Wild wild west

An architect and a journalist examine China’s new megacities

Wild wild west


How the City Moved to Mr. Sun

Michiel Hulshof, Daan Roggeveen SUN Architecture 2011

It’s a rare book indeed that can bridge the gap that separates the seventh-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang from the Village People in one rhetorical flourish. In “How the City Moved to Mr. Sun: China’s New Megacities,” journalist Michiel Hulshof and architect Daan Roggeveen note the exhortation of monk and disco divas alike – “go west” – as they set out on a journey to China’s interior.

“Mr. Sun” documents a slice of life in 13 cities in China’s interior provinces, from Kashgar to Changsha. Each chapter pivots to a different location and a different theme, set out in a series of tantalizing photos: sustainable development in Guiyang, for example, or migrant workers in Lanzhou. The authors travel to ethnic theme parks, government-sponsored artist villages and abandoned industrial danwei, the sort of places where novelty and pathos rain down like manna from journalist heaven.

Along the way, Hulshof and Roggeveen meet a number of charismatic figures caught up in the whirlwind of investment, construction and hypocrisy that is sweeping through western China. Most sympathetic is perhaps the titular Mr. Sun, an urban-adjacent everyman in Shijiazhuang who has been displaced by ravenous government re-zoners. His chapter serves as a melancholy lament for the disappearing cheng zhong cun, the DIY “villages in the city” built from the bottom up by Sun and his cohort, many of which have since been sold off to high-rise developers.

The authors also encounter many familiar characters who have been featured in the breathless coverage of the property boom over the last few years. They depict the moneyed youth with yuan signs in their eyes, racing to scoop up cheap property like a zealous grandmother at a lobster buffet; the demure young salesgirls in qipao, framing the entrances to new complexes like so many Chinese New Year banners; the increasingly nervous market analyst and his serenely confident counterpart, the decreasingly nervous bureaucrat.

The best of these profiles are a bit of a tease, revealing just enough detail to whet the appetite before moving on to an entirely new theme. Many of the chapters come across almost as a prologue to a more extensive investigation of their chosen subject. In Wuhan, for example, the authors sit down with the parties involved in planning the city’s new central business district. The planners explain how they rifled through the recipe book of global financial centers and chose their favorite flavors – a big helping of Canary Wharf, a dash of lower Manhattan and a pinch of La Défense. But just as the authors begin to explore the merits of this pastiche CBD style, or the heavy-handed Pudong-or-bust approach that Wuhan’s peer cities have adopted, we’re already off to Kunming.

Hulshof and Roggeveen succeed in capturing the development zeitgeist of the last decade. Yet some of their insights may be less than revelatory for readers who are familiar with China’s modus operandi. People buy apartments as investments. Migrant workers have trouble finding jobs. In a major twist, property developers lie.

It sometimes seems that there may be nothing “new” or “mega” about many of these new megacities, with little to distinguish them from their coastal counterparts besides longitude and latitude. On the contrary, many of these places seem to be deliberately emulating the successes and blithely repeating the mistakes of the more-developed coast during the last twenty years. “The new Chinese megacity is characterized by a rejection of old ways and a strong belief in progress,” write the authors, an analysis that could suit just about any municipality in China.

It may be beside the point, however, to expect Hulshof and Roggeveen to provide a grand theory of the new megacity. As some of their own sources point out, no one really knows what the moral to this grand adventure will turn out to be. “We have no time for serious studies,” claims one beleaguered urban planner in Xi’an. “This is a phase we need to go through. Maybe there will be more room for new ideas when the market cools down a bit.”

The construction dust clouds and bamboo scaffolding may vanish sooner rather than later, with China’s economy slowing and the government clamping down on speculation. But for now, the urban revolution continues to race towards an uncertain future.