A Journal of the Plague Year Day 54

Monday 11th May 2020

I’ve been checking out some Internet. All fucking day. Still armchair travelling, still in China.

Anyhoo, a welcome getaway from the bickering and racism online, the looks on the street recently, as always. Hot on the trail of yesterday’s rabbit hole into Chinese design I’ve been delving into photography fora from the glorious motherland. And ohmigaaahd there’s so much.

I look at the pics of the Chinese cities, so different from the way the West surmises them, as poor, polluted and cowed, and feel it- pride. Nationalistic, state-posturing pride as an underdog against a more belligerent power. This is worrying.

First off, the journey: the usual big three most people have seen. Shanghai (the world’s most built-up city), population 30m:

And it’s not just skyscrapers, Shanghai’s old buildings (mostly the shikumen housing and longtang lanes that it spent decades bulldozing but is now restoring) cover an area almost the City of Paris. SH also has a millennium aged Old City, one of three, plus two colonial districts:



Next on the list, to the capital Beijing (pop 22 million), the world’s largest ceremonial centre, and world’s largest pre-industrial city back in the 19th. A terrible place to lump a capital -freezing in winter, boiling in summer, courting sand storms in Spring and smog year round. Another mistake early on: choosing the American freeway-style system to move its inhabitants around -now ridden with 6 giant ringroads and endless traffic, unlike say Shanghai or Guangzhou.

Nowadays it’s cleaned up, planting its Great Green Wall against the Gobi (and Hebei’s factories), banning 5 million cars, growing the world’s biggest, busiest metro system, with Shanghai hot on its tails. Today powered by tourism, the world’s largest bureaucratic sector, and China’s silicon valley. Plus the world’s premier creative industries, notably Beijing’s shock art that has ruled the roost for two decades, and the highest amount of start-ups anywhere. World, world, worlds.



And finally, Hong Kong, the world’s most skyscrapered, and densest city. The ‘mouth of the dragon’, or as Shanghaier’s who are the ‘head’ prefer: the arse end. HK stands out from the Mainland in its older, decaying buildings among the glitzy skyscrapers -here people own the land and prove it harder to revamp and rebuild. Also there’s hardly anything old left despite, due to the lack of space. But what a space.

HK is also China’s most economically divided, unequal city -the world’s freest place to do business where only 20% pay minimal tax, in a social experiment that both UK and China would never have dared back home. The populace enjoys some of the world’s highest ‘average’ wages yet 75 percent are working class (for urban China that’s the opposite, 70% being middle class), and 1/5 being desperately poor where a good chunk struggle to even feed themselves. This is in short the world’s most capitalist spot, and contrasting with the socialism next door.

But still a jaw-dropping hive of activity, hustle and bustle, and prone to giving the finger to the regime.

The scope best appreciated from afar, it’s all about the lookout points.



Then there are the megacities, larger than NYC that most peeps haven’t even heard of.

Shenzhen, the world’s most highrise nexus currently adding on the equivalent of NYC in the next few years. This is the planet’s hardware capital, now vying with Beijing and California to become the software one too. Over one third of Silicon Valley tech is already sourcing from here.

In the ’80s a fishing village of 30,000 before becoming Communist China’s first Special Economic Zone and a byword for sweatshop labour -now ballooned to 12 million and reinvented as a sparkling arriviste with some of the highest standards of living in the country, though still part of a greater whole…

Plans for the 60m needle top spire added to the 599m/ 1,965ft Ping’An tower, once slated to be the 2nd tallest in the world (now 4th), were shelved in a big spat with the airport, due to the possibility of planes whacking into it. By adhering to local law it misses out on becoming a 600m ‘megatall’ by 90cm. Tis twice the height of the Eiffel Tower.



Guangzhou -centre of the world’s new largest city as of 2015, with 41 million people -Shenzhen anchors the other end. An ancient city of 2,200 years and colonial metropolis but with very little to show for it. Long a cheap parody of HK it’s pretending that part of its history never happened, notably swankier and more eco-conscious these days than her eidolon with endless new green projects, including the 3rd largest metro system, soon to be the first.

It’s plush new centre has a vast ceremonial axis of parkland, under which all the public and private transport is buried, and sided with supertalls (buildings over 300m/1000ft), which in turn lines up with a ceremonial tomb-temple complex on one of the city’s hills. At either end sit 2,000ft tall towers and some stadia, one of them floating. I mean, she had a lot to prove but gaaaahd…



Then the second tier cities. Chongqing, a city of 17m on one of the most tortured urban sites – a confluence of two major rivers and three mountain ranges, riddled with bridges, tunnels, cable cars, zip lines, monorails and caverns. Trains going in and out of clifftop buildings, some of the world’s largest, tallest bridges, that kinda thing. This is China’s most dramatic city: ugly, beautiful, epic, and often the visitor’s favourite.

She debuted on the world stage as the world’s largest city about a decade ago, before they worked out her 35 million inhabitants were in several cities in a catchment the size of Austria. Anyhoo, for the high drama, this is what many people think of when envisaging modern China, grandiose, tawdry, sultry, Bladerunner-y.



Chengdu, China’s hipster centrum, and the country’s coolest cat of urban tribes, start-ups, 200,000 teahouses, street style, laid back vibes, a UNESCO protected Culinary site and home to an entertainment and leisure complex that’s the world’s largest building. Oh and panda’s, it’s big on touting the fuckers everywhere you look, from crawling up the sides of skyscrapers to airplane livery -the place you’ll have to fly into if you wanna see any in their natural habitat.

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Nanjing, the historic former capital, riddled with history. It’s surrounded by the world’s largest city walls, imperial tombs, former palaces and endless temples among the skyscrapers. It lost out to nearby Shanghai in the city stakes, and whatever you do, don’t just don’t mention the war.

Ancient city walls and temples in Nanjing, China

 

Qingdao, the seaside resort and attached German colonial old town. Site of the water events during the 2008 Olympics it operates a colonial building code, as well as several marinas and a whole load of beer related branding to lure the nation’s drunks. Breweries (notably Tsingtao, the national favourite), festivals, biergartens, all thanks to the mitteleuropan legacy. Coastal walks and beaches complete the picture, that periodically have to organise mass clean-ups -one such PR disaster the algal bloom just before the Olympics.

However, the authorities worked out an ingenious way to fight back millions of tonnes of nature: by putting a price on the collections for bio fuel, food supplements and fertiliser. An army of ‘do-gooders’ picked it clean within days.

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Hangzhou, the country’s richest, most livable city long touted as the most beautiful but destroyed in the 1800s, having been the worlds largest too (along with 600 cities it was wrecked in history’s nastiest civil war, and second bloodiest conflict, taking out 30m lives and sending China into decline). Still its heart remains a classical landscape of water, hills and pagodas, and China’s biggest tourist attraction; for decades it banned all highrises. It’s high standards run completely with its reputation.

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Suzhou, China’s most beautiful city (note the massive Old City behind), famed for its classical gardens, Venetian canals, sweet food and a white-walled, blue-roofed vernacular. Again one of the country’s richest, and merging into Shanghai with booming growth. The spantastic, supertall gateway btw, soon to be lined with an avenue of skyscrapers, was fast-dubbed the ‘Big Trousers’.

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Changsha, birthplace of Mao. Kind of left out in the economic rise (still staunchly hardliner and sulking), and one of the dowdiest places to avoid, its recent economic debut has meant it missed out on a legion of scabby highrises and illegal slum-building from the 90s and noughties. It’s now one of the shiniest of the cities, and seems to operate on a flat-roofed vernacular. Now has several supertalls and one monster taller than the Petronas towers. They say Mao would be turning in his grave.

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And even the smaller, third tier cities.

Harbin, a cold northern metropolis famed for the world’s largest ice festival, and once belonging to Russia now one of the capitals of Chinas northeastern rustbelt. Having seen a fast decline in heavy industry, it’s tranformed into tourism (Chinese seeing Russia, Russians seeing China) carmaking, trade and gargantuan museum construction.

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Jinan – as above, suffering a crash in light industry to take on a bit of everything else, notably hi tech and servicing an industry of 200,000 students. Trying desperately to shrug off its lower tiered status with swanky new projects and worrying debt, and the shadow that it is and always will be, a wallflower.

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Guiyang, long the capital of China’s poorest province this multicultural, minority-heavy city appears to have leapfrogged the decades of manufacturing and trade straight into hi-tech. It’s now home to most of China’s Fortune 500 and centre of a tech boom that’s won it accolades as the city most likely to watch and invest in. It’s also infamous for its copycat twin towers- from the World Trade Center to an unlikely pair of Empire State buildings, plus some IFC’s from Hong Kong, why not. For all its classy gloss, there’s always that louche, nouveau riche uncle still elbowing in on every grand plan.

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Shaoxing, a reputation once preceded this place as an elegant footnote in history for its timeless poetry, writing, tea, wine, bridges, ducks and the arts -just the reality was an obnoxious centre of decay, pollution and manufacturing. Nowadays it’s shirked off that rep to become more in keeping with its tradition, but still overshadowed by Hangzhou who it lost the regional capital to, and Chaozhou with its preserved buildings and Old Town. Instead it’s become a halfway house of livability and historic restoration, and an examplar to healthy competition, even as the underling.

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I could go on, with over 100 cities over 1 million (by some counts 160 – by comparison US has 20), and each of them ploughing the taxes into making them livable, eco-friendly and not just highrise or bombastic. Where even the poor areas have an epic urban scale and ‘Bladerunner’ aesthetic (founded on Ridley’s Scott experience of Tokyo/ HK nightlife), though heavily threatened. The urban cacophony is fast disappearing, before a sanitised revision. The lair of the famous Chinese street life, where your days were traditionally lived out in public.

Chongqing

Shanghai, catch em while you can.

https://www.designboom.com/architecture/shanghai-streets-cody-ellingham-captures-intricate-lane-houses-05-27-2019/

Hong Kong

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Shenzhen, and it’s last remaining ‘urban village’- illegally built neighbourhoods put up in the 80s and 90s, and now seeking heritage protection.

Oh and one last thing THIS CITY that has recently been in the news. Home to 11-19 million, a confluence of three seperate cities on different banks of the river, and now home to several of the world’s largest bridges (plus the biggest lightshow every night). Do click:

Wuhan

The metropolis is adversely now featuring highly as the place most Chinese want to visit post-lockdown, intrigued by the constant news and its hardy citizens. However, highly unlikely for foreign visitors, should they ever even return to China, once the world’s fastest growing market for inbound tourists (4th in the world behind the US). It now looks remote that many outsiders will ever see or experience these cities (let alone its multitudinous landscapes) other than through some clickbaiting media lens.

 

Well, after all that, how buoyant. A breath of fresh air from my lockdown barrage of US films, talk shows, TikToks, vids, reality TV and news news news, all becoming redolent of a Western society I’m excluded from no matter how I identify.

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I think a part of me is falling into the nationalism trap. It’s all so comforting when facing a world that’s otherwise against you, redlining you as forever an outsider and rechalking these past few months. You fall into the welcoming arms of a culture that looks like you.

And this is precisely the same trap as anyone else. All those toads, all those hawks, all those okay-boomers, all those Karens, you’ll likely find their equivalent anywhere else, China included. If I filled this thread with the greatest hits of the West (read: White): London, Rome, Paris, NYC, Sydney, Vienna and started celebrating how perfect Westernism all was, even their imperfections, it would surely strike a different tone.

And should it?

I think nationalism and patriotism share a fine line between them, and that dallies with inculcating prejudice. Perhaps one needs to have a sense of victimhood to feel it, and defend it. Question is, who has the upper hand?

I think universality should override both sides. We can fully appreciate the beauty of one place without that meaning you have to shirk the rest, or put it in competition. It doesn’t have to be the clash of civilisations, they long pointed at the Islamic world, but now increasingly looking further.

I’ll finish on an in-betweener from both spheres of influence. Where east meets west.

(Bulent Kilic/Getty Images)

Yesterday

Tomorrow

Europe’s Greatest Weakness and Greatest Strengths

In short: it’s the borders, but not as you know it.

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A continent loosely summed up as 750 million people in the more northern climes of the world, famous for its history, heritage and export of culture (and peoples).

But let’s look closer at the geography: the world’s sole ‘landmass’ delineated from the rest by physical barrier – mountain ranges and seas (do ignore the Indian ‘subcontinent’, China or Eastern Africa that could easily do the same) – with the Caucasus forming an adjunct against the Middle East at one end, and the more spurious boundary of the Urals at the other. Never mind that this range peters out uncharitably 600km from the Caspian coast, and is low and heavily gap-toothed anyway – infinitely porous for the peoples of the Steppe, and to which White Russia has long suffered and capitalised on, this is the boundary that claims itself a stopper against the rest of the Asian multitudes. That declares itself more than just a peninsular of Asia.

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The idea that all continents are defined by their physicality demonstrates European exceptionalism – insofar that the idea of Europe is in reality more based on ethnicity, thinly veiled. That what defined this continent has long been the triptych of pale skin, Caucasian race and Christian culture, all but glossed over in textbooks to this day and accepted as an unsaid, unquestioned norm. With this idea comes the attachments of history, a richly influential vein that runs through collective peoples who went on to annexe 3.5 continents other than their own (the two Americas, Australasia and Asia thanks to Russia/ Kazakhstan) as the greatest source of immigration the world has ever known and likely ever will. In short Europe is a sanctum alluding to the ‘old country’ for many hundreds of millions outside it still, and an idealistic narrative on governance  to even more – a cultural source code for successful nations if one may, yet often reduced to a sum of parts. Europe frequently gets boiled down to a list of these parts.

Ethnic map of the world by Haplogroup:

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This veneration is both the winning laurel and Damoclean sword. On one hand its historic urbanity, iconic motifs and exportable cuisines, languages, style and arts continue to draw visitors and investment by the billion, yet its exceptional storytelling can also jar with the demands of a globalised world, and demographic paths toward a more mutually reliant populace on the big spinner. As the per capita incomes of the Developed World and the Developing World (once known as the Third World) begin to converge the eyeliner so long denoting Europe as belle of the ball is increasingly consequential: attracting ever more suitors but also a more fragile sanctimoniousness.

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For example, Europe’s plinth-like status brings in 671 million visitors (2017, accounting for 57% of international travel), with $767 billion investment to local economies – by far the largest destination for tourism, immigration and FDI. New housing, continents removed, still delusionally aspire to Tuscan villas, Norfolk farmhouses and Berlin apartments whether they be in the sprawl of the Texan interior, embattled Israeli outposts or upmarket estates in China’s third tier cities. The English language/ suit has become the uniform for global professionals, and Greek democracy, Italian art, French enlightenment, English industrialisation, British and Russian economics, and Swiss modernism have been adopted as worldly norms – sold as templates for governance and modern culture. Looking back on this weight of far-reaching achievement pride becomes an easy reaction, despite cultural piggy-backing, technology transfer strictly limited between brothers-in-arms, and disparate achievements conveniently united by one race (a redrawing of boundaries as and when needed), cultivated under the umbrella term of Westernism – but subtly or not so subtly redolent of supremacism too. Not to mention a more painful eyeballing from history on an inheritance built on colonialism, slavery, incessant power struggles, foreign invasion and hierarchical inequality no different (or perhaps a little more avid) from the rest.

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But Europe today is also a region most angst-ridden about outside influence and historic navel-gazing (or utter lack of, via rose-tinted media portrayals), susceptible to modern day demagogues, where every major economy is now, for the first time in a century, either right wing or in coalition with the far right.

To start, one cannot possibly quantify 750 million people, 130 languages, 50 countries, 87 ethnic groups and myriad cultures and histories as one. Witness the past attempts to do so, whether through bloody world war or cultural hand-wringing when pacts such as NATO or the EU sacrificed imagined sovereignty for greater geopolitical win-win. The continent is still a disparate collection behind the flawless face, with infighting commonplace between countries, and regions within – not to mention many societal pitchforks readied for the stream of newcomers, whether they be from the continent or outside (and despite the welcome also laid out).

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Separatism within Europe:

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Yet should Europe give up on its institutionalised veneration on what it thinks it is to be European – rather than by dint of pure geography – it would find it can marry contemporary progressiveness with a rich past and continuation of traditions. Look at the record of the Nordic, Alpine and Benelux nations, world leaders in education, quality of life, social justice, economic performance and environmentalism coupled with a rich heritage of culture, architecture and the arts, all within the same breathless sentiment.

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But contrast that with worrying support for Le Pen, Jobbik, the Freedom Party or Brexit, coupled with instances of hate crime, terrorism, media-fuelled xenophobia and a stout lack of charity for the current refugee crises (the vast majority of the worlds 68 million refugees fleeing to neighbours within the already embattled Middle East and Africa – some of which have become refugee-majority populations within the last decade – with ‘only’ 1 million of the richest affording the crossings to Europe).

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Also note how Austria and Denmark straddles both these perceptions – open progressiveness with reactionary populism, which lends to the fact no part can be summarised despite all intent. Should Eurocentrism take down its artificial borders both in mind and physicality it can limit the damage wrought by a generalised decline in birth rates and productivity, both demographically and culturally. When the ‘old country’ no longer negates the idea that all societies are new, and that they have always had to be in order to survive.

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Europe is in short a wondrous, rich tapestry of histories and cultures; it does well to build on it. But it also does well to remember how porous its borders were in the age of empires, whether being invaded and influenced from outside (Egyptians, Phoenicians, Persians, Turkics, Huns, the Silk Routes, Moors, Mongols, Tatars, Ottomans) or doing the invading and influencing of the outside (Greek -Macedonian, Roman, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British, French, Russian, German), that has so lent it the multitudinal aspects to build and importantly, trade on.

Les trentes glorieuses:

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This is not to overlook the genius of democracy, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, but they were not entirely standalone as we have come to assume, and with often fore runners abroad, from China’s equivalent scaled Industrial Revolution in the Dark Ages (that was destroyed by Mongol politicking and climate change), to Mughal manufacturing that took a quarter of global GDP and Ming Dynasty navies that operated history’s largest pre-industrial ships, industries, and explorations. On an interesting sidenote these were also scuppered by Mongol threat when funds went into defence instead, with the fleet burned and a capital offence made of going to sea, plus an edict for SE Asians to reduce their vassal envoys to every 3 years.

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Oops, where was I in my breathless account? The first shoots of democracy in Iraq and India, alongside the worlds first cities, or the first modern warfare. Another sidenote: they were  fired up by the Mongol-Chinese who operated the first guns (‘fire-lances’), cannons, mines, sea mines, grenades and automated rapid-fire crossbows in the attempted invasions of Japan employing vast armadas of 5,200 ships – but who ultimately opted to bury the tech when society started going all Call of Duty among themselves. Japan, replete with developing the worlds most advances weaponry (and had just invaded and colonised Korea with their prototype arquebuses) even dumped the lot and went back to 300 years of strict isolationism and the beauty of the blade via a Samurai-Shogunate society. It’s a myth that the Chinese used gunpowder just for fireworks, and that the Europeans turned them into weapons.

 

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A lot has been said about the vast rape of the continents by the Mongols (who killed so many Chinese, Arabs, Indians, SE Asians and Eastern Europeans the carbon in the atmosphere fell, who destroyed over the centuries the world’s largest million+ cities of Baghdad, Gurganj, Beijing, Nanjing, Hangzhou, and who would attack countries with navies made up of up to 7,000 ships), but they were also a big buffer against historical domination if not a global one. A kill switch or at least barrier to further ambitions whenever an empire started getting too big for its boots such as the Song, the Burmese, the Japanese, the Delhi Sultanate, the Song Chinese, the Persians and Islamic Caliphates.

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Plus much iconography we think of as intrinsically European come from beyond, from the adoption of a Middle Eastern religion that is Christianity, to the International Style of modernism (clue’s in the name) sourced from medieval Morocco and Japan, that the early modernists such as Le Courbousier studied – the white wedding dress of the Ottomans, the Romanesque arch of Arabia, the Mongol onion dome, the Chinese naval tech, the Japonisme of impressionism and modern art, the African beat, the SE Asian spices, the Americas coffee, Chinese tea, the Himalayan gardens, the Indian manufacturing, the modern American/Japanese business frame, the knife and fork, the apple, the tulip, we could go on, and still do. The idea of Europe breaking down its barriers to speed into motion its coming extinction, as had been done in the continents it itself overran in the past, only ever happened when coupled with genocide, including viral. The way we see the world today should, in a very European tradition, be encompassing, outward-looking, clear -yet holding a subtle richness of history and nuance beyond the everyday.

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