Two Takes on Asia’s Cities

Joel Kotkin; Mark Kingwell

Joel Kotkin wrote a piece in the LA Times in December 2004 predicting the decline of some of the world’s greatest cities, specifically East Asia’s biggest cities, as a function of demographic change and other factors.
The February 2005 issue of Harper’s Magaizine, meanwhile, has a well-written, if occasionally slightly breath piece that all but anoints Shanghai (where I live) as the city of the future. The author is Mark Kingwell, a philosopher at the University of Toronto, and some readers may feel that as a first timer to Shanghai, a great city without question, he has nonetheless fallen a bit victim to the city’s patented razzle-dazzle.
Major excerpts of each piece follow:
Sizzle to Fizzle: East Asian cities are giants of culture and commerce, but have they hit their growth ceiling? By Joel Kotkin Copyright the Los Angeles Times
For the first time, a majority of the world’s people live in metropolitan areas, and the most electric urban experiences are in East Asia. Four of the world’s largest metropolitan areas — Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo — are there, as well as eight of the 10 tallest buildings.
At night, the neon-lit landscapes bustle with an energy that would impress the most jaded denizens of New York City. Slick subways, ferries, a rising number of arts museums and state-of-the-art stadiums adorn these urban centers. Tokyo, Seoul and Singapore are shedding their dirty, polluted, manufacturing images for the slick, clean industrial look. The once horrifically filthy Han River in Seoul is being cleaned up and bordered with tree-lined parks.
But those skyscraping symbols of supremacy also may signify the end of an era barely 30 years old. The effects of sudden affluence and extremely high population densities — three or more times greater than New York — have undermined the Confucian values that were the foundation of these cities.
Urban dynamism is no stranger in East Asia. Before 1500, many of the world’s most sophisticated, wealthiest and best organized cities were in China, as Marco Polo and others observed. But 400 years later, after Europe achieved technological and commercial preeminence, only Tokyo remained a city comparable to its Western counterparts.
Asia’s growing cities — Singapore, Hong Kong, Bombay, Calcutta and, most important, Shanghai — were largely products of Western colonialism. These “queens of the Further East,” as one early 20th century British writer described them, served as entrepots for European products, garrisons for colonial forces and administrative capitals of European authority. They were also notorious for their corruption, prostitution, drug dealing and criminal gangs. “If God lets Shanghai endure,” one missionary said, “he owes an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah.
Most of East Asia outside Japan, however, remained an agrarian backwater. Only 3% of Koreans lived in cities in 1900. Seoul, the ancient capital, was a backward Japanese colonial city with barely 200,000 residents, the vast majority of them poor. Much of ancient and Japanese-built Seoul was demolished in the Korean War and, until the early 1960s, the city’s per capita income ranked with that of Cairo and Calcutta.
Yet by the early 1970s, it was increasingly evident that Seoul and other East Asian cities were breaking out of the dystopian urban patterns characteristic of many cities in South America, Africa and the Middle East. Led by Tokyo and Osaka, Asian cities were not simply growing in population and sprawl. They were rapidly becoming rich, matching the West in many indexes of social and economic well-being. The cities attained new wealth by successfully gaming the global capitalist economy. Starting only with an abundance of cheap manufacturing labor, cities such as Seoul and Shanghai evolved into high-tech centers.
Much of the credit for these achievements belonged to Asian governments, whether the authoritarian regimes in Singapore, Taipei and Seoul or the largely British-run administration in Hong Kong. Later, these economies became the role model for post-Mao China, where nominally communist bureaucrats blended capitalism and Confucianism with government-sponsored development of economic infrastructure. In the course of just 30 years, this basic strategy enabled East Asia’s cities to transform themselves from overgrown rural villages into sparkling high-rise mega-cities. Seoul grew from roughly 2.5 million people in 1960 to more than 10 million today. Such Chinese cities as Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing have experienced similar growth.
Despite their remarkable successes, however, the future of East Asian cities is not promising. The prolonged emptying-out of rural villages and small towns has eroded the family-oriented Confucian value system that animated first-generation migrants to the city.
At the same time, the soaring price of land has eliminated the hope for all but a few of acquiring anything spacier than a cramped apartment. Private homes have been replaced by huge complexes of high-rise apartments, some located an hour or two from the city center. Blocks of suburban apartments can extend as far as 50 miles from historic cores.
Intense economic competition, mainly with China, is destroying the dream of upward mobility. For example, about 40% of young South Korean college graduates are unable to secure a decent-paying job, according to some estimates.
A decade ago, 70% of Koreans considered themselves middle class, said Suh Yong Bu, an expert in business demographics; today only half feel that way.
The alienation is greatest among the young.
“The older generation thought tomorrow was going to be better than today,” Suh said. “Today there’s a lot of downshifting. People are losing faith.”
Diminished prospects and the chronic lack of space appear to be the root causes of South Korea’s falling birthrate. More and more young Koreans eschew marriage, and many who do marry express no intention of producing children. Since 1993, the birthrate has dropped 33%.
All this has transformed South Korea from one of the industrialized world’s youngest countries 25 years ago into one that is aging more rapidly than other such nations.
By 2026, demographers say, South Korea will have made the full evolution from a youthful society to an “ultra-aged” one, in which the retiree population will exceed that of children. Seoul city planners are talking about developing large new “silver towns” for retirees, including one in its famous Chongnyangni red-light district.
Japan is already at the ultra-aged stage, and the prospects for a turnaround are not bright. A quarter of Japanese choose not to tie the knot. The wedding business in Tokyo is suffering while the funeral industry prospers. Singapore, Taiwan and the coastal regions of China are also experiencing rapid aging and declining birthrates, particularly in their urban centers.
“The same patterns can be found throughout Asia,” said demographer Phil Longman, author of “The Empty Cradle,” a study of world population trends. “Once everyone is forced into a small city place, there’s literally no room left for kids.”
If these trends continue, the era of East Asia’s urban dominance may be short-lived. Societies without children inevitably lose their vitality, their ability to innovate and generate new wealth, as is evident in urban history from ancient Rome to contemporary Europe.
By contrast, the demographic prospects of cities in North America, Australia and Canada are more promising because they are blessed with both ample space and a quality of life that promotes family growth. Birthrates in all three countries are holding up far better than those in either East Asia or Europe, and these countries seem more comfortable with continued immigration, including economically dynamic migrants fleeing congested Asian cities.
Western cities, then, may reemerge as the exemplars of successful urbanism in the mid-21st century. Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo will be the most exciting cities of the next decade or two, but the future may yet belong to Sydney, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Houston and other cities in the land-rich and family-friendly West.
The City of Tomorrow: Seaching for the Future of Architecture in Shanghai, by Mark Kingwell. Copyright Harper’s Magazine February 2005:
Ask anyone here and they will tell you: Shanghai is the future. But that is not so. Shanghai is not the future; it is every future, a palimpsest of urban visions, a history of what is to come. A visit to Shanghai is a journey to the very near future by way of the very near past, a fact that contributes to a strange form of urban vertigo: I came here looking for the city of tomorrow and was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of déjà vu. Shanghai is a fantasyland of architectural grandiosity where any drawing, no matter how insane or adolescent, may come to life almost instantly, without the citizens committees, building restrictions, and expensive labor that hamper architectural geniuses elsewhere.
To call the city science fiction is correct but too general. Yes, there are geodesic domes and massive cantilevers and huge expanses of neon and glass. But the landscape offers a full spectrum of sci-fi echoes and allusions. There are Buck Rogers ray-gun finials on the China Life Building in Pudong. Portholed Jetson-style flying saucers hovering over the People’s Square in Puxi and atop the JJ Oriental Tower in Pudong. The knifing faceted slash f the Tomorrow Tower in like Darth Vader’s headquarters designed by Japanese toy freaks. For advanced students, there is Space Ghost whimsy to be found in the Shanghai Golden Beach tower, with its crown of gold spikes, said to recall a lotus blossom but really looking more like a huge pineapple…
…The city buzzes and stinks and knocks you over if you don’t step nimbly. The Chinese are used to personal space than almost any people on the planet, and especially on the streets of Shanghai, largest and fastest of China’s cities, body contact is not optional; unlike the deft dancers of Tokyo or the sweetfeet dodgers of Sao Paulo, people here make no effort at all to avoid sidewalk collisions. Accidental slams that would prompt an offer of violence in London, or an abject apology in Vancouver are here merely ignored, the routine tolls of walking the streets of the city. Shanghai is not for strollers, no refuge for dreamy Parisian flânerie…
…In the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s rule, a cadre of influential Shanghai technocrats, schooled in Western efficiency, found favor in Beijing and put urban improvement on the national agenda for the first time. Jiang Zemin, once party secretary in Shanghai, was made president; a former mayor, Zhu Rongji, was elevated to prime minister. The smart, go-ahead Shanghai boys replaced a conservative, suspicious and corrupt leadership, mostly from Hunan and Sichuan, that had ruled in an unbroken line from Mao. China was changing, and Shanghai’s legendary taste for novelty was a central focus, accelerating beyond all precedent due to huge injections of cash from the central government. Individuals began to flash their money, too, with most of China’s estimate population of a quarter million U.S. dollar millionaires calling the city home.
And yet, the cit, for all its newness and international sophistication, remains irremediably Chinese, which is to say suspicious, even provincial, and racked by ancient conflicts and attitudes. Most of the city’s inhabitants are, by North American standards, poverty-stricken, creating a disturbing First World/Third World dynamic found in many other “megacities.” Money and poverty combine with the city’s familiar but strange visual field, which shifts from premodern to postmodern in a blink — like advertising on the moon — to destabilize your judgment constantly. …

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