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Shanghai Calling: Spirituality and the City

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In China, skyscrapers are the new cathedrals, writes student Eleanor Jolliffe

I was in Macau last week and so when I sat down to plan this post I was envisioning comparisons of British and Portuguese colonial architecture alongside the mainland - but the comparison that seems to be most telling is not the landmarks, the pavements or the road layouts but the impact of spirituality on the focal points of the city.

Hong Kong, having considerable British influence, does spirituality in a quiet, formal, yet omnipresent way. There are many crosses and a fair few spires dotted across the islands creating a landmark and centre to the communities, often complete with town square - much like the parish church in English settlements. In fact the impact of faith and religion on the cityscape is so similar to the UK that it passed me by unnoticed.

It is plausible to reject my hypothesis when you see the skyscrapers dominating Hong Kong’s Central district - but spatially they are the new cathedrals. They create a landmark, a meeting place, a navigation point and are surrounded by landscaped public squares. There is a good argument that their spatial techniques were learnt from the neighbouring St John’s Cathedral. This haven of British Anglicanism demonstrates all of these spatial principles, albeit without the steel frame that allows such a height to be gained and, when it comes to it, who can argue that finance is not the true religion of modern day Hong Kong?

Macau, a former Portuguese territory, wears its spirituality with a bit more style

Macau, a former Portuguese territory, wears its spirituality with a bit more style. Like Hong Kong it uses the colonial churches to create European style public spaces but, being Catholic churches, they are rather more decorative and flamboyant. In addition the ‘local’ faiths are more visible here - a doorstep is not complete in Macau without a small shrine with idol, incense and offerings. This may or may not have caused the slightly deeper doorsteps I saw here but the scents of the incense were powerfully present throughout the island certainly shaping my experience of this small country.  

Unlike Hong Kong, Macau is not known as a world city or financial centre but again the principles of spatial hierarchy around a religious centre have been translated–with casinos taking the place of finance as the ‘religion’.

shanghai calling

I am hesitant to say that these are European principles as I am sure that cultures worldwide use a similar system of space planning and organization. However, I took the opportunity to explore the New Territories area of Hong Kong - a more typically southern Chinese area. Here the heritage trail I followed showed that the shrines to the Gods and small village temples were built on the edge of the towns - set apart from day to day life, creating separate sacred spaces on thresholds and routes into the towns rather than at the centre. In fact the only time I saw one of these temples next to a square was in an area where a (rather deserted and decidedly modern) square had been built around a small Tin Hau Temple.

Thinking on my time in the mainland of China I have not seen too much evidence of either principle (though I am aware that my experience of China is currently limited to a small section of the east coast and it is a huge and diverse country). Religion was actively discouraged during the Cultural Revolution and so there are not many places of worship. I might have expected temples set apart, such as in the New Territories - sacred places away from the centres - but I haven’t seen too much evidence of this. Equally the centre created by a landmark ‘church’- such as in European cities - is missing. It’s true I have seen the odd spirit house on the edge of a shopping district, and the shopping malls themselves (the cathedrals of modern China) practice western spatial planning internally, though often without really relating to their wider context.

The closest I can see to a ‘Chinese spirituality’ forming the city is the People’s Parks

Perhaps the closest I can see to a ‘Chinese spirituality’ forming the city is the People’s Parks - putting the people at the centre - of the infrastructure, at least - of the city. Here I believe the urban planners are trying to formalize the religion that has always shaped Chinese cities - its people. None of the Chinese cities I have visited have a natural or central focus (despite the well-meaning central parks and tourist attractions recently built or renovated) - each community’s focus is on itself, its people and its stories - and changes with the season, the weather and the time of day.

The closed shutter of a shoe shop is the focus of my community first thing in the morning - I am not sure why, perhaps to exchange news but every day they are all there - about twenty women eyeing me curiously and chatting as I go to buy breakfast. I am not sure of its fluctuations during the day as I am at work but by evening the communal focus has migrated about a hundred meters down the road - to the section of street outside my flats. Old men play chess on the corner with a horde of onlookers and children play badminton on the pavement (making walking home an adrenalin rush of dodging shuttlecocks, badminton rackets and over excited five year olds). As evening shifts to night the community’s focus makes its final journey to the crossroads - a further fifty meters down the road. The few night owls sit on a bit of low wall watching the traffic passing by as people on their way home from working late or an evening out gather around the man that cooks kebabs on the barbeque he has built onto the back of his bike.

Eleanor Jolliffe has recently completed her Part I at Nottingham University. She is currently doing an internship in Shanghai.This is the seventh of a series of regular blog posts.

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