In “Transformation”: Assessing Architectural and Urban Change in Modern China

In “Transformation”: Assessing Architectural and Urban Change in Modern China

Postgraduate Student Conference, University of Hong Kong, Knowles Building, KB 419

May 24-25, 2013

RPG student conference poster

This conference investigates and challenges the notion of “transformation” in Chinese architecture and urbanism over the course of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Dramatic physical changes in the Chinese city over the past 160 years have accompanied, reflected, and occasionally prompted significant political, social and cultural vicissitudes in China over the same period of time.  At the same time, the idea of “transformation” as a straightforward and complete shift from one state to another tends to obscure and deny the complex, competing, and often incomplete nature of change itself.

Program and Schedule

Day 1: May 24th (Friday)

5:00 – 5:45 pm – Registration


Introduction – Addressing “Transformation” in Chinese Architecture , Urbanism, and Their Histories

5:45 – 6 pm – Opening Address

6 – 6:30 pm – Dr. Delin LAI, University of Louisville

6:30 – 7 pm – Dr. Duanfang LU, University of Sydney


Day 2: May 25th (Saturday)


Panel 1:  Transforming Spaces

10:00-10:20 am – Framing the Garden: Courtyards and Society in the Late Imperial China

Matthew ARCHER, Yale University


The courtyard in late Imperial China played a prominent role in the determination of social hierarchies, both within and apart from the strict system imposed by Chinese philosophy and the Imperial cosmology. The relationship among courtyards, their owners, their guests and the outside world is demonstrative of the social structures that linked opposing forces in Chinese society, one that was replicated in different contexts and at different scales. Michel Callon’s concept of framing and overflows is an unexpectedly useful way to analyze these relationships, which is the goal of this paper. Within the both tangible and intangible frame of the Chinese courtyard, different power and social dynamics were at play, representing ultimately what David Harvey implies is an inherent desire among humans to shape their own urban experience. This concept is rooted in earlier works by Lefebvre and Marx, and the “right to the city” speaks directly to power struggles between people of different classes and statuses. Courtyards in late Imperial China both adhered to and deviated from the strict cosmological geometry that defined the empire’s urban spaces, and these small worlds – detached from the rigid social structure of late Imperial China, yet nestled squarely within it – represent architecturally a much broader frame in which complex urban dynamics transformed Chinese society.


10:20-10:40 am – An Entertainment Industry in Transition:  From the Rise of Amusement Halls to the Fall of youxichang bao

Nga Li LAM, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology


This paper surveys a restructuring popular culture in the early 20th century Shanghai through amusement halls and their associated publication, youxichang bao. Unlike most existing studies of amusement halls which have adopted a broad-brush approach, assuming these places of leisure to be a unified whole across most of the Republican Period with a homogenous audience, this paper emphasizes the regionalism, political alignments, cultural positions as well as business competition of these places, with the aid of various youxichang bao, which arguably connected the psychical artifacts of amusement halls with visitors as well as the general reader. These materials together present a complex realm of play, that echoed not only a global trend of recreation, but reflected the changes, not necessarily evolutions, within local popular culture: i.e. the modernization of the traditional practice of “deng lou” 登樓 [climbing a tower], the popularization of su tan 蘇灘 [sing-song in su style], the decline of shou shu 說書 [Story-telling], and the insistence on or the revolt against same-sex casting, etc. It also compares attractions, cultural visions, architectural styles, and regulations of the famous Dai Shijie 大世界 and Xin Shijie 新世界. It concludes with the observation that the golden years of Shanghai amusement halls were between the late 1910s and the early 1920s. After that the market as well as the cultural map of entertainment was rather divided up and settled down, with the consequent disappearance of youxichang bao.


10:40-11:00 am – Becoming Model Residents: Shanghai’s “Worker Model Villages” in the 1920s

Calvin Zhiyong LIANG, University of Hong Kong


The half-century development of Shanghai had brought unprecedented prosperity of capitalism as well as unpredicted problems, such as congested living environment by unbalanced development, to the city in the end of 1910s. The perceptible misery of the poor living in shacks on the edge of the grand city aroused doubts about Shanghai’s urban development and raised a basic question: how should the poor live in a modern city? Witnessing the inhumane living conditions and ill-spirited life of the Chinese underclass, non-government bodies in the city, most with a Christian or charitable nature took their first move and attempted to relieve the suffering by building up residential compounds, in which a life of physical, social and spiritual health could be guaranteed by planning and social services. The paper gives an account of two cases of these pioneer social housing projects—Longhua and Pudong Workers’ Model Village respectively by Methodist Episcopal Church and Young Men’s Christian Association. In order to convert the residents into religious and healthy individuals, the “Model Villages” did not only provided well planned housing but also services of livelihood, recreation, education and religion. To be trained into a “Model” member, residents were also granted the autonomy in managing the community, as a way to foster sense of responsibility and self-reliance. This paper tries to conclude that these projects have marked the beginning of Shanghai’s social housing initiated in response to the emerging urban crises and early attempts to create the ideal dwellings, either religiously or ideologically, for the rescue.


11:00-11:20 am – From “Merchants’ Utopia” to “Nationalist Utopia”:  Planning the Divided Suburbs in Shanghai, 1927-1937

Yingchun LI, University of Hong Kong


The period between 1927 and 1937 is characterized by the radical changes of urban landscape in Shanghai due to the large-scale city planning and construction activities dominated by the Western and Chinese municipalities respectively. On the one side, the Western mercantile community which had established their business and settlements in Shanghai since the mid nineteenth century had become increasingly wealthy and self-conscious, and started pursuing not only more profits but also architectural expression of their cultural identity. On the other side, the young generation of the Chinese social reformers had emerged as a new political force, and was eagerly to establish a “Chinese modern Shanghai” through bold urban renewal schemes. The different planning ideologies had shaped not only the contested civic centers but also the divided suburbs.


This paper focuses on the two road schemes proposed and implemented respectively by the Western and Chinese municipalities in the western suburb of Shanghai: one is the Grand extra-Settlement Road Scheme advocated by the Municipal Council of the Shanghai International Settlement which intended to transform this area into a garden suburb for the upper middle class families; the other is the Zhongshan Road Project advocated by the Greater Shanghai Municipality which intended to create a green belt and accommodate the poor Chinese urban majority.  The paper reveals that the city planning led by the Westerners had an ambivalent yet profound influence on the succeeding city planning led by the Chinese. It had established the Foreign Settlement as an accessible model of “Modern City” for the Chinese planners to follow, yet had caused unprecedented urban chaos in the Chinese-administrated areas. More importantly, the ten-year contested planning helped to integrate the Nationalist spirit into the planning knowledge and practice, which has hitherto been the distinct feature of modern city planning in China.


11:20 am – 12 pm – Panel Discussion


12 – 1:30 pm – Lunch


Panel 2:  Transforming Practices

1:30 – 1:50 pm – In Search of Modernism in China: Architectural and Urban Development of the Crédit Foncier d’Extrême-Orient (C.F.E.O.) in Hong Kong and China’s Treaty Ports, 1907-1959

Prudence Leung Kwok LAU, The Chinese University of Hong Kong


Architectural practices experienced a flourishing period of development in the treaty ports of China during the early twentieth century. Their impacts upon urban development and the individual journeys of architects are rarely discussed at length, or often overshadowed by more renowned cases. The Crédit Foncier d’Extrême-Orient (C.F.E.O.) was such an overlooked example: founded in Tianjin in 1907 as a land development company with Belgian and French investment, it followed on to establish architectural offices in Shanghai, Hankou, and Hong Kong. Based on the investigation of archives, analysis of maps and architectural drawings, and interviews with architects’ descendants, this research sets out to analyse the C.F.E.O.’s architectural development that transformed China’s urban landscape.


The paper reveals that the C.F.E.O.’s architects strived for a balance between their Western backgrounds and the use of materials and decorations while adapting to Chinese lifestyles. They combined Western modern comfort and spaces with Chinese ways of life, resulting in a “semi-European” approach that is arguably their unique regional response to architectural modernisation in the Chinese cities. The research also contends that certain societal and market-driven issues had influenced the decision-making process of the C.F.E.O., resulting in modernist urban typologies as seen in the case of their residential designs in European reservation districts in Hong Kong during 1920s and 1930s. This research will therefore act as a bridge to understand the framework and fluidity of architectural practices in early twentieth century China, with a focus on the C.F.E.O., and their journey towards architectural modernism in their urban projects in the Chinese cities.


1:50 – 2:10 pm – From “Insertion” to “Incorporation”: the Hangzhou Example of the Transformation of the Railway in Chinese Urban Life

Shan HE, University of Western Australia


Since the first introduction of railways during the late 19th century, China has witnessed a transformation from “insertion” to “incorporation” in terms of the relationship between railway and city. The traditionally closed Chinese cities were substantially reshaped by the penetration of the railway, particularly the urban life around station nodes. This paper will take the example of Hangzhou City, capital of Zhejiang Province, to examine such a transformation. The history of Hangzhou’s railways and stations will be explored, dating back to 1909 when the first line linking Shanghai and Hangzhou was laid outside the perimeter of Hangzhou’s city walls. The penetration of walls was rejected by the local authority over concerns about the destruction of the city’s “defense system”. However, 103 years later, Hangzhou is now embracing one of the largest stations of its scale in China, serving lines connecting all major cities nationwide. Moreover, an entirely new town has been established around this new station, customising new economies oriented at the high speed rail infrastructure in the future. The analysis section will discuss the factors that powered such a dramatic shift in thinking about Chinese rail, from its initial rejection, to its dominance in today’s new urban life. Conclusions and predictions will follow based on the results of this analysis.


2:10-2:30 pm – Building a Different Future? – Case studies of Architecture Practices and Transformations in Xiaozhou Village, Guangzhou City

Jiong WU, UC Berkeley


While many studies focus on Guangzhou urban villages, few peri-urban villages was documented and researched. Different from urban villages that packed with hyper-dense 5-7 stories rental housings in a tiny site and have the fate of elimination, peri-urban villages maintain varieties and vicissitudes of built forms and land-use patterns, and have uncertain futures. Xiaozhou Village, as one of the peri-urban villages in Guangzhou, has transformed itself from a traditional Lin Nan lineage village to a contemporary cosmopolitan since 1970s, driven by multiple dynamics that tied with art-based industry, orchard tourists, University Town radiation, and household hubs of manufacture network in Pearl River Delta. This study, looking at Xiaozhou Village’s “bottom-up” architecture practices, intends to illuminate alternative architectural and spatial treatments from urban villages. Based on fieldwork survey data, participant observation, and in-depth interviews, I examine multiple case studies of contemporary architectural practices in Xiaozhou- new village housing innovation, traditional house renovation, low-cost rental housing reinvention, and Huanan Express way appropriation – to decipher the diverse building dynamics and approaches formulated by the villagers, artists, small companies, tenants, and migrant construction workers. It reveals innovative land-use patterns and architecture creations, delineates diverse spatial and temporal experiences, demonstrates alternative urban life styles and cultural values, and questions the state-developer-monopolized construction mode in contemporary China.


2:30 – 3:00 pm – Panel Discussion


3:00 – 3:20 – Tea Break


Panel 3:  Transforming Scales and Discourses

3:20 – 3:40 pm – Urban Form and the Issue of Quantity in a Rapidly Urbanizing City:  A Study of Housing Development in a Hong Kong New-Town, 1970s-2000s

Ryo FUJIMORI, University of Hong Kong


In the early 1970s in Hong Kong, as a response to the constant problems of overly congested urban area and severe housing shortage, the colonial government made a decision to expand the urban territory beyond bounding mountains and put the new-towns programme of multimillion populations into her top agenda. Unlike the main urban area which was shaped in a grid form, new-towns were planned with a cluster of rounded superblocks and a network of widely-spaced primary roads. The combination of this typical postwar suburban setting and the local characteristic of high-rise and high density buildings produced an unprecedented urban form.


This paper traces the transformation of this unique urban form by studying building typologies in relation to the structure of superblocks and a road network. It revealed transitional changes of development size, building configuration, and different ways of treating public space in superblocks. The bigger the size of development became, the more it tended to be self-contained; and consequently, its building design related less to the public space. The paper concludes that this development tendency caused the disappearance of a city as an accumulated whole and the appearance of a city as an assembled individuals which, in short, worshipped an internalization of publicness into the private domain and improvement of mobility around the city.



3:40-4:00 pm – The Origin and Evolution of Architectural Discourse in China (1980s-2010s)

Qiaoqiao ZENG, Tongji University


With three decades of reform and opening up, a lot of production practices and architectural discourse are under the construction. The urgent need the academia to expand research summary. The discipline of summary on contemporary architectural practice activities is combing their historical and theoretical discussions and research, which has important practical significance. This thesis is focused on the architectural discourse genealogy research, including the times, the space and staging issues, which is carrying the view of contemporary Chinese architecture. The research goal attempts from design practice perspective. Architects the perspective and critics perspective, multi-angle construct and presents a contemporary architectural discourse map. The article hopes the reflection and prospects of Chinese contemporary architectural practice in the view of Architectural Discourse.


4:00 – 4:20 pm – Between Global Aspiration and Local Frameworks: Creative Incubation in City Center Shanghai, 1992-2012



Shanghai’s urban development has come to represent China’s rapid economic growth and global integration following the country’s accelerated transition to a state-controlled market economy since the 1990s. In the centrally-located historic neighborhoods at the western end of the former French and International Concessions, socio-demographic, cultural, and economic change is producing a new international trend quarter with a vibe and look echoing the likes of Berlin Prenzlauerberg or New York Williamsburg. Despite looks of being neighborhoods that are becoming extremely global, the localized nuances confounding western presumptions of property rights, institutional stability and clarity ask the components of its urban spatial production to be investigated. What is the constellation of actors and agents who have activated the reuse of existing building typologies for the production and consumption of the new economy? And how do they relate a cosmopolitan history to the renaissance of Shanghai as a global city? And what could be learned from these specific and localized transformation processes for future developments? Transformations to Shanghai’s existing vibrant inner-city neighbourhoods is a specific example of how these until-now little studied and yet crucial ‘centralities’—one of many in the polycentric urban system serving whole regions—spatially manifest the recalibration of drivers, agents, networks, urban forms responding to globalization’s effects in local frameworks. With qualities of openness, socio-economic diversity, and typological adaptability that make these neighbourhoods culturally and economically significant, their resilience in face of structural changes – from economic transitions to globalization’s acceleration of mobility and migrations – make their understanding and the urban resources they provide crucial in developing specific urban strategies for future sustainable developments.


4:20 – 5:00 pm – Panel Discussion

5:00 – 5:30 pm – Concluding Remarks


The conference is being supported by the Postgraduate Students Conference/Seminar Grant of the Research Grants Council, Hong Kong, and the Center for the Study of Asia’s Architectural and Urban History in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong.