Space, an everchanging landscape.

Gonda Yasunosuke’s approach to understanding Asakusa, an entertainment district in Tokyo, sought to portray it as an urban space under constant motion, an interpretation which he concluded would result in an inability to separate its individual parts as they represented Asakusa itself. [1] This brief summary implies a fluidity and flexibility to the understanding of this urban setting, an idea which is synonymous across multiple levels of space. For example, Sanam Luang, otherswise known as ‘The Royal Field’, a large open park in the centre of Bangkok, has served multiple meanings since its inception in 1782. The field was at first used as a cremation ground and a ceremonial rice field, before becoming a symbol of Westernisation and protest. [2]

It can, therefore, be seen that these two examples of urban space each possess a range of meanings and understandings. A diversity which raises questions over the definition of space itself, such as if it is a multi-layered concept, as the two examples suggest, or if it could be simply interpreted as having just one meaning or understanding. For example, could it not be argued that, if we examine space in one moment, a snapshot, it could be interpreted in just one way. Yet, in arguing this you ignore the complexities of space itself, historians themselves are yet to find an adequate universal definition for this concept. Instead, much like Yasunosuke’s description of Asakusa, it represents an idea of constant motion, where academics grapple to place socially constructed boundaries around spatial entities which are both mental and physical.

The Star Ferry Terminal in Hong Kong offers an interesting case study. From one perspective the ferry can be understood as a transport hub and a tourist attraction due to its colonial era design, and yet mentally as a space it represents much more. Following protests in the 1960’s the terminal became a symbol of anti-government protests, a meaning which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tried to diminish by demolishing the building in 2006. This in turn tied the building into a growing local identity within Hong Kong, which was developing as a reaction to the increasing influence of the CCP in the city, as well as helping to popularize the desire for the conservation of the city’s colonial legacies. [3]The Star Ferry Terminal, therefore, throughout out its life and beyond inhabited multiple levels of space, more often than not at the same time.

As urban historians we must acknowledge that space can be investigated beyond the traditional sense of the urban sphere, requiring the exploration of the local psyche as well as material aspects. Even then, it is not straight forward, for conflict arises in interpretation. Both the CCP and local Hong Kong residents differed on the importance of the Star Ferry Terminal, one side seeing the space as problematic, whilst the other saw it as a source of local pride. An answer to this difference can be found in the fact that space is defined by the eyes of its beholder, a statement which is seemingly confirmed when we explore Miriam Silverberg’s book, ‘Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times’. Her chapter entitled ‘Asakusa Eroticism’, highlights the multiple understandings and approaches undertaken by writers who were attempting to convey the meaning of this urban space. For example, whilst Gonda Yasunosuke focused on the importance of class division, Kawabata Yasunari used the colour palette of Soviet Constructivism to demonstrate his noir tale of Asakusa, tinged with eroticism. [4]

The difference of these two understandings represents a beauty which urban historians should delight in. Space it seems does not have just one meaning, a conclusion which is not problematic as this diversity is a gift in which historians can attempt to untangle the urban maze, unravelling ideas which may have implications beyond the topic under investigation. Post-colonial narratives particularly revel in this, as it offers them an avenue to dismantle traditionally European dominated discourses on colonial history, allowing agency to be placed within the hands of the colonised.

[1] Miriam Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times (California, 2012), p. 179.

[2] Koompong Noobanjong, ‘The Royal Field (Sanam Luang): Bangkok’s Polysemic Urban Palimpsest’ in Manish Chalana (ed.), Messy Urbanism: Understanding the “Other” Cities of Asia (Hong Kong, 2017), pp. 81-98.

[3] Carolyn Cartier, ‘Culture and the City: Hong Kong, 1997—2007’, China Review 8:1 (2008), p. 76.

[4] Silverberg, Grotesque Nonsense, p. 191.

Bibliography:

Cartier, Carolyn, ‘Culture and the City: Hong Kong, 1997—2007’, China Review 8:1 (2008), pp. 59-83.

Noobanjong, Koompong, ‘The Royal Field (Sanam Luang): Bangkok’s Polysemic Urban Palimpsest’ in Manish Chalana (ed.), Messy Urbanism: Understanding the “Other” Cities of Asia (Hong Kong, 2017), pp. 81-98.

Silverberg, Miriam, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times (California, 2012).

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