Access, Control, and Consent in the Urban Metropolises of Hong Kong and Shanghai

In this essay, Keenan Lacy-Rhodes, a student at Indiana University, discusses the ways in which large public screens communicate and constitutes a global, commercial elite, further exacerbating inequalities within Hong Kong and Shanghai.

[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 stars remind us that we are but small participants in this ever-expanding universe; there is something much larger than us. But with the construction of skyscrapers, the integration of LED lights and technology into the fabric of our daily lives, we have painted the skies anew, reconstructed our sense of being a part of the vast universe. What’s now above us is the cityscape, not horizons; bright LED lights, no stars; a new God to worship, whether the worship is consensual or not.1Written by author.


When it comes to screens and screen culture, screens dominate the central urban landscapes of Shanghai and Hong Kong. Many of them are enormous in size and positioned far above pedestrians walking the streets below. They advertise for agencies and brands such as the companies that manufacture the screens themselves, clothing and high fashion brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent, and fancy gadgets.

Figure 1, Nanjing Road, Photograph by Author

Screens, such as the ones in the Fashion Walk district of Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay above the Sogo department store, the image above the apple store on Shanghai’s Nanjing Road, and the large screen cattycorner from Nanjing Road’s H&M – their advertisements projected from them onto pedestrians – become status symbols of progress and technological advancement for our “imagination of the city.” But who all is a part of this conversation? This essay seeks to argue that while screens are a staple of the city, those that push forward the idea of “advancement” through urban development are those that have the financial capital to maintain control of the screens and their content. As it reviews the dispositif of these types of large overhead screens, elaborates on how the public interfaces with these screens, and highlights the power structures between pedestrians and content controllers, this essay underscores the control dynamics between ‘power and citizen,’ access to content, and consent to heavy advertisement.

Screen Placement (Dispositif) and Observances of Power Structures

To understand the power dynamics that these screens create, it is crucial to understand not only their positionality as screens, but also their locations in the context of the city. Each of the examples of this essay is located in a highly commercial district, complete with malls, fashion house outlets, and high-end technology stores. The first chosen screen is positioned high above an Apple store on Nanjing Road in Shanghai, China; locals sometimes refer to Nanjing Road as Shanghai’s Fifth Avenue. The geographical location of this screen in relation to the city’s financial district is important to consider when further discussing its power dynamics. This will be further underlined in the below section regarding the make-up of the screens. The second chosen screen, also on Nanjing Road in Shanghai, stands atop a mall that sits across the street from the Forever 21. The third screen is located in the Fashion Walk district of Causeway Bay in Hong Kong; the Fashion Walk district is similar to the Nanjing Road in the types of stores it houses and the products sold there.

Each of these screens are embedded in the walls of the buildings they inhabit, making them permanent fixtures of the buildings rather than occupants that stand apart from them. They tower over citizens that stroll through these heavy commercialized districts with dynamic video and image advertisements. The advertisements themselves match the products that could be found walking the streets of these districts: fashion stores, malls, boutiques, jewelry, and expensive technology. The dispositif of these screens creates a different type of engagement between spectator and screen. As defined by Anna McCarthy, these types of overhead and out-of-range screens that tower above the public are set in a “public spectatorship with a particular kind of private kind of experience in which each viewer is provided with a personal sight line distinct from that of his or her companions, fulfilling a long-standing bourgeois ideology of spectatorship as ‘being alone in the crowd.’”2Anna McCarthy, “Shaping Public and Private Space with TV Screens,” Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 117-54. The overhead positioning of these screens maintains this sense of private ownership. The large screen overhead reinforces the isolation of the spectators from one another through not only its position but also what it broadcasts.

Figure 2 Nanjing Road Apple Store, Photograph by Author

The glaring iPhone advertisement above Nanjing Road’s Apple store acts as a beacon for the eyes of spectators packed in the streets down below. This screen’s content displays an expensive product to be sold to those who can purchase it, thus purposing the screen as a medium for defining wealth, in this case the iPhone. The store itself brings people together as spectators and observers, but not positioned in a way to promote conversation amongst people or encourage interaction among people on the street. The screen’s colorful and bright display that projects on those below draws attention to itself and creates a single direction of communication from screen to spectator, isolating the spectators from one another as its large size demands attention and makes it impossible to not watch.3Ibid. While the building owner may not project images or control content directly, it is still the same upper economic class that has access and control over not only the screen, but also the content it displays.

These large and expensive overhead screens thus cement their higher place in the power dynamic of public spectatorship and private ownership by how it addresses the viewer. As McCarthy further elaborates:

Overhead placement is thus a physical positioning that addresses the viewer as an anonymous individual, physicalizing a modern conception of the subject in public space as a stranger – a subject whose motives are, to some extent, unpredictable and perhaps even counter to the collective ethos of the space through which he or she moves. 4Ibid, 122.

The way this screen placement positions the spectator implies and reinforces a lack of access to the screen; it is physically unreachable to directly engage with, and the content is controlled by a select few. When pedestrians walk the streets of the central districts of Hong Kong or Shanghai, they pass by screens, disenchanted, with bright hues of LED lights projecting from massive screens reflecting off windowpanes. These screens are meant for the public to see, but not control; the owner of the ‘remote’ maintains the power.

The construction of these screens as part of the building structure further demonstrates the integration of the screen into the infrastructure of the city. The permanence of the screen in the infrastructure of the city symbolically constructs and reinforces the same power structure of private upper-class ownership of content and lack of public access to control.

Figure 3, Fashion District in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, China. Photograph by Author

In her reflection on screens in the city, Nanna Verhoeff observes, “spatial design and urban architecture participate in the mobility- and connectivity-based experience of living and walking in the city. They add to, build on, and shape urban mobility. As such, they are part of the infrastructure of the media city.”5Nanna Verhoeff, “Screens in the City,” in Screens: From Materiality to Spectatorship –A Historical and Theoretical Reassessment, eds. Dominique Chateau and Jose Moure (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016), 125-139. These large overhead screens of Hong Kong and Shanghai that display content for material goods to be consumed by wealthier classes act as mediums for broadcasting these wealth symbols, but their addition to the permanent spatial design of urban architecture in the city cements the previously stated power structure into the city. One of the alarming aspects of this positionality of the screens is that “Overhead screens tend to dominate the spaces they overlook, extending the principle of public visual access until it implodes in the fact that there is no way one cannot watch [the screen].”6Anna McCarthy, “Shaping Public and Private Space with TV Screens,” Ambient Television (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 117-54. In other words, it is impossible for urban spectators to avoid these screens as they act as displays for material symbols of wealth and power.

Many of these screens are placed in similar areas and in high concentrations as can be seen in their placement in Causeway Bay and Nanjing Road. These large overhead screens that I address in this essay were but a selected few within their respective districts. These highly commercial areas non-consensually broadcast advertisement on spectators and pedestrians, and the high concentrations of these screens make ignoring or not seeing the advertisements next to impossible. These types of screens become part of the larger concept of the city, and the bombardment becomes reinforcement of that same power structure of owner control and pedestrian lack of access.

This power structure that the screens create is in alignment with the imagination of the city as a site of modern progress. Cities are now being reimagined and reconstructed through the integration of media and hyper industrialization of the city, both defined by increases of material wealth in the city.7Scott McQuire, “Transforming Media and Public Space,” Geomedia: Networked Cities and the Future of Public Space (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016), 17-64. The proof is in the screen’s broadcasted content; brands such as Apple and Saint Laurent are expensive, not accessible, and affordable only to privileged members of the city. These images of the statuses of wealth are further consistently displayed in areas of concentrated wealth within the city, considering business and commercial districts of cities are economic pulses of the city. The screens of Causeway Bay and Nanjing Road addressed in this essay act on behalf of their owners to reinforce the idea of city not as a place for common people, but as place for the wealthy and privileged class to participate in the city through consumption of the broadcasted materials. This vision of the city doesn’t necessarily include all voices, nor does it give regular pedestrians a voice in the construction of the city anew. As Xin Gu and Audrey Yue argue:

Looking past the surface of the spectacle is the reality of China’s mass population of the ‘information have-less’ – migrant peasant workers do not possess or are denied access to advanced digital technologies – left behind by these grand projects of global hypermodernity… There is a tendency for policy to serve the urban nouveau rich whilst deliberately overlooking those in need.8Audrey Yue and Xin Gu, “New Media: Large Screens in China,” Situations 7, n. 2 (Summer 2014): 32.

The construction of the newly imagined and tech-integrated city doesn’t include those without means but are still subjected to the projections of non-consensual advertisement.9Ibid, 32-55.

The only screen engagement that is enabled between these large overhead screens in public spaces and pedestrians below is their looking up towards the Balenciaga and Apple advertisements. The urbanites of these vast and highly technologized metropolises are not given a stake in the creation of the city. Rather, they are subject to intense advertisement on screens that they didn’t pay nor ask for. The relationship isn’t consensual; the majority of the public has no access to control the content that they are subjected to witness every day. To be an urbanite in either of these urban metropolises of Hong Kong or Shanghai is to live in a highly technologized world where corporations exercise their financial power through screen advertisements and screen placement.

The positionality of these screens in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong and Nanjing Road, Shanghai highlight their positions as tools of communication. The implied message, sent from the wealthier classes, is that these screens are meant to be status symbols of the city, and the symbols are designer brands, high-end technology, and expensive trinkets. The overhead screens towering over citizens reinforce consumption and ownership of these symbols; however, the ownership or purchase by regular citizens of these symbols is a faux notion of actual participation in defining what those symbols are. Rather, the privileged class helps shape the identity of the city by participating in the consumption of what’s on the large overhead screen, but it only buys into set values established by those with access and control over the content.


1 Written by author.
2 Anna McCarthy, “Shaping Public and Private Space with TV Screens,” Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 117-54.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid, 122.
5 Nanna Verhoeff, “Screens in the City,” in Screens: From Materiality to Spectatorship –A Historical and Theoretical Reassessment, eds. Dominique Chateau and Jose Moure (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016), 125-139.
6 Anna McCarthy, “Shaping Public and Private Space with TV Screens,” Ambient Television (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 117-54.
7 Scott McQuire, “Transforming Media and Public Space,” Geomedia: Networked Cities and the Future of Public Space (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016), 17-64.
8 Audrey Yue and Xin Gu, “New Media: Large Screens in China,” Situations 7, n. 2 (Summer 2014): 32.
9 Ibid, 32-55.
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