m sure a lot of researchers could put this into use straight away. We shock ourselves with ethnocentric assumptions and assume the intrinsic value of learning from different contexts.

“Units, cities, parts of cities exist in relation to wider social processes, connections and structures, where they mutually shape each other.” – Jennifer Robinson

Use different cities to pose questions of one another…spatiality to relationality. Guide the direction and terms of comparison, connections, networks, circulations, shared processes. It is beyond a parochial universe…a uniform global field? Discussion then headed into the idea of the “global south” in post-colonial studies. Is it a first/third world story definition? Is there a “global east”? Do we need to re-orientate ourselves? Is it built out of coloniality? The political position plays a key part with resonance. It is a way of critiquing and saying there is another place that doesn’t follow these patterns. Does it indicate somewhere different? Not Europe or America? To pay attention to need…to humanitarian aid to challenges. Is it geopolitics rather than post-colonialism?

“Make rigorous comparative manoeuvres.” – Jennifer Robinson

(Is that how you spell manoeuvres by the way?) Contemporary globalisation entails a specific want from cities…competition in global cities because of urban and economic development. What actually is a city? The city as an assemblage…a conceptual basis for thinking across cities. Or a utopia to dystopia. The geography of urbanisation isn’t about cities. A group activity then took place in pairs where we tried to make comparisons…city comparisons in relation to our research. I was paired with Sarah who suggested the book ‘Colonising Egypt’ by Timothy Mitchell might be of use to me when referencing ethnographic curating. So in relation to my research on the idea of “transcultural” curating specifically the translation of contemporary Chinese art in the West…I noted the exhibitions of  contemporary Chinese art, curated in different cities, would obviously use different art infrastructures, which would directly affect interpretation therefore the outcomes of translation. Artistic practice created in different cities would create different contexts – comparative artistic practices…curatorial too. Sarah and I both thought about the relevance of our research to other cultures, and how we could extrapolate on this so they were more universal theories. I’ve just realised a lot of my research is made up of comparative studies…just not of cities. Noting this down. This day really did provide much food for thought…then it was time for real food.

As four of the delegates couldn’t attend, it was a fully funded affair with accommodation in a hotel and lovely dinners, such as at The Cross at Kenilworth where we ate at the end of day two…as shown below. I now have a thing about photographing the food I eat, especially good food…chilli cream mushrooms, very lovely haddock fish cakes in a mustard sauce, and a very strange palate cleanser in between courses. As always, perks like these are a great help to those (like me) who are unfunded. So a BIG thank you to the Department of History, more specifically to Christian for this opportunity. Such a shame I didn’t get to stay for the duration…

Friday and I was starting to feel a little odd…I had suspect renal pains but thought my system was just playing up as it does occasionally. Anyway, I was excited about the day’s thematic on ‘Case Studies’, which began with Toby Lincoln, Lecturer in Chinese Urban History at the University of Leicester and his talk on ‘Is Shanghai a Global City?’…a global cities paradigm. He questioned, what makes a global city? He cited some “emblematic” examples of how global cities emerge from national contexts…”global infrastructures”…the global integrated system of cities characterised by financial and tertiary industries. Is Shanghai a global financial centre? Is it London due to GMT? Key problematics were then raised such as how far is democratisation necessary for a global city? Based on Western ideals…priority of financial drivers for growth. How far is a global city a national city? By privileging the importance of networks, where does this leave a city? Where does London stop/Shanghai end? They are not banded networks, they are integrated. Can we say there are global areas within cities? Say hotels…airports…financial….spaces within cities rather than as a whole. Who wins? Who loses? Only the rich? Are we only talking about certain spaces for certain people in certain lifestyles with certain money?

“We are reaching from a global future from a global past.” – Toby Lincoln

Where is the freedom to draw on cultural vitality? Does it manifest itself in different ways…such as food…dancing in parks…exercise? Experiential thinking of global cities rather than the physical. Exportation of culture globally…is that indicative of success/failure? The creative drive coming out of cities in China. Discussion then led into talk of political economic systems…the top down development of cities…how much political capital is in this? We were then again split into small groups relating these issues to our research. I stated how Hong Kong will always be seen as a global city in relation to contemporary art as it has the auctions houses and the Western commercial art galleries (including soon the White Cube)…whereas Shanghai is limited on these terms, and Beijing only has some import from Europe. I compared the art scenes in Beijing and Shanghai, where Beijing’s art scene is based more out of struggle, more political limitations and a longer history, therefore does it not need to try as hard to prove itself? Does good art come from a harder struggle? Whereas Shanghai is more liberal than Beijing yet has to try to “show off” more to prove itself…to reaffirm itself as a global city. I also referenced how Shanghai is twinned with Liverpool, UK, and they share many commonalities especially about the need to prove itself. Is it a presupposition that Shanghai a global city? Where are the boundaries? Does a global city have to be democratic/liberal? Shanghai pretends itself to be, yet has no emotional attachment. The idea of nation is important…there is too much privileging of the idea of “global democracy”. Is democracy the right term? Does democracy secure some sort of accountability? Resistance to this from ground level…good from a planning perspective, failed from a pedestrian perspective. Not a Western neo-liberal community – “Chinese global city”…a comparison of equals. Standards of globality come from Western experiences. Toby then went on to make us answer the question, what are the characteristics of a Chinese global identity? Capitalism (state-run)…financial…what is Chinese? Class/value systems. The ethnography of urbanisation…the ethnography of displacement. Creating space for people to live versus preserving history. The notion of “preservation” and “authenticity” kept on reappearing. What degree do they stand alone as cities? Political infrastructures…do they imply controlled cities? Politically constructed, channelled in a certain way. A city as a socio-techno entity…a “machine for living”. There are hierarchical systems within city people…Shanghai as a “vertical” city, is this artificial?

“Verticality redefines what it is to be urban…globality is an East Asian regionality…Spontaneity and dynamism are key to global cities…What is urban identity? Life and vitality. “

Toby I felt was incredibly balanced as regards his theories on the “global”, and a fount of knowledge regarding living in China, specifically Shanghai. I already have a list of recommended Jazz clubs. Can’t wait. Shame there’s no good electro out there, right Toby? I’ll hunt it out. So the Friday afternoon was spent with John Carroll, from the History Department at the University of Hong Kong. He presented a concise and comprehensive history of ‘The Worlds of Hong Kong”. It was built as a place to get away from another city…a crossroads of global flows (commercialism, consumerism, international movements, people, transnational movements, strikes and boycotts, diseases, transport, communications…). They borrowed from the rhetoric of international museum buildings. At one stage Hong Kong was seen as more Chinese than China…”re-diaspora”. We need to problematise how we view communities. What do borders mean? Open borders give a better sense of who you are.

“If you want to make something global, you have to put something out into the world.” – John Carroll

What’s the relationship between cultural identity and consumerism? Museums in Hong Kong focus on citizenship, belonging and identity…somewhat different to mainland China. They are peripheral to society…not a part of the social fabric. Re-integration – social, political, medical effects. Hong Kong is more ethnically diverse than any other East Asian City…diversity is a strength.

“We need greater transparency and accountability.” – John Carroll

Another fruitful day of discussion opening up another street of research in my PhD city…I ask myself, am I global? All the workshops were held in Millburn House on the University of Warwick campus where the Institute of Advanced Study and the History of Art Department is based. The rather sterile and stark white walls, stairway and corridors had all become a visual, pictorial ground for experimentation of what art represents versus art history. I forgot to take a picture of the illustration for “dialogue” which was on a section of wall above you as you came down the stairs. That one particularly made me smile. Art history should be taught more like this…visual teaching the visual. Art practice informing art history.

After this second full day of discussion, I really didn’t feel well. I had a dry, annoying cough that had given me a sore throat, and my chest felt like it had been kicked in both sides and under immense pressure. I went back to the hotel, ordered room service, then headed to Tesco to get drugs (and on a licorice tea hunt for Non…to no avail, sorry Non!). I hoped I’d wake up on Saturday feeling better, when in reality I woke up feeling even worse…losing my voice. I phoned Christian and told him the lowdown, then headed straight home to see the emergency doctor…and I’m glad I did. Antibiotics and a day of sleeping. It’s not fair either to share this kind of thing with internationals who are going to have to sit on a plane for hours and hours…germs love to breed in those kind of situations. I was disappointed I never got the chance to present my paper, to take questions about it, or to discuss…that is really the most fruitful part. A real shame. I am still pleased I had the opportunity to meet these new professionals in the field of East Asian studies and I do hope to keep in touch with them. A lot of buzzwords were flying around over the two days…authenticity, preservation, global, local, glocal, globalisation, democracy…I think the definition of each is dependent on the context. Maybe we, the delegates, can build a sense of “nostalgia”?

So Rachel has actually had to stop the past few days…although I have written this and done the odd bit of what I call “Rach admin”…and a bit of cathartic gardening with the help of my dad, Poppa K…Momma Sooz and Poppa K were ruby ruby ruby on Sunday, 40 years old that is…and I’m so pleased for them both, it’s very impressive and definitely something to celebrate. I thought I’d finish on the “fruits of my labour”, seriously…two breakfasts out of my plants in the past week, and more to come.

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