Shanghaiing the Future: A De-tour of the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall
Office of Impression Management1
(Voice: satirical tour guide)
Hello, China watchers. In an effort to raise your consciousness of China’s urban transition, our short tour today will show you some of the ways historical geographies of the present are projected in visions of the future under the supervision of SUPEH. What is SUPEH, you ask? A state-funded, privately managed world-class attraction and global city showcase. SUPEH — the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall — will be the visual device of our Shanghai tour today, performing China’s spectacularly curated instructions for twenty-first-century urban modernity.
In the spirit of intellectual edutainment, we will carry out three critical objectives: to inspire the image-making medium in you by increasing your visual vocabulary at a gross rate of 12 – 15 percent per minute, raise your China-watching attention span to ten minutes, and instruct your eyes in the proper ways to see Shanghai. To optimize the visual distribution of Shanghai’s spectacular transformations, we ask that you not waste a minute and allow SUPEH’s vision statements to instantly liberate you like a camera FLASH!
The Global City
(Voice: sports broadcaster, fast-paced)
Lights! Camera! Pudong! In a grand tour of southern China, Deng Xiaoping, architect of China’s reform, gave his blessing to the special economic zoning of a new Shanghai across the river from the old. From flagging rural hinterland to muscled global city, Pudong would over the span of just one decade leave behind its country life to become a working model of advanced socialist architecture, one that would put Shanghai back on track in world-competitive circles. Global city reports from the Academy and the Businessworld confirm that Shanghai has indeed made the great leap forward, consistently ranking in the top ten cities as a global urban giant and center of superlatives (world’s fastest train, world’s highest hotel, etc.). As professional China watchers are ready to point out, Shanghai is moving in on Hong Kong’s prowess and performing feats of economic athleticism unparalleled by the four Asian Tigers.2 In the cultural arena, Shanghai hopes that by importing design consultants from Paris, it will not only grab media attention and brand its infrastructure projects with the signatures of French cosmopolitanism, but also place-market its colonial-era Parisian cultural legacy, thereby outmaneuvering Paris’s monopoly on the historical high-art-and-fashion world-city title.3
The ultimate goal is to beat New York City with an even more highly concentrated financescape and memorable panorama. With the help of international superstar architects and global planning expertise from Singapore to London, Shanghai is giving global city champions a run for their money with a municipal urban planning publicity show of international design standards and architectural models. The city’s robust building stats indicate this future. The World Financial Center, designed by famous foreign architects, virtually clung to its first-place world’s-tallest-building position for over a decade, flexibly extending its height every time another skyscraper challenged its top notch.4 After completion, however, the building will no longer top off at first place. It is a difficult lesson of deadline urbanism: the future arrives too late.5 There are reported plans for an even bigger skyscraper to be built near the World Financial Center and Jinmao Tower in Pudong that will sink the competition.6
At SUPEH, you can travel “Shanghai within pictures.” The whole city is designed for your camera: digital postcards of dazzling destinations, mythic skylines, and duty-free territoriality. Step inside the global city panorama and get your picture taken. Let the visual technology inhabit you, projecting a virtual world of unlimited evidence for global city “presence.” Shanghai’s surface extends to incorporate unbuilt architectural models, virtual tours, holographic city scenes, and other visual-technological bravado.
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All photographs are courtesy of the author and were taken during the two fieldwork trips to Shanghai and SUPEH in July 2000 and between August 2004 and March 2005.
This de-tour, or reading drama, is derived from a performance I gave at the annual conference of the Association of American Geographers in March 2004, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is based on fieldwork done in Shanghai and the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall in July 2000 and, more recently, during the period of August 2004 through March 2005. The piece is divided into several vignettes that fuse images with different voices and rhetorical strategies. The purposes of this performative representational strategy are twofold: (1) to show some of SUPEH’s representations and visual discourse, the intended effects of its display strategies, and personal experiences of the author captured in SUPEH’s sights, and (2) to experiment with satire and the “de-tour” as a way to performatively analyze how a spectacular space works and the work that it does.
- The “Office of Impression Management” is a fictitious bureaucratic organization intended to exhibit the global city and, by extension, the eco-city and city of imperial nostalgia, as discourse, as a curatorial project, and as an official tour. The guided tour is a popular manifestation of “impression management,” a concept, derived from Erving Goffman, that captures the way individuals and organizations seek to maintain impressions and public relations that are congruent with the image they want to convey to their publics. The activity of impression management attempts to regulate and control information through social interaction.
- Shanghai is featured in the ever-growing literature of the global city. Two of the more recent and interesting texts that discuss Shanghai’s urban development in the context of globalization are Carolyn Cartier, Globalizing South China (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), especially chap. 8; and Tsung-yi Michelle Huang, Walking between Slums and Skyscrapers: Illusions of Open Space in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Shanghai (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004), 99 – 136. In the popular press, Shanghai’s economic development is often compared to that of the four Asian “Economic Tigers,” Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
- During my fieldwork in 2005, I attended numerous events related to the “Year of France in China” (2004 – 5), including street festivals, performances, and museum exhibits on French culture and historical Chinese-French cultural exchange. The joint-venture lineup of activities was presented in China after a year of China-related events in France. These France-China “exchange years” were organized on the initiative of the presidents of the two countries, with the intent of developing a global partnership between France and China.
- Shanghai’s World Financial Center (WFC) is a 101-story mixed-use skyscraper designed by architectural firm Kohn Pederson and Fox. Its construction was stalled during the 1997 financial crisis and later to accommodate new design features. The WFC was originally set to be a 94-story building but was redesigned in early 2003 to reach 101 stories. Construction resumed in 2005, but its “world’s tallest building” status was surpassed by buildings constructed/planned for Taipei, Hong Kong, Dubai, and New York.
- Penelope Dean discusses the idea of “deadline urbanism” in her article “The Construction of Sydney’s Global Image,” in Future City, ed. Stephen Read, Jürgen Rosemann, and Job van Eldijk (London: Spon Press, 2005), 48 – 49.
- The word sink is used ironically in this sentence to refer to Pudong’s high rate of subsidence, no doubt caused by the weight of skyscrapers and excessive pumping of groundwater.