At the countless tourist locations frequented on this trip, I am constantly hounded by street vendors and merchants alike. A few weeks ago while on the Great Wall, I was browsing a few hats offered to me by a certain vendor when I came across something both peculiar and laughable at the same time. While the front of the hat had the archetypal mundane stitch of the Great Wall, the vendor turned the hat to the back to show me a stitch that said, 'Made in America'. Surprised, I took the hat and examined it further, unfolding the lower lip of the hat to reveal another stitching, this time a much smaller, discrete, and hidden stitch that said, 'Made in China'.
Doubtless this particular vendor was trying to prove the authentic quality of the material as well as appeal to my evident American appearance, but what was fascinating to me rather, was that the hat manufacturer felt the need that labeling their merchandise as 'made in America' would add to the appeal and subsequent increase in price of the item.
The more I am immersed in Chinese culture, the more I realize that this kind of American imitational sentiment is persistent in not just Chinese retail, but represents a larger mentality that pervades the current Chinese state of mind. Chinese land developers, and in a broader sense the Chinese culture, has a fascination with replicating all things foreign, and promoting this surface aesthetic as their own.
To further illustrate, while in Beijing we visited the planning museum where I saw an impressive city plan model. One corner of the model on the outskirts of Beijing in particular caught my eye because it looked like an identical replica of a suburban American development: it's layout and lack of density a stark contrast to the rest of the traditional hutong morphology that compose long-established Beijing. After inquiry, I was told that that parcel of land is known as Ju Jun - the Orange County of China and further research revealed that it consists of a 60 million 143-unit housing development situated about one hour north of Beijing consisting entirely of expensive American-style townhouses and tract homes, completely decorated and furnished with American products. Ju Jun was apparently built in anticipation of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and architect Aram Bassenian who hails from Orange County himself was even commissioned to plan the development.
Just like that peculiar hat being sold on the great Wall, this 'Made in America' development - that is in actuality made in China - reflects the Chinese consumers increasing demand for Western aesthetic. Especially in Beijing, bits of American urban geography are popping up all over, the latest fashion in real estate marketing and sales.
While the relative inefficiency of suburban living in America and unsustainable lifestyle it promotes runs rampant throughout America, Chinese developers have failed to recognize its faults. As such, Ju Jun as an imitation of this inefficient living has become suburb without suburbia, surrounded by villages and fields, lacking the necessary infrastructure, secondary support program, and density to make it a viable living alternative, something that plagues American suburbs as well.
What is it about American urbanization that developing countries strive to imitate? What is it about the Western aesthetics that China has increasingly attempted to transplant? The past decade that saw retail goods mass produced in labor-cheap China for American companies with the label 'Made in China', now sees American developments and aesthetics mass transplanted and imitated in Chinese fashion, marketed as 'Made in America'.
A few critics see this development as emblematic of China's burgeoning car culture and its wholehearted embrace of environmentally destructive growth. Journalist Ted Conover wrote in The New York Times that while China rushes to build "new gated communities, new themed enclaves, all for the car-owning class, what is conspicuously missing [is] a corresponding investment in mass transit, in public spaces, and public access." As China industrializes, many fear that the country is making the same environmental mistakes the United States made a century ago, worrying that the planet cannot sustain such an onslaught from its most populous nation.
However, it is easy for those with Western backgrounds to criticize or pass judgment on Chinese industrialization. Ultimately however, was the United States no different a century ago when its own industrial age wreaked havoc on the environment and wasted planet resources? As a developing country, entering the modern age a few decades behind countries like Japan or the US, it is easy to see how and why China is hurrying to play catch up. With a culture that was politically oppressed during the era of Mao, China seems to be entering modernization without having completely recovered from the Cultural Revolution, explaining to some degree the Chinese fascination with imitating the modernization of other countries and the accompanying mistakes that were made with them. In the end, the best one can hope for is that the Chinese learn those mistakes that the modernized world made, in half the time the modernized world made them.
// Evan Shieh
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