SEAARC Symposium Abstract 10: “Constructing ‘Asia’ and the ‘West’: Discourses of Orientalism and Occidentalism in Early 20th Century Building Journals”

by Dr. Cecilia Chu, University of Hong Kong

The past two decades has seen a significant growth of academic and popular publications on architecture of Asia. In tandem with this development is the continual broadening of the scope of architectural history education, wherein selective “non-Western” urban forms and building traditions have now become standardized components of many textbooks and survey courses. These changes have been shaped in part by the increased engagement of architectural scholars with critical approaches borrowed from the humanities and socials sciences, particularly postcolonial and poststructuralist theories, which have helped unsettle longstanding Eurocentric narratives in conventional art and architectural historiographies. At the same time, the growing interest in architecture in Asia is propelled by more widespread enthusiasms in “Asian” civilizations and achievements amidst the anticipated arrival of the “Asian century.” Meanwhile, the uneven development within the Asian region itself, most notably between the wealthier nations in East and Southeast Asia and their poorer, less “modernized” counterparts elsewhere, has led to self-conscious efforts to associate with or differentiate one region from another, as well as scripting of new narratives of “Asian modernities” that rival or bypass the “West.”

Despite these shifting political and geographical contours, the notions “Asia” and the “West” have remained stable vocabularies in mainstream media and everyday language. As Alastair Bonnet point out in his discussion of the invention of Occidentalism, the unity of “Asia” derives from its historical and contemporary role as Europe’s “civilizational Other.” (Bonnett, 2006). Although ideas of Asia have long been associated with Europe’s colonial projects, they were developed in relationship with constructions of the “West” from within Asia as a more or less unified entity, whereas different geographical visions were employed and deployed within and through narratives of Asian modernities by local actors. Building on Bonnett’s insights, this paper considers how changing visions of “Asia” and the “West” had been conceived in the writings of architecture and the built environment in the first half of the 20th century. Specifically, it will examine three professional journals published in Hong Kong, whose own economic and geopolitical relation with East and Southeast Asia underwent dramatic shifts in this period. The first is a long-running newspaper supplement on building trade initiated during the recession in the mid 1920s. The second is a Chinese language trade magazine published in the late 1930s with the purpose to professionalize local contracting businesses. The third is a building journal which was renamed several times over its career: first as “The Hong Kong and South China Builder” in the 1930s, as “The Hong Kong and Far East Builder” in the 1940s, and subsequently as “Asian Building and Construction” in the 1950s. While much of their content were devoted to modern building technologies, all three journals made substantial references to and comments on emerging architectural projects in East and Southeast Asia and included regular featured articles that discussed the meanings of architectural modernism and its relationship with various cultures and building traditions of the past. By examining these narratives, this paper will elucidate the utility and malleability of the conceptions of “Asia” and the “West” and how they were significantly shaped by specific historical trajectories. It will illustrate the key role that architecture played in the wider construction of Orientalism and Occidentalism in the early 20th century as well as the dialectic processes entailed in these practices.


Cecilia Chu is Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Design at The University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include history and theory of architecture and planning, comparative urbanism, heritage conservation, cultural landscapes, and interdisciplinary approaches to the study of the built environment. Before joining HKU, Cecilia has taught at the Department of Architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, the School of Design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the Architectural Conservation Programme at The University of Hong Kong. She has also been involved with several NGOs on policy research relating to urban design and heritage conservation. Her writings have been published in leading academic journals, including Urban Studies, Habitat International, Design Issues, Journal of Historical Geography, and Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review. Recent publications include two book chapters on Hong Kong’s urban history, published by Ashgate and the Hong Kong University Press.

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