Book Chapter

Introduction: The Production of Space in Singapore, Seoul, Taipei

by Jini Kim Watson

To understand the coherence of the New Asian City as category, we must consider, in broad strokes, the colonial and postcolonial histories of Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea, which are as different from each other as they are from the more usual regions examined by postcolonial studies.

In all these actual social relations and forms of consciousness, ideas of the country and the city, often of an older kind, continue to act as partial interpreters. But we do not always see that in their main bearings they are forms of response to a social system as a whole.

—Raymond Williams, The Country and the City

 The New Asian City

With the recent industrial rise of China and India, the postwar success of the so-called Asian Tiger economies seems to have blurred into the more general pattern of industrializing Asia. It is easy to forget, then, that an earlier generation of booming metropolises—including Seoul, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taipei—were not always such gleaming beacons of development. They themselves went through enormous upheavals in urban space and populations. This book analyzes the histories and fictional representations of urban transformation in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan—three of the Pacific Rim’s original “newly industrializing countries”—from the colonial period to the late 1980s. In the decades immediately after decolonization, these nations displayed incredible rates of economic growth and effectively led the way in industrial development outside the West, becoming the “good pupils,” in Samir Amin’s words, of third world development (80). Drawing partly on the economic and urban model of Tokyo, and precursors to the now-common signifiers of globalization that we see in dazzling Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, or Bangalore, these three sites document a founding moment of third world industrialization that has been uniquely influential in terms of urban and industrial strategy, as well as the aesthetic responses to its results. In one sense, this book can be understood as a cultural and spatial history of the developmental state. More centrally, it argues that the massive shift in urban forms produces a particular kind of fictional text, one that foregrounds the complex realities and conflicts of these transformations.

My title borrows from architectural critic Jeffrey Kipnis, who has used the term “New Asian City” to describe the bustling metropolises of newly industrializing countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and, more recently, mainland China (169). In Kipnis’s account, the New Asian City model is typified by Seoul’s postwar development, which produced “an ugly, sprawling urban monster true enough, but a money machine that buried South Korea in cash” (169). Its essence is rapid construction and tabula rasa policy, and its urbanism occupies an uncanny place with regards to both discarded prewar modernisms (“Avant-Garde I,” as Kipnis calls it) and French-inspired theories of postmodernism (or “Avant-Garde II”). In his words, “The New Asian City warps past any Marx ist notion of ‘formation’ or ‘construction’; it is an artifaction of Speed and Dominance, unholy and beyond history” (170). While it is clear that such Asian cities are neither new nor “beyond history,” they have certainly become the “interpretive image” of Asia Pacific development. Despite the hyperbole, Kipnis’s comments contain the simple observation that there is a particular material configuration and corresponding aesthetic form to regions of postcolonial Asia. This study argues that these cities evidence a new model of development in which the city is conceived first and foremost as a production platform—for the production of surplus values, laboring bodies, and national subjects—and less as a site of traditional civic, ceremonial, or economic transactions. The New Asian City is concerned with the processes, conflicts and representations of this shift. In this introductory chapter, I give a brief historical background and rationale of my choice of these sites, as well as suggest how the New Asian City draws on and challenges traditional conceptions of postcolonial studies. I will also outline the transdisciplinary method—linking literature, architecture, urban studies, and film—at work in this book.

Postcolonialism and the East Asian Newly Industrializing Countries: Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea

To understand the coherence of the New Asian City as category, we must consider, in broad strokes, the colonial and postcolonial histories of Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea, which are as different from each other as they are from the more usual regions examined by postcolonial studies. Although the history of each site will be discussed in more detail as the book progresses, we may begin by briefly sketching their colonial histories.

Established in 1819 by the British East India Company on an island off the tip of the Malay peninsula, Singapore became a Chinese-majority trading post and was ruled as part of the British Straits settlements. After a brief period of Japanese rule during World War II and the return of the British, it passed bloodlessly to self-rule in 1959, and then into a shortlived federation with Malaya in 1963. Full independence of the city-state was only achieved after it separated from the Malaysian Federation in 1965, an event that followed tensions between Singapore’s People’s Action Party and the United Malayan National Organization. Wishing to distance itself from communist China, the city-state maintained close strategic ties with Britain and the United States. Although its national language is Malay and its official languages are English, Chinese, and Tamil, it adopted the former colonizer’s language as its language of state, trade, and communication. In other words, it did not so much reject its colonial formation as strive to update and nationalize its original function as a British trading entrepot to become a successful global importer/exporter. One of the founding members of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), Singapore has prided itself on being a modern, multicultural, postcolonial city-state.

The other two countries under consideration were the two longtime colonies of Japan, Taiwan or “Formosa” (occupied 1895–1945) and Korea or “Chosen” (1910-45), both liberated at the end of the World War II with Japan’s defeat. They too followed a successful export-led path of development and are now regional economic leaders. However, their status as postcolonial nations has been little recognized for several reasons. For a postcolonial territory such as Taiwan (as for the Philippines and Indonesia), the multiple colonizations by Europe, Japan, and (arguably) mainland China need to be considered. After centuries of occupation by the Dutch, Spanish, Southern Chinese, and Japanese, the establishment in 1945 of the Republic of China government, led by Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (Nationalist or KMT) party, has been viewed as another kind of colonialism. Although some scholars believe that this internal colonialism ended only in 1987 with the lifting of martial law and recognition of the Minnan and Hakka ethnic identities, from the aboriginal perspective, neither 1945 nor 1987 would properly signal the postcolonial. Taiwan remains an effective “state without nationhood” (Liao, “Postcolonial Studies,” 210), even while its legitimacy as a state is much contended by mainland China. Liao notes the inadequacy of established postcolonial theories regarding Taiwan: “As the effects [of Chinese and Japanese imperial power] are very different from those of European colonialism, the dominant postcolonial theory can only partially describe what constitutes the ‘postcolonial’ condition in Taiwan” (210). The legacy of multiple imperialisms is echoed in the Korean situation, which may best be summed up as “a nation with two states.” Debate over the validity of the term postcolonial here has centered on the implicit question of how such status can be granted to a nation still divided as a result of conflicting imperial forces. After the devastating civil war of 1950–53 and the implementation of what Paik Nak-chung calls the “division system,” half arguably remains in a neocolonial relationship with the United States, while the other is on the brink of either collapse or nuclear war. In a sense, Korea (and especially North Korea) remains decidedly “anti” rather than “post” colonial.

What all three sites—Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea—point to are the many complexities and gradations that must fill out the concept of the postcolonial.  Such a term is too often thought of as simply the condition following independence from European powers in the decades after World War II, with Anglophone Africa, India, and the Caribbean as its paradigmatic sites. Further, my project is not driven by the more standard postcolonial question of “‘displacement’ of indigenous cultures wrought by colonialism” (Kusno, 7) —that is to say, the interest in British or Japanese identity versus Singaporean, Korean, or Taiwanese. Yet neither is the absence of this question, or the incongruousness of East Asia within postcolonial studies, what brings these three sites together as objects of analysis. Rather, I suggest we examine these Asian Tiger nations for their comparable postcolonial developmental paths within what Frübel et al. famously termed in 1980 “the New International Division of Labour.” All three were home to important colonial cities, and all three transformed themselves into the most successful of newly industrializing countries via a fundamental rearrangement of urban and national space that had begun in the colonial period. Along with Hong Kong, these four Asian “miracle economies” constitute the poster child of postcolonial industrialization. Let us note here that although the history of Hong Kong broadly shares the same economic path as the others, it is distinct thanks to the 1997 handover from British crown colony to mainland special administrative region. Because I am interested in the troubled articulations of postcolonial nationalism and modernity after independence, Hong Kong’s unique case lies outside the scope of this project.

Outside postcolonial literary and cultural studies, my grouping of these sites is not especially new. Their remarkable career as Asian miracles has long constituted an exemplary object within modernization studies, a subfield of area studies. Along with architectural observations about the region’s material forms, books such as Robert Wade’s prize-winning Governing the Market (1992) are evidence of the sustained focus on this region within other disciplines. Wade’s work, among many others, has helped to establish a regional characterization from the perspective of economic development of these New Asian Cities as both exceptions and models. This book, then, offers an alternative narrative to the one we are used to within postcolonial studies, which has had little to say on the apparent success stories of the Asia Pacific, but goes beyond analyzing them as mere economic models. By focusing on how historical contradictions inform a particular configuration I am calling the New Asian City, I attempt to flesh out an idea of postcolonial space in its East and Southeast Asian manifestation.

On the Postcolonial

While this study pays attention to concrete spatial and economic histories, my task is not simply to shift the focus of postcolonial literary studies to these objects. I am interested in the logic and form of developmental spaces—accessed through the fictional text—rather than the sites or buildings themselves as empirical objects in space. Nor am I interested in an abstract use of spatial vocabulary. For anthropologists Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, the recent overreliance on spatial metaphors in postcolonial theory—the global versus the local, diaspora, borders, and marginality—occlude what should be the primary focus: “the processes of production of difference in a world of culturally, socially and economically interconnected and interdependent spaces” (43). It is not simply a matter of tracking the ways cultural localities are imagined in a globalizing world, but of discerning the spatial processes that produced those differences in the first place. Postcolonial studies has been absorbed by questions of migration and diaspora, but less so by internal migration and the striking urban and industrial transformations reshaping many postindependent states. One of the ways we can understand the “shared historical processes that [differentiate] the world as it connects it” (46) is to trace the spatial differentiation produced internally by states under globalizing capital. Thus, although this book includes substantial literary and film analyses, I do not reproduce the common interpretive methodology of much postcolonial studies that relies on a politics of textuality. Such a strategy derives from Said’s highly influential book Orientalism  (1978) and his demonstration of the “worldliness” of the cultural text, or how literature and art may serve as ideological underpinnings for the most unscrupulous of imperial deeds. Notwithstanding the undeniable import of his work, the primacy of this relationship has resulted in the reverse task of recovering resistance to imperialism and neoimperialism, especially in the recovery and validation of (post)colonial cultural texts. In its most typical form, such literary studies find progressive agency in the written expression of the oppressed or subaltern subject, and may depart from the important task of explicating anticolonial thought and culture to “the move which effectively replaces politics with textuality” (Gandhi, 156). Such an approach has indeed become the trademark of a kind of postcolonial analysis that aims toward an ever more specific cultural politics of difference. Moreover, the recuperating of occluded or oppressed cultures brings with it the associated problem of equating literary or other texts with an authentic expression of a particular culture’s political resistance or identity. As Peter Hallward notes, “unless we are prepared to equate creative expression with the direct reflection of a specified community, culture or some other underlying reality, we must find a way to account for the specific without recourse to the criteria of the authentic  (as measured by fidelity to cultural origin or norm)” (39–40). Like Hallward, I see the problem with such approaches in that they figure autonomous cultures and identities as the only proper object of study, with literature as their vehicle of transparent expression. By bringing to the fore spatial realities, modes of production, and the shifting and contradictory figures of expression they give rise to, this book moves beyond both the emphasis on cultural production as identity and the metaphoric understanding of space.

To attend to the material and spatial (rather than cultural) and national (rather than transnational) aspects of postcolonial development involves a fundamental recognition of a basic asymmetry in global development. Aijaz Ahmad has called this arrangement the “gaps between the various layers of world capitalism” (316) or—as I would put it—the unevenly productive role of spatial relationships. In a pointed passage, Ahmad writes of India’s postcolonial dilemma:

European transition occurred when there were no external, imperialist, far more powerful capitalist countries to dominate and subjugate the European ones; when the world’s resources—from minerals to agricultural raw materials to the unpaid labour of countless millions—could form the basis for Europe’s accumulation; when vast reservoirs of European populations could simply be exported to other continents. . . . Where can India send the approximately five hundred million people for whom Indian capitalism simply cannot provide, and whose minerals is the Indian bourgeoisie to extract to fuel our economy and guarantee our balance of payments for the next two hundred years? It has only its own forests to ravage, its own mountains to denude, its own rivers to dam up and pollute, its own countryside to consign to generalized filth, its own cities to choke with carbonized air—in a subordinated partnership with imperialist capital. (315, emphasis added)

 Among postcolonial studies’ important, ethical examinations of the unequal conditions wrought by imperialism, we can pose Ahmad’s specific question of uneven spatial development as the central concern of this book: what does it mean for a third world country to attempt to develop from the subordinate and constricted position he describes? As we will see, the postcolonial state’s development under these asymmetrical conditions is particularly striking in the Asia Pacific, where national economic landscapes, political ideologies, imagined communities, and aesthetic responses all coalesce, overlap, or counteract each other in the decidedly limited spaces of New Asian Cities. This study, then, is devoted neither to cataloging the general conditions of late capitalism nor to examining textual resistance, subaltern traces, or hybridized cultural identities. I use literary and cinematic texts not for their privileged access to any cultural or subjective truths, but as historical palimpsests that register the most profound contradictions of postcolonial development. In other words, I explore a particular strand of postcolonialism that can best be understood in terms of the struggle over space rather than over culture or identity. I suggest that there is a kind of postcolonial historical development whose primary process is spatial and architectural transformation, a process most clearly registered in the figures and displacements taken up in various fictional texts.

The New Asian City is therefore not about reevaluating the field of postcolonial studies to include a region or object of study previously excluded. Rather, reading New Asian City literature and film can move us toward a new way of thinking about colonialism and globalization; such texts render lucid, recreate, and reimagine the very production of (postcolonial) space. Accordingly, my use of the term postcolonial  must be understood in this altered sense: I take it to describe aesthetic production arising within the material, social, economic, and political configurations that obtained during and after colonial occupation, as well as  the spatial production of those configurations. I am especially interested in the “code switching” of power from the colonial regime to the postcolonial (Baucom, “Township,” 234) and how the working through of this transfer occurs in spatialized aesthetic form.

To sum up, rather than take the colonial map as the defining limit of my project (which would dictate that Korea and Taiwan be studied with Manchuria, and Singapore with Malaysia), I use a regional material formation—the New Asian City—already acknowledged in both architectural criticism and modernization studies as my point of departure. This project approaches certain late twentieth-century Pacific Rim urban sites in a way that complicates both standard postcolonial accounts of the region as well as earlier—and still dominant—Western theorizations on modernity and urbanization.

Three-Dimensional Fictions: Contradiction, Figuration, and Spatial Form

In Cho Se-hŭi’s 1978 novella “A Little Ball Launched by a Dwarf” (“Nanjangi ka ssoaollin chagŭn kong”), the protoganists—three teenage children of a squatter-dwelling family—face the harsh realities of South Korea’s industrial push under dictator Park Chung Hee. The sparsely narrated story details the family’s struggle to maintain their unregistered home, which is quite literally in the way of the country’s development: an urban renewal ordinance announces the settlement is to be demolished and replaced with high-rise apartment buildings for middle-class residents. The closer they are to losing their home, the odder their father’s (the dwarf of the title) behavior becomes; he takes to climbing the smokestacks of a nearby factory and throwing small balls toward the moon. In this image alone, the interplay between bodies, buildings, social classes, and individual longing is succinctly evoked. While chapter 3 of this volume will look in detail at the historical processes behind the narrative, it is not the realism or accuracy of “A Little Ball”—although it is significant in Korean literature—that is of primary interest. Rather, the questions that animate this book have to do with the way fictional arrangements of bodies, buildings, and urban forms stage a constellation of profoundly changing social and spatial relationships. The image of the dwarf atop the smokestacks reveals a range of conflicts and struggles at different scales: the precarious physical and psychical state of the squatter family; the ruthlessness of Seoul’s urban renewal; the emerging opposition between working and middle classes; the architectural replacement of low-rise squatter settlements by high-rise buildings; and—at the largest scale—the new global economic system in which postcolonial Korea competes as an export manufacturer. Such fictional representations must be read neither for a one-to-one, transparent relationship to the city’s material spaces, nor as abstract, metaphorical textual inventions. As Balshaw and Kennedy write, more than simply tracing historical processes, “literary and visual representations of urbanism map the fears and fantasies of urban living, within which—through practices of reading and seeing—we all dwell” (6). Let us look more closely at the way figures of urban form offer themselves up for analysis both in general terms and with the New Asian City as our particular focus.

Without doubt, studies of architecture and urban form have been central to understandings of modernity, capitalism, industrial development, political formations, and—not least—aesthetic theories of modernism. We need only think of Walter Benjamin’s fascination with nineteenth-century Parisian life in The Arcades Project;  Gramsci’s tapping of history’s “fundamental motor forces” (98) through his analysis of the Italian city and countryside; Frantz Fanon’s devastating critique of colonial life in the “divided city” of The Wretched of the Earth  (discussed in chapter 1); and the dialectical development of capitalism traced by Raymond Williams in The Country and the City.  More recently, theories of postmodernism and globalization have come just as much from urban analysis as from literary or other cultural studies (for example, the work of David Harvey, Fredric Jameson, and Saskia Sassen). Perhaps all these studies could be summed up by Im Hŏn-yŏng’s claim that the city is “the cognitive object in the structure of conflict inherent in modern society” (Im 24). The wide range of disciplines these thinkers come from—literary studies, political theory, anthropology, social sciences—points to the way the city as object incites an endless multiplicity of ways of looking. Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe put it well:

A city (whether global or not) is not simply a string of infrastructures, technologies, and legal entities, however networked these are. It also comprises actual bodies, images, forms, footprints and memories. The everyday human labor mobilized in building specific city forms is not only material. It is also artistic and aesthetic. (“Introduction,” 8)


In other words, when looking at what Nuttall calls “city-ness,” we are dealing at once with the material built environment and various lived experiences of its inhabitants, as well as the many “images, forms, footprints and memories” that surround these.

Yet at the core of many literary analyses of city-ness is an assumption that the role of fictional texts is simply to show the realities of urban spaces and characters through description, that is, the nonspatial literary form is the transparent presenter of material external realities. The text provides accounts of streets, crowds, factories, shops, or shantytowns, as well as the types of people that inhabit them—the dandies, orphans, colonialists, natives, prostitutes, workers, and gamblers; we might think here of how the adjective Dickensian  connotes, above all, a particular kind of city scene. As Franco Moretti has put it, commenting on a range of twentieth-century city writers, “it is essentially through description  that the city penetrates literature, and literature our perception and understanding of the city” (Signs, 111). Literary description is certainly one way to answer the question of what “gets made” in the “act of summoning the city . . . into words” (Nuttall, 215). However, a more complex approach traces broader homologies between narrative form and urban environment, where, for example, the disjointed style of a novel echoes the fragmented status of a certain city. In this vein, Moretti traces how the essentials of modern urban experience have been taken up into narrative form along less descriptive lines. What Balzac’s great Parisian novels present are not so much convincing descriptions of the city’s spaces as the city’s social mobility narrated through the social system’s unexpected variables, twists of fate, and accompanying plot suspense and surprise (Moretti, Signs,  120). In this account, the result is that the physical city becomes not more perceptible, but less so: it “becomes the mere backdrop to the city as a network of developing social relationships” (112). The metropolis takes a backseat as mere setting, and the city (space) is subordinate to narrative (time). If indeed there is a multiplicity of ways of looking at urban form, what other ways can we understand the relationship between space and representation beyond either transparent description or as background to a plot? Throughout this book, I contend that the very distinction between material and literary, or physical and representational space, must be done away with.

To my thinking, the most helpful theorist to have moved to a more complex understanding of space is French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre. His great insight, outlined in his seminal The Production of Space, is that we need to understand how space is produced socially, and that this production involves a number of different registers simultaneously. For him, space is not merely an empty container for things: “space is neither a ‘subject’ nor an ‘object’ but rather a social reality . . . a set of relations and forms” (116). Consequently, any analysis of space must take into account three registers, which Lefebvre terms “the lived” (correlating to spatial practice), “the conceived” (representations of space), and “the perceived” (representational space). The first category, spatial practice, includes buildings, squares, monuments, and streets and the associated practices and competencies of their users—for example, “the daily life of a tenant in a government-subsidized high-rise housing project” (38). The second category, representations of space,  refers to “conceptualized space, the space of scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers” (38), the abstract, bureaucratic space of the drawing board and government office. Finally, representational space  is that “directly lived  through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of ‘inhabitants’ and ‘users,’ but also of some artists and perhaps a few of those, such as a few writers and philosophers, who describe  [it]” (39). Linking all three registers together is the “dialectical relationship which exists within the triad” (39). Lefebvre shows us that the essential reality of (social) space must exist at the material, practical, historical, ideological, and imaginative levels all at once. He thus helps dispel the simplistic opposition between material and imaginative spaces—as well as the arrow of determination from the former to the latter—allowing for a conception of representational or literary space as more than a descriptive window to the real world. His project is resolutely against the mental mapping of philosophical space (Cartesian, mathematical) on the one hand, and the study of things in space (architecture, urbanism, geography) on the other. As a result of the properly dialectical nature of Lefebvre’s thinking, his conceptual framework resists static oppositions or mere dualities, positing instead “the triplicate” of “mental imaging, perceptions of built forms, and social practice” (Gottdiener, 131). M. Gottdiener summarizes how, like Marx’s categories of money and commodities, Lefebvrian space is “both a material product of social relations (the concrete) and a manifestation of relations, a relation itself (the abstract)” (130). He thus notes the complex relationship between space, power, and the reproduction of social relations, the last of which, importantly, is reproduced primarily spatially under capitalism. Gottdiener goes on to note how Lefebvre’s work revolutionized urban sociology by introducing the notion that “space is both a medium of social relations and a material product that can affect social relations” (132); in other words, space is a means of production and also a means of control. This study takes seriously Lefebvre’s claim for the centrality of space in the production and reproduction of society, viewing it as an equally important topos for study as class, the commodity, or relations of production.

What exactly does this revolutionized way of thinking about space mean for literary and cultural analysis? One result is that it allows us to study space and built form simultaneously as discrete physical objects (a square, an apartment building, or a factory) and as concrete abstractions resulting from complex social and productive relations. The New Asian City makes use of Lefebvre’s insights by insisting on the spatial reality of textual representations.  Indeed, Lefebvre shows us how both “representations of space” (conceptualized, abstract space) and “representational space” (lived, imagined space) trade in mental processes, ideas, and imaginaries. The former

intervene in and modify spatial textures which are informed by effective knowledge and ideology. . . . Their intervention occurs by way of construction—in other words, by way of architecture, conceived of not as the building of a particular structure, palace or monument, but rather as a project embedded in a spatial context and a texture which call for “representations” that will not vanish into the symbolic or imaginary realms. (42)

“Representations of space” depend on acts of construction, but above all aim at a fixity of representation within certain ideological contexts and textures. Its most typical expression is the collusion of space and power under capitalism whereby space conceals (analogously to the commodity) the nature of its very production. “Representational space,” by contrast, is alive: it speaks. It has an affective kernel or centre: Ego, bed, bedroom, dwelling, house; or: square, church, graveyard. It embraces the loci of passion, of action and of lived situations, and thus immediately implies time. Consequently it may be qualified in various ways: it may be directional, situational or relational, because it is essentially qualitative, fluid and dynamic. (42)

Although Lefebvre warns against reifying the two terms (and repeatedly asks “what occupies the interstices between [them]?” [43]), this book is principally concerned with the overlapping struggle between representations of space and representational space comprising the heterogeneous contours of the New Asian City. That is, to move beyond the false coherence or givenness of urban forms, we must pay attention to both the interventions and homogenizing forces that fix them, as well as to the temporalities, the “loci of passion, of action and of lived situations” that unfix them. This means we can view architecture and the built environment at once as products of historical processes and as integral figural or narrative elements in the ordering and telling of these histories. Literary texts that foreground the built environment tell us not only about the immediate physical changes they explicitly narrate, but also about competing new and old relations, ideologies, and imaginaries deposited in architectural form. The story of our dwarf, for example, can be read as exploding the narrative of triumphant modernization into a variety of contested relations involving urban renewal, class exploitation, individual impoverishment, and postcolonial desires.

Another way to frame this inquiry is to appreciate more generally how three-dimensional changes in the social and urban system become registered in two-dimensional textual forms. Fredric Jameson has famously tackled the problem of connecting the inside and outside of the work in his widely influential book The Political Unconscious. He poses the question of how to open textual/literary analysis to the outside social world—for him, the “synchronic system of social relations as a whole”—without the work becoming merely a superstructural effect. In positing literature as a symbolic act, Jameson connects the fictional text to the Umwelt in such a manner that the latter is the “determinate situation, dilemma, contradiction, or subtext to which [the literary text] comes as a symbolic resolution or solution” (42). Developing Althusser’s critique of mechanical expressive causality, Jameson’s model is decidedly not one of homology, where one level (the material world) merely finds expression in another (the literary). Instead, the text has its own partial autonomy and acts, according to Macherey, as a mirror that does not “give a direct reproduction of any object” (134). Such a mirror is a necessarily broken mirror, revealing through “indirect figuration” some truth content of History (or the “absent cause” of the Real) to which we have no unmediated access. Jameson writes of this paradox: “the literary work or cultural object, as though for the first time, brings into being that very situation to which it is also, at one and the same time, a reaction” (Political Unconscious, 82).

This knotty concept becomes clearer when we recall that for Althusser, Macherey, and Jameson alike, History, the ultimate determining set of conditions, is nothing other than the prevailing mode of production—that Marxist term for both the means of production (machines, raw materials, and energy) and the relations of production (classes and the reproduction of class structures). The social ground for every text is the structuring mode of production, a totality that by definition can never be apprehended in itself or all at once, just as a given language cannot be apprehended all at once but only through selected utterances. The aesthetic whole of the text stands in for this totality, registering and picking up on aspects of its various structural contradictions and ideologies. What Jameson and Macherey articulate is the active role of literary representation as one system in a mutual relationship with other systems: it provides access to processes of the social world that otherwise could not be perceived. It is not therefore a text’s accuracy or correlation to physical reality that interests me, but how the very contradictions of spatial formations are narrated and imagined in it. By seeing the text as a symbolic solution that reflects an invisible structure, we are able to tap into the elusive spatiality that defines any historical mode or production. In other words, while there is no unmediated, total view of all the processes and forces making up South Korea’s new urban landscape, the dwarf’s plight expresses a cluster of spatial ideologies, discourses, practices, and relations that are integral to Seoul as both physical and social fact.

Late Capitalism and Postcolonial Modernity

Now what of the New Asian City? Is there something specific to the forms of fictional representation that emerge in those nations embarking on independent modernity at such unprecedented speed? First we must note that the social and productive processes embedded in its built forms are determined in part by global processes; that is, as former colonies, they include the material and ideological differential of core–periphery in the development described above by Ahmad. To understand the etiology of this differential, let us recall in some detail Ernest Mandel’s seminal account of Late Capitalism  (1972, 1975), where the postwar era marks a third and fundamentally different stage of capitalism’s career. Following the earlier periods of free competition (prior to 1880) and “classical” imperial capitalism (1880–1940), the 1960s and 1970s saw the beginnings of a new relationship between the metropolitan, or formerly imperial, countries and the periphery. The imperial period, while bringing the nonimperial countries into the sphere of the world market, had the general effect not of stimulating capitalist industrial development there, but of destroying native industries for the production of raw materials, foodstuffs, and cheap labor for the metropole’s needs. In Mandel’s words, capitalist economic growth is defined as “the juxtaposition and constant combination of development and underdevelopment. The accumulation of capital itself produces development and underdevelopment as mutually determining moments of the uneven and combined movement of capital” (85, emphasis in original). In so-called late capitalism, following the period of decolonization, the simple extraction of colonial surplus profits is replaced by unequal exchange and the shift of investments in industrial production to certain of the newly decolonized countries. With the rise of the multinational company, the production of surplus values (that is, profit) now takes place internationally, “in actual manufacturing industry, outside the domain of raw materials” (324). The differently valued labor-power of underdeveloped countries—“the fact that the labour of industrialized countries counts as more intensive” (351)—results in unequal exchange and a new means of the “transfer of value” to the multinational capitalist players. Evidence of such a shift is arguably played out most clearly in the Asia Pacific region, where Japanese and U.S. multinationals, along with military–strategic U.S. loans, ushered in the region’s new industrialization. Mandel notes, for example, the shift in production of transistor devices, textiles, and watches for the U.S. and Japanese markets to South Korea, Formosa (Taiwan), Hong Kong, and Singapore, among others (373). Multinational firms are interested not only in new rates of profit, but in securing “future mastery of these markets” (347). Late Capitalism thus explains how the export of machines and technology to such locations expresses a new phase in global capitalism, which cannot be understood “merely as a ‘tactical’ response to the liberation movements in the colonies and semi-colonies” (347). Instead, we understand how the expansion of capitalism relies on development in selected parts of the third world and continued underdevelopment in others. That Mandel describes these transitions and shifts as “complementary movements of a single, worldwide process of capital accumulation” (363) need not prevent us from acknowledging the myriad of specific social, cultural, and spatial forms through which such apparently totalizing processes occur. The “single, worldwide process” of capital is paradoxically always made up of multiple movements, heterogeneous events, and contradictory tendencies.

At a basic level, then, we must recognize the complementary processes occurring between the metropole and certain regions of the periphery: the shift to postindustrial Western societies is predicated on the shift from colonial or semi-industrial modes of production toward industrial ones in these other regions. Processes of development and industrialization are therefore emphatically not mere imitations or belated versions of those occurring in the metropole, but internally linked. This book’s focus on New Asian City aesthetic production of the 1960s to 1970s corresponds to the consolidating moment of Mandel’s third stage, or late capitalism, and my analysis is invested in tracing these local forms and responses to a larger, uneven force field of global capitalism. As Jameson glosses, this stage of capitalism is actually “the purest form of capital yet to have emerged” because it “eliminates the enclaves of precapitalist organization it had hitherto tolerated and exploited in a tributary way” (Postmodernism, 36). Part of the New Asian City’s elusive spatiality, therefore, must be accounted for by its role in the process Mandel describes. Otherwise, in the celebratory discourse of the Pacific Rim, “the United States, Japan, the East Asian NICs [newly industrializing countries], and the second tier of developing Pacific Rim nations (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, coastal China) are linked in a Rim that is an imagining of transnational capital, a co-prosperity sphere” (Connery, 36). Rob Wilson and Arif Dirlik have challenged the boosterlike logic of this expansion by examining the people and places in the Pacific that get left out of this geopolitical imaginary. My own approach, complementary to theirs, looks critically at the spatial contradictions and connections within a kind of development whose historical specificity must move beyond invocations of third world miracles and tigers.

Thus, one goal of this book is to enable, for the Asia Pacific, a “crossscalar synthesis” (Soja, “Socio-Spatial Dialectic,” 211) of the sociospatial dialectic that Lefebvre’s work opens up for us. Soja, like Mandel and Manuel Castells, is interested in how vertical spatial relations of urban classes are overlaid with a second, horizontal spatial system of center–periphery relations. Glossing Lefebvre, Soja argues that the dominant relations in capitalist production

are not reproduced in society as a whole but in space as a whole, a concretized and produced space which has been progressively occupied by advanced capitalism, fragmented into parcels, homogenized into discrete commodities, organized into the locations of control, and extended to the global scale. (215)

What The New Asian City does, via analyses of literature and film, is trace the way built forms, taken up into textual form, are informed by both local relations of production and the broader “center-periphery structure” (209). Examining fictions that deal with the Asia Pacific at a particular historical moment is one way to investigate the “cross-scalar” nature of the production of space.

If I have used Lefebvre, Jameson, and Mandel to think about ways of reading imbrications of the social, architectural, and the global, I turn to Walter Benjamin to consider how moments of massive technical, industrial, and urban change are conceived and imagined as processes of modernity. Benjamin’s fascination with Second Empire Paris in The Arcades Project may be explained by the technological—rather than political—revolution of that historical moment that followed the failure of the 1848 uprisings. Advances in steel and glass manufacturing as well as the mass production of commodities transformed the way Parisians occupied buildings, went shopping, consumed goods, and moved through the city’s spaces. Developing his own distinct philosophy of historical materialism, Benjamin regards the innovations of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism as potentially harboring within them the seeds of a revolutionary new social order. He describes how the new technologies function as something like a text: on their very surfaces are written conflicting and competing images. For example, new iron technology—the first “artificial building material” to appear—is at first cast into the familiar load-bearing form of classical columns, and only later used in ways more expressive of its construction in structures like arcades or railway stations. New building materials elicit multiple expressive possibilities and interpretations that correspond to “images in the collective consciousness in which the old and new interpenetrate” (4). Crucially, this very moment of conflicting images arising with new architectural forms also releases the desire to move beyond them:

These images are wish images; in them the collective seeks both to overcome and to transfigure the immaturity of the social product and the inadequacies in the social organization of production. At the same time, what emerges in these wish images is the resolute effort to distance oneself from all that is antiquated—which includes, however, the recent past. These tendencies deflect the imagination (which is given impetus by the new) back upon the primal past. In the dream in which each epoch entertains images of its successor, the latter appears wedded to elements of primal history “Urgeschichte”—that is, to elements of a classless society. And the experiences of such a society—as stored in the unconscious of the collective—engender, through interpenetration with what is new, the utopia that has left its trace in a thousand configurations of life, from enduring edifices to passing fashions. (4–5)

If such passages, along with Benjamin’s studies of Baudelaire, are among the most influential theorizations of European modernity—“the resolute effort to distance oneself from all that is antiquated” as it is summarized here—how might we read the distinctively postcolonial moment of massive technological advancement and its attendant desires? There is, I argue, a curious parallel between the twentieth-century New Asian City and the Second Empire Paris Benjamin describes: both are moments of incredible modernization that were not, however, socially revolutionary periods. Nineteenth-century France witnessed the momentous introduction of new technologies under Louis Napoleon’s reactionary Second Empire, while in the New Asian City we see the shift from colonial territory to independent nation along with the consolidation of neocolonial authoritarian rule. Where the temporality of modernity paradoxically rejects the past yet leaps back to the “primal past” or Urgeschichte, we might think of the similarly paradoxical invocation of precolonial pasts made by many postcolonial nations striving for modernity. This primal past is not a dateable, historical past but is imagined as the moment of utopia before colonial time, invasion, and its technologies, and it has as its correlate an as yet unrealized version of the modern postcolonial nation.For this reason, postcolonial modernity can also be understood as “seek[ing] both to overcome and to transfigure the immaturity of the social product and the inadequacies in the social organization of production.” In this moment of old–new interpenetration, we can similarly detect “the utopia that has left its trace in a thousand configurations of life.”

Yet I contend the technological and spatial shifts of the New Asian City go beyond the extent of those in Second Empire Paris. As Kipnis and other architectural theorists have described with their own vocabulary, the primacy of new urban forms and relations characterize the New Asian Cities’ mode of production as that in which space itself must be produced anew: “we have passed from the production of things in space  to the production of space itself  ” (Lefebvre qtd. in Elden, 94). For the works I examine in this book, contradictions around the mode of production and its symbolic expressions—those competing “wish images”—are primarily to do with the effort to create new space. Struggles over the creation of new urban and national spaces constitute the social, material, and ideological world that is imperfectly incorporated by fictional texts. Such texts of the New Asian City thus invoke and rearrange images and ideologies of space—both old and new—into a state of temporary turmoil, where the reconciliation of such images, and the possible surpassing of them, are the very tasks of the aesthetic impulse. Three-dimensional forms are not merely narrativized into static descriptions of types or shapes of buildings, people, or things; they become the curiously shifting three-dimensional fictions that use built spaces as simultaneously literal and figurative objects. As we have seen above, the built environment is a prime locus for the lodging of desires and fantasies, both individual and collective. At the same time, these forms bear an indexical relationship to the absent social and political forces that go into their making. To evoke Cho’s story once more, the scene on the smokestack constellates individual, classed, gendered, national, and even international relations with reference to a single urban image: the stunted figure atop a factory building. Such textualizations reveal a complexity far beyond the use of built forms as flat description such that the text itself, when tapped for these layers, becomes three-dimensional. Urban forms and their textualizations both reflect our desires and show us our history. I have argued that what is specific to the New Asian City’s mode of production is its dramatic spatial transformation enabled partly by its position in the global economy. We will see that what is common to many New Asian City texts is the foregrounding of urban and architectural processes as the principal social forces in which these works are produced. Accordingly, I read such fictions for the way they stage and work through a range of contradictions specific to the New Asian City, especially the antinomies between colony/metropole, country/city, body/building, public/private, and nation/globe. In other words, this book traces the spatialized processes of Asia Pacific development that constitute just some of the many historical transitions from colony to postcolony.

The Chapters

As expected, not every text will take on all, or even just a few, of the many codes and historical contradictions that constitute the social reality of these cities. Rather, each chapter groups together several texts that share a logic of space in terms of a determinate literary strategy. My goal is not to provide an exhaustive survey of all cultural production from these three sites in the period (an impossible task for one book) but to bring together selected texts—novels, short stories, poetry, films—that foreground spatial and urban transformation in the most provocative and illuminating ways. In doing so, this study is firmly indebted to a transdisciplinary methodology: it moves back and forth between empirical histories of urban developments on the one hand, and textual analyses of fiction, poetry, and film on the other.

The book is organized into three parts, each with a different scalar focus: “Colonial Cities,” “Postwar Urbanism,” and “Industrializing Landscapes.” Part 1’s chapter 1, “Imagining the Colonial City,” sets up a conceptual base for the following analyses by tracing colonial urban development in historical and theoretical terms. How have colonial cities been theorized in terms of global modernity, capitalism, and imperialism? What can a postcolonial perspective bring to the existing debates, and how does bringing East and Southeast Asia to these debates challenge existing theories? Chapter 2 examines literary representations of the Manichean spaces of the colonial capital and explores how such logic is activated in both new realist narrative styles and the abstract description of early modernist texts. Rather than arguing for the inaugural moment of either realism or modernism in Taiwanese and Korean colonial literature, I am interested in how the blatant discrepancy between metropolitan and colonial spaces is staged in colonial writing, especially in Wu Zhuoliu’s Orphan of Asia, Yŏm Sang-sŏp’s Mansejŏn, and Yi Sang’s The Wings.

I use two short transitions to contextualize the literary and cinematic analyses of the book. The first Transition, moving to the period immediately following decolonization, offers a more in-depth account of uneven development and underdevelopment (Amin, Frank, and others), export production, and its economic and spatial shaping of these countries. Part 2, “Postwar Urbanism,” then deals with the newly rationalized spatial logic of the city expressed in urban renewal processes, high-rise apartment living, and the production and reproduction of labor forms that accompanied the shift to export-oriented production. The analysis is taken from two perspectives, the exterior and interior, respectively. Chapter 3 traces the literary assimilation of the high-rise building as a metonymical device for government and global capitalist alliances. It examines short fiction by Goh Poh Seng, Cho Se-hŭi, and Huang Chunming. Chapter 4 examines the role of the privatized interior in framing the disappearing female subject in works by Kang Sŏk-kyŏng, Su Weizhen, and Su-chen Christine Lim. Together, these two chapters explore the way urban systems and the modes of labor they require actively produce, via distinct narrative tropes and strategies, ways of imagining individual subjectivities.

The second Transition briefly examines the implications of a developmentalist orientation for both official and alternative nationalisms via theorizations of the postcolonial nation (Castells, Cheah, Fanon, and Anderson). Following this, the three chapters constituting part 3, “Industrializing Landscapes,” each explore in detail one New Asian City site and a representative aesthetic genre. Here I am less interested in a symmetrical account of cultural production in each country than in a sustained analysis of the interactions between local political and economic conditions and a particular aesthetic form, which I choose for its unique resonance with the discourses of official nationalism. If part 2 is concerned with how individuals are reimagined against the background of the new productionoriented city, part 3 is interested in how collectivities are figured in terms of the nation-space as a newly productive space, where regions are linked for the fluid transportation of goods and laboring bodies. Chapter 5 analyses the political discourse of Lee Kuan Yew in contrast to the (anti)nationalistic poetics of Edwin Thumboo and Arthur Yap, while chapter 6 examines tropes of migration and transportation in Taiwanese New Cinema and the early work of Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Finally, in chapter 7, I look at Korean popular minjung literature and the work of Hwang Sŏk-yŏng as a response to dictator Park Chung Hee’s prescriptions for national productivity and growth. In all three of the chapters of part 3, I argue that official nationalist discourses and fictional forms struggle over the appropriate relationship between new spaces and human communities.

Again and again, this book will show that the discordant spaces of the New Asian City encode other histories, struggles, and desires that make up what we call modernity.


Book Information

Publication Date: 
December 01, 2011
Number of Pages: 


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Postcolonial Spatialities

Ato Quayson