Construction escalated quickly after the 2016 Chinese New Year, when millions of residents returned to Hangzhou after the annual visit to their ancestral villages. It was March, six months before Hangzhou hosted the G20 summit and its attendant fleets of polished black cars. In the downtown West Lake area, mazes of street-level scaffolding, looming dust-clouds, and provisional traffic barriers were the first signs of a strategy for city-wide intervention.
Teams of workers crashed through the city’s streets, hammering into Buddhist temples and hair salons alike. Within days, a road was repaved into a slick black surface without blemish or measure. Within a week, housing blocks had shed their scaffolding and debris nets to reveal reframed wooden windows, restored stone cladding, and uniform boxes concealing air conditioning units. Straddling a temple roof three stories up, workers let slip a replacement beam and shattered the stone sidewalk below. Pedestrians take note. Freshly hewn blocks (delivered daily) were hammered into place by teams of greyscale men and women emerging from clouds and mounds of stone dust.
The year-long preparations for the G20 rendered Hangzhou a construction site with 8 million residents. The muted surfaces of traditional grey-brick housing blocks were at once patterned everywhere onto local malls, and the temples had wifi and security checkpoints installed; where old and new buildings differed in activity and scale, fresh paint, cladding and stone pavers furnished the edge and closed the image gap. The irony is crucial: in September, when twenty world leaders and their finance ministers arrived, the year of construction had rendered the entire city and its population a political invisibly of architectural proportions.
The renovation of six hundred fifty-one infrastructure projects in less than a year is not the backdrop for a summit on the stabilization of global economic policy; it is an entry ticket, a form of authorization. The cloud of stone dust is not a visual metaphor for economic power floating into China, but is itself the material evidence of widespread political authority in action: the clumsy process of filling in, smoothing over, and taking away made manifest. Conversely, the image that is still seen by world leaders, TV cameras, and residents alike is that of the mythologized capital of the Southern Song Dynasty, where as much as been removed as has been preserved. In images as in global politics, not everyone is invited.
Hangzhou has an earnest, if sometimes invisible, connection between what it used to be and what is has become. Nearly everyone you encounter here is a tourist or has been living here (outside the city center) for the last few years; the residents live in older housing blocks behind commercial streets, small shops, and plastic surgery advertisements that line some of the more visible areas of the city. In many ways their storefronts act as barriers, an economic and spatial fence, between a more strictly consumer and tourist society and the more traditional values associated with housing and habitation in Chinese cities. The storefronts are a buffer zone allowing inhabitants within the block to sell small goods to tourists on the street, removed from the conditions of their housing areas.
The temples and preserved landscape areas – West Lake in particular – are physically immune to the forces of political and economic modernization that characterize this relationship. Their preservation turns them into cultural monuments whose stable meaning serves as a specific and continuous backdrop for what is an otherwise constantly changing social and political system. It is presumptuous, however, to say that traditional housing blocks and preserved monuments are examples of a battle going on between ancient and modern China. China, or more specifically Hangzhou, has already begun the process of physically and mentally industrializing as a society, and it will continue to do so according to its own principles. Rather than suggesting winners and losers of a battle between historical culture and images and the contemporary consumer economy – when what we mean is a simplistic battle between backwards tradition and progress – we should rather look at these different kinds of images and ask how they co-exist together as parts of a modern Chinese city.
It seems important, then, not to ascribe a false sense of time to either of these conditions; it should be clear that they both exist now and are greeted with the same enthusiasm by residents and visitors alike. West Lake, and the innumerable surrounding pagodas, are curtained off from rapid urbanization in a similar way that the older housing blocks are from the busy street. In this way it is easy to misinterpret the modern city as a discrete marker of economy, and the landmark as a discrete marker of culture. West Lake is a tourist destination for millions of Chinese every year, and this fact alone makes it one of the most striking symbols of economy. That very same economy allows governmental oversight and planning in defining the geographical regions of preserved landscapes, and funds not only the more visible forces of ‘modern’ urbanization at large, but also the modernization of culture and its images as well.