Walk into any Starbucks or anything McDonald’s and you pretty much know what you’re going to get. What if that model could be applied to cities? I live in Guangdong’s Chéngshì Qún (城市群) which is a city cluster or Megalopolis. From Guangzhou to Foshan to Dongguan to Shenzhen with Qingyuan and Huizhou nearby, there’s little escapism from a region also containing Hong Kong and Macau. Zhuhai, Zhongshan, Jiangmen and Zhaoqing add to the largest and most populated region of Earth. That’s a lot of Starbucks.
Last December I was lucky enough time visit Yunnan. I stopped by Shangrila city which was renamed from lesser exotic name like Zhongdian. The first place I travelled in 2020 was Suzhou. I’ve since traversed my way through eastern Shenzhen, walking 15km one day and 19km the next. In previous years I’ve visited Shanghai, Nanjing, Qingdao, Zhangjiajie, Beijing, Beihai, Guilin, Manzhouli, and other places taking me through many different provinces. Many Starbucks along the way.
The land is diverse here. The population is everywhere. The cities are like copy and paste versions of themselves. In summer, I visited Yingchuan, Xian, Chengdu, Xinning, Dali and the more places I passed through cities, the more I loathed cityscapes. Perhaps it’s the sudden and fast development of cities in China. They’re almost all modern. A population doesn’t grow from 540 million (1949) to 969 million (1979) to 1,374,620,000 people in 2020 without cities. Aside from a jump in the death rates (for sparrows too! Four Pests Campaign除四害; Chú Sì Hài) during the Great Leap Forward (大跃进 Dà yuè jìn, 1958-1962), China’s death rates have been steady. It’s birthrates slowed after the one child policy in the 1980s (to 2015). Of the population around 26% lived in cities during 1990. Following 2018, 59.2% of all people lived in cities and the or conurbations. McDonald’s grew and grew.
Of the roughly 102 cities of China, you can expect to see the same derelict and abandoned malls; matching apartment blocks rising like tombstones (less so now Evergrande ran a 355 billion USD debt); dense alleyways; laundry and cycles everywhere; lemon tea shops; fast food stalls; older wet and dry markets; strangled urban villages swallowed by expanding cities; modern architecture of the occupied sense – some rusting, some flappy and tatty, some shiny and unopened; or some older colony remnants. Don’t expect to see a temple devoted to Fǎlún Gōng (法轮大法) though. More likely a Burger King.
Expect a walking street or several. These high streets are often loud and feature the same range of sports or department stores. Jewelry etc. Same, same. The traditional gates, colours and lanterns give great character but battle against golden Ms and green and white goddess logos. Actually forms of cities in the West and East differs very little. It’s the older bits and the modern diversity that stands out. Not the segregation of tool shops, household ware and restaurants. But, cities need a bigger heart beat than Pizza Hut and Nike stores.
Whether the city is historic, a National Central City (国家中心城市), a Provincial Capital (省会城市) or one of the other several types, most cities lack appeal. They have bits and places worth seeing, but overall they’re towers, districts, factories and newness. Grid-lined of not. To the residents, and the communities within, they have hearts and character. But to the touring foreigner, most cities appear the same. They make good exits to proper local cultures, mountains and away from the norm.
“Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion.” – Article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国宪法 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó Xiànfǎ, 1982)
The positive atheism here contradicts the multitude of religious hubs found in the U.K. They each bring their lack of character. Here in Dongguan, a Pizza Hut may fill that void. I recall Albania having a growing religious influence and so much colour and character around the culture it forms. Here in Guangdong, KTV is possibly that central axis. Being irreligious has its benefits. Being religious has its benefits. There are constitutional and Confucian beliefs and values. It’s a mixed bag. I don’t claim to understand or know what makes a good balance. I just know there are too many Starbucks here in China.
Maybe after a few decades, each city will develop more character and less commercial faces. Who knows?! There are signs now but everything seems almost the same. The same difference. And Beijing knows that identity is key. The more time I spend in and around cities, the more I question their sustainability for our minds, as well as the environment and culture. Are cities a problem?
To be continued…