Chapter Three: How We Accidentally Wandered into an Urban Village


After 17 grueling hours of flights and about another 5 of struggling to get our hands on a hotel room key, we had finally made it to our (temporary) new digs in Luohu, Shenzhen. By the time I laid my head down onto the feather and rice filled pillow it was 4 AM—or 4 PM in New York, where I had just travelled from. When I finally woke, I found Jordenn on his phone and light peering in underneath the curtains into an otherwise dark room. “Oh good, it’s still light outside,” I mumbled to Jordenn. “Yeah…those are streetlights.” It was 9 PM. Waking up to realize I had been asleep for 17 hours was one of the weirdest feelings of my life.

Jordenn and I spent the rest of the evening wandering our neighborhood in search for vegetarian-friendly dining, which lead us to a mango pizza lounge. Don’t ask. Afterwards we continued on our journey throughout Dongmen Subdistrict, a pedestrian street for shopping, without any destination in mind. We eventually came to an alleyway that seemed much more lively than the street we were on, so we naturally followed that path. In doing so, our night took a turn as well.




Instead of being surrounded by lightless H&M’s and unidentifable billboard advertisements, we found ourselves immersed in the vibrant night life of a busy Shenzhen side-street. As the road winded, the buildings inched back from the street little by little, eventually lending the sidewalk space to become full-on plazas consumed by small markets. People selling food from carts and live fish from tanks seemed to be the urban motif of the given area.

As we continued, Jordenn and I never asked each other which way we should walk—we just moved naturally through the space. The street got increasingly smaller as more and more food vendors set up shop in front of businesses that were closed for the night. The formal establishments may not have been serving anyone, but the urban space sure was.

Narrower and narrower the street shrunk, eventually becoming a corridor that packed just as many people, lights, and food as the wider part could. Vinyl canopies enclosed the space at a claustrophobic height, which, at 6’2″, I of course hit my head against a metal pole—not a single person winced or showed any sign of empathy. (A common theme for Jordenn and I thus far has been our ability to attract an incredible amount of attention, but hardly any sustained interest.)

After just a few minutes of walking along the smaller path, everything changed when we reached a fork in the pedestrian-road. The walls seemed to close in even more but the ‘ceiling’ finally opened up. There was no longer any room for food stands or even for more than a few people to stand shoulder to shoulder in the width of the space. Upon reaching an intersection, Jordenn and I stood still and consciously examined our surroundings for the first time. The buildings suddenly appeared more residential in nature with just a small shop selling convenience items every few yards.  It was much quieter—almost too quiet. Windows curtained from within and barred from the outside seemed to tell me something, but I didn’t know what. I looked for an answer further up the facade until my eyes met the top of the building, and suddenly I knew exactly where we were.

I had been reading about this urban condition for months in advance, which makes me quite embarrassed that I didn’t immediately recognize it. The ‘thin line sky’—a single streak of vastness created by two facades that nearly touch—revealed itself between the ‘handshake buildings,’ (named such for obvious reasons). By wandering Shenzhen, we had naturally and quite fluidly found ourselves in the middle of an urban village.



Contemporary History

The city of silk and beauties, Suzhou has a similar storyline to Hangzhou. Yet, I find it more serene than the latter. Probably because it is also easier to get around with the absence of a lake puncturing the centre of the city. I must acknowledge that I have an almost insensible fondness for Suzhou.

Indeed, with a museum crafted by I.M. Pei, one of my most respected architecture masters, it is quite understandable why it has an exquisite hold over me.

The museum exists harmoniously with its context. The structure reciprocates the rich history of Suzhou, looking to local architectural elements of 粉墙黛瓦 Fèn Qiáng Dài Wâ, (Pastel Walls, Ink Roofs). At the same time, its exhibits modernist characteristics with its sleek silhouette.

Prof. Pei considered the Suzhou context in his design and synthesized it with his creativity. It proves to be very successful, and the Suzhou Museum is an unmistakable, original Chinese landmark.

West Lake Story


Historically, this is the land of love stories, kings, heroes and mythical beauties (most famously war hero Fanli and legendary Great Beauty Xishi). Today, it is also known to be home of Ma Yun (aka Jack Ma), and the Alibaba empire and its affiliates.


The contemporary context brings skyscrapers to the preserved landscape. The historical architecture is preserved aesthetically as capital for tourism, while the original social fabric is completely disintegrated by the engulfing commercialism. A Starbucks sits by the West Lake inconspicuously in Chiang Ching Kuo’s former villa.


Drawing Near

The semester is ending and as my finals conclude one after another, my mind can draw more attention to my study that is about to commence. With advice from Professors Brian McGrath, David Leven and Lei Ping, I am in extremely good hands to execute my study of architecture, homeliness and homebuilding.

This is an issue that most native inhabitants of emerging economies are facing — the erosion of familiarity in hometowns. Places, whether they are villages, towns or cities in their own right, are superimposed with western iconography of a “modern city”. Concrete, steel and glass take over the landscape and engulf the local cultural integrity. As the identity is displaced, the home becomes unfamiliar.

Shophouses in Chaozhou

Shophouses in Chaozhou

A temporal comparison of housing would be quite adequate to bring out the contrast between local and the misguided sense of “modern”. I am also looking to see if the dichotomy between the two is a misconception. Perhaps progress and heritage are not mutually exclusive? Furthermore, in places that such a coexistence occurs, such as Hangzhou, what are the challenges that it faces?

Professor Brian McGrath, who is especially knowledgable about Hangzhou, has told me that the overwhelming tourism has torn the inherent social fabric. Professor Lei Ping has also shared that preserved landmarks such as Houhai, Tianzifang face similar problems. Tianzifang, an area of preserved Shikumen architecture, is no longer residential, as it was originally intended, but a commercial tourist hotspot. This is important to note and must be addressed in my study as well. For one, it may serve as an antithesis — that the heritage imprint may not preserve the sense of home if it becomes commodified and commercialized. However, it may also help my argument because the large attraction of tourism it draws suggests that heritage means a lot to people — the domestic Chinese and foreigners alike. If more places are able to preserve their cultural heritage, then there is less need to flock to officially protected landmarks to appreciate vernacular architecture.

It is not an easy question to answer and I can only hope to open more questions with my inquiries.

What makes a city a home?

What makes a city a home?

As I continue refining my research question, I begin to dig into the heart of the problems I was looking at — the tension of history and progress. And in my lament over the loss of historical markings of a place in its becoming a city, I discover that it is these features that make it a home.

The vernacular architecture of places are the inherited built environments that its people grow up with. These places are occupied, inhabited, lived, breathed, seen, touched, walked, heard, etc. etc. I recall returning home during the summer and winter breaks, and each time something changes. Or many things changes. New buildings constructed, old ones demolished, New roads paved, old streets cleared. The loss of familiarity was unsettling, as if I was losing my home.

Tying my topic of interest with my discipline, I wish to investigate and dissect the vernacular architecture of Chinese cities, and contrast those with the new built environments. Looking to the structure and program adjacency, I hope to understand how architecture creates a social identity.

At this stage of the project, I believe a fruit of this is a collection of analytical drawings and photos of housing in the cities I visit. As well as a contextual consideration of the community, and consider the differences between a city like Suzhou vs. Shenzhen.

In essence, this is a project that seeks to understand the notion of home. Chinese cities, facing urban migration and economic development, may begin to take new forms. Yet, should we let go of the local built heritage in face of this?

Chapter Two: The Right To Hack The City?

Can the city be hacked like an iPhone can? If the city is already produced, then is this actually the best way for urbanites to reclaim agency, rather than fighting for their ‘right to produce the city’?

Clearly, Jordenn and I are still asking questions to try to get at the heart of our research question. In fact, after recently attending the Spatial Politics of Work weekend-long workshop with such an amazing group of scholars, researchers, and designers, I’ve only been asking MORE questions.

While on a FaceTime call with Jordenn, I filled him in on some of the major themes of the weekend, one of which being ‘hacking’. As I learned, hacking culture is huge in Shenzhen. This raised the question: what other than phones and computers can be hacked? A system? A building? What about the city?

This is right in line with our interest in the idea urban resistance, but we agreed that they are not necessarily one in the same. Nevertheless, this is the path we are taking for the time being.

Later that week, I received a few answers to my many questions in a thoughtful discussion I had with a friend I met at the workshop—artist, anthropologist, and longtime Shenzhen resident Mary Ann O’Donnell. When I told her about our desire to look at ways people are resisting, or hacking, the city of Shenzhen, she looked at me as if the answer was written on my forward. “The beauty of China is that its designed to be hacked.” She explained that so much of China—everything from cable TV to a water bill—is expected to be hacked into by its citizens, making it socially acceptable and common behavior. “Non-compliance is an art in China.” Mary Ann finished these statements by prompting me to consider how much of this is just “coping” rather than acts of resistance or defiance.

What a thought! This made me realize that we must question everything, even our own assumptions. Back to the drawing board for Jordenn and I…

NYU Shanghai Fellowship Opportunities

Two positions, at either the predoctoral (ABD) or postdoctoral level, for the study of intra-Asian interactions are
available at the Center for Global Asia at NYU Shanghai. These fellowships are for a period of four months,
commencing anytime between February and 1 May 2016.

Candidates working on any aspect or phase of intra-Asian interactions are welcome to apply, but topics related to
China-South Asia and China-Southeast Asia exchanges and Indian Ocean connections are of particular interest to
the Center.

Applicants for the predoctoral position must have completed all course requirements and should demonstrate
strong reasons for research in China. Those applying for the postdoctoral position are expected to hold a PhD,
preferably completed within the past five years (2010 and after).

For more information download fellowship announcement [pdf here].

New Pulitzer Center Book ‘Ecological Civilization in China’


New Ecological Civilization Book

As many of our readers know, ICI has been increasingly working more on issues related to religion and ecology in the Himalayas. So it is with great interest that we can share some news on this front from China. On June 16, 2015, academics, journalists, scientists, government, religious and business leaders from China, the US and other countries came together for the first time to discuss the environmental challenges facing China and the world—and the increasingly important role of religion and traditional cultures in finding sustainable solutions to the challenges we face.

Earlier this year the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, in conjunction with the Pulitzer Center and Communication University of China, hosted the “International Conference on Ecological Civilization and Environmental Reporting” in Beijing. Just this week the Forum on Religion and Ecology (FORE) at Yale released the proceedings of this conference, titled Ecological Civilization. The report, which summarizes most of the talks and content of the international conference, should be of great interest to any of our members working on environmental issues in China, as well as the intersections of religion and ecology in global environmental discourses.

Here is a brief excerpt from the opening pages of this report by Jon Sawyer, Executive Director of the Pulitzer Center:

It is easy to assume that China’s environmental challenges are China’s alone. The bad air or unsafe food or toxic rivers we read about have no effect on us, we might think, and nothing to do with the world’s demand for the flood of inexpensive, high-quality consumer goods that has fueled the Chinese economic miracle. But “China is a global factory,” says anthropologist Dan Smyer Yu of Yunnan Minzu University. “However you consume, whatever you consume, pay attention to the label ‘Made in China.’ So each of us has a responsibility for the environmental practices of China. China’s environmental issue is a global issue. We have to take responsibility, each of us.”

Smyer Yu was among an extraordinarily diverse group of specialists who gathered at Yale Center Beijing in June to engage an issue that is close to home for us all—the state of our environment. But they also addressed a dimension of this topic that is new, and significant—how our diverse religious and cultural traditions might contribute to assuring a sustainable, healthy world for generations to come.

You can find out more about the conference and the book at the Pulitzer Center.

Download and read the entire conference proceedings book as a pdf [here] or on iTunes [here]. The e-book is also available via Kindle and Atavist.


Tansen Sen on ‘Chinese lessons from Africa’


We’re excited to share the latest post from ICI friend and scholar Tansen Sen in the Times of India. In this post, Professor Sen discusses the role of China in Africa, scholarly efforts to look at Africa and Asia together, and the challenges and opportunities for both China and India in their engagement with African countries.

Here is a brief excerpt from his piece:

India is, compared to China, a latecomer to the geo-politics of the African continent. This is despite the fact that Jawaharlal Nehru had, even prior to Indian independence, launched several initiatives promoting Afro-Asian unity in the then decolonizing world. The cultural affinity that Nehru sought, however, made little headway as the African states became pawns in Cold War politics. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) also became engrossed in Cold War geo-politics as it competed with Taiwan for official recognition by African states. The political and subsequently economic inducements offered since then have led to the PRC winning over all but three African nations, Burkina Faso, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Swaziland. Mainland China is now the most powerful, admired, and, at the same time, one of the more despised foreign entities on the African continent.

You can read the entire article here.

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