The Use of Enchantment in Shanghai and Hong Kong

[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.]

The screens in Shanghai and Hong Kong are the seams of the city. They begin to provide the infrastructure for the city, both physically and metaphorically. The modern city could not exist without them. There is no way to go back. This can be seen in each part of the city, at every level. The skyline is not complete without the LED screens — large and small, vertical and horizontal. LED lights are sewn into the fabric of the city via screen technologies. This happens everywhere people might look: the walls of metro stations, bathroom mirrors and the windows of tall buildings. This illustrates a deep, self-conscious reliance upon enchantment. According to Chris Berry, enchantment involves relocating the magic of the moving image from movie screens to public spaces.1Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture,” in Ambient Screens and Transnational Public Spaces, ed. Nikos Papastergiadis (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016), 59-80. In this process, the modern city becomes a mechanism for coercing our gaze upon the screened spectacles of the city.

The first image is of a small portion of the Shanghai skyline. I took this picture from a boat on the Huangpu River. The entire purpose of the boat ride was for tourists to get a sense of Shanghai’s stimulating skyline. The large central building is the Shanghai Tower, the darling of the global city. It is the world’s second tallest building, and China’s tallest. In front of the building, there is a boat covered in neon LED lights. Even something that has an obvious and limited utility — a boat — is updated to “sell” the product that is the city of Shanghai.

Pudong, Shanghai. Photograph by Naomi Farahan

Many of the tall buildings along the Huangpu river are covered in LED screens and lights. At night, some of the buildings advertise the companies themselves. The Aurora building, for example, simply displays the building’s name in large red letters. Others show cartoon videos on a loop, like a fisherman at sea. There is no organized “show” at a certain time, the way there is in Hong Kong, which hosts the Victoria Harbour Symphony of Lights show each evening. However, there is the sense that the buildings in Shanghai make up a cohesive light experience. It might be a bit clumsy and mismatched, but more importantly, it is appealing and overwhelming for the visual senses. The technological feats and overall scale far outweigh any lack of organization.

The second image is of a screen in the Hong Kong shopping district Causeway Bay. The district is one of the most expensive shopping locations in the world. The LED screen displays different products and concepts, namely gorgeous women in pricey name brand clothing. In this picture, it’s a thin white woman brooding in Saint Laurent. She is just out of reach, yet her image is forced upon shoppers. They could almost attain her beauty, if only they purchased clothing at the stores just beneath her. The screen can be seen from below and across the street. Its light spills onto most of the block, providing a kind of energy that helps fuel the heightened aspirational culture and euphoric consumerism of the district.

Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Photograph by Naomi Farahan

The street itself is transformed by the presence of these screens. Scott McQuire questions this transformation in his chapter “Performing Public Space.” He writes: “large public screens and mobile media devices mean that media consumption is increasingly occurring in public space. What impact will the electronic screen have on the street, the self-proclaimed birthplace of modernism? How will pervasive media alter the dynamics of public space?”2Scott McQuire, “Performing Public Space,” The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2008), 130-158. Our lives are changed when we are regularly forced to confront screens. The spaces around us become both larger and smaller. Roads and streets can no longer maintain their identities as mere pathways. We are suffocated by light, but thanks to these screens, what was once a narrow street can be rolling hills, or an alternate universe of neon lights. We cannot choose to avoid images on the street — the screens themselves build a kind of hallway. On either side is an advertisement for shoes, a menu, a massage, anything. And higher, toward the heavens — the mostly unattainable Saint Laurent. So unattainable, in fact, that I would have been too intimidated to enter the store front.

The intention of the screens in Causeway Bay is to enchant. Berry referenced this concept. “Here the age-old magic of light and movement in the still of the night is harnessed to the promise of personal transformation through consumption. Advertisements consistently promise a magical consequence to purchase and consumption — an ecstatic happiness that far exceeds what one could reasonably expect for the price of a drink.”3Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture,” in Ambient Screens and Transnational Public Spaces, ed. Nikos Papastergiadis (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016), 59-80. Or the price of a garment. While Berry was referencing advertisements at the Shanghai Railroad Station, these ideas also hold true for Causeway Bay. Shoppers are enchanted by the fairy tale proposed to them by the LED screens. Except there’s no need to sit in a movie theater in pursuit of the storyline. The enchantment takes place in the middle of regular days, in the middle of regular lives. It envelopes all citydwellers at all times of day — it is relentless.

Both Shanghai and Hong Kong have lit skylines and thousands of screened advertisements. While this is true for cities all over the world, Shanghai is unlike anything I have ever seen before. It becomes a vehicle for enchantment in its own right. But enchantment often implies a limited moment in time. A spell rarely lasts. In the interim, one considers all the conflicts located in between the dazzling lights. Beyond the lights, China is grappling with pressing questions like its place in the world, its role in reversing the turmoil caused by pollution, and growing populations that cannot be contained by its major cities. Companies, and even the state itself, can use LED screens to enchant. In the meanwhile, people must also assess whether they are truly engaged and stimulated, or rather distracted from the important issues at hand. Many are likely distracted. Their surroundings serve as sort of beautifully-lit carousel, always moving. It is difficult to distinguish any surroundings, besides the occasional shape, as they are whisked in electric circles.

I engaged with these screens as a tourist. After all, I was in both cities for the purpose of studying public screen culture in these spaces. But it is important to consider the real people who exist at either end of the screen. While the screens are made, in part, to appeal to tourists, they were also made for the inhabitants of Hong Kong and Shanghai, and largely by Chinese people. During our field study we visited two LED factories — Light Engine in Huizhou and Daktronics in Shanghai. On one side of the enchantment is hundreds, if not thousands of factory workers performing quality testing on these LED screens. There are engineers recommending the proper pixels, lawyers and businessmen negotiating terms of installment. And on the other side of enchantment there are millions of Chinese city dwellers going about their lives. They are not there to gaze and gawk. They are raising children, buying groceries, meeting a friend for lunch. Because they are in the city to go about their normal lives, the enchantment is just penciled into their schedules. That is often without consent, especially in spaces like metros, where the walls are lined with screen after screen.

These two burgeoning cities — Hong Kong and Shanghai — are building identities surrounding twenty-first century technology. It is important to reflect upon the cultures and infrastructures of our surroundings. In McQuire’s chapter, “Transforming Media and Public Space, he suggests that we must pause to ask ourselves who we are and who we want to be as we build our cities.4Scott McQuire, “Transforming Media and Public Space,” Geomedia: Networked Cities and the Future of Public Space (Cambridge: Polity, 2016), 17-64. How does Shanghai want to be remembered? It might want to be characterized by ostentatious design. If that’s the case, the Shanghai Tower is an appropriate cornerstone of the skyline. How does Hong Kong want to be remembered? If it’s for consumer culture, the Causeway Bay screen is perfectly placed.

The cities’ current identities might be defined by enchantment, but the people in these cities must consider how their legacies will take shape. Their cities are defined by the presence of screens, and they must reflect upon what that means for them. As they are bombarded by LED lights and screens, there is a constant attempt to enchant, to the point that their participation is not consensual. Does that make these cities modern? This is a question that city inhabitants must continually ask themselves.

Notes   [ + ]

1, 3. Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture,” in Ambient Screens and Transnational Public Spaces, ed. Nikos Papastergiadis (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016), 59-80.
2. Scott McQuire, “Performing Public Space,” The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2008), 130-158.
4. Scott McQuire, “Transforming Media and Public Space,” Geomedia: Networked Cities and the Future of Public Space (Cambridge: Polity, 2016), 17-64.

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