The Newsletter 73 Spring 2016

Public space in urban Asia

Sander Hölsgens

<p>Reviewed title:&nbsp;Lim, William (ed.) 2014. <em>Public Space in Urban Asia</em>, London: World Scientific Publishing, ISBN 9789814578325</p>

Public Space in Urban Asia gives a compelling insight into the research conducted by the Asian Urban Lab. The lab, as led by chairman William S.W. Lim and co-directors Sharon Siddique and Tan Dan Fengh, is an attempt to allign “the best local and international thinking on spatial justice to the particularities of various specific Asian conditions” (p.11). In order to pursue this ambition, this edited work offers ten case studies in which urban phenomena in Asia are explored in a multidisciplinary manner. Because of the researchers involved, Singapore can be considered as the focal point of this volume, but there are also contributors analysing Chongqing, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. What’s more, the second half of the volume offers a handful of commentaries on the case studies, as well as four thought-provoking essays by William Lim.

Hawker centres in Singapore

In specific, there seems to be an interest in the ethnography as research output. One example of this is Randy Chan and Jolene Lee’s chapter, called Hawker Centres: Siting/Sighting Singapore’s Food Heritage. In this chapter they explore how the term hawker centre “has become an iconic part of the Singapore landscape” (p.91). The centres offer low-cost and convenient meals, based upon street hawking – a way of selling affordable products, without having a fixed location. In the years preceding Singapore’s independence, street hawking was common, “for it allowed the unemployed to find a means of livelihood” (ibid).

Chan and Lee claim that precisely because street hawking became an integral part of Singapore’s economy and culture, it was eventually formalised. From the 1960s to the late 1980s, hawkers were offered a centralised shelter, so that sanitary conditions could be maintained and the businesses could be controlled if necessary. These shelters grew into hubs for small food businesses. What is present here is a narrative of the multi-generational hawker family: “the hardworking heartlander is able to forge a good living for his or her family, representative of the success of the Singapore story” (p.97).

For Chan and Lee this predominantly monetary success is, ironically, the biggest threat of the hawker centre. Indeed, a vital part of this success story is that the children of these hawker families receive good education. While some hawkers eventually pass their food stall to their children, most of the times the children opt for different jobs. Or, reversely, the parents prevent their children from working in a hawker centre, for reasons “that range from not wanting their child to have to work as hard as they did, to not being able to find a worthy disciple to pass their recipes on to” (p.98).

This is not to say that hawker centres are actually disappearing. On the contrary, the new generation of hawkers “are aspiring entrepreneurs who see the hawker centre as a starting point in their foray into the food and beverage industry due to the low entry cost” (p.101). Because of this, the hawker centres might change – their designs might become better and may look ‘spiffier’. But the core experience, namely one of affordable, hygienic food in an inviting and familiar public space, will be maintained.

Local and experiential

Chan and Lee’s research is emblematic of Public Space in Urban Asia, for two reasons. First, this volume is concerned with the particularities of specific urban phenomena, cities, and public spaces. So even though the geographic scale of the volume suggests otherwise, the various chapters are concerned with regional cases and local phenomena. In so doing, generalisations about a continent, a country, or a culture are kept to a minimum. There is an implicit emphasis on the notion of difference – one of the strengths of this volume.

Second, Public Space in Urban Asia is primarily concerned with the lived experiences of urban space. One example of this is Lim Teng Ngiom’s chapter Thick Crust of Time: Kuala Lumpur, which explores the ways in which the quick urban transformation of Kuala Lumpur is experienced. In this ambitious case study Lim argues that cities are, up to a certain extent, shaped by time. Over time and because of time, dynamics of everyday spaces morph and transform.

In Kuala Lumpur this has led to a so-called thick crust of time, which consists of layers of memories. It is ‘thick’, not because of the linear age of the city, but because of “the number of times [the city] changes and renews itself. Kuala Lumpur has a thick crust, with its thick narrative of changes and renewals” (p.155). These continuous, frequent, and perpetual changes or transformations affect the ways visitors and inhabitants experience Kuala Lumpur. Or, in other words: the Malaysian city is experienced in relation to temporality.

Multidisciplinary, reflective, and relevant

In line with Lim Teng Ngiom’s Thick Crust of Time: Kuala Lumpur, most chapters in Public Space in Urban Asia are both thought-provoking and considerate. This can also be said about William S.W. Lim’s essays. There is, however, one remark to be made. Especially in the essays Spatial Justice and Happiness and Change We Must, Lim’s tone of voice differs on a fundamental level from the other contributions. Instead of merely exploring urban phenomena, Lim seems to be more concerned with the things that need to be done in and about public spaces in urban Asia, and more specifically: in Singapore. The essays communicate a sense of urgency, in particular with respect to the notion of sustainability. In order to mobilise younger generations and to secure “a genuine comprehensive sustainability for their communities” (p.255), some form of change is required. This change takes place on the level of values and lifestyle and is necessary to bring about a ‘true’ form of sustainability.

In this sense, Lim’s essays could have been better aligned with the other contributions. The inclusion of commentaries, in which Jane M. Jacobs, H. Koon Wee, and Lilian Chee individually respond to the ten case studies, are more successful in this regard. Not only are these short essays in dialogue with earlier chapters, they also contextualise these case studies in a relevant manner. Moreover, the fact that the Asian Urban Lab has brought together not only architects and urbanists, but also historians, documentary makers, journalists and sociologists, underscores the volume’s diversity and appeal. It is a multidisciplinary work that operates on multiple levels and within a variety of disciplines, yet it remains specific and reflective.

Sander Holsgens, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL (Sander.holsgens.14 at