Category Archives: culture

Review: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films of Beijing

Zheng, Yiran. (2016). Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films. Lanham MD: Lexington Books.

In recent years, the dialectic relationship between tradition and globalization has become even more visible in the urban spaces of Beijing. In the majority of news reports highlighting economic and cultural attractiveness of Beijing, we may find seemingly disconnected expressions, such as ‘greatness of imperial history’ and ‘rising center of global economy.’ This implies that there is a significant temporal gap taking place, and thereby, and points to the drastic urban transformation of the nation. Yiran Zheng’s recent book, Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films (2016), also acknowledges this presentation of Beijing. The conceptualization of Beijing as “the fusion of “traditional” Chinese city and a modern international metropolis” is one of the central themes that is constantly brought up in the book.

Writing Beijing (Zheng, 2016)

By this point, it is also important to note where all those urban spaces are located in the spatial structure of Beijing. According to the author, the area showing a concentration of typical Beijing buildings or courtyard houses is geographically located near the center of the city. Then, the next layer of architecture that loops outside the center is dominated by three to four story military compounds constructed under the guidance of Soviet experts. Thereafter, in the outer layer loop, there is new architecture and urban spaces that were built in the global era. Based on the three types of urban spaces identified above, the book largely consists of three parts: the first part focusing on military compounds (chapter 1,2,3), the second part concentrating on the typical building or courtyard house (chapter 4,5,6), and the third part exploring some examples of Beijing’s new architecture and urban spaces (chapter 7,8,9).

However, when considering the geographical map of Beijing and the structure of the chapters in the book together, Zheng does not fully explain why she organizes the three parts in such an order; namely, starting from military compounds to typical traditional Beijing housing, and ending with contemporary buildings. In the introduction, Zheng notes, “Beijing has been transformed from a traditional imperial capital city to a political center of communist China, then into a cosmopolitan metropolis (p. x).” The structure of the book does not seem to illuminate this transitional and changing character or flow of the city, but captures the configurations of the city in specific moments framed within the specific literary works. In that sense, to meet the author’s aim of this book, it is more persuasive to organize the parts and chapters in a geo-temporal order, moving from the central area of traditional housing to the outer area of contemporary buildings developed in present day China.

Each part of this book has three sections (chapters). In every first section, Zheng explores the architectural and spatial qualities of specific urban spaces. Then, Zheng discusses some representative writers and filmmakers in every second section, and finally in the third section, the author analyzes the configuration of the city in the literary works. Throughout the parts and chapters, Zheng uses different sources from different disciplines, such as urban studies, architecture, literature, cultural studies, history studies, and sociology. And Zheng also makes a balanced use of sources between foreign and Chinese authors. Zheng’s cross-disciplinary and cross-national use of sources is what makes this book interdisciplinary and allows it to retain a more balanced point of view.

In this study, the methodological framework is inspired by Lefebvre’s theorization of space. Lefebvre (1991), in his book The Production of Space (1991), proposed the spatial triad to understand the production of space and its embedded power relations. The triad divides space as: spatial practice (producing physical space), representations of space (conceived space), and representational space (lived space). According to Lefebvre, our spatial experience in space consists of these three interrelated elements (Lefebvre, 1991). Zheng specifically points to two of the spaces in this triad, representations of space and representational space, to formulate her methodology.

Within this framework, she emphasizes the intermediary role of artists (writers and filmmakers) between these two spaces. To be more specific, writers are influenced by urban spaces and architectures that are the “representations of space”, reflecting the ideology and expectations of designers. At the same time, writers and filmmakers respond to and reflect on those “representations of spaces” through their use of symbols, signs, and images in their literary productions. Thus, they create literary and filmic texts that refer to the space lived in by artists, “representational spaces”. However, except for brief explanations about the framework in the introduction and conclusion, the author actually does not conduct an extensive engagement with spatial theory, which she bases her work upon. It would have been more helpful if Zheng had continued to connect her discussion to her framework while discussing different type of urban spaces. By doing so, it would have been more apparent how the dialectic relationship between the three moments shown in Lefebvre’s spatial triad can be manifested and applied in this study as well.

Most interestingly, as noted in the beginning of the book, the concept of the coexistence of local and global in Beijing is an important issue for Zheng. This is clearly addressed when the author says that “the “ideal building” should be both modern and Chinese.” (p. 99). Zheng’s personal voice and position towards the relationship between the local and global in cityscape becomes especially prominent in Chapter 7, where Zheng discusses modern and postmodern architecture in the global era. These include the “three new symbolic architecture” in Beijing—National Centre for the Performing Arts (the Giant Egg), National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest), and CCTV New Main Building (the Gate).

In Chapter 7, Zheng is concerned about Beijing becoming “a common metropolis with no distinct cultures” (p. 91). According to Lefebvre, the urban spaces of Beijing produced within the context of global capital are Abstract Spaces, which are homogeneous and transparent, showing the orders and power hierarchies of capitalism (Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 50-51). The Abstract Spaces of these new contemporary buildings of Beijing are shown in their symbolic architecture marked with the dominant activities of the cities (Castells, 2005). The three new buildings mentioned above are examples of the symbolic architecture that Zheng criticizes for its disconnection from the surrounding local context and environment. In that sense, Zheng also demonstrates that these designs are not “Chinese” because they were built by “non-Chinese” designers, which I thought was a bit difficult to understand (p. 102). Although this may be partially true, the concern should not lie in the nationality of designers, but with the strategies used in incorporating this symbolic architecture within the local city at large.

The book is, in general, interdisciplinary in its approach and provides a broad socio-cultural and political context on urban issues of Beijing. In addition, the book is approachable because it does not use discipline-specific academic jargons and is written in an illustrative and descriptive manner. It is clear that Zheng wishes this book to be read by broad range of students and scholars who are interested in the city of Beijing. Zheng also achieves this by consistently and systematically reiterating the important points throughout the introduction, the beginning and at the end of each chapter, and the conclusion; the structure of the writing is easy to comprehend. Finally, the book is very narrative and poetic in that it smoothly introduces us to the artists’ world of imagination. Thus this book creates another “representational space” that is lived by its readers, who have or have not been to Beijing, and encourages them to engage with the mode of imagination of the urban spaces of Beijing.

Jeongwon Gim (University of Alberta)

 

Additional References

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Castells, M. (2005). Space of Flows, Space of Places: Materials for a Theory of Urbanism in the Information Age. In B. Sanyal (Ed.), Comparative Planning Cultures (pp. 45–63). New York: Routledge.

Salvador da Bahia

As the first capital of Brazil in 1549 and one of the oldest colonial cities in the Americas, Salvador da Bahia is all about its heritage. The city is the result of the Portuguese colonization, the slave trade for almost 400 years and, of course, everything that comes from this bittersweet history.

Located in Bahia, in the northeastern region of the country, Salvador has many faces and titles – third largest city in Brazil (2017 pop. over 3 million with approx 4 million in the metropolitan area), Africa in America, part of the Caribbean, Home of Capoeira, Land of the Axé, UNESCO’s creative city for music, Carnival City, Bay of the Orixás, etc. However, even combined, all of these adjectives aren’t enough to capture the wild complexity of the city.

Salvador is known for its blended culture and religions, but also marked by its racial and class segregation. Both cases take us back to the city’s relation with Africa and the African diaspora. The port of Salvador was the door to one of the biggest slave markets in the world, and the African diaspora is an important factor in shaping the city’s spatial and cultural character.

Historic Centre of Salvador © Our Place The World Heritage Collection UNESCO

The multicultural factor is everywhere in the Bay of All Saints – food, languages, slangs, dances, rituals and many other moments in day to day life that mix the Yoruba, European and Brazilian cultures. From the Carnival in February or March to New Year’s Eve celebrations, the streets play an important role in Salvador’s routine, whether if it’s with the street food such as Acarajé, the tourism at the Historic Centre, the Carnival blocos, the trio elétrico followings, the Capoeira rodas, the Candomblé celebrations or the Catholic processions.

Continue reading Salvador da Bahia

Book Review: Simone on Jakarta, between near and far

AbdouMaliq Simone, Jakarta: Drawing the City Near, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2014; 320 pp.: ISBN 9780816693351 (hbk), 9780816693368 (pbk)

In Jakarta: Drawing the city near, AbdouMaliq Simone offers imagean inside-out perspective to understand the unknown realities of conventionally known urbanization process and everyday life of urban common in cities. Based on his meticulous ethnographic field study in three districts in Jakarta, Simone has produced a new spatial language from ‘within’ the city to read the distinctive trajectories of urbanization of the metropolis in the global South.

The book is structured around four inventive concepts: Near South, Urban Majority, Devising Relations and Endurance. Near South is introduced as a provisional devise to indicate how major metropolises of the non-West are moving toward or away from each other. In that sense ‘near South’ is an ‘interstitial space’ that is neither of the North nor of the South. Simone locates most metropolises in the near South to critique the binary opposition between the ‘developed’ North and the ‘underdeveloped’ South. He stretches ‘nearness’ beyond the comparison between cities and highlights that ‘certain residents have the opportunity to build specific ways of life (p. 35).’

Among the proliferation of mega-developments and emerging middle class in contemporary Jakarta, Simone draws attention to the ‘urban majority’, the residents who really bring the ‘nearness’ and shape the city by occupying and changing its spaces in their everyday practices. The urban majority is not a demographic fact or a political identity but refers to the residents who live in between strictly poor and middle class (p. 85-86). Instead of pursuing the aspirations of middle-class status, Simone shows that how the urban majority transforms urban spaces through ‘incremental’ initiatives, the actions of the residents that do not aim definitive results, but to make ‘something’ happen such as expanding a house to rent out rooms or construct a mosque in the neighborhood. Although such efforts seem simple or mostly negligible in mainstream urban theory, they are, Simone convincingly demonstrates as the ‘machines of support’. That generates not only income and opportunities but also multifaceted social, cultural, and economic networks and negotiations among residents in the city (p. 111 -114).

Yet, the close proximity or increasing density of buildings, objects, and bodies in cities do not necessarily guarantee relations. Simone thus brings the concept of ‘devising relations’ to examine the dynamic relations between inhabitants, materials, and particular spaces in Jakarta. Then he introduces metaphors such as ‘the hinge’ and ‘the hodgepodge landscape’ to emphasize how these relations allow the city to follow global urbanization trajectories when the heterogeneity of their urban spaces remain same in terms of their social composition and use.

The concept of ‘endurance,’ denotes the way in which the majority of residents continue their lives while dealing with extreme uncertainties – both dangers and opportunities – in their everyday urban life in Jakarta. Instead of being very conscious on their identities, residents focus on the possible opportunities of their daily routines and employs deception as a method of endurance in everyday urban life.

Ultimately, Simone connects his learning from an inside-out perspective in Jakarta with contemporary urban theory and policy. He necessitates the integration and enrollment of residents’ views, aspirations, and the way in which they shape spaces, in urban policy making to ensure the long run of cities. Instead of relying upon the contemporary urban theory, Simone has theorized Jakarta. His work profoundly validates the residents’ life and their contribution to continue the heterogeneous urban life of the city.

Pradeep Sangapala (Urban and Regional Planning Program, University of Alberta)

Lining up for iphone 7

Iphone 7 had an initial launch in 28 countries on September 16th. Though I’m not a fan of Apple products, but since the price of iphone 7 is much cheaper in Canada than in China and my friends and I are leaving for China, we decided to buy iphone 7 for our families.

One of my colleagues said that the iphone 7 would be very popular according to the experience in the previous years. She suggested that I line up for the iphone 7 in West Edmonton Mall as early as possible. At first, I took this as a joke, because the iphone 7 seems have no big difference from iphone 6 or 6s, most of the fans would be waiting for iphone 7s or 8. However, what made me change my mind is the picture of the queue in front of the Shanghai branch of the Apple Store.

The queue in front of Shanghai Apple Store

(http://news.china.com/hd/11127798/20160916/23562627_3.html#photos)

So I decided to line up for the phone and went to WEM at 8PM on September 15th. However, there were only a few people waiting. To my surprise, two girls brought blankets and pillows, as well as snacks and drinks. “Professional!” I said to myself. Behind the two girls were two heavily-bearded men. They said they work for Telus. After a short time chatting, we waited together, watching films or playing phone games separately.

Two well-prepared girls

At about 2AM, there were still a few people waiting, which made me really disappointed. Suddenly, four men cut in the queue right in front of me. I asked politely and said “Please line up behind us”. But the bearded men said that the four guys are his friends and they just wanted to play games together. If they get the only phone, they would give it to me immediately. I believed them and let them jump in, which I regretted later. They were playing and chatting so noisily that I couldn’t sleep the whole night.

At 7.45AM, some Apple staff came out and asked for our request. I wanted a 128G matte black iphone 7. But the guy right in front of me ordered this one. And what I got from the staff is there was no 128G matte black 7 and I must change my request to a gold one. “That’ not fair!” my friends and I were angry. We tried to negotiate with them because they promised us they give us the phone if they got it since they jumped the line. However, they pretended they didn’t say that. I was so stupid that I trusted these people. What the worst thing was that after one of the men got the ideal one I wanted, he asked me how much I would like to pay to get the phone. Then I was keenly exasperated! What a scalper! “Lair! I won’t pay anything!” I said to them. And finally I got a gold one reluctantly. But the staff said that I can swap if there would be some models on stock after a few days.

That was a really unhappy experience. But I’m really appreciate the help I got from the Apple staff, Jonathon. Without his help and patience, I would not have a matte black iphone 7 now.

Ziru Deng (East China Normal University, Shanghai)

Fünf und Neunzig Wiener Würstel Stände: 59 Viennese Sausage Stands

Review: Sebastian Hackenschmidt,Stephan Olah (eds). Fünf und Neunzig Wiener Würstel Stände. Stalzburg: Verlag Anton Pustet.

Why review a survey of 600 currently existing, “typically Viennese” sausage kiosks other than to say that this copiously illustrated book in German and French provides an exhaustive survey of the history and architecture of the food kiosk?

More significantly is the light that this local culinary tradition sheds on the public culture of Vienna’s streets and squares, a topic under-researched in Vienna (where the focus is on interior cafe culture, for example) and over-looked or poorly indexed by the city’s archives which focus on addresses rather than streets or squares, with the exception of the royal park, Prater.

“In Vienna, we have the paradoxical situation that sausage stands are considered a topographical peculiarity and regarded as leisure venues, while at the same tie forming part of the omnipresent traffic-, consumer- and communication-spaces — places of accelerated transit… “non-places”…. the sausage-stands convey far more convincingly the fleeting nature of the meals consumed there, than a convivial eating culture characterized by interpersonal relationships or a common history…” (p.18)

They are barometers of social change in the public spaces of the street.

“…achieving acceptance at a particular sausage-stand can turn into a regular rite of passage… Authenticated in the vernacular and amply represented in literature…”

-Rob Shields
University of Alberta