The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

The Death and Life of Asian Cities

At first glance, Macau has a lot of similarities to Hong Kong. After all, they’re just a ferry ride away from each other. Macau—like Hong Kong—is a Special Administrative Region that was recently handed back to China from a European power. The two regions are even geographically alike. One part of Macau is connected to the mainland, while the rest consists of islands. Macau—like Hong Kong—is famous for its worldclass cuisine. Macau—like Hong Kong in the 19th and 20th century—was once the most significant entrepot in Asia.

But as soon as you step off the ferry, you realize that Macau is nothing like Hong Kong. It’s not just that Iberian mansions overlook neon, Chinese baroque casinos, but rather, it is in the textures of Macau that make it so radically different from Hong Kong. It’s the pastel yellow stucco and the white crown molding of the Portuguese architecture; it’s the peeling paint and rusty chains; it’s the rococo gilding in the Hotel Lisboa that has been discolored from decades of chain-smoking gamblers. Hong Kong is smooth and sleek, while Macau has varied textures, often layered on top of each other.

Nothing in Hong Kong ever becomes old. Even its historical monuments are kept looking new. In Hong Kong, you have to really search for surfaces that tell a story, but in Macau, you can read the textures everywhere. Some of the houses in the quieter parts of Macau are slowly decaying. In Hong Kong, you never see rust beneath cracking white paint. You never see abandoned buildings where a thick layer of dust has built up on the window sills, and you certainly don’t have empty lots that people use to dry their clothes. Land is simply too valuable. It’s not that Macau is struggling economically; on the contrary, next to an abandoned building maybe a brand new, expensive condo financed by the Chinese nouveau riche. It’s just that Hong Kong’s textures reject history, narrative, and death with its spotless glass and polished metal, whereas in Macao, the lifecycle of the city is all around you. In the textures, you can witness the births, injuries, surgeries, and deaths of places. Hong Kong stands as a continuously transforming monument to the current instant of global capitalism, making it much more difficult to read the city’s stories. But in Macau, the layers of paint, metal, and dirt reveal history and narratives. In 1836, a traveler wrote that Macau was already an “old tarnished place” and less “of a port than a museum.” Nearly two centuries later, it is still an “old tarnished place,” but it is in the tarnish that the city has become a museum.

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2 Responses

  1. schneider says:

    Good post man. You need to write more.

    I wonder how you would define NYC using this paradigm. Clearly there are parts of harlem or greenwich village (and maybe even parts of the outer boroughs) that would have layers and stories, but times square and midtown would be in the “contemporary capitalist” spotless character. Why is it that NY’s buildings vary by district surely, but oftentimes just as much from one to the next?

  2. admin says:

    Maybe if I knew Hong Kong as much as well as I know New York, I might be able to see the layers of history more easily here. In so many places in New York, the history is still evident right on the surface. The abandoned water check-point station on 118th(?) and Amsterdam comes to mind. New York has been cleaned up, but it still has a long ways to go before it becomes Hong Kong. Even in a place like Times Square, there are a variety of textures to read. Though I guess you’d have to search pretty hard for surfaces that can tell the story of it’s more illicit past.

    You can read a lot about Columbia in its textures. There was iron ore mixed into the brick of St. Paul’s in order to make it look old as soon as it was built. The floor in front of Lowe Library is a copy of the floor in Rafael’s painting The School of Athens. More recently, the green plastic roof of Lerner is supposed to imitate the aged, green copper roofs of the rest of campus. These surfaces all tell a story of both Columbia’s awareness of history, and its desire to be seen as an important part of it.

    There was a photo exhibit at the old Labyrinth bookstore where someone had taken photos of a few storefronts in Harlem over and over again for forty years. The shots made you realize how much of a place’s history can be read in its exterior. You could see the neighborhood changes on the storefront, and you could also see how changes from the past remained in a part of its image.

    I guess part of the appeal of Macau for me is that it is a spatial oxymoron. In the same place, it’ll be both relaxing and exciting, tacky and elegant. Macau has an astonishing vertical diversity of tarnish—what I mean by that is Macau’s varying textures can all be found right next to each other. In contrast, New York has more lateral diversity of tarnish. If you walk along the seven line in Queens, there is a variety of textures you can see from Woodside to Jackson Hts to Corona to Flushing. Part of what makes these neighborhoods different is not just the different ethnic make-ups and restaurants but the varying types of textures you experience. Flushing, for example, tends to be smoother than Woodside.

    I guess if you don’t know really know the area, it’s dangerous to extract some sort of narrative out of this. But you can still experience it in a way similar to walking around a modern art gallery, noting and being moved by the variety of textures and striking contrasts of both a single piece of art and the differences between the art in different rooms.

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