In 2021, a photo of a balcony in Shanghai’s former French Concession went viral on Chinese social media platforms like Xiaohongshu and Douyin (similar to Chinese Instagram and TikTok). The iron balcony of the European-style building was adorned with a giant pink bow and was viewed as a scene from a Disney fairy tale. During the May national vacation, many Shanghai residents and tourists came to take pictures and experience the “romantic life” of Shanghai by engaging with the grandmother who lived there and set up the scene. However, a clash between residents and a large number of tourists resulted in the grandmother moving out, and her giant pink bow tie being taken down.1“上海武康路网红阳台蝴蝶结被取走、阳台大门紧闭，仍有人拍照” [Shanghai Wukang Road Wanghong balcony bows removed, balcony doors closed, people still taking photos], Pengpai News, May 8, 2021. Accessed February 20, 2023. https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_12575676.
The incident took place on Shanghai’s Wukang Road, which is already a well-known wanghong destination. It has even been referred to as the “center of the wanghong world”, with bloggers using their own big trucks to convert the side of the road into a makeshift dressing room, or even blocking traffic to “position” for pictures. Various articles have used the startling headline “Influencers crush Wukang Road”2“小红书网红压垮武康路？[Xiaohongshu Influencer crushes Wukang Road?]”, ELLE Men, June 8, 2021. Accessed February 20, 2023. https://www.ellemen.com/spotlight/a36376727/wukanglu-shanghai-2105010/ to draw attention to the practice of creating digital cityscapes in this former French concession area in Shanghai. International concessions were established in several key commercial cities in East Asian countries during the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, with China being a primary example. After the signing of unfair treaties, foreigners from various colonial empires were designated to live in specific parts of these cities, with their independent systems of administration, justice, and urban planning.3Michael S. Falser and Georg Lehner, Habsburgs Going Global: The Austro-Hungarian Concession in Tientsin/Tianjin in China (1901–1917) (Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2022). These colonizers introduced modern urban infrastructure systems and Western architectural styles that mixed with the Chinese styles of the era to produce a unique semi-colonial urban character.
After the economic reforms of 1978, China shifted from a centrally planned economy to a market-oriented economy. This led to significant changes in the country’s economic policies, including a focus on economic development and urbanization. As a result of this new focus, China experienced rapid urbanization and infrastructure development, with cities becoming the engines of the country’s economic growth. Land use and development became critical components of China’s economic strategy, with local governments playing a key role in promoting urbanization and attracting investment. In this context, entrepreneurial local governments recognized the value of concession areas for promoting tourism and consumption. They restored, rehabilitated, and reorganized these concession districts as cultural heritage sites to establish and strengthen foreign cultural themes.4Maria Gravari-Barbas, Sandra Guinand, and Yue Lu, “Hybridisation and Circulation of Models in Tianjin’s Former Concessions”, Journal of Heritage Tourism 16, no. 5 (2021): 513–532. https://doi.org/10.1080/1743873x.2020.1812615. The concessions’ historical architecture and urban character were extracted, restored, and enhanced to attract tourists, boost the economy, create a distinctive urban identity, and make these areas popular destinations for culture and creativity.
Since the 2010s, social media has been the driving force behind the production of a new kind of urban spectacle, in particular thanks to the growth of photo and video sharing. As a result, former concessions have emerged as some of the first notable examples of “wanghong urbanism”.5Amy Y. Zhang., Asa Roast, and Carwyn Morris, “Wanghong Urbanism: Towards a New Urban-Digital Spectacle,” Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 4 (November 2022), https://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2022/11/Wanghong-urbanism/ In the case of concessions, the term wanghong is used by the online community to describe these “modern yet vintage” scenes, with several connotations. Firstly, these concessions have become popular tourist destinations, with many undergoing heritage and architectural restorations to make them ideal locations for capturing photos depicting romance and sophistication. The Wukang Building is a prime example, where photos of the structure have become essential tools for immersing oneself in Shanghai’s xiaozi mood. The term xiaozi, which refers to the petit bourgeoisie, was initially linked to the luxurious and sophisticated lifestyle of the West when China first encountered modernity, particularly in the modern cities of Shanghai and Tianjin. Despite being viewed as incompatible with China’s revolutionary spirit after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, the term has been revived and celebrated in the twenty-first century, when it has come to describe a young, professionally driven urban social class possessing some economic and cultural capital, often associated with individualism, creativity, minimalist yet stylish design, and a high quality of life. Xiaozi embodies access to a better life and upward mobility on the one hand, but on the other, it also represents a romanticized idea of urban living, particularly in the face of the immense pressures of urban capital and work-related burdens. Therefore, it represents a simple yet fulfilling lifestyle as a practical and affordable means of achieving a good life, which is what people associate with the atmosphere given by the giant pink bow on the balcony.
Wukang Road, Center of the Wanghong World
The fact that Wukang Road is a wanghong and xiaozi hotspot also means that genuine wanghong bloggers view photo shoots there as an opportunity to increase their online media capital. Moreover, these former concessions are now home to “wanghong businesses”, particularly those specialising in fine coffee, craft beer, and Western cuisine, who have tailored their offerings to cater to the demands of the wanghong followers to become a new urban trend. Pizzerias stuffed with imported Italian cheese, Japanese tea rooms, and brunch spots with a Mediterranean flair are just a few examples of such businesses. They all have one thing in common: they are high-end and expensive, both in terms of the goods they sell and the environments they create. Additionally, they provide excellent opportunities for photography and social media sharing. To create the wanghong atmosphere, these businesses try to develop a cohesive sense of design, from the logo to the coffee cups to the paper napkins, as well as a strong brand and environmental identification that is easy to recognise. This completes the reconstruction of the customer’s identity as a tasteful buyer.
Why has this one-time concession become a favourite location for different wanghong phenomena? As a former semi-colonial space, the concession has always been a field of tension and power, representing complex emotional capital.6Maurizio Marinelli, “The Italian Production of Space in Tianjin: Heterotopia and Emotional Capital,” in Foreigners and Foreign Institutions in Republican China, ed. Anne-Marie Brady and Douglas Brown (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), 35–61. On the one hand, its humiliating history as a site of invasion is reshaped in the name of urban development, and a positive attitude towards it is fixed in the form of heritage preservation. The concessions often added a further layer of elite enclaves as the fountainheads of important events in China’s modern history, and as residences for important cultural figures and the upper classes. On the other hand, the relatively positive process of openness, integration into world culture, and modernization represented in China’s modernized history added filters of both “modern” and “retro” to the period, thus providing a positive image of the contemporary. The concessions also added a sense of exoticism to its international context, not only offering an escape from reality but also providing evidence of the authenticity of the international products sold here. It is an imagination of travel after localization, where one can easily have a trans-regional travel experience through globalized goods, and the heterotopian atmosphere of the concessions reinforces this sense of crossing over.
The profile of people who consume this imagery is also clear: people who are fond of the xiaozi aesthetic tend to have a preference for details, taste, style, and other aspects of life. They usually pay attention to quality of life, artistic atmosphere, and cultural connotations, and enjoy things that are tasteful and high quality. They may have had some experience of international migration, and are willing to pay for this sense of atmosphere. The cultural capital associated with the concession, especially as a place of residence for cultural figures, has enabled it become a venue of xiaozi, and furthermore a wanghong site. While the former concessions have established this brand, the term Wukang Road itself has been symbolized, as Wuhan’s former concession as a popular tourist destination has been referred to as “Wukang Road in Wuhan” in a post on the social media platform Xiaohongshu. The ability to read and consume this cultural implication and the more expensive products becomes a symbol of class distinction. Yet escape can also be an act of integration: becoming part of the wanghong group by consuming and sharing photographs is still a sort of reproduction that results in the development of a new online group’s collective identity. Even offline connections can be created by virtual communities in the form of localization. For example, during my research in Tianjin’s former British Concession, many shops that sold similar, expensive niche goods drew customers with comparable tastes and socioeconomic status. This resulted in the emergence of localized communities of the so-called new middle class.
The “refined, romantic, and cultural” emblems of the concession life are replicated and spread through a “spontaneous circulation”7Amy Y. Zhang., Asa Roast, and Carwyn Morris, “Wanghong Urbanism: Towards a New Urban-Digital Spectacle,” Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 4 (November 2022), https://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2022/11/Wanghong-urbanism/ of wanghong urbanism, creating a new imagination of the former concessions in the spatial context of heritage enhancement established by the union of local entrepreneurs. Even though this cycle may not have a specific institutional framework for the parties involved, it seems to follow a default logic that includes physical discipline, emotional digital labour, cultural expression, and the enactment of gender roles. Detailed guides of how to take pictures in front of the iconic buildings can be found on social media, including how to choose a backdrop, composition, lighting, dress, makeup, and photo poses. Taking photos in the romantic atmosphere of the former concession area from angles carefully guided by online bloggers has become one of the most attractive travel tips for Shanghai. Notably, many of the online tips emphasize the importance of walking and “feeling the urban space”, detailing how to walk through the streets, pose for photos, and choose specific seats and backdrops. In particular, the guide emphasizes the need to be “gentle” with the sense of “discovering” while exploring the atmosphere and sharing embellished images and texts accordingly. All this is done with the woman as the subject of the photograph and gaze, even creating a relationship between the “young female influencer” being photographed and the “middle-aged photographer enthusiast” photographing.8“被骂 ‘为老不尊’？街拍 ‘老法师’ 的另一面.” [Called out for being ‘old and disrespectful’? Another side of the ‘old man photographer’ in the street”] Sohu, 2022. Accessed March 14, 2023. https://www.sohu.com/a/600971640_121332532.
The Former Concession as a Field of Identity Studies in the Urban Digital Landscape
This case exemplifies how a specific urban space with a symbolic character can be commercialized through the influence of Wanghong urbanism. The creation, popularity, and subsequent variation of this symbol highlight the fascination of the former concession area as a field of study within the urban digital landscape. As a destination popularized by online influencers and recognized as a Wanghong destination in its own right, its popularity is driven by the act of sharing online and visiting offline. This process is both inevitable and contingent, with its inevitability stemming from the exoticism brought by the concessions and the xiaozi lifestyle that not only serves as a means of escape from the mundane but also as part of the global digital circulation landscape through the creation of consumption traits such as “Instagram-style” and “Japanese style”.
While the discovery of a wanghong destination may not necessarily be linked to consumption and may be accidental, as with the case of the pink bow tie on the balcony, the creation of new wanghong destinations and the attachment of wanghong characteristics to existing destinations involves the reconfiguration and production of the destination’s landscape, further promoting consumption. The emergence of wanghong destinations and their commercialization also reflects the shift from a traditional production-oriented model of economic development to a consumption-oriented urban agenda. In this context, local growth alliances attempt to collaborate with wanghong groups by restoring heritage sites, attracting specific types of investments, and creating destination images to achieve the goals of tourism growth and consumption.
It is widely acknowledged that many individuals who engage with online consumer culture are not local residents but rather seek to experience a blend of local life, exotic fantasy, and digital popularity. Interestingly, these individuals are often members of the digital labour force within the internet industry, where the pressure of capital and the stress of living in China’s first-tier cities in pursuit of extreme efficiency have made “escaping” a popular pastime. However, despite the allure of this form of escape, digital culture is also used as a means of identity formation, revealing the complex interplay between digital culture, urbanization, and sociocultural dynamics in contemporary Chinese society. It is important to recognize that the phenomenon of wanghong reflects a deeper exploration of identity, community participation, and the distribution of spatial power. This is particularly relevant in the context of former concessions, where the coexistence of wanghong and local inhabitants raises important questions about the dynamics of community participation and power relations.
Thus, it is crucial to consider the broader sociocultural implications of wanghong urbanism and how it shapes urban life in China. Beyond the political and economic analysis of the wanghong economy and wanghong urbanism, the heterogeneous site of the former concession serves as an excellent venue to observe the sociocultural dimensions of wanghong urbanism as a “cultural contact zone.”9Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession (1991): 33–40. The concession produced a simulacrum of everyday life that blended exoticism and local life, represented through multiple historical perspectives. The wanghong economy attempts to imitate this image of everyday life, creating a symbol that can be quickly accessed, understood, and consumed. Returning to the small balcony on Wukang Road, the large bow ties serve as a metaphor for the ritualization, symbolization, and Disneyfication of this heterogeneous life. If we view the concession as a marvellously diverse field within the historically globalized laboratory of urbanization, it can serve as a rich ground for postcolonial identity studies and an essential addition to sociocultural analysis, alongside the political economy of digital globalization. With their unique blend of local and international cultures, remnants of a semi-colonial identity, and the present situation as a living space, former concessions are ideal sites for further studying the sociocultural dimensions of the digital urban landscape.
Chensi Shen is an architect and a PhD student in human geography and landscape architecture at the EIREST team of Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and Tianjin University. She is interested in heritage production in tourism innovation, especially in the context of global circulation and new media intervention.
|↑1||“上海武康路网红阳台蝴蝶结被取走、阳台大门紧闭，仍有人拍照” [Shanghai Wukang Road Wanghong balcony bows removed, balcony doors closed, people still taking photos], Pengpai News, May 8, 2021. Accessed February 20, 2023. https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_12575676.|
|↑2||“小红书网红压垮武康路？[Xiaohongshu Influencer crushes Wukang Road?]”, ELLE Men, June 8, 2021. Accessed February 20, 2023. https://www.ellemen.com/spotlight/a36376727/wukanglu-shanghai-2105010/|
|↑3||Michael S. Falser and Georg Lehner, Habsburgs Going Global: The Austro-Hungarian Concession in Tientsin/Tianjin in China (1901–1917) (Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2022).|
|↑4||Maria Gravari-Barbas, Sandra Guinand, and Yue Lu, “Hybridisation and Circulation of Models in Tianjin’s Former Concessions”, Journal of Heritage Tourism 16, no. 5 (2021): 513–532. https://doi.org/10.1080/1743873x.2020.1812615.|
|↑5||Amy Y. Zhang., Asa Roast, and Carwyn Morris, “Wanghong Urbanism: Towards a New Urban-Digital Spectacle,” Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 4 (November 2022), https://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2022/11/Wanghong-urbanism/|
|↑6||Maurizio Marinelli, “The Italian Production of Space in Tianjin: Heterotopia and Emotional Capital,” in Foreigners and Foreign Institutions in Republican China, ed. Anne-Marie Brady and Douglas Brown (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), 35–61.|
|↑7||Amy Y. Zhang., Asa Roast, and Carwyn Morris, “Wanghong Urbanism: Towards a New Urban-Digital Spectacle,” Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 4 (November 2022), https://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2022/11/Wanghong-urbanism/|
|↑8||“被骂 ‘为老不尊’？街拍 ‘老法师’ 的另一面.” [Called out for being ‘old and disrespectful’? Another side of the ‘old man photographer’ in the street”] Sohu, 2022. Accessed March 14, 2023. https://www.sohu.com/a/600971640_121332532.|
|↑9||Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession (1991): 33–40.|