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The Concrete Dragon

Thomas J. Campanella

China's Urban Revolution and What it Means for the World

(Princeton Architectural Press)

The statistics alone in The Concrete Dragon hit like an avalanche. Shanghai had almost no modern office high-rises in 1980, but today there are more than twice the number in New York City! China has 102 cities with more than a million residents compared to just nine in the US! China has the world’s biggest airport! The world’s largest shopping mall! The world’s biggest automobile showroom, gated community, bowling alley, and skateboard park! And so it goes. Within pages, the reader is inundated with the kind of stats that shock and awe when contemplating the economic powerhouse that is China. (Statistic: It’s the world’s third largest economy and may soon eclipse Germany for number two!)


However, Thomas J. Campanella’s masterful study of China’s rapid and remarkable urbanization since 1980 also manages to humanize the story of the transformation of China’s once sleepy cities and largely rural population into a model of 22nd century-style architecture. Not only does Campanella describe with vivid detail the changing urban space, but also the changing population of China’s cities.


His description of the so-called ‘Nail House’, a lone dwelling in Chongqing amidst rubble in the center of high-rises, emphasizes the human cost of such staggering growth. The ‘Nail House’ captured the public’s imagination in China because it represented what had been denied so many millions of other urban residents: the right to stay in their ancestral homes. While all other homeowners had been forced to move, the Wu family refused, staying in their tiny dwelling even after authorities cut their power, their water, and threatened them with fines and jail time.


In the end in 2007, the family did have to move—no one beats the State in China—but their symbolic hold-out against the odds captured a national feeling that homes and people were being replaced, and while spectacular, modern skyscrapers were built in their stead, the destruction of the alley-way homes, traditional wooden houses, and family compounds of old China meant the loss of a history and sense of culture that could not be easily replaced.


Campanella also describes the lives of the migrant workers, underpaid and with no legal status in the cities in which they work.  They build the skyscrapers, clean their windows, and maintain their structures, often for very little pay under extremely dangerous work conditions. Indeed, anyone who has seen the bamboo scaffolding covering a newly minted skyscraper in one of China’s mega-cities has only to squint to see the ant-like figures clinging to the platforms as they are buffeted by wind and dust storms.


Campanella, a professor of urban planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, describes the new skylines of China from Shanghai to Beijing to Guangzhou with an expert’s eye and novelist’s wit. The Concrete Dragon is not just exceptionally well-researched, it is a fascinating read and Campenella’s prose is sparkling.


It also helps that he appreciates the Chinese people’s sense of humor. He cites Beijingers’ description of the new Beijing Grand National Theater, designed by French architect Paul Andreu, as the ‘turtle egg’, which is a local obscenity roughly akin to ‘bastard’ although actually more insulting. He also proves that in the world of verbal smack-downs no one beats the Cantonese. Hong Kong’s first high-rise office building, Jardine House, was built in 1973 by British architects who tried to incorporate a chinoiserie motif into their skyscraper by using round windows on all four sides of the 54-story building. For their efforts, the Cantonese ended up dubbing the singularly curious tower, ‘House of a Thousand Assholes’.


The environmental cost of China’s building frenzy is also examined in the book, along with its implications for China and the world. Here again Campanella brings out some startling statistics: China’s total greenhouse gas emissions were only 42 percent of that produced by the United States in 2001; by 2006, China’s emissions were roughly 97 percent of the US total. . . and growing rapidly. Furthermore, pollution of China’s rivers has led to the extinction of at least one known mammal, the once-abundant river dolphin known as the baiji. Acrid smog, yellow haze, dust and other pollutants now clog the air of most Chinese cities. The human toll in terms of cancer and upper respiratory illnesses is not yet quantifiable.


The book ends on a hopeful note in that Campanella points out that China has its own nascent green movement and is investing in solar, wind and other alternative power sources. Whether China’s green revolution has come in time to save it, and the rest of the planet, from its urban revolution is impossible to predict.

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May-lee Chai is a writer and educator. She has lived in 14 states in the US and four countries. (She has visited many other countries, as well.) She is the author of five books, most recently Hapa Girl: A Memoir, and one book-length translation (from Chinese to English). A former reporter for the Associated Press, May-lee has published in traditional newspapers, academic journals, literary journals, and print magazines.


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