Shiny Diversions

[Ed. note: this post is part of a Student Voices section on Hong Kong, Shanghai, cities, screens, and spectacle. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Though large, bright screens in media cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong are a noteworthy part of Chinese city culture, along with the many other colorful lights and signs that fill up the air above as you walk through these cities, the specific positioning of these screens and the message that they communicate can distract from the more inhabited parts of these cities’ culture that seem to be lost beneath the lights. I want to use two screens as examples for my argument. The first is located outside of the Sogo department store in the Causeway Bay area of Hong Kong. The second is the W Hotel located on the Bund in Shanghai. Both of these screens embody how the bright shining lights of these two cities can overpower the deep culture that lies within the streets and within the people who inhabit them. As they are also an integral part of the developing technological standard and global charm of modern media cities, large-scale urban screens can distract us from seeing the locations city dwellers may otherwise inhabit and interact.

A significant part of the charm of large, Asian cosmopolitan cities comes from the bright colorful lights and signs that fill their streets. Especially at night, walking through these streets can have a magical effect. The screens that display advertisements for the designer fashion brands and luxury items that also fill the streets contribute to the same colorful and vibrant effect. However, they are placed in specific places, high above the ground to be looked up at and admired. A visitor to these areas doesn’t feel the same way looking up at a bright and colorful sign in what to them may be exotic lettering as they might look up at an advertisement for Dior with famous models towering above them.

Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.
Photo taken by: Celia Grubba

This screen in Hong Kong, in particular, demonstrates an illusion of wealth and exclusivity. It is positioned so that you can’t cross the street without looking at it. This imposed exposure to the screen and what is presented on it has an element of control. The enormously wealthy companies, luxury fashion brands, and people involved with the creation of these ads are communicating a message to buy this item or service. In this way they are communicating that people who don’t have enough money to afford these items are on the lower tier of society. The everyday person crossing the street doesn’t have control over what they are seeing, but they are subjected to it like the other city structures in their surroundings. The addition of new technologies in these cities imposes a new and globally aspiring element of culture, but it isn’t culture that you find in the streets with the common people of the city. A sense of this transformation is the most evident in public places like Piazzas.

In his chapter about “performing public space” in the media city, Scott McGuire discusses the role of technology and media in the transformation of public places like piazzas. Piazzas were a place of gathering for city dwellers to relax and come together. Lined with restaurants and cafes, these types of public areas were a central hub of the city’s culture. However, with the integration of media and these large screens positioned high above the little shops and cafes, the piazza has become less a place of culture for the city and more about globalization and the city’s role as a part of a larger network. In other words, these areas have become global centers – centers that can cause distraction from a city’s own culture. As McGuire observes, “In ‘The Eyes of The Poor’, Baudelaire describes the experience of sitting with a lover in a luxurious brightly-lit cafe, situated on one of the new boulevards, surrounded by piles of rubble- the debris of the old Paris which is being cleared to make way for the new.”1Scott McQuire, “Performing Public Space,” The Media City: Media, Architecture, and Urban Space (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2008), 4.  This act of sitting in a city square is now very different in most large cities. Although, in Paris you can still find a quaint cafe around the corner to relax, the “Piazza” or urban center is now transformed to include new media structures presenting globalization and the connectedness between this city and the rest of the world.

This transformation has intersected the other major transformations of media technology and culture over the last two decades: the formation of distributed global networks using satellite, cabled fibre optic transmission which multiply channels and erode regional and national boundaries, and the emergence of mobile media devices which displace the social architecture which accreted around mixed media forms.2Ibid, 1

The screen in Causeway Bay encompasses the entire side of the building. Without the presence of this screen, one might be more inclined to direct one’s attention towards the bustling surroundings of the area, including many different local shops and business. It is less of a cultural center for relaxation and observation, but it is more a fast-paced shopping hub where people pop in and out of stores rushing around to get what they need to buy and carry on with their day. It is in great contrast against the shopping areas and the streets of Hong Kong. I noticed that the more localized culture of Hong Kong could be found in the least commercialized areas of Kowloon, where street food is abundant, and many colorful signs for local businesses and services filled the streets. Even in the very busy area of Mong Kok where one can find international businesses’ signs in up in the air, there is a lack of large screens like the one in Causeway Bay. All of the colorful signs display Chinese characters, and the absence of large LED screens for advertising bring out the street-level culture of the area. Walking along the street, you feel far less familiar and more immersed in Hong Kong’s culture than you would in the urban shopping centers. In this way, I believe the large screens in media cities have transformed the “Piazza” or city center from the cultural hub of the city to a global consumerist zone.

The Bund, Shanghai. Photo taken by: Dave Groobert

In Shanghai, the W hotel is situated along the Bund and it is covered with lights that fill up the skyline at night. Is nothing short of “enchanting” for tourists. The display on the building often says “Shanghai(hearts) W” with a magically colorful background. The W hotel is very expensive and decorative. In the same way that the screen in Causeway Bay transforms the area into a global and commercial center, the lights on the side of the W building transform the Bund into a center for Shanghai’s presence in the world as a technological and vibrant city.

The positioning of these lights exemplify the globally aimed and aspirational consumerist culture and detracts from the ordinary and every day Shanghai culture that lies within this area. Chris Berry observes in his piece about public screen culture, “They are a part of our experience of the bus stop, of buying a certain object, and of traversing the world in numerous ordinary ways.”3Chris Berry, “Exposure: The Integrated Spectacle of the Shanghai Public Transport System,” Situations 7, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 6 As we proceed on through our urban experiences, whether it be as a visitor or inhabitant of large cities, we are bombarded with messages of global consumerism and aspiration of wealth and status, and it is difficult to drown out the constant noise. It can be easy to visit a city such as Shanghai or Hong Kong and have a limited experience of their urban cultures by failing to venture out beyond the commercial areas. When the W Hotel building came into my view with the message along the side saying “Shanghai loves W,” I couldn’t help but aspire to be able to stay there one day, just as I aspire to be able to participate in the exclusivity of designer fashion items that cover the sides of buildings in the city’s shopping areas. Yet, in reality, it’s the culture of the people, not the technology that truly matters.

While walking in the French Concession area of Shanghai my mind was not focused on international designer brands or luxury hotels. Instead, I was observing the French influences that remain engrained in Shanghai and how beautifully that history still remains such an important part of Shanghai culture today. Leaving the areas where these large screens are abundant can expose the street-level lifestyles and heritages of a city. However, it is important to note that the presence of screens remains throughout all areas of Shanghai in a variety of different forms. Berry discusses the usage of text screens outside residential areas in Songjiang, and notes how “installing an electronic screen is part of the aspirational culture of upgrading and improving one’s property.”4Ibid, 18 The usage of screens even in suburban areas far away from city centers can be a way to show technological advancement and prosperity. In this way, in many cases they are just the next tool to show you that your business or building is up to the current technological standard. It is not possible to visit these areas and miss the force of consumption and consumerism at play, but the positioning of these large screens towering above you is an ever-present reminder of what can happen elsewhere in the city. In order to genuinely experience these cities, one cannot let oneself get too distracted by what is happening on a screen, and instead remember what other modes of urban inhabitation might also be possible in these and other locations of the city.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Scott McQuire, “Performing Public Space,” The Media City: Media, Architecture, and Urban Space (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2008), 4.
2. Ibid, 1
3. Chris Berry, “Exposure: The Integrated Spectacle of the Shanghai Public Transport System,” Situations 7, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 6
4. Ibid, 18

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