USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Shenzhen: In Case you didn’t know, it is where the Eiffel Tower is Today

Window of the World, Shenzhen, China

Have you ever loved a city? If so, you could just as equally be repulsed by one as well. For me, Shenzhen, as awesome as it sounded on paper, was a bit disappointing in reality to my overly judgmental western sensibilities. What was described as a sprawling metropolis of vitality, Shenzhen seemed somewhat zombie-like; something looks human, but something is just not right… Bars filled with with not a single person under 35, how the city just empties out after 10PM, or the tenacious gray haze perpetually looms over the city, something doesn’t quite jog. Looking in a confused awe, I realized this is what Simmel wrote about.

When I move around a city, I remember peculiarities and moments; querks that make it unique: LA has its beaches and Hollywood, New York has its nightlife and Burroughs, and Munich has Ocktoberfest. I measure the worth of a city not singularly by its economic might, but the experiences I have in it; a cumulative sum of the political, economic, and sociocultural values. But what does Shenzhen have? It has zippy metro rails, one of the LARGEST PORTS in the world, and even where the Pritzker winners do all their fancy architecture. But would a Shenzhener identify their culture as the richest because of their infrastructure or be proud of architecture though not their own? Even a slightly empathetic person like myself could notice that despite all the “fluff” that Shenzhen has on paper, it is blatantly unmemorable.

Although there are very smart people trying very smart things like investing in cheap housing and infrastructure – and it shows, don’t get me wrong – what I have noticed is Shenzhen resembles with striking similarities to what Georg Simmel warns in The Metropolis and Mental Life; that the extreme specialization in menial forms of repetitive manufacturing can detach a person from his or her personality, and as a whole, dissolve the bonds people have from their backgrounds and cultures. It is a generic robot of manufacturing; not a place to live or enjoy life – it is true Metropolis.

The feeling I get as an outsider coming to a foreign land is that the people of Shenzhen are ill-informed by the western ideals and too readily accept give up their heritage for western culture like McDonalds, brand-names and the pursuit of money so as to mutate Shenzhen into a condition that is more extreme in practice on people less accustomed to wealth. They appear addicted to this lifestyle, and work pointlessly to reach this misdirected finale. By growing so rich so fast, Shenzheners look to the west as their role model for social structure and culture, but these attempts to replicate a culture and context not their own, Shenzheners have perpetuated and exploited this deer call as real.

Perhaps the best example of newly “rich” looking for the culture is the Window of the World, a gaudy theme park where the worlds landmarks are at 1/3 scale and almost humorously. Shenzhen is a generic city where instead of ingenuity, Shenzhen prides itself on reproduction of western goods, where instead of thinking outside the box, it prides itself on larger scale of other peoples stuff, and instead of focusing on the vitality and culture of the city, it prides itself on the numbers and statistics as qualitative measures of culture. People here are more captivated by the symbol a brand can attain than the actual quality that it can afford because they are so infatuated by the misguided surge of wealth; lactose intolerant people drink milk, brand names are sold off in the black markets as status symbols, and reproductions of famous oil masterpieces are sold off as works of art.

Without a heritage to look back on, Shenzhen latches too quickly to these adopted ideals without truly understanding the context that gives these ideals merit. In growing so fast without a culture, Shenzheners accept this mannequin of real culture to fill in the void, and as a consequence, they sacrifice a cultural sure-footing. But, as we all know, it isn’t the economy that survives through the ages – it jumps and falls, bobs and dips; it is the culture that lasts and evolves, as cities like Paris and London show. But it is not at all the fault of Shenzhen, it was dealt an unfortunate situation, and arguably, the way Shenzhen is balancing living conditions with cultural heritage, it is quite admirable. Luckily, these newly rising middle class have yet to coax out their own culture, and because Shenzhen is still in its realive infancy, one can only hope that Shenzhen does not pride itself on being a culture of replication, desperation and generics just because it is good for business, and truly able to find something to call their own and export it.

(sorry about the length, I will go out and buy a pirated version of Office and word count before I submit next time)

Filed under: George Simmel, Shenzhen

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu

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