Jini Kim Watson


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

Cover Interview of May 28, 2012

The wide angle

The New Asian City began from the observation that there was something unique about the gleaming metropolises of East Asia, which existing theories of urban development did not account for.  No doubt influenced by my early training as an architect and my experiences of living and working in East Asia, this study is a result of the personal and scholarly curiosity I felt around the phenomenon of what architectural critic Jeffrey Kipnis aptly termed “The New Asian City”—in all of its dimensions.

In terms of disciplines, the book engages with the field of urban studies to answer the question of how this particular urban form came about, at the same time it draws on my training in literary studies and theoretical work from such fields as Critical Geography (which interrogates spatial systems produced by capitalism) and Postcolonial Studies (the study of the cultural politics that are a legacy of imperialism and colonialism).  Rather than focus on a single country—as is the approach of much of Asian Studies scholarship—the book’s method is emphatically comparative.  I aimed to produce an inter-Asian dialogue rather than one that was implicitly East-West in its framing.

Research for this book also took me into the field of development or modernization studies, where social scientists and economists have often held up the East Asian Tigers as something of a “model” of Third World development.  Indeed, in a short Transition chapter, I trace the main economic debates around Third World development (following insights by Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin and others), and give a history of export-led production in order to examine the spatial implications of such inventions as Economic Production Zones.

Yet by attending to perspectives from literature, poetry and film, I question the assumed “progressive” narrative of this development.  Postcolonial thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Aijaz Ahmad, Gayatri Spivak, and Edward Said, along with cultural theorists such as Walter Benjamin and Fredric Jameson, were crucial to my rethinking of these developmental spaces.

Using a variety of disciplinary sources, the book contends that Seoul, Taipei and Singapore document a founding moment of Asian industrialization, one that follows upon many of the strategies of postwar Tokyo and anticipates the now common beacons of globalization seen today in the skylines of Pudong or Kuala Lumpur.