Day 59: What Brought Me to China

How did a Thai national attending a university in the US end up spending three-third of his life, and counting, conducting research on China?

I do not remember how many times I had answered this question. Again and again — almost every time I gave a lecture, talk, tour about China — at least one of the audience, or sometimes my colleague, would ask me this question. The short answer, as dull as anyone could probably guess, is that from an architectural perspective China is interesting. The “full version” of this answer, however, could only begin with the Tsinghua-MIT Beijing Studio that I, almost by accident, took part in 2006. Ten years after the Studio, in 2016, I am getting my PhD in anthropology with the focus on Chinese society. How did all of this happen?

Even though I came from an ethnic Chinese background, growing up in Thailand to parents who had to suppress their culture in the face of strong anti-Chinese sentiment led me to have very little knowledge (let alone interest) in anything related to China. So, it was quite by accident that I stumbled upon the Tsinghua-MIT Beijing Urban Design Studio, and – looking back – incredibly surprising to me that I would encounter something there that would ignite a lifelong passion. A trip with 20 other colleagues from MIT in 2006 was the trip where I discovered the deeper meaning of urbanism, which not only changed the way I saw the role of architecture in society, but would also inspire me to write an entire Master’s thesis on the subject, get a second and third Master’s in Chinese Studies and Anthropology of China, learn Mandarin Chinese, and eventually get a doctorate in Anthropology. This was the trip that started me on the track to become a scholar on Chinese society.

One year before the Studio, the summer of 2005, I just arrived in Cambridge as a Fulbright scholar from Thailand. My goal in traveling half way around the world from a warm tropic to a strangely cold place in the east coast of the US was to obtain a master’s degree in History, Theory, and Criticism of art and architecture (HTC) from MIT. HTC was (and still is, I believe) a highly specialized field of theoretical study, which many of my colleagues in the design section of MIT School of Architecture saw it as something farthest away possible from any real world’s implication of architecture. Owing to my reputation in freehand architectural drawing — and my ethnic Chinese background — my colleagues would from time to time asked me about my interest in architectural design, and China. My answer to them was always “no.” At the beginning I took their question rather offensively: “Just because English isn’t my native language doesn’t mean I won’t be able to read theoretical stuff; and, worse, just because I look Chinese doesn’t mean I should be studying China!”

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My first sketch in China during one of the field trips we took in Beijing. The date was there at the lower right corner: July 2, 2006.

I didn’t share with them, though, how unappreciative I was regarding their comments. Looking back, it must have been because I was trained in such a technical way back in Thailand, so when I had the chance to get out of Thailand my mind was occupied by something else completely. It wasn’t the practical design that drew me to MIT. It wouldn’t make sense for someone who did not like what he studied hitherto to travel half way around the world, leaving his parents and friends to an unfamiliar place, to study what he did not even like. I could have easily learned practical design back home in Thailand, or somewhere in Asia where I came from. It’s the critical studies of abstract ideas that drew me to MIT.

To be precise, I was attracted to MIT by the scholarship of one man, Prof. Stanford Anderson (1934 – 2016), who later on became my adviser, mentor, colleagues, and friend. Stan, who just passed away in January, hadn’t written much, but his career as an educator had spanned  five decades, and he himself had single-handedly educated almost every single  one of respected architectural theorists in America and beyond. I wanted to study with him, and that’s the reason why I applied to become a Fulbright scholar. When I was awarded the scholarship, I didn’t even have my eye on any other school and program except MIT. Of course, I knew how far removed the western critical theory paradigm was from reality, and it was precisely this aloofness that was attractive to me: I was looking up to it as the “model” for architectural thinking.

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Eventually arriving in Beijing for the first time, I had the privilege of working in a group that all of its members were from Asia! Alex came from Hong Kong; Ai came from Japan; Sisi and Jue were Mainland Chinese; and than me — a Thai guy!

Almost by accident, a classmate thought that we should check out the session introducing the Tsinghua-MIT Beijing Studio to the potential student participants. As soon as I heard that this Studio was to be a traveling studio in which participants had to travel to China in group, I thought to myself that there’s no way I would be interested in it!

That said, remembering vividly, I just really needed a break from reading boring piles of books I had to read to prepare for my pro-seminar in art theory (and didn’t have anything else to do). So I tagged along. Back then, all events that would gather more than 20 students took place on the 4th floor of the building near the 77 Massachusetts Avenue dome where our school was located. There, I was surprisingly captivated by the briefings of the Studio by Professors Jan Wampler and Dennis Frenchman, the two professors who would be leading the Studio in China in the summer of 2006. Images after images of the “non-postcard Beijing” — of dilapidating hutongs, huge roads and highways under which lay densely populated housing, and massive urban projects — gave me a wake-up call and brought me back to reality. I had never seen any of these before. I thought Beijing was all about the glamorous Forbidden City (and that’s it!). The project proposed to the potential participants to tackle that year was a real urban challenge — an urban design of a complex and a transit node for the public in a globalizing city that was to host the Olympics. I thought I was at MIT for high theory, but in fact what excited me the most was this very idea of building for the public, and affordable housing. Hence, I’d decided to apply for it. Despite the fact that I didn’t have anything related to design to show to the selection committee, I was selected to take part in the Studio, and as the saying goes, the rest is history.

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A studio discussion with Prof. Dennis Frenchman. All I remember was that we were all sweating almost all the time!

Arriving in Shanghai for the first time in the summer of 2006 for the Studio, I felt as though I was someone who was born a hundred year ago, frozen in a time capsule, and one day awakened to face reality. That was because I really didn’t know much about Shanghai apart from the famous TV Series Shanghai Grand (上海滩) that I had watched when I was a child, and a few books that Tess Johnston had written about Shanghainese architecture that I had previewed in preparation for my trip to China. Traveling on the elevated highway connecting the newly built airport in the southeast of the city to the sophisticated waterfront representing the semi-colonial Shanghai, I was amazed by basically everything I saw. From the vast difference between the countryside where the airport was, and the urban center where neon light kept the city busy 24-7. In addition, the urban symbolism made the city appear grandiose but also difficult to read: I felt as though I was in a dreamland where everything is embellished for visual pleasure. Although I was not immediately interested in Shanghai, but my interest in the city grew the deeper I probed.

The Studio introduced me to China, a place I never thought I’d be interested in going. Then I discovered the lilong: a unique housing typology based on western-styled low-rise row houses built in the concession areas during the Treaty Port period. Every Shanghainese who lived in Shanghai before the Economic Reform and Opening Up Era of the 1980s-90s has memories of the lilong. Since that time, however, more than two thirds of this typology have been demolished to make way for the now ubiquitous high-rise. Noting how the lilong provided a dense residential fabric with a sense of neighborhood community, I took interest in it immediately, and, given the programmatic requirements of our Beijing site, found the lilong worth exploring as potential starting point. Through the course of developing the Beijing site, I found many of the features of the lilong highly adaptable – its mixed-use perimeter spaces provided a basis for meeting points in the community, and it the alleyway mentality created a fabric encouraging exploration for visitors and a sense of an “urban village” for residents. In the end, our project was well received, but finishing the Studio left me wanting to discover more about this unique type of housing that reflected a Chinese city already beginning globalization in the early parts of the 19th century

Traveling in-group by a slow overnight train from Shanghai to Beijing, we arrived in the capital city that had yet to be upgraded for the Olympics. Ironically, the first meal we had was not authentic Chinese food but McDonald’s, which seemed to excite our local host as we all thought they must have had in mind “our friends from the US must feel at home eating the hamburgers.” I learned later on that the reason for which was that we were behind schedule and therefore wouldn’t have enough time for a proper Chinese meal; hence, American fast food was the only remedy.

There were still only three metro lines in the city (one of them, in fact, was not even a part of the system yet) that which didn’t seem to be the problem because people at the time were still moving around the city by bicycles and the taxi was relatively cheap. The air was still nice then, and we could see the blue sky almost every day (a luxury in today’s Beijing). Hitting the ground running, we were divided up into groups: three of us MIT students spent days and nights for the next four weeks with two talented Tsinghua students — who would come to MIT as well two years later for their graduate degrees — visiting the site again and again, doing library and statistical research, pinning-ups our drawings and diagrams for professors and colleagues to offer critiques, and talking with each other into the night and the morning about our ideas, responsibilities, and roles as builders of this emerging economy.

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Non in 2006. I was 25 at the time. With my teammates at the architectural office of one of our professors located inside the Yuan Ming Yuan in Beijing. We walked over there from the campus of Tsinghua University which was by no means far from this place.

Every morning we would, like most people in Beijing, rode our bicycles from the dormitory to the building of the School of Architecture by the East Gate of the beautiful and spread out campus (until my bicycle, of course, got stolen only after the first week of the Studio!). After I knew how to order the Chinese buns stuffed inside with pork, almost everyday on the way to the studio, I would drop by to pick up a few for myself and my colleagues. Despite the painfully unbearable heat of Beijing summer, we would be staying in the studio all day long (I’d made a corner in the studio my place for an afternoon nap) and staying up all night to work on the project. Field trips to see various historical and architecturally important sites helped to ease the tension among us “serious designers,” giving us a time to take a break from our own obsession with the task at hand.

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The last day of the studio. I’d made so many drawings there.

Every day, I’d learn a new body gesture to communicate with the cashiers at local supermarkets and restaurants. Every day our Chinese colleagues would teach us a new Chinese word to learn. Instant noodles and instant coffee, however, were our best friends, and perhaps partly owing to the excessive consumption of carbohydrate and caffeine pumping blood through our veins we would eventually create a studio environment that was nothing less than the “master-and-apprentice” type we all had read about in biographies of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis I. Kahn. Our professors would come in the morning, and we would be discussing the designs — through hand-drawn diagrams on yellow drafting papers, and models made of scrap card boards and foams glued together to present our ideas. At the end, we’d learned from what we had been through together. The month in Beijing was a revelation: there’s so much I could contribute as an architect, and there’re so many people and places that needed people like us. Beijing Studio, once and for all, taught me that I was an architect, and not a high theorist. My decision to pursue a doctorate in anthropology all began in Beijing, as my wish was to combine architecture and anthropology creative a trans-disclipinary field of moral practice that places collective interest in urban environment above any forms of self interest.

Before I knew it, I was going back for my master’s thesis research in 2007, and then again in 2008 for a personal research project, in 2009 to conduct even more research and learn Mandarin Chinese, and nearly every year afterward for my PhD research. Since 2013, I have been living in Shanghai, where I am writing this blog post.

Beijing would become the city that I would return to almost every year to learn Mandarin Chinese and conduct research in history, sociology, and anthropology. Shanghai would become my research home for the entire decade and serve as case study for my doctoral research project on economic anthropology.

How did I end up studying China? For the better or for worse, I blame it on Beijing Studio. 

 

Shanghai, China
March 2016

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One thought on “Day 59: What Brought Me to China

  1. Pingback: Day 62: Paradise; or, Reflecting on the Urban | 100 days of writing

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