After three weeks into my time in China, I have finally gotten around to writing my first blog post, so I will have to make up for lost time and cram a lot into this one!

What better place to start than the Difu Hotel? It’s what we’d consider an excellent example of a mixed-use “live-work” space in the United States, and my experience quite literally reflects that. Living on the 7th floor, working on the 4th floor, often eating on the 2nd floor, and frequenting the convenience store on the 1st floor (One of these days, I imagine I will venture into the karaoke bar on the 3rd floor too). My department is a new department for the Urban Planning and Design Institute of Shenzhen (UPDIS), which has the majority of its offices in an office building across the street. One very benevolent policy here at UPDIS is the provision of housing and meals for employees, covered 100% by the company. All employees – not just interns – are covered for weekday meals, and new employees receive a month of free housing at the Difu Hotel while they look for housing elsewhere in Shenzhen. These are certainly rare phenomena in the United States, especially the latter.

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One of the most interesting customs in Shenzhen is the ritual washing of the dishes prior to a meal with hot tea, which is then discarded into a larger communal bowl for the whole table. The hot water is supposed to cleanse the dishes, despite the fact that they are typically pre-packaged in plastic wrap. I have heard varying things about this practice. Some say it is specific to Guangdong province where Shenzhen is located, while I have heard others say it is a common practice throughout China. (Anyone with definitive knowledge of this ritual, feel free to chime in!).

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One of the best experiences I have had so far during my time in China was a day trip to Macau. Macau is a former Portuguese colony that is now a Special Administrative Region of China – along with Hong Kong – giving it autonomy from mainland China in a variety of political, economic, social and cultural matters. Macau remained a Portuguese colony until 1999, and throughout its history has maintained a distinct blend of Eastern and Western cultures, evident in its cuisine, architecture and language.

Below are some pictures of key sights in Macau that show this fusion of cultures, as well as places I found especially fascinating from an urban planning standpoint. The first three photos from left to right, top to bottom, are the Ruins of St. Paul’s (a former cathedral and school), yours truly at Senado Square, and a bustling pedestrian zone in the city center (all of these were taken in the Historic Centre of Macau, which is a UNESCO heritage site). The next photo in line is the St. Lawrence’s Church, and the last photo is a view that I found fascinating for how well it illustrates three generations of very different housing, from historic architecture at my vantage point, to medium-scale apartment buildings, to a modern high-rise in the distance. All in all, a great day trip!

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My next post will feature more on Shenzhen and its brief modern history, and the culture that has grown and expanded here at such a rapid rate.

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Smash All Old Things

A popular Red Guard slogan, “smash all old things” reflected a state-of-mind to get rid of items that reminded people of old China, and instead, keep focus on the future. I think it is a fitting title for what I want to discuss. Part reflection, part history lesson, I wanted to use this blog post to look a little at forces that have shaped urban form in Beijing. After spending a few weeks wandering the city streets, I am struck by the odd juxtaposition of the very pedestrian friendly old Beijing hutongs (胡同), and the massive superblocks of new Beijing development that devastate the urban fabric. I won’t spend long reflecting on hutongs, Christine did a good job in her earlier post, but instead will look at how large developments have taken center stage in Beijing’s development over the past 60 or so years, and are quickly replacing hutongs

A hutong can refer to either a street or neighborhood where the individual housing units are called siheyuan. These housing units are rectangular housing structures built around a central courtyard. These structures originally housed one family, but as the city grew, so did the number of families. Hutongs are a wonderful examples of mixed use developments, where access to a restaurants, markets, etc., is never more than a short walk away. This creates a wonderful community for those living there, and an enjoyable experience for those curious enough to explore them. Distinctly Beijing–they can be found elsewhere in the north, but not in such large quantities–these communities are unfortunately being quickly demolished as Beijing, and the rest of China, is caught in rapid urbanization.  

 With the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the rise of Mao in 1949, the nation’s capital was chosen to remain in Beijing.  Drawing heavily from Soviet influence, self-sufficient working units, danwei (单位), began to pop up around the city, replacing the existing urban form. This included the hutongs. These danwei were large segmented communities where people lived and worked, usually separated from other compounds by exterior fences. As policies changed and development continued, these danwei became less prevalent. They are instead now being replaced by superblocks, which served similar purposes. The continued development of these behemoths has occurred for many reasons. 1) They can house large quantities of people. 2) Local governments make a sizable portion of revenue through the selling of land rights. The central government owns the land, but leases it out to private parties. Local governments take a portion of this sale. Typically, the larger the plot for sale, the more the local government can make. These large plots are usually found on the fringe of cities, and such development have contributed to sprawl for many cities. 3) Because these developments are in demand, developers can make a profit from their creation. The idea of a gated community, your own private space, I think is very appealing for many.

 Lastly, and not necessarily a reason for the continued development of these superblocks, more an interesting note, sprawl is exacerbated because these large plots are normally single use plots. Contrary to the multi-use developments being pushed nowadays, these large scale single use plots reinforce reliance of vehicles for mobility, and lessen the appeal of walking.  Along these lines, as China opened to the world, automobile manufacturing and consumption became an important economic focus for the Chinese government. Because these developments lead to sprawl and are often surrounded to 4-lane or 6-lane roads, they indirectly promote car usage. These developments tend to isolate people and make it difficult for pedestrians to get around, only furthering the promotion of private vehicles. Car ownership is also viewed as a sign of middle-class success.

 Heavy razing of the hutong’s began in the 1990’s as Beijing was striving to develop its image as an international city. However, in trying to develop its new identity, Beijing began erasing its old one. Hutongs are unique to Beijing, and reflect an old Beijing that centered was around ones’ community.  Exploring these communities has really been enjoyable, and I am upset when my leisurely strolls now take me past large superblock developments that I know replaced something that was far more pedestrian and community friendly. 

Looking for home away from home

I confess that I have not traveled overseas since I was a child, and the only places I have ever been are back to the humble villages and homes of where my parents grew up in the Philippines. Despite the differences in language, food, and culture, some of what I remember from those visits have made Beijing feel like a familiar place:

  • Streets coming alive at 5 in the morning
  • The hot sticky air
  • Rickshaws and electric bicycles
  • Dogs wandering the neighborhood
  • An abundance of street food and vendors
  • The mix of old and new, Eastern and Western
  • A heightened awareness of my American-ness

These small things have helped ease my transition to a foreign place, comforting me while I continue to be challenged by a language barrier, distance from loved ones, and a lack of understanding of how things work — from crossing the street to going to the bathroom (e.g. squat toilets) to how government, health care, education, law enforcement, politics, and planning operate and function here.

The experience itself of feeling out of place is not new to me. I’ve grown accustomed to sticking out in a sea of white folks back in Portland, one of the whitest major cities in the U.S. At the very least I can read, write and speak the language, am part of an established community with my cohort at PSU, and hold a basic understanding of institutions and how to access services.

What Beijing has taught me in my first few weeks is what it feels like to be completely disconnected– lacking the basic knowledge, culture and socialization for participating in society. This is a taste of what it might have been like for my parents when they left the Philippines and moved to the U.S. It also provides me with insight into a broader human experience of transcontinental migration and globalization.

Whatever one’s reasons for moving across the globe, whether permanent or temporary, one thing I have realized was summed up sweetly by my colleague, travel buddy, and fellow reflective soul, Lorrie: “People just want to feel in place.” In addition to the comfort of distant memories from childhood trips to my parents’ homeland, I have also sought home and familiarity by spending time with fellow interns, visiting “hipster” cafes, attending mass, and going to live music shows featuring ex-pats singing my jams.

How is this experience even relevant to urban planning? Well.. according to the United Nations Population Division, more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, and more people will continue to move into urban areas in this century. Whether people move from far away countries or nearby rural areas, will their new cities and nations provide urban migrants the chance to feel in place? How will they be received by their new city or nation? Will they be welcomed or turned away? Will they have access to safe, affordable, and healthy housing? Will they have access to education and income earning opportunities to become productive members of society and to support their families? Will they have access to the people, places, or things that make them feel at home, and if not, will they have the freedom to create it? I think that urban policy and planning touch on many of these questions, so how can urban planners work to create cities that are inviting and inclusive of people who seek to make a new home? And for the U.S. in particular, how do these issues intersect with the mounting tension over immigration policy reform?

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