SEAARC Symposium Abstract 17: “In serving Chinese Modernity: The Rise and Fall of Singaporean Architecture in Contemporary China 1980 – 2000”

by Dr. Xiao Jing, City University of Hong Kong

This paper examines the Chinese government’s brief period of acquiring architectural modernity from Singapore during the last two decades of twentieth century in order to contribute to its own national identity. Behind China’s contemporary architecture was a political aspiration for modernity, which was acquired through the introduction of foreign designs after the implementation of the Opening-up Policy in 1978. As a consequence of this practice, China introduced a new round of cultural fabrication – the so-called  ‘advanced socialist culture’ – through the use of  high-tech megastructure as a new symbol of the nation.

It was evident that the Chinese government tried to learn from its precursors during this process. It was of critical importance to the Chinese government that the modernity achieved was compatible with China’s authoritarian political system. As such, Singapore’s experience became a suitable model, and this can be observed in two ways. First, official documents and policies prepared by both China’s central and provincial governments indicated a clear preference for Singapore’s architectural and urban model in the development of cultural facilities like museums, theaters, universities, exhibition centers, etc. For instance, Shenzhen’s yearly blueprints of urban development indicated that this pioneer capitalist city of China had referenced Singapore as a successful case of civic modernity in cultural development. Second, the paper enlists a number of Singapore’s architectural design companies, that made up a comparative large proportion of the total number of foreign design firms who were increasingly involved in China’s design practice. It is also a known phenomenon that, in most cases, even if a Western architectural firm was commissioned to design a project, Singaporean architects always acted as the on-site consultants. The paper draws on the example of the Singaporean architect Kevin Sim, the chief architect who transformed Shanghai’s Xintiandi, completed in 2003, into the paradigmatic modern entertainment complex in contemporary China. Through this example, the paper argues that Singapore’s success in advancing her skills in urban redevelopment, high-technology and green architecture had given an opportunity for China’s contemporaries to define their architectural modernization.

However, this situation has changed since the new millennium when Singaporean architecture lost its leading position in China. There may be two reasons for this: first, the maturation and rise of the local design firms over the past twenty years of development; second, the closer collaboration between China and the West, which provided local clients with a new understanding to the possibilities of foreign designs.

This paper seeks to understand this transition and its mechanism in modernizing China. It is the aim of the paper to demonstrate that Singapore’s post-colonial modern architecture helped China to fabricate a new cultural identity through the means of architectural design while it was ironically ‘deserted’ in name of China’s further prosperity.

Short biography

Dr. Jing XIAO is a Postdoctoral fellow in History of Architecture at City University of Hong Kong. He received a M. Arch from Tongji University (2007), China and a Ph.D in history of architecture from the University of Nottingham (2013) with his thesis on the tradition of Chinese visual representation of architecture.  Funded by U21 PhD prize, he joined as a graduate trainee to the Group of Architectural History and Theory at McGill University (2010). He works on the transformation of Asian post-war architecture and urban Chinese cities, with special focus on Hong Kong. He also has particular interests in art history, and history of cultural exchange, science, and technology. After joining the seminar at Villa I Tatti, the Harvard Centre for Renaissance Studies at Florence (2014), he was invited to Harvard Shanghai Centre to present a paper relating to the early Jesuit architecture in China. He has written for Habitat International and Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes.

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