USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

The Cost of Culture

While the procession of luxury brands Gucci, Prada, Chanel and Dior had me dreaming of Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, or New York City’s Fifth Avenue, it was the man who spat on the sidewalk beside me that roused me back to reality in Shenzhen, China.  As I soon discovered, this experience constituted my first glimpse of the juxtaposition of the raw with the refined that would come to characterize my foray into the Pearl River Delta (PRD).

The contrasting social and economic condition that pervades the PRD is a direct byproduct of the speed at which this region has morphed from farmland into an economic powerhouse.  This rapid pace of development is a double-edged sword, however, that fosters the dramatic growth of metropolises like Shenzhen and Guangzhou, bringing jobs, financial resources, and improved infrastructure to these locales while simultaneously posing a dangerous threat to the cultural legacy of the region.

Traveling through the Pearl River Delta, it became quickly apparent that the Chinese government’s implementation of Central Business Districts (CBDs) within cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou has been instrumental in spurring this transformational momentum.  The premise of the CBD was to manufacture the appearance of wealth and stability in order to attract more wealth to the region in the form of foreign investments.  To achieve this appearance, the Chinese government channeled the necessary funds into constructing and branding a concentrated region in a way that inspired the respect and trust of western investors.   As intended, foreign investors responded to this marketing tactic by becoming interested in the region and investing money in it.  This influx of foreign capital stimulated growth that in turn generated more wealth in the region.

As the success of Shenzhen and Guangzhou illustrates, however, appearances can be dangerously deceiving.  While the allure of big names like Prada, Ferrari, and Koolhaas captivated Western investors, many remained blissfully unaware of the real life struggles of the working-class farmers who dominated the Pearl River Delta a mere thirty years ago.  For the most part, this rural past remains hidden behind this ostentatious façade of wealth.  As the financial capital continued to flow into the cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, these cities began to expand beyond the boundaries of the CBDs.  As this occurred, the citizens quickly abandoned their farming and industrial roots for the embrace of the wealth associated with the growing metropolises.  These metropolises then mutated as rapidly as the Central Business Districts that spurred them had been manufactured.  The obsession with money that drives these metropolises was intensified in Shenzhen and Guangzhou by the incredible speed in which wealth was acquired and exchanged, drastically altering a generation of citizens’ ways of life almost overnight.  As Georg Simmel articulates in his work, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,”

“Money, with all its colorlessness and indifference, becomes the common denominators of all values; irreparably it hallows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, their incomparability.”

While the designer stores which plaster the streets of Shenzhen portray an aura of wealth and sophistication that the metropolis is marketing, the Chanel boutique here could just as easily be the Chanel store in Paris, New York or Beverly Hills.  These high-end chains only reference their own brand and not their position within a specific urban fabric.  Beyond the façade of wealth in Shenzhen and Guangzhou lies the painfully sterile reality that the almost overnight accumulation of wealth has blinded the citizens to the many aspects of their culture and history that are valuable and that make them unique.   The rush to achieve wealth and development has obscured the value and necessity of balancing progress with preserving and, at times, assimilating the cultural attributes of a society which gives it a unique identity.  What is left in the wake of this rapid transformation are periodic reminders of the culture, such as the raw rural mannerisms that are alien to the new face of the mutating metropolis.

View atop a Kaiping Diaolou

It was not until I experienced the no man’s land that still exists between Shenzhen and Guangzhou that I began to comprehend the self-sustaining lifestyle that these mutating metropolises continue to encroach upon.  Here, the undisturbed landscape camouflages the World Heritage protected villages of Kaiping.  The tops of the towering Diaolou houses are the sole indicator of the intricate, western influenced villages that lie beyond.  The Daiolous were built by the villagers as a means of defense against bandits.  At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the villages were populated by newly wealthy Chinese who returned from working in Europe and the Americas to build homes for their families inspired by Western Architecture.  Walking through these tranquil villages I was captivated by the villagers simple, self-sufficient lifestyle.  This way of life has become foreign to those who populate the metropolis, each contributing a single skill within the highly specialized market economy.  The crude mannerisms have become the sole unfortunate link between the people’s raw past and refined future.  Looking out from atop one of the Daiolou houses the beauty that exists in the simplicity of the village lifestyle made me to question whether the rapid mutation of metropolises in the PRD has caused the urban population to disengage from the value of their former way of life.


Filed under: China, Culture, George Simmel, Metropolis, Shenzhen

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

Collectivism and Assimilation in…..Baseball?

The thought of Japan brings to mind a homogeneous culture that has long valued the collectivist community as a core to the identity of being Japanese. No further does one have to look for an example of this mindset than the game of baseball. A few of us decided to attend a pro baseball game in Tokyo – the Hanshin Tigers versus the Tokyo Yakult Swallows – and the experience was unlike any Major League game I have attended in the States.  The second we stepped into the seats of Jingu Stadium, we were bombarded with masses of Japanese fans all wearing the same jerseys, chanting the same chants in unison, motioning the same directions, responding to the same cues. It was fascinating how perfectly harmonized the fans were in tune with each other; it was as if the collective crowd had a singular mind. If I didn’t know better I would almost say it looked militaristic. But what it really was, was a perfect reflection of the collectivist cultural value has long been integral to Japanese identity. George Simmel’s definition of The Metropolis as “the most punctual integration of all activities and mutual relations into a stable and…. precisely schematized form of life” has no better example than that of these Japanese baseball fans behaving in such a homogeneous way.

This pervading collectivism is represented not just in this cultural realm of baseball, but manifests itself in the built environment around us. As I sit and write at night in my 30-story high hotel room, the view of Tokyo is a dense collection of white lights that define building forms and outlines. Each mid/high rise building has on its roof a series of identical red blinking lights. No doubt this serves a functional purpose – my guess would be that they exist to warn incoming helicopters or planes at night of relative building heights – but what is more evocative is how as a single collective mass, the red lights on each building at night evoke an image of this metropolis as a gigantic living organism. Red lights that turn on and off together and define the Tokyo skyline also represent the organic collective mindset so core to the Japanese identity and to the idea of the Metropolis. Just as the crowd of fans at the baseball game behaved as a homogeneous collective whole, so does the Metropolis consisting of buildings – the man made objects that stem from this society – behave in the very same way.

Switching back to the topic of baseball, I took an image of an especially ardent fan at the stadium waving, of all things, an American flag. This reminded me that baseball was originally an American sport brought to Japan, and led me to consider the topic of assimilation in Japanese culture. If I can recall from history class, the Japanese culture contains a very real capacity for rapid, pragmatic adaptation. Historically, the transformation of Japan into a modern political and social metropolis during the Meiji Restoration ended the reign of the Shogunate, and ushered in a complete assimilation of Western political, social, and industrial hierarchies. The same thing happened with baseball, albeit with no bloodshed or rebellion. Baseball, originally a Western construct, has been completely assimilated by Japanese culture. From a Western point of view, it was almost amusing to see this pseudo imitation of Americana, much like Tokyo Disneyland or Elvis being blasted and danced to on the streets. But as a student of architecture and urbanism, I now begin to question the very idea of assimilation and whether what is ‘assimilated’ and spit back out even resembles the original. Here we are witnessing: a Japanese baseball fan, waving an American flag, in a Japanese crowd, watching an ‘American’ sport, being played and experienced in a distinctively Japanese way. The Japanese songs, chants, sportswear and collective behavior of the crowd as one homogeneous mind can nowhere be found in baseball games in the States. Baseball in Japan has become uniquely Japanese. By the bottom of the 7th inning, the score was 8-3 Tigers, the Swallows would probably lose. We were seated in the losing teams section and I expected fans to start leaving early, cheers to die down and chants to be recited with less and less fervor. But the opposite happened, fans stayed put and sung and chanted just as loud as the opening pitch. It was then that I realized that it wasn’t about the score anymore, it wasn’t about winning or losing. In America, the idea of victory and defeat is so engrained in our minds, but what I was witnessing here was a collective group of people and their respective culture that was more concerned with the passing of time (like those Pacinco parlors) and with losing themselves in the sport (like those high-rise golf ranges).  I would argue that this is the essence of Japanese baseball at its most pure, and in a larger sense, the essence of The Metropolis at its most blase’.

~ Evan Shieh

Filed under: America, Assimilation, Baseball, Collectivism, George Simmel, Homogenous, Japan, Metropolis, Red Blinking Lights, Tokyo, Urbanism


The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.



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