Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

炫国 | Bling Kingdom

Guangzhou at night is an unnatural wonder. During the day it is usually grey, pinned under a blanket of smog produced by the coal-burning factories that surround the city. Its buildings, typically painted in the happy-go-lucky tones of the tropics, are faded and soot-covered. At night it all disappears.

On my first visit, I was taken for a walk along the Pearl River, Guangzhou’s main artery. The sun was going down and taking with it the city’s dreary daytime features. A parade of neon-covered boats floated by, each flaunting a different aesthetic – one severe and angular, like a Stealth bomber, another monumental and culturally confused, like a Sino-Viking warship – all enamelled in crayon fluorescence à la Tron. Inside and on the decks, people were eating, drinking and singing. The water beneath rippled in purple, yellow, red and blue, turning the river into a wobbly canvas for electro art.

As we walked further, the crowds on the bank grew denser and more animated. Along the pavement, couples and small families snuggled on blankets next to portable radios. There were benches every few metres occupied by nursing mothers, half-dressed fathers with flat tops, and young lovers with wet, intertwined legs. Old men drank and played cards and mah jong. A group of women practised a choreographed dance. Against the strobed colours radiating from the river, the scene had the feel of an open-air nightclub.

Across the water, the entire city seemed to be glowing. Pink and yellow searchlights crisscrossed the sky. An office building beamed out a sequence of 10-m-high characters that added up to ‘Harmonious Society’, followed by a gigantic smiley face. Another building, clad completely in LED panels, showed a slide show of rainbows, nationalist imagery and cartoon animals. Coming from cynical, anxiety-ridden Europe, I found the unaffected optimism and simplicity of message almost heartbreaking. In the distance I could see an entire block radiating pastel colours and was overcome by a primordial urge to be among the lights. I crossed the river for a better look.

I stayed in Guangzhou for a week and spent most of the time trying to get to the bottom of the city’s love affair with light. Neon sets the decorative tone in many parts of Asia and in several cities in the West, of course. Bangkok, Tokyo, Vegas and Times Square all come to mind immediately. I was told by one Shenzhen-based architect that the light-work visible throughout the Pearl River Delta derives directly from Hong Kong. ‘In the ’80s,’ she told me, ‘we started to get Hong Kong movies that showed a lot of neon and tall buildings, so that became a kind of standard for what modernity and success should look like.’ But in Guangzhou, its use felt different, at once more complete and less rational. What else could account for it? Why is the scale so much greater? What does it deliver?

I asked a lot of people these questions during my stay and got back a different answer from almost everyone. Daisy Chan, a magazine editor, connected all the light to Canton’s legendary street food. ‘The xiao ye (‘night meal’) culture comes from Guangzhou. Because the weather is warm, people eat outside. I think the lights try to encourage that and turn the city into a big restaurant.’ Hui Wang, an architect, seemed to agree: ‘Chinese people like to feel like they’re always celebrating, and neon and blinking lights give that feeling.’ Lei Yang, an event organizer, put it down to private enterprise. ‘The developers who own these buildings want attention,’ he told me. ‘They use the lights as a form of advertising without a hard message.’

The brightening effects of private business on Guangzhou’s public face became more obvious once I’d left the kid-friendly atmosphere of the riverside. On Chang Di Da Ma Lu – a strip of nightclubs, 24-hour spas and karaoke bars – I finally found the glowing core that had set me off originally. From a distance, the area had looked pretty, like a 21st-century City of Oz, but up close the strip was harsh and oversaturated. Each venue was trying to outshine its neighbours, even the 7-11. Confronted with so much blinking and throbbing and neon buzzing, so many clashing colours and stray snatches of synth-based music, I had a hard time focusing. I walked to 7-11 and bought a beer.

In China, there is an admiration of bigness,’ I was told by Zhuchen Mao, an urban planner who works in Shanghai planning the 2010 World Expo. She drew out mei, the Chinese word for ‘beauty’, on a napkin. ‘Mei is made by combining the characters for “big” and “sheep”, so you can see that bigness is written into the Chinese concept of beauty. This also applies to the way shops decorate themselves. In Europe, the higher end the shop, the smaller the letters on its sign. In China, it’s the opposite.’

With its logogrammatic language and affection for slogans, China is a culture of signs. Factory walls, classrooms, public toilets, offices, streets and rooftops are adorned with chains of characters that advertise and advise. In the commercial realm, the power of one’s signage symbolizes the strength of the business. In the pre-electronic age, China’s most successful businesses identified themselves with golden characters. The shimmer of these signs anticipated the twinkling of LEDs, and to this day the phrase jin zi zhao pai (literally ‘gold lettered signboard’) is used as an expression of greatness and innovation.

Drink in hand, I left the shop and walked to a club. Along its façade, three columns of short, densely packed neon tubes were flickering rainbow colours in gentle, synchronized waves. Letters in the centre read ‘FEEL’. I felt strangely soothed. Rows of luxury cars were lined up in the car park out front. Refractions of coloured light bounced off them at weird angles. On the pavement, the mood was not festive. Hawkers and hookers marched back and forth. An aluminium chair was being violently broken down for spare parts. Next to me, a tortured macaque bounced side to side, tied to an old man who seemed to be constructed entirely of garlic. An eight-year-old girl pleaded with me to buy a rose, while a toddler (her brother?) hugged my leg. He moaned, ‘Money…’

China’s rise is thrilling, but it is not pretty. It is full of human suffering, alienation and longing. Over the past two decades, China’s ‘economic miracle’ has lifted 400 million people out of poverty and generated opportunities for improvement and personal freedom unimaginable during the ’60s and ’70s. But the distribution of spoils has been drastically uneven. Partly owing to the controlled, geographically limited way in which capitalism was reintroduced, Chinese society is now suffering a state of economic schizophrenia in which, for instance, Shanghai residents enjoy a standard of living on a par with people in Portugal, whereas living standards in Guizhou Province are just above those in Namibia.

Guangzhou is a showcase for New China’s contradictions. It is a city in which children of the migrant labourers who fuel China’s world-beating manufacturing machine are denied the right to attend public schools, while private after-school academies thrive, charging up to $900 an hour for junior MBA programmes aimed at students as young as four. This unhappy marriage of fortune and disenfranchisement gives Guangzhou a predatory feeling. Extortion, purse snatching, burglaries and muggings are common. One 2006 poll found that only 20 per cent of residents felt safe.
Guangzhou’s increasing inequality and crime reflect poorly on its Communist Party leaders, and several recent initiatives have tried to address these issues through force. Last year, Zhang Guifang, a high-ranking official, encouraged police officers to open fire on crime suspects when necessary. Another official has proposed limiting the number of migrants allowed into Guangzhou, and in January the government announced a city-wide ban on motorcycles, the primary means of transport for migrants and petty criminals.

But perhaps local Party leaders also call on subtler tools of influence. Many people I spoke with mentioned that the lights along the river are part of a public initiative to give the city a friendlier, more prosperous face. ‘In other parts of the world, neon is a commercial tool to advertise a business, but in cities like Guangzhou, it’s used to advertise the city itself,’ architect Mee Liu told me. ‘The government can issue calls that private businesses follow, and one of the policies of the Guangzhou government has been to decorate the area around the Pearl River.’

Jingling Hu, a journalist who worked in an LED-covered skyscraper on the banks of the river elaborated: ‘The government is trying to make a beautiful night scene to improve the city’s image. They think a big city should look like that; it represents having a good economy. And people like it. Those cruises on the river are basically to view the lights, so in some way people are proud of those things.’ Looking at the sequence of wholesome images that covered her building – 喜, the symbol of happiness; followed by an animation of Caisheng Ye, the God of Prosperity; a waving Chinese flag; and a girl with glasses waving from a cartoon countryside – I could see a social dimension to Guangzhou’s flashiness.

In an atmosphere of inequality and fear, part of maintaining stability is convincing the people that the future will be better than the present. Since reforms were introduced almost 30 years ago, the Communist Party of China has exhibited a genius for applying the instruments of the free market to reinforce its own power. Neon is one of these. It testifies to the Party’s ability to lead its people into the (bright) future. For Guangzhou’s more affluent residents, it offers congratulations and reassurance. For its millions of migrants, many of whom were born in farming villages without electricity or running water, light connotes progress; it communicates the dream of prosperity for which they sacrifice everything.

A few days after my trip to Guangzhou, I was in Beijing to observe the Spring Festival – the first day of the Chinese calendar, typically celebrated with family banquets and fireworks. From a friend’s apartment, I watched the reflection of a purple and pink jellyfish-shaped explosion in a skyscraper’s windows and remembered the buildings along the Pearl River. I’d heard that fireworks were believed to drive away the past and welcome the new. It seemed to me that Guangzhou could use a nightly simulation of new year’s fresh start. I asked my friend whether he felt there was a connection between fireworks and neon. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Chinese people just like to make things look cheerful, even when they’re really not.’

Originally published in Mark Magazine June 2006