Micro to Macro in Hong Kong and Shanghai: How Media Cities View Mega Screens

In this essay, Celia Grubba, a student from Indiana University, discusses the ways in which public screens position and constitute China as global and cosmopolitan.
[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.]

In 2010, the advertising agency Young and Rubicam teamed with the likes of Time Inc., Conde Nast, Hearst, and more, running an advertisement that stuck with my young self and fundamentally changed how I saw and interacted with media. The ad featured a photo of a beautiful woman diving into a pool. She had on red lipstick and left a cloud of bubbles behind her. I saw this in a Departures magazine. The copy which accompanied the picture said, “We surf the Internet but we swim in magazines,” following up the bold statement by saying, “The Internet is fleeting, magazines are immersive.”1Russel Adams and Shira Ovide, “Magazines Team Up to Tout ‘Power of Print,’” The Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2010, 12:01 ET https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703940704575090120113003314. This was in 2010. Eight years later and new modes of media dazzle the public seemingly every day. As citizens who participate in a consumer culture we constantly look for the latest and greatest. Though Young and Rubicam were onto something by boasting the nostalgic nature of print, even as we still see magazines on the shelves today for airplane reading and fire kindling, screens have amassed and invaded our public spaces.

On our recent trip to Shanghai and Hong Kong, as a class we became hyper aware of the sheer number of screens that fill and decorate their central public spaces. From magazines, to TV, the personal computer, then iPads and mega screens, the hunger for more is alive and well in these two media cities. For the purposes of this argument I will be reflecting on the Jing’an Ole Food Mart/Mall located on Nanjing Road in Shanghai, China and the largest screen in Asia, formally known as Cvision, located outside the Flagship Sogo Department Store in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. These screens illustrate the commitment to ‘more’ – they embody the excess of wealth, privilege, and spectacle relied upon by both areas. In Causeway Bay, outside of Sogo, tourists and locals alike go to spend money and become enchanted by the screen, interacting with it as a form of spectacle. On Nanjing Road in Shanghai, tourists and locals spend their yuan looking overhead at a massive screen showing ocean scenes. What does this mean? How does critical distance play a role in our ability to interpret these screens? Why would we want to interact with these screens – for god’s sake give us back our magazines!

Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.

The socioeconomic status of the viewer has everything to do with the success of the screen, even its very existence. The Cvision screen boasts a diamond vision technology, the first of its kind. This screen is fixed in an overhead position so pedestrians and those looking at the screen must crane their necks upward at a 45-degree angle. The content quite literally dances on the screen. The massive display allows high-fashion advertisements to come to life. The position of the screen allows pedestrians to choose whether to stop and engage or keep walking. The diamond vision invites spectators to see in a way most have not seen before. The crystal-clear display shows advertisements by which urban inhabitants in front of Sogo can be enchanted by the content. Advertisements from Saint Laurent, L’Occitane, Chloe, Dior, and more supply the content to the screen. The overhead screen in the Nanjing Road mall, however communicates something entirely different and invokes a very different feeling.

Nanjing Road, Shanghai.

The Nanjing Road screen is a massive screen that hangs above the cosmetics section of the department store. The entire mall and cosmetic section communicates the desire to buy. The shape of the store was an oval and with the screen overhead displaying content of sea life and the ocean, the most natural feeling was that of being in a fish bowl. The indoor, overhead position of the screen made the enclosed feeling possible, and communicated a feeling of serenity since the content wasn’t flashing advertisements to consumers. The position of the screen insisted that shoppers view the screen at a 90-degree angle. This screen is more difficult to contextualize because there was no explicit messaging, so the content on the screen falls into the category of video art.

The concept of spectacle is very much at play within these specific screens and urban landscapes. Chris Berry and Wenhao Yu state that “because public screens are relatively easy to install, they are concentrated in areas where there are large population flows warranting their installation. They also have site specific functions such as helping to direct people.”2Chris Berry and Wenhao Yu, “Exposure: The Integrated Spectacle of the Shanghai Public Transport System,” Situations 7, No. 2 (2014): 22. In their contexts, both of these screens orient shoppers. Both areas, Causeway Bay and Nanjing Road, are extremely populated and the screens tell locals and tourists that they are somewhere spectacular. Rather than communicate, “go left and find H&M,” however, they communicate ideas. The Cvision screen is spectacular in its nature; it communicates the wealth of the area and the capitalist ideology.

Although China functions under communism, these areas are driven by capitalism and an unequal class system. There is nothing spectacular about inequality, but the screens glamorize a certain way of life, if one can afford it. This ideal exists by communicating to consumers that they should strive to achieve what they see in advertisements and live at the same echelon as the actors in the ads. For most, this is impossible. The areas we visited in China relied heavily on a capitalist system to sell products, even though a very small percentage of citizens can live that way. The inequality of class in China largely followed the economic reforms of 1978 when the open-door policy was established and even more so in the late 1990’s when China became more globally integrated.3John Knight, “Inequality in China: An Overview,” The World Bank Research Observer 29, Issue 1 (1 February 2014): 1–19 The largest income/class gap is between people living rurally and those who live and work in cities. Factors like education, family history, and most impactful, someone’s geographic location are significant here. So, the spectacular screens and images of luxury goods within urban spaces become especially problematic and symbolic of the inequity occurring within China.

While shopping for cosmetics and seeing a turtle overhead on the screen may not tell the consumer to buy, it does communicate the luxury of the mall. In their “Large Screens in Shanghai,” Xin Gu and Audrey Yue underscore, “Underlying Shanghai moderns is an obsession with the spectacle of the image, an obsession with the poaching of the façade of past colonial monuments and dressing them up to reflect the high capitalism desired of, and reflected in, global cosmopolitan cities.”4Gu Xin and Audrey Yue, “Large Screens in Shanghai,” Situations 7, no. 2 (2014): 40. Specifically in Shanghai, the obsession with goods and screens is extremely apparent. The screen on Nanjing Road was attached to the ceiling of the mall.  The purpose of the screen, to me, communicated the wealth and luxury of the area. The “high capitalism” reflected on the screen is so blatant that there is no need to show products. Simply having the large, beautiful screen in the shopping area is enough. By decorating with screens, they can show video art and not advertisements, using money from the advertisements to keep the mall open. The mall keeps itself open because people are spending money. The screen is a reminder of the wealth circulating within the mall.

The screens and cities themselves seem to master the art of enchantment. For the purposes of this argument, enchantment means that a screen has the ability to “catch our eye and break us away from visual clutter in the contemporary city.” In Chris Berry’s “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture: Local and Coeval,” he describes the experiences of enchantment and disenchantment by saying that “disenchantment robbed the world of meaning … it was a profoundly alienating experience.”5Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture: Local and Coeval,” in Public Space, Media Space, eds. Chris Berry, Janet Harbord, Rachel Moore (New York: Palgrave, 2013): 63. The Cvision screen is so large, with such creative advertisements; to see it turned off and break the illusion would be devastating, as Berry said. In the mall, the enchanting display of sea creatures sets a mood and enchants shoppers. If the screen played heavy metal music, it would make the space entirely disenchanted. The concept of enchantment is everywhere and is integral to make the screens work and do they task they were installed to do.

To dive into the content on the screens, the content has to be fantastic. Berry further brings up the term “phantasmagoria,” defining it more simply as, “today’s excitement and interest in cinema’s special effects.”6Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture: Local and Coeval,” in Public Space, Media Space, eds. Chris Berry, Janet Harbord, Rachel Moore (New York: Palgrave, 2013): 63. This could be seen in the ocean screen in the mall. By having interesting visuals portrayed in an avant-garde way, the consumer is delighted and the feeling of being at the movies is replicated in daily life, even for a moment. For the screens to be effective, they need to display high quality content. Consumers are accustomed to content that is both creative and engaging. Both screens are effective at this. Even though the Cvision screen is made to sell products, and the Nanjing Road screen is made to entertain, both must broadcast content which draws the interest and excitement of consumers and can deliver the same effects as popular movies and more.

Content, ideas behind the screens, and the spectacular and enchanting nature of each screen, however, all pale in comparison to the positioning of the screens, which constitutes the most important factor in their analysis. Positioning functions as the transformative quality that these monolithic structures communicate. In her book Ambient Television, Anna McCarthy observes that “all architecture, forms of social communication… helps to position people.”7Anna McCarthy, “Shaping Public and Private Space with TV Screens,” Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 119. This is true for both of the screens of this essay. Their positioning gives consumers the choice of looking, yet they are strategically positioned in places of power. “Overhead placement … addresses the viewer as an anonymous individual.”8Ibid, 122. In the case of the overhead mall screen, the screen assumes nothing about the shopper; it is there to entertain and not push product like the Cvision screen. Furthermore, “If television’s frequent presence in overhead space often seems to compete for visual attention with the rest of the environment, it may be because the overhead area of a public place so often turns out to be a dense symbolic zone.”9Ibid, 119. Both screens communicate symbols like capitalism, excess, and the desire to be entertained. The content allows us to interpret the physical screen differently and draw assumptions about screens more conceptually. Every element changes our perception of the screen, such as positioning, content, how large or small, and so on. We do not like or dislike an inactive screen, it must be active, and we must interact with it to draw conclusions.

Our interactions with screens are versatile. We interact with our iPhone, our TV, screens in public, the screen on an ATM, I could go on.  The screens that we choose, or choose not, to interact with, build upon our complex, dependent relationship with public and private screens. While the content dictates how the public digests the screens, theatric qualities, positioning, and quality of these screens all shape our understanding of media and its applications across international borders. In America and China, the desire for goods reigns supreme along with both of their highly established and growing consumer cultures. Our excess as a culture has driven magazines out. We don’t care about the shiny pages. We want the bright screen. Our yearning for screens and consumer goods is evident within the structures that form the public screens of Causeway Bay and Fashion Walk in Shanghai and Hong Kong.


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