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AsiaWorld

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 French châteaux, a Disneyland near Tokyo, a Disneyland planned in Hong Kong, and so on and so on. What is curious is not just the insatiable taste for these fantasy places, but the fact that they often blur almost seamlessly into the “real” urban landscape. In Shenzhen, a brand-new residential “European city” looks out upon a theme park, named Windows on the World, with its Eiffel Tower, its Colosseum, and its Potala.

A variation of the theme park is the golf course, an equally controlled artificial landscape. Golf courses have proliferated almost as much as theme parks in East Asia. One whole city, named Zhuhai, opposite Macao, has been designed as a kind of residential golf course, a leisure city to complement the feverish working environment of Hong Kong and Shenzhen, an urban culture purely given over to tourism. The golf range is Nirvana promised to all those who do well in East Asian capitalism.

If Chicago and New York were the models for Shanghai in the 1920s, the postwar cities of China and Japan bear a greater resemblance to the zanier parts of Los Angeles. So much of what you see is a copy of somewhere else: hotels in the shape of French castles, exquisite Chinese teahouses on the fifteenth floor of concrete towers, coffeeshops in subway stations made up to resemble German taverns or palatial rooms in Versailles. Many Asian cities, especially Tokyo, look like gigantic stage sets, filled with representations of history, foreign places, or fantastic ideas of the future. All great cities live on fantasies and dreams; rarely has virtual reality become so pervasive, and sophisticated, as in East Asia.

Chinese cities still have some ancient buildings, but many of them have been reconstructed in modern materials. Others were never there in the first place, but modeled after other temples, or reassembled, like artfully recreated antiques, from the components of different temples from various regions in China. Tokyo, and indeed almost every Japanese city of any size, is an amalgamation of European, Japanese, Chinese, and American styles. As the critic and expert on Japan Donald Richie remarked: Why have Tokyo Disneyland, if the city is already so much like Disneyland itself?

Even the modern buildings, especially in China, are often from somewhere else. The standard procedure for architects in China is to show their clients sample books with pictures of buildings in the US, Hong Kong, Japan, or Singapore, and the client takes his pick. The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas wrote: “We could…say that Asia as such is in the process of disappearing, that Asia has become a kind of immense theme park. Asians themselves have become tourists in Asia.”*

There is a possible explanation for this phenomenon in traditional Chinese and Japanese aesthetics. Eighteenth-century Chinese gardens, with their elaborate and artful miniature landscapes, often alluding to famous sites, real or imagined, were the models for equally fantastic English garden parks, filled with fake Gothic and classical ruins, as well as chinoiserie bridges and pagodas. The Qing emperors actually built a kind of theme park near Beijing, the Yuan Ming Yuan, which contained European gardens and houses, some of them designed by the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione, as well as Chinese fantasies. This extraordinary complex of garden-palaces was severely damaged by British troops in 1860, led by Lord Elgin (of the famous marbles). The remains were looted and further destroyed over the years by Chinese, as well as Europeans. There is talk now of reconstruction: a theme park replica of a theme park.

L.A., as I said, could serve as a model for the modern urban versions of all this, but there is a difference between China and the US. In America, worlds of virtual history are created because the history of urban culture is so recent. Older Native American cultures are largely ignored, or turned into tourist attractions in their own right. China and indeed the rest of Asia are steeped in history. So why are Chinese officials prepared, or even eager, to tear down physical evidence of a real past and replace it with copies? Why do they appear to be happier with virtual history? And what lies behind the ubiquitous taste for Western theme parks, for creating an ersatz version of abroad at home? If the Americans build theme parks to compensate for a lack of history, Chinese build them to compensate for a willful destruction of history.

Again, tradition might serve as a partial explanation. Chinese have forever been rebuilding and reconstructing old landmarks. What counts as “old” is not so much the building itself, as the site. Thus a Chinese guide will point to a painted concrete pagoda erected last year and extoll its ancient provenance. But there is more going on, I believe, in the taste for theme parks, something with a more political agenda.

Modernization in East Asia, beginning in the late nineteenth century, has been a far more disruptive and destructive process than in Europe. Because modernization was equated with Westernization, efforts to modernize China or Japan often meant a wholesale rejection of local culture and tradition. One of the first things the Japanese did after the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s was tear down medieval castles and Buddhist temples. This was soon stopped, but the replacement of Japanese traditions with Western ones, in dress, artistic expression, or public architecture, went on relentlessly. There were always countervailing forces, of course, and much of Japanese classical culture remains, albeit in a somewhat fossilized form. Nonetheless, a modern Japanese, transported back a hundred years by time machine, would recognize almost nothing of his own home town, and would even have trouble reading the newspapers. The same is true of a modern, urban Chinese, indeed more so. And all the ravages of war and nature notwithstanding, the damage done to visible history in both nations has been largely self-inflicted.

2.

In China, as in Japan, intellectuals have often oscillated between reactionary nativism and total Westernization. The so-called May 4th Movement of 1919 was many things, ranging from revolutionary socialism to American pragmatism, but the common thread was an attempt by intellectuals to liberate China from its past. Chinese tradition, especially its Confucian aspects, was seen as a stultifying relic, hindering progress, blocking Chinese minds. The way forward, it was thought, was to wipe away these ugly cobwebs and absorb the ideas of John Dewey or Karl Marx. Rarely has a generation of artists and intellectuals anywhere hacked away at the roots of its own culture with such zeal. Many strange things grew in the ruins of Chinese tradition.

Mao Zedong took cultural iconoclasm to new extremes. He unleashed campaigns to destroy everything that was old: old temples, old art, old books, old language, old thoughts. Possession of a Ming vase at the height of the Cultural Revolution was enough to be branded a stinking reactionary and beaten to death. Mao, although obsessed with history, wanted to turn China into a tabula rasa, so he could remake it according to his own, often Soviet-inspired ideas. His hero was the Emperor of Qin, a third-century BC despot, remembered for starting the construction of the Great Wall and the destruction of the Confucian classics. He was the first great book-burner in history.

Mao wanted total control of his people. This meant controlling the environment, urban and rural, as well as people’s minds. All Chinese were forced to subscribe to Mao’s visions of utopia, and of Chinese history too. In a way, Mao turned the whole of China into a grotesque theme park, where everything seen, spoken, or heard had to conform to his fantastical dictates. This may sound like a far-fetched, even bizarre comparison. Theme parks, after all, are a harmless entertainment, not usually associated with mass murder. But I do believe there is something inherently authoritarian about theme parks, and especially the men who create them. Every theme park is a controlled utopia, a miniature world, where everything can be made to look perfect. It is not for nothing that the Japanese businessman who built the squeaky-clean Dutch town near Nagasaki did so because he disapproved of the messiness, the dirt, the chaos, and the sheer human unpredictability of Japanese city life. His proudest achievement in his own fake town was the construction of a machine that turned sewage into drinking water. The thing about theme parks is that nothing is left to chance.

  1. *

    The Great Leap Forward, a book on the Pearl River Delta, by Koolhaas and his Harvard Design School Project on the City (Taschen, 2001), p. 32.

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