by Bert de Muynck | Urban China #23,
Background to observing China outside of China
After our first year living and working in Beijing, we spent some weeks in Europe. For a strange reason we didn’t expect anything from a condition that was during the past decades so familiar, were we grew up, studied and worked. Our travels in Europe brought us to our home-countries, Belgium and Portugal.
In Europe the pace of urban development, architecture and street life bare no connection with our daily life in China. This disconnection felt liberating and necessary, awkward and easy. We were in a state of escapism that worked both ways; we temporarily went in rehab from our addiction to Chinese urban transformation and at the same experienced a renewed urban Venice Biennale of Architectureescapism, due to a year-long enstrangement from the European urban condition.
But soon we realized we were living an illusion; in a globalized world everything is everywhere. Driving and walking around we started noticing everywhere the Chinese presence, as China has been proliferating, disseminating and expanding throughout the world. A lot of research goes into understanding those areas where the congestion of Chinese presence, the amassing of capital, goods, people and food create archipelago’s of Chinese presence. Commonly this phenomena is referred to as Chinatown; examples and histories can be found in this issue. A small roadtrip through our countries brought another Chinese presence to the light, one that demands another reading. This is the one where the Chinese presence is thinned out, spread hitherto, punctual interventions in local cultures. It is with the objective to stimulate, registrate and debate the history and future of this penetrating of Chinese culture that we undertook a field trip into this phenomenong. This not only to combine our interests in shifting and moving cultures, but to find connections and to naively discuss the seemingly evident; as detectives we roamed the smaller cities, searched for signs of Chinese presence in sprawl condition.
This research in progress doesn’t discuss the benefit of the cultural congestion occuring in the global ChinaTowns, but focusses on the presence in small villages. In order to be more visible, distinct and understandable, not seldom in seemingly hostile cultural conditions, the owners have to grasp a weird kind of essence of what China represents.
Observations during a field trip in sprawlland
Driving through smaller cities in the vicinity of our hometowns we started noticing the presence of China scattered over the territory, hidden in the corners of the city and sometimes strategically located in different parts of the city (along highways or near the centers). Not to our surprise what we found were restaurants and take-away shops. Currently we refer to this as the take-away Chinese culture; for example in a flemish city of 50,000 inhabitants we found 8 different Chinese restaurants. We started taking pictures of them, analysing their architectural aesthetics, mapping the different signs the owners thought would provoke an image of China.
This take-away culture is the experience the majority of the people in these smaller cities will ever have of China. China is experienced through numbers (food turned into a numerological order) and loose articles (chopsticks, golden pigs, cats and lions at the entrance). At this stage of the research we mapped the facades and the building volumes in the hope that an in-depth study into the the economical, geographical and sociological background will follow. Due to their embedding in the local context we feel that, more than in Chinatowns, this cultural cross-over demands a different analysis. Children go to local schools, the economical and cultural dominance ruling the territory is one that doesn’t has a single reference to Chinese culture, as opposed to what one can expect from Chinatowns, where an internal logic and culture makes that the inhabitants keep a connection of the Chinese culture.
At the same time each of these fragments one can find in smaller cities present a full image of China; the restaurants embody the whole of the experience. It combines the essence of both the visitors’ expectation as gives the comfort of a familiar exterior and interior decoration to the owner. As such the Chinese presence has become an interesting play of global iconography, the ultimate empire of signs, each restaurant a recombination of similar signs and themes. Where in the congested presence of Chinatowns difference is the key to stand out, in the thinned out presence in sprawl condition similarity and recognition is the driving force. As such they present all variations on the same theme. It is the isolation that makes them stand out.
In that isolation the facade and the names of the restaurants present the common knowledge about China. Names such as Extreme Orient, New Beijing City, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Oriental, King’s Garden, Canton Kitchen or The Great Wall are all shortcuts between different cultures, and if this would not be convincing enough, the owners add regularly to it that they offer a typical Chinese cuisine. Paradoxically, being typical is what makes them stand out. Being typical is a stamp of approval. In smaller cities people do not like exceptions.
These initial observations lead us in the direction of the “Learning from Las Vegas”-research and theory Venturi, Scott Brown & Izenour have developed a couple of decades ago. In a condition that is far less congested than the Las Vegas Strip, that is less competitive – one Chinese restaurant doesn’t has to compete with its neighbor for attention – another reasons must exist why Chinese symbols dominate the facade, the interior and exterior space. Would it be the attempt to create authenticity, the exploration of a culture of experience, the Chinese restaurant as an isolated condition, almost like a holiday location in your own city? A temporarily suspension of cultural identity, a short travel to the other side of the world, with the comforting thought that one is still at home? As an architectural analysis one could defend that through the use of effective symbolic images these restaurants, this take-away culture, combine an obvious visual order with an individual order and logic. On the topic of the symbol, Venturi, Scott Brown & Izenour wrote the following; “Symbol dominates space. Architecture is not enough. Because the spatial relationships are made by symbols more than by forms, architecture in this landscape becomes symbol in space rather than form in space.” What we have found are symbols; for us, Europeans living in China, merely a spark of recognition of a broader culture, but probably for the majority the essence of the Chinese culture itself.
Other research on
Urbanbody (NL) – Dutch Chinatowns
Storefront for Art and Architecture (NYC) – Chinatowns
Venice Biennale of Architecture – Re-Orient (HU)
Roman Polanski’s movie – Chinatown (1974)