Heritage and Memory in Copenhagen: 8th International ADI conference

What makes certain practices and sites cultural heritage? This week I took part in a very interesting panel on ‘Heritagizing Asia: The politics of time and space in Asian cities’, part of this year’s Asian Dynamics Initiative international conference in Copenhagen.

salamanca_-_patrimonio_de_la_humanidad_-_world_heritageVietnam scholar and Professor of anthropology, Oscar Salemink came up with the idea of using the verb form of the word heritage – heritagization as a process rather than something which is merely there to be recognised and preserved. As it came out in our discussions, heritagization seems to be quite a complex process of simultaneous construction and selective erasure, taking place from the present cultural political context, directed towards the past, for preservation into the future.

Several interesting and thought-provoking examples of ambiguous and problematic issues of heritage came out during the ten presentations. Anthropologists Bente Wolff and Caroline Lillelund, who talked about the local reactions to the restoration of Danish colonial buildings in India, touched upon an interesting if unintentional effect of heritage preservation: The preservation of the empty space surrounding a heritage building, which seemed to be even more treasured by the local populace. If certain practices can be recognized as intangible cultural heritage that needs to be preserved, can empty space as room for such practices also be included?

12304183263_c248552c90_bUrban geographer, Rishika Mukhopadhyay described how the idol makers of Kumartuli became the victims of their own heritagization, when their workshops were demolished in order to create a more suitable site for their heritage craft. Apart from the plight of the craftsmen now having lived in ‘temporary’ exile from their homes for more than six years, this understanding of heritage as something that can be contained and detached from its spatio-temporal context, acutely problematizes the distinction between material and intangible heritage.

Professor of Modern China Studies, Marina Svensson’s paper about the development of Nanluoguxiang 南锣鼓巷 and the creation as well as commercialization of heritage neighbourhoods in Beijing reminded us to transgress the visual bias and include more senses when engaging in cultural research.

taipei_101_from_afarMy own presentation dealt with the relation between memory and heritage. I read Zhu Tianxin’s 朱天心 novella ‘Old Capital’ 古都 from this perspective, discovering that in the instance of this fictional investigation of Taipei, the notion of heritage preservation detached from lived experience could be as problematic as heritage destruction. In this work, preservation as a nostalgic project that excludes complicated or painful memories risk removing urban heritage from the citizens, producing alienation rather than a sense of belonging.

Lena Scheen on Shanghai myths

The Bund, Shanghai, 1880

This August Assistant Professor Lena Scheen of NYU Shanghai visited Copenhagen to talk about Shanghai. One of her most interesting points were to do with the narratives involved in producing the image of Shanghai as a new and vibrant global city.

Scheen identified two myths concerning the origins of Shanghai city. One has it that Shanghai was nothing but a small fishing village until the British settled there 160 years ago. In reality Shanghai had been an important city for Chinese trade for centuries, but this narrative represents Shanghai as a young city, cosmopolitan from the very beginning.

Manhattan, New York, ca. 1931

The second myth has to do with the so-called ‘Pudong Miracle’. In 1993 Pudong became a special economic zone, and the radical transformation of its cityscape began. Scheen explained how highrise landscapes were originally the result of limited space for urban expansion on a horizontal level (such as on Manhattan Island in the 1920s), and only later became symbols of the global city. But in Shanghai it was the other way around.

Pudong, Shanghai, today

When the Pudong skyline was begun in the 1990s, 80% of the buildings were empty. The strategy was criticized for constructing a mere facade, for trying to build the shell of a global business metropolis and then hope vainly that the shell would fill out itself. The surprising thing is that it worked.

As with the fishing village myth, this narrative claims that Pudong was just empty countryside before the ‘miracle’. It ignores that at least 52.000 households were moved in order for the impressive new skyline to take form.

In her book Shanghai Literary Imaginings, Scheen traces both these myths through various works of fiction about Shanghai. Among other things, she finds that real memories of pre-1990s Pudong as a residential area, and myths of its ‘miracle’ creation can live happily – if contradictory – side by side in Shanghai people’s understanding of their city.

For more wondeful images and maps of old Shanghai visit Virtual Shanghai.

Revolutionary Squares: Yu Hua’s Tiananmen and Tahrir

yu huaReading Yu Hua‘s 余华 China in Ten Words 十个词汇里的中国 I was struck (as many others must have been before me) with his nostalgic description of Beijing in the spring of 1989, a few months before what has since been referred to as the ‘Tiananmen Incident’ 天安门事件 or ‘June Fourth Incident‘ 六四事件.

He writes: “It was a Beijing we are unlikely to see again. A common purpose and shared aspirations put a police-free city in perfect order. As you walked down the street you felt a warm, friendly atmosphere around you. You could take the subway or a bus for free, and everyone was smiling at one another, barriers down […] Beijing then was a city where, you could say, ‘all men are brothers.'” (Yu Hua: China in Ten words, translated by Allan H. Barr. New York, Pantheon Books: 2011. pp. 7)

This description immediately put me in mind of the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the early spring of 2011. Many protesters and commentators of the time wrote of the same feeling of brotherhood, the same symbolic power of the place and in the same romanticized narrative style as Yu Hua in his relation of the protests leading up to the Tiananmen Incident.

Slavoj Žižek wrote: The most sublime moment occurred when Muslims and Coptic Christians engaged in common prayer on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, chanting ‘We are one!’ […] the protesters’ call to the army, and even the hated police, was not ‘Death to you!’, but ‘We are brothers! Join us!'” (Slavoj Žižek in The Guardian, Thursday 10 February 2011)

Though these two cases vary very much in outcome, the urban square as a site for democratic protest links them together.  The square as a physical place for gathering, as well as a symbolic space for the creation of a common narrative, is a powerful democratic tool. No wonder the Bahrain government saw fit to demolish the Pearl Square to prevent protesters from gathering there.

Again I become aware how deeply the reader is part of the inter-human contract that we name literature, and how one’s immediate social and historical context cannot fail to determine or at least flavour the reading of a given text. And again I am forced to admit that there is no such thing as a pure text, nor an original meaning to be conveyed. All the more reason to read good books over and over again!