Just six months ago, the Zhujiang New Town (珠江新城) development could only be described as a hollow mess. Try following the paths from the central corridor to the shopping malls and you would find yourself stranded in a dead-end. Rumors circulated that the development was being held hostage by "princeling" factions locked in a real-estate battle. Each has cordoned off the space in front of their own complex. Pedestrians, causalities of the turf wars, were left to navigate the carnage of the street maze. Crowds stayed away from this decidedly un-pedestrian friendly center. The complex emptied out after 6pm, and I had chalked this up to another failure typical of post-socialist mega projects. Aim for instantaneous modernity and you often end up with a large scaled dysfunctional mess.
A week before Chinese New Year, I was surprised to discover that the corridor was now connected all the way to the northern tip at Tiyuxilu, where workers were busy putting the finishing touches on another new shopping center: Mall of the World. The underground center is advertised as a garden styled shopping complex. Pedestrians are transported underground by a series of escalators that lead to a cavernous series of shops. Disco balls and in-set mosses adorn the walls on either side.
On the ground level, two red tarmac strips run along each side and the tip of the walkway opens with a series of ponds with water lilies and peach blossoms. Beside the red tarmac for pedestrians and cyclists, LED rectangular panels light up at dusk, and the multicolored blue and purple panels disrupt the illusion of nature and match the grey and black towers in the sky. The angular buildings are tall branches that preside over the park. The greenery offers a respite from the tall skyscrapers.
The path is as large as socialist plazas and national malls but it is also reminiscent of another largeness -- of savannas, forests or glaciers. I remember Cheng Feng Lau's reflection on Beijing museums, is bigness the only way to express monumentalism?
The Hyatt, the GTLand Plaza serve as landmarks. The Canton tower, on the other side of the Pearl River stands straight ahead, an anchor. As you reach the end, a large water fountain, you will find streams of water dancing to nationalist music often ending with a single jet reaching for the sky to accompany the last note. At least today, the audience includes migrant families and restaurant workers. The quiet plaza of a week ago is gone and now crowds stream in to pose for photos.
Past the fountain you find the new public library and the Guangdong Provincial Museum. On the other side, the spaceship has landed, Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House. At the very tip, the Asian Games park stands between you and the Pearl River. Across the river is the Canton Tower.
The long tunnel walkway is reminiscent of the Cheonggyecheon, a public corridor in Seoul, reconstructed from restoring a creek covered by a highway that has been widely seen as one of the most successful urban renewal projects in the world. In Guangzhou, the greenness will have to be manufactured, which involves transplanting Palm trees, and in time for Chinese New Year, post-socialist monuments to prosperity.
Ecology and commercialism are meant to blend seamlessly, but all with invisible labor. This is purely an urban creation, the futurist "China dream" dreamt up by science fiction and realized through cheap labor and the efficient mobilization of resources of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Guangzhou is known as a flower city and its climate is great for plants year round. However, creating an urban ecological paradise requires moving tens of thousands of potted plants from their plantations to its new urban concrete home. Even in January with an average of 23 degree Celsius weather, migrant workers crouch down in the dirt, transplanting the perfectly timed blossoms from their pots to the new urban garden. In the drab concrete cities of China with its particulate saturated air, the noise and the pollution, an ecology of self-sustaining nature is only a secondary goal. For now, just the look, the feel of nature, manufactured as modernity, is a space that most residents would flock to.