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A tale of four cities: Stefan Al's Illustrated Book of Factory Towns in South China

Though ugly and inconclusive, this guidebook offers interesting insight into the key urban agglomerations situated in the Pearl River Delta

Even before he became Premier, Li Keqiang had been banging on about his intention to accelerate urbanisation as a ‘huge engine’ for the country’s future economic growth. China’s urban population will reach one billion by 2030, representing 67 per cent of the overall population (compared to America’s 82 per cent or 91 per cent in Japan).

While we sometimes forget that this kind of urbanisation has happened in all developing countries, the speed at which China is growing means that it is much more significant. Over the last 30 years, much of China’s historic urban form has disappeared as new developments continue to transform a huge number of cities and towns.

Whether this is a good thing or not is open to question, but urbanisation and industrialisation are certainly ripe for analysis and many social commentators and anthropologists have begun to document this society in transition. A number of books have sprung up in recent years which attempt to construct an urban tableau based on simple observation, from John Logan’s Urban China in Transition to John Friedmann’s China’s Urban Transition and the more contemporary Urban China by Xuefei Ren. However, the lack of credible independent research, or simply the impenetrability − to Western readers − of existing Chinese language research, means that there is a huge amount still to be discovered.

The latest book, Factory Towns of South China: An Illustrated Guidebook, is a useful addition to the field. It seeks to document and represent the key urban agglomerations within the Pearl River Delta (PRD) of southern China, the area that borders Hong Kong. This is the 7,500km² region where modern industry and agriculture have been most rapidly developed since Deng Xiaoping established China’s first special economic zone (SEZ) in Shenzhen in 1980. It encompasses four cities and accounts for around nine per cent of China’s GDP.

Guangzhou Liwan District

Guangzhou Liwan District

Zhongshan Seasoning Co. Ltd.

Zhongshan Seasoning Co. Ltd.

The book comprises 13 short articles by a range of academics from around the world with special Chinese expertise. The articles have sufficient depth to be insightful but are not encumbered with academic jargon; in other words, they are nicely pitched. The second half of the book is a potpourri of photos, graphs, interviews and images that provide a basic grasp of the geographical location and a visual snapshot of conditions on the ground.

The editor suggests that this book is ‘not written with tourists in mind as the readership, but from the perspective of the factory worker’. Ignoring the non sequitur, he suggests that the book ‘subverts the genre … it attempts to be a détournement from the typical illustrated guidebook’. A Situationist statement of intent if ever there was one. As a result, the book is liberally peppered with the spectacle of press cuttings, collages and speech bubbles, but mercifully, such is the range of contributors that elements of psychogeography are kept to a minimum.

On the negative side, the end result is a book that doesn’t look or feel particularly appealing. Suffice to say, it looks like a book produced in China (where production niceties are not yet so important), but actually it’s merely repeating the tired, retro, cut-and-paste graphics of the ’60s. Admittedly, once you immerse yourself in it, a coherent format emerges but you still have to negotiate an unattractive jumble of snapshots, colour coding and axonometric sketches.

Essays include critiques of environmental degradation, unregulated growth and authoritarian manufacturing processes − the standard fare in any book about China − and a number of incorrect shibboleths have crept in. First, there is the ubiquitous criticism of the suicide rate of Foxconn employees (which fails to state that this is actually, pro rata, 25 per cent of the national average); and the meaningless statement that ‘smog … [is] ranked as the number one air pollutant’. That said, there are also interesting perspectives on the hukou (the system of urban and non-urban residency permits), post-industrial changes as well as comparisons between the PRD and Hong Kong and Taiwan.

World Factory Adventure

World Factory Adventure



One article entitled ‘From the Iron Rice Bowl to the Steel Cafeteria Tray’ looks at how the state accounted for 99 per cent of all industrial output in 1980; while today it is 40 per cent but still subsidises many private companies by providing state-owned refectories. In a different context, another contributor focuses on the danwei (the all-encompassing, collective live-work unit of Mao’s China) which has become something of a study fetish for urban commentators in the West. It is a romanticised form of social regimentation, but unsurprisingly, one that started to decline when Deng Xiaoping decreed that housing − much nicer housing − would be supplied by the private sector.

The final section of the book looks at six particular urban areas, their buildings, real lived lives, individual work routines, pay, conditions, eating habits and a basic indication of the architecture of the factory and dormitory blocks. This is potentially the most revealing section, but it prefers to remain inconclusive (‘a collection of traces and particles’). Without doubt, this book is a good start, but it remains a guidebook that forces you to find your own path.

Factory Towns of South China: An Illustrated Guidebook

Author: Stefan Al (ed)

Publisher: Hong Kong University Press

Prize: US$25

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