To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—Japanese bamboo screens, golden Chinese dragons, Korean farmhouse walls—of certain restaurants providing local cuisine, but you can see those in London or New York City too. The architecture is mostly in the postmodern or late modernist style, high-rise buildings with curtain glass walls, concrete office blocks, shopping malls, and hotels in granite or marble. You could be in Cincinnati. And yet… you are not. There is something non-Western, indeed something distinctly East Asian about these cityscapes which is hard to put your finger on.
Perhaps it is the advertising, or the hustle-bustle of the raucous entertainment areas, or the myriad small stores that cluster around the high-rise buildings like mushrooms on big trees. In Tokyo, the old street plan has been more or less preserved, which lends a kind of phantom historicity to the city, but this is much less true of Beijing or Wuhan. Perhaps it is precisely the absence of visible history that looks distinctive. The same might be said of many cities in the United States, but somehow Pusan, Nagoya, and Chungqing resemble one another more than they do Cleveland or New York. They are monuments, in constant flux, of modern Asian life. But what makes the contemporary Asian style distinctive? What does Shenzhen, a mere village between Hong Kong and Guangzhou twenty years ago, and now a sprawling metropolis of more than three million people, tell us about the nature of post-Maoist China? One clue, I think, is the extraordinary proliferation in East Asia of theme parks. They are to East Asian capitalism what folk dancing festivals were to communism.
Japan and China are now the main homelands of theme parks, more so even than the United States. New ones appear all the time and are sometimes as quickly abandoned as they were built, or even before they were finished: on the highway from Beijing to the Great Wall is a half-finished theme park which looks like a Babylonian ruin; the money ran out before it could be completed. Driving past it earlier this year, I was reminded of the huge skyscraper in Pyongyang intended to be the highest building in Asia, the Babylonian tower of Kim Il Sungism, which still stands there, unfinished, an empty shell, probably a premature ruin for ever. Not only did the money run out, but the building was so shoddily and quickly constructed, with such inferior material, that it is hopelessly unsafe.
Anyway, there they are, a small-scale Dutch town on the coast near Nagasaki, Austrian villages in Hokkaido, a simulacrum of Stratford-upon-Avon in northern Japan, models of famous Asian temples in the middle of Beijing, a replica of the White House in a small town near Guangzhou, Tibetan monasteries, Italian palazzi, Egyptian pyramids and …