Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life

This is a most recent study, taking an interdisciplinary approach to studying the history and culture of Shanghai’s alleyway homes.

Here is a long and insightful interview with the author, Jie Li.


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Hong Kong-Style Protests: Law and Order Prevails

As someone interested in the spatialities of life and the question of what makes cities liveable, I have been very much torn when it comes to Hong Kong. Having lived here for a couple of years now, this place has never quite become “home” for me. I often wondered why. In some sense, it is the perfect place to live in: nice scenery, mountains, beaches, and hiking trails pared with all the conveniences of the modern metropolis: bars, cinemas, theatres etc. etc. The MTR is outstandingly efficient and so is the administrative system. You know that things get done. Yet, it is precisely this perfection of Hong Kong that has made me somewhat dislike it. The order, the lack of spontaneity, the chain stores, the countless regulations, the patronising signs and announcements everywhere, the feeling of being controlled in everything you do, the “robotisation” of citizens, the lack of genuine public space, all this has led me to conclude: Hong Kong is not “my city”. For the past week now, students have been taking to the streets to protest and it has changed my perception of Hong Kong and its citizens. It all started with class boycotts and several rallies at Tamar Park, the official protesting ground in front of the HK government building. On Friday, students were disallowed to enter it (because of what looked like a highly staged and scripted celebration of the 65th anniversary of the CCP) and hence gathered in the surrounding streets. When some students entered the blocked-off “Civic Square”, police moved in, surrounded them and later on, forcefully removed them, using disproportionately drastic measures. Since then, what started off as small student demonstrations has been turning into a “occupy Hong Kong” movement with thousands of protesters in the streets in various places of the city day and night.

It has been an eye-opening and fascinating experience to see how precisely these slightly negatively-tainted characteristics of law and order that I listed above, have been turned into positive energy in the process of students taking over the streets of Hong Kong. It was at around 5 in the afternoon on September 28, I had just arrived in Admiralty, the protesters had already taken over Harcourt and Connaught Road right in front of the government building. There was cheering and clapping. I walked onto the four-lane road, usually a place where cars zoom past you and found people from all wakes of life. Middle-school pupils, university students, elderly people and young mothers carrying their babies. Further up, the crowd was more dense, umbrellas protruded out above people’s heads. They were shouting slogans. Then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, tear gas bombs were fired right into the crowd, exploding above people’s heads. There was a short moment of confusion, people were rushing into all directions. Eyes were stinging, it was difficult to breathe. I turned around and saw how bottles were thrown at the police. I myself felt angry, too. What justified the sudden use of tear gas? The protesters had not behaved violently at all. I could understand the sentiment, the powerlessness. So I was astonished by what happened afterwards. After the smoke had been blown away by the wind, people washed their faces, put on their masks again and went back onto the street. But they did not charge at the police, instead they reminded each other not to throw bottles at the police, not to use any kind of violence, even not to swear at them. This was impressive. I have participated in a number of protests in Europe. Never have I experienced such a degree of self-control, discipline and awareness.

Prior to the escalation over the past two days, there have been discussions going on among students on campus as to whether violence is accepted, whether it helps to reach their goals to push the government to renegotiate on the issue of universal suffrage in 2017, or whether it actually simply plays into the enemy’s hands. It is clear that the latter is the case, simply because “disorder” is the discourse by which not only the CCP but also its “long arm”, the Hong Kong government, justifies the use of force in the suppression of the protests. Violence would have provided the government and the police with an excuse to be merciless. This, at least, is the theory. In the heat of the moment such theoretical considerations are easily scrapped, particularly when being provoked in such a way. But not in Hong Kong. Protesters remained largely controlled and clear-headed, simply raising their hands as they were charged by the police (not the other way around). This protest was not destructive, it was none of those “being anti for the sake of anti” movements. It was well-organised (despite the lack of one central leader). Cars were never randomly obstructed, if crowds got too dense in one place, people would move back a bit. Furthermore, not only did protesters refrain from directly attacking the police, damaging cars, buses or buildings, they were even clearing up their rubbish behind them, collecting bottles, cardboard and other materials to then conscientiously recycle them.

One could say that this is a “Hong Kong-style protest”. One could put it in a negative light and say that even when they protest they must follow rules. But this would be wrong. Students are not blindly obeying rules and maintaining order. They are aware that disorder is what the ordinary Hong Kong resident worries about the most. Any outright violence on the side of the protesters would significantly decrease their legitimacy among the general population, among those who are quite possibly sceptical of China and the CCP, and who probably generally support the students, but who would never take any direct action at the expense of their personal security, or quite literally their personal “order” themselves. But they are now supporting the students precisely because these protests are not about causing disorder in Hong Kong by randomly destroying public facilities or hurting people.

These protests feed off the discourse of law and order that prevails in Hong Kong, they embody it, but also make use of it in a creative and intelligent way. They have redefined a notion of the “public sphere” in Hong Kong without compromising Hong Kong culture. Or in other words, they have used Hong Kong culture to redefine the “public sphere”.

That officialdom is still trying to denounce the actions as “violent” and “disorderly” is obvious. They will always try to do so. But it is important to say that protesters’ sober behaviour has really stolen officialdom’s thunder in trying to frame and blame the students. I truly hope that it stays this way. This kind of protest is a powerful weapon.

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After over a year of absence (partially due to wordpress being blocked in China), this blog will be revived. To start with, something about cities and smell. More on this topic will follow soon: Smell and the City

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Maps are crucial to anyone who studies space and place. Maps are of course always subject to questioning and whatever is set in stone on a map, seemingly representing an absolute and unshakable truth, should never be taken for granted. Yet, maps are indispensable and getting access to comprehensive cartographic material is important. Hence, I have started collecting online resources, which I will share here and update regularly. Most of the collected links contain information and maps of the East Asian region with a focus on China but many websites also offer information on other regions in the world.

All links posted here will also be shown under “recommended links”.

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Ecological Urbanisation in China

“Rio+20”, that is the name of the international UN conference currently being held in Rio. It is also known as the “Earth Summit” that seeks to alleviate poverty and promote the preservation of the environment. 2o years after the principles of sustainable development were formulated and adopted in 1992 (also in Rio), the buzzword in 2012 is “Green Economy”. What this entails can be read here. Much is being said about wanting and having to seize this opportunity to put the world on a sustainable course. Yet, not much is being achieved. The host country, Brazil, made public a final agreement before the summit had even started, which, as it is widely said, does not contain anything but empty phrases. As always, it appears that meeting short-term economic goals is more important than long-term and sustainable thinking. It might not be too surprising considering that most of the world, especially Europe, is currently overwhelmed with other issues, most notably the Euro crisis. Meanwhile, the rising economies such as Brazil, India and, of course, China keep insisting on their right to prosper first and are afraid that strict environmental requirements will hinder their economic progress. Their argument is quite simple, why should countries that have not been responsible for the current state of environmental degradation suffer for what others have done? After all, Europe and North America prospered at the expense of the environment, so surely China and others should have the same right, no?! Maybe… of course, the counter argument to this is that we all live on the same planet, and even if does not always seem this way, we do all share the same resources and will suffer collectively if environmental degradation reaches more critical levels. In the West, horror stories about the state of the Chinese environment and their effects upon the world (acid rain reaching the Californian coastline etc.) are not new. Scaremongering goes on everywhere. If China keeps rising, if Chinese people, one day, consume the same amount of energy as the average American, the world will collapse. That’s at least what many people are told or think. And maybe even for good reasons. Anyone who has ever lived in Beijing will know how severe pollution affects ones health. But what can be done about such issues and why do I write about this here?

What is often overlooked, especially when international summits are trying to address global problems from a global perspective, is that environmental issues are always related to how people – ordinary people – utilise space, their space. In other words, sustainability is by no means a purely global problem (even though global political frameworks do help set a general direction), but a local one. The way people utilise their environment (their space) can be unsustainable, polluting etc, in which case, it needs to be carefully investigated why and how this may be changed. Yet, in many other cases, the way people make use of their surroundings is a lot more sustainable than it may seem. To illustrate this, I want to take this opportunity to introduce an anthropological study that deals with a kind of flagship project, a cooperation between China and the US, that was and is designed to make China a more environmentally friendly and sustainable place. In 2005, the China-US Center for Sustainable Development (CUCSD) launched what they termed the “China-US Center for Sustainable Development Demonstration Village”. They were going to turn the village of Huangbaiyu  (黄柏峪) in the north Chinese Liaoning Province into an Eco-City based on the words of Bill McDonough that “waste equals food“. Their aim was to find out whether building an eco-city – a sustainable community – in a Chinese village could prove to be the model for urbanizing the rural population in the countryside while also reducing carbon-emitting energy use. Shannon May, a young anthropologist, joined the project and published a variety of interesting articles about it. On her website, she describes her personal involvement with the project. Her words here are comparatively neutral, very much unlike some of the articles she published after her fieldwork. Some of them are listed on her website, a short but very critical summary can be found here and the most recent publication comes from a volume on urban development in East Asia edited by Ananya Roy and Aihawa Ong, “Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global“. May contributes an article titled “Ecological Urbanization: Calculating Value in an Age of Global Climate Change” in which she offers quite abrasive criticism. She places this project in the context of globalisation, of global efforts to combat global environmental problems and the resultant issues. The so-called experts arrogantly designed a grand plan which promises villagers a better life – but turns out to have the exact opposite effects. The main reason for this, as May discovered, was that the outsiders that designed the plans were trying to transform an agricultural economy that they themselves were not part of. Thus, and this is highly anthropological, what they discarded as waste was by no means waste in the eyes of the villagers. This, in turn, directly relates to people’s use of their space, of their own physical environment. May explains how there existed land for crops and garden land, land for goats, cows, and mules; land for homes and land for graves; land for sitting and gathering and land for walking paths and land for waterways. According to the grand plan designed by CUCSD, mainly garden land and land for animals was to be turned into cropping land. Yet, garden and animal land, quite contrary to the assumption by CUCSD, was among the most crucial to the local household economy because it grew cabbage and root vegetables during harsh winter seasons when nothing else grows and the “food truck” (that is also very expensive) does not pass by the village. Furthermore, the corn stalks and cobs were important fodder for the area’s cashmere goats, on which many villagers depended as they were able to sell cashmere fiber in spring. So, in a nutshell, by getting rid of animal and garden land, the community was deprived of its most crucial land resources and the live stock on which they depended had to be sold totally under value. We see from this that in this agricultural economy, waste had always equaled food and that the grand master plan imposed by the CUCSD that was to turn waste into food, in fact, achieved nothing but the opposite and resulted in disaster. May explains in her chapter how one of her informants ended up as a beggar upon which the local coordination committee hired him as a night guard. But this job earned him less money than before and meant that he only saw his wife awake for an hour or two per day. What good does wage labour do if none is available or if it pays much less than subsistence farming? Eco-Cities such as this one may well meet global standards of sustainability but concurrently, they impoverish local people.

In times of large-scale international summits that juggle with grand schemes and try to develop global frameworks to combat environmental degradation, we may want to reconsider whether, as May correctly wonders, finding “global solutions” for “global problems” is always the best and most effective way to address the problems of our times…

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Urbanisation in China: Happiness is seen everywhere

This is the title of a new documentary produced by 16X9.NL (Netherlands). It describes itself as providing “a background and context for the Chinese urbanisation and specifically lets the inhabitants speak”. What I like about this documentary is its unobtrusive character, it does indeed let the inhabitants speak. Most of it is set in and around Shanghai and we get to see different facets of urbanisation and urban life in contemporary China. We get to glimpse at luxurious, foreign-style gated communities, at old and to-be-torn-down buildings, at newly constructed residential compounds, temporary migrant workers’ residences and much more. There is no off-commentator, a few explanatory titles at the beginning of each new “chapter” (each new setting) provide some context for what is being shown. Otherwise, all we see is people talking about their lives and their opinions on their living environments, China’s development as well as what matters to them in their own everyday lives. This documentary is pleasant because it does not overtly moralise.

However, it seems to me that the directors of this piece have been trying almost a little too hard to not wag their fingers or to come to any rushed judgements about China’s urbanisation. I wonder whether this is at all possible. Or rather, aren’t the directors, through the way that they chose scenes, that they portray people and that they ask questions (often prompting people to talk about what they dislike) invoke a kind of narrative or judgement? We are confronted with so many issues and situations that plainly scream for more information and a deeper analysis, which this documentary fails to provide. For those who are a little bit familiar with (urban) China, the scenes shown here do not really reveal anything that we didn’t already know.

Those who get the chance to watch this documentary, should make sure to click into the “extras” and watch the short snippet about a collector of Mao films who has an archive of 3600 films produced during the Mao era. More information can be found here (including a preview) and here.

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Setha Low

Here is a link to a lecture by Setha Low given in 2010 at Columbia University on “Spatial Methods and Divergent Histories: Challenging the Hegemony of the Written–The Latin American Plaza, Moore Street Market and Gated Communities and Coops”. She talks about her books “Behind the Gates: Life, Security and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America” (2003), and “On the Plaza: The Politics of Public Space and Culture” (2000) as well as some of her newer projects. No doubt, Setha Low is one of the leading scholars in the Anthropology of Space and Place. For those who have read her works, not much new is being revealed here. What I do find interesting, however, is that she claims that there is no need to really conceptually define the notions of space and place. Interestingly, she says that earlier in her career she used to think of space being the general physical environment whereas place was space made cultural to then go on and argue that this does not work. So, she decides to use space and place interchangeably. Then, however, she says that she increasingly moves away from using space at all and instead talks about place as a term that refers to the very local and intimate realm. So, I wonder whether she doesn’t, by doing so, in actual fact does distinguish between space and place and whether it isn’t precisely this subtle distinction that should be taken into account rather than discarded? I will put together some thoughts about this soon. To me, this links to a very fundamental issue in anthropology and I feel tempted to argue that we do need the conceptual distinction between place and space.

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