Jini Kim Watson


On her book The New Asian City: Three-Dimensional Fictions of Space and Urban Form

Cover Interview of May 28, 2012

In a nutshell

This book takes a fresh look at the so-called “Asian Tiger” success stories of South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore.  While these countries have been much lauded for their incredible postwar growth rates—and are now widely viewed as the economic model for industrializing China and India—The New Asian City tells quite a different story through the dual lenses of urban development and fictional narratives.

By examining “new” spatial technologies such as the department store, the high-rise apartment block, the expressway, and the factory, The New Asian City uniquely combines a spatial history of three East Asian sites with the perspectives that literature, poetry and film offer.  In this sense, the book rereads the development of certain “model” Third World countries through narratives which depict the transformation of the built environment as a variously contested and creative encounter.

The analysis takes the reader from the colonial period of the early twentieth century, when Korea and Taiwan were part of the Japanese Empire and Singapore was a British trading post, up to the end of the 1980s and the boom years of these “Asian Miracles.”  The book is structured into three sections: the first dealing with the colonial city and its role in creating and maintaining imperial spaces, the second with postwar urban renewal and its effects, and the third with rural-to-urban migration and broader national landscapes.

Centrally, I argue that the economic and historical dimensions of these success stories must be supplemented by looking at the narratives that responded to dramatic changes in the urban environment.

For example, how was the mass participation of women in the new manufacturing industries, along with profound changes in domestic living spaces, portrayed in women’s writing across the three sites?  Why did authoritarian leaders, from South Korea’s Park Chung Hee to Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, rely so heavily on urban renewal schemes in their visions of a modern society?  And how was the process of urban renewal perceived by workers who both helped construct such spaces, and witnessed the loss of their former home environments?  In other words, the book traces the way that certain spatial realities, taken up into narrative form, reveal the conflicts and struggles behind larger social, political and economic processes.

The book’s method of moving between urban history and fictional works thus makes an argument for the imaginative function of built form.  Ideally, however, The New Asian City can be read along both of its two axes: by people interested in the nuts and bolts of Asian urban forms and political-economic development, and by people interested in this powerful body of fictional work, which includes proletarian writing, women’s novellas, city poetry, and auteur films.