Last time I visited Singapore, Chinatown was disappearing. It is probably gone now. That rickety section of the city always tickled my eyes. I loved it. A few bricks piled together here, a board or two there, everything heaped on top of everything, angles leaping out at you, oblique corners, uneven perspectives. You figured the whole place would collapse if you removed a single nail. Chinatown has been replaced by high-rise apartments. Pidgeon boxes, the Singaporeans call them.
Is this an unfortunate development?
The same thing is happening in Beijing and Guangzhou and the major cities of China. Many of the hutongs--the crowded alleys and crazy courtyards that house multiple families (with a single communal bathroom)--have been demolished. Now there are high-rise apartments. Thousands of pidgeon boxes. It is very easy, as a Westerner, to mourn this transition. Members of my tour group complain about the Chinese government "uglifying" their cities. Something should be done, they say.
Or should it?
Yes, poverty can be picturesque. But it is still poverty. The old-style neighbrhoods were often dangerous (a fire hazard) and far less hygienic than what has replaced them. As countries throughout Asia have developed, as their economies have grown, life expectancies have lengthened. A dangerous and unhygenic lifestyle is often more picturesque than something that looks like middle class drabness, but rarey leads to a longer, healthier life. I note too that the very Westerners who complain about the disappearance of the hutongs would never ever consent to live in such conditions. The western posture: When I suffer inconvenience, it is an outrage; when others suffer a lack of modern convenience and safety, it is aesthetically pleasing.
In a very real sense, the colorfulness of poverty fascinates a segment of the western world. Picturesque poverty, then, is a tourist attraction. Call it a theme park for Bobos.
Economists emphasize life expectency, consumption, income and mundane aspects of existence when they write about quality of life. Granted, this is sometimes narrow and misleading. But it is not a bad place to start. (And anyone who thinks it's sometimes better for people to have short and unhealthy lives should at the very least be required to shoulder the burden of proof). At best, the insistence that high-rise apartments are bad (and hutongs are good ) is a bit naive. At worst, it is selfish, sadistic, hypocritical, and deplorable.
I remember when Times Square became safe and clean. A group of artists complained that this was a great loss. They found that filth, crime, and grit added character to their city. It inspired them. How could novelists write great novels and artists create great works of art in so safe and sterile an environment? How can Bobos go on being Bobos without a visible suffering class to lend texture to their lives?
My answer: Creativity is the responsibility of the artist, not of those around him. If material suffering is diminished, a few rides eliminated from the Povertyland theme park, then the artist has to work that much harder to create, explain, evoke, and explore. This is the artist's job.
(He may even have to look inward, heaven forbid).
It has become a staple of the anti-globalization argument that the trappings of western civilization ruin the developing world. Very often, the argument is an aesthetic one. (For an astonishingly shallow book on the subject, see McWorld vs. Jihad). Modern cities are distasteful to the eye. MacDonald's food is crude and worthless. Pop music is without merit. No matter what consumers in the East are choosing to purchase, we (their more enlightened protectors) need to save them. Save them from what? you ask. We need to save them from long life, health, convenience, safety, and an abundance of consumption choices. Why? Because what we have in mind for them is more pleasing to us, aesthetically, than the middle class existence we know so well. The arrogance, the ugliness, the pure selfishness of this position, startles me.
I loved Chinatown. I love the hutongs in Bejing. And I will miss them. But I love the Chinese people more. And I look forward to a time when Povertyland, in its entirety, ceases to exist.
(Even if that means some Westerners will have to find another park to play in).