Tokyo: Social Protests in an age of ‘Imperial Democracy’

Following the outcome of the Russo- Japanese War, growing dissatisfaction evolved from terms of the peace treaty, which saw an end to the war in 1905. The Treaty sparked rioting within Tokyo, culminating in the “first major social protest of the age of imperial democracy.”[1]Following a failure to obtain a substantial and “profitable peace settlement”, local factions with in Toyoko rebelled and were only quelled when the government were forced to enact martial law[2]. The demonstration on the 5th September 1905, became known as the Hibiya Riot, which would last for three days. As Andrew Gordon has described, this was “the first in a series of violent incidents that took place over the first and second decade of the century after which time social protests.. took on a more organised and less violent form.”[3]


As time progressed, social protests have been described by Andrew Gordon as taking on an increasingly organised approach as well as moving away from violence.It may well have been the intention of the protestors to move away from violence but the report from the Japan Chronicle published 5th June 1930 suggests that the response of the authorities was increasingly hard line and utilised excessive violence against the protestors, which created a violent incident. Following the article’s  title of “The New Weapon of the Tokyo Police”, the article alleges that the Metropolitan police service in Tokyo took on the role of aggressor by employing the use of tear-gas to quell what started as an orderly protest of Tokyo Communications Labour Union workers who had gathered near Hibiya Park. It was further reported that “soon orderliness, however, gave way to something alike to riot when the police strove to stem the march.”[4] It is questionable why in fact the Police had taken these steps to prevent the protest as the organisers had  discussed the protest  with the Metropolitan Police in a previous meeting. The use of tear-gas by the Police in order to disperse the crowds, was viewed as an intentional weapon by representatives of the Tokyo Communications Labour Union, who “filed a joint protest against the use of tear-gas revolvers by the Hibiya Police against the members of the Tokyo Communications Labour Union.”[5]


However, it was not the fact of the supposed use of the police’s “new weapon” in order to quell the demonstration which is illuminating, it is the apology which the police gave in light of the protest filed against its use. As the article goes on to examine, the apology given by the Police Bureau, suggests no remorse in the use of tear-gas as a weapon on protestors. Moreover, it details how explicitly “the Police Bureau.. do not consider the tear-gas revolver as a weapon.”[6] However, the response of the Police Bureau subsequently debates how the use of the product was used to determine its weaponry status.  Moreover, the Police Bureau’s response offers a contradiction by asserting that “to try and make out that the pistol is not a weapon would therefore seem to open the way to wholesale without a licence and indiscriminate use.. in quiet places.”[7] By further concluding that “it is a weapon and nothing else, even if its use does not involve death, and should certainly be licensed.” [8]

The article thus serves as an insight into the police response to protest in the period. Whilst they were clearly concerned with the spreading of armed protest by use of “articles of everyday use”, they were unprepared to take accountability for their use of the weaponry against protestors, as examined with the example above. This account serves to highlight how as Andrew Gordon suggests, the trajectory of protests in Toyoko towards less violent response was definitely varied.



Gordon, Andrew “Social Protest in Imperial Japan, The Hibiya Riot of 1905”,MIT Visualising Cultures, 2011, <>[ 14 December 2019].


SMPA Archive, ‘Protest by Labour:The New Weapon of the Tokyo Police’,The Japan Weekly Chronicle, Tokyo, 5 June 1930, <Shanghai Municipal Police Files>[accessed 14th December 2019.]

[1] Gordon, Andrew “Social Protest in Imperial Japan, The Hibiya Riot of 1905”,MIT Visualising Cultures, 2011, <>[ 14 December 2019].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] SMPA Archive, ‘Protest by Labour:The New Weapon of the Tokyo Police’,The Japan Weekly Chronicle, Tokyo, 5 June 1930, <Shanghai Municipal Police Files>[accessed 14th December 2019.]

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

Domestic and Public Space under American Colonial Rule in the Philippines 1898-1946.

The Spanish rule over the Philippines culminated in 1898 and was swiftly replaced with American colonial rule, which would be observed until independence of the Philippines in 1946. [1] Following American intervention within the region under President William McKinley’s government, the “Benevolent Assimilation Proclamation” was decreed declaring “America’s duty to civilise the Philippines with superior American Culture.”[2] Educational, social and urban reforms were undertaken within the Philippine region by the American government. When examining urban reform however, the topic surrounding the “transformation of Filipino domestic architecture” has received little attention, according to Kiyoko Yamaguchi.


The role which architecture played in the assimilation and further representation of American values was profound as Yamaguchi has examined. As it was through the undertaking by the “Filipino elite [as they] expressed their social and economic success by building their dream American style house.”[3] Moreover, according to Yamaguchi such residences served  to represent “Filipino elite’s self-perceptions and appropriation of an imagined America in the Philippines.”[4] Through this adoption of American style architecture, in which upper class Filipinos gained inspiration from prints of modern American architecture, such changes were achieved within private space, for example through the inclusion of a porch. The role of the porch for Filipino elites would now be symbolic of the “new accent to the Philippine Urban home.”[5] Whilst in the private space such symbols would come to reinforce the upper class status of the Filipino elite, whilst within the public space “public structures.. [served as] monuments to Americanism.”[6] The role in which emulation of American houses played in Filipino upper class’s modes of self perception is thus in fact what Yamaguchi would comment as being “one of the earliest and brutal, lynchpins of American colonialism.”[7] Thus using urban and residential reform to enforce western values upon Philippine communities.





Yamaguchi, Kiyoko, ‘The New “American” Houses in the Colonial Philippines and the Rise of the Urban Filipino Elite’. Philippine Studies, Vol.54,No.3, The Book, II (2006), pp.412-451.

[1] The Treaty of Manilla in 1946 signified Philippine Independence.

[2]  Kiyoko, Yamaguchi, ‘The New “American” Houses in the Colonial Philippines and the Rise of the Urban Filipino Elite’. Philippine Studies, Vol.54,No.3, The Book, II (2006), p.414.

[3] Ibid., p.416.

[4] Ibid., p.414.

[5] Ibid.,p.430.

[6] Ibid.,p.466.

[7] Ibid., p.416.

“Of Rats, Rice and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre” an episode in French Colonial History”

 “Of Rats, Rice and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre” an episode in French Colonial History”

The tale “Of Rats, Rice and Race”, within this instance may better be better titled “Of Ignorance, Administration and Prejudice.” As through the anecdote of the “The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre”, such themes emerged in abundance, in light of the infestation of rats within the French community in colonial Hanoi. The arrival of the French in Vietnam symbolised a growing mission “to develop, modernize and control the seemingly backward societies ..of Asia.”[1] Under ideals held by the mission civilisatrice, French administrators had taken it open themselves to guide and steer “backwards” Asian populations onto a course of civilisation. Such was attempted so boldly within the city of Hanoi, where “an impressive transformation and the creation of an urban space devoted to luxury” had arisen.[2] However, such an impressive beginning would soon serve to highlight the stark limitations of French administrations control within the region as “the normalization of French life in the city was an illusion.”


As through a consequence this illusory control, of that which Michael G. Vann has argued that this served to prove the misunderstandings of French administrators as to local culture and further knowledge of the region, in comparison with their “backwards” subjects. As upon investigation, the breeding source of such infestation originated however within the colonial sewer system, a staple of the colonial administration. Thus, crucially “the sewer system of which the colonial administration was so proud, was making the traditionally native issue of rat infestation a white issue.”[3] The ignorance with which the French employed ideas towards disease and infestation was further consolidated through their attempt to solve the rat infestation issue, which backfired when local Vietnamese “rat catchers” would remove the tail of the rat in order to reap the monetary reward, thus tricking their so called superiors into a belief that the problem was being handled.


This anecdote serves to represent wider themes such as the role which ignorance and ideas surrounding race played in French colonial administration’s civilising mission within Asia. Serving as clear example as to how “French control of the city, the environment and the Vietnamese was tenuous at best and illusory at worst.”[4]




Vann, Michael G. “Of Rats, Rice, and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre, an Episode in French Colonial History.” French Colonial History 4 (2003): 191-203. doi:10.1353/fch.2003.0027.


[1] Michael, G. Vann, “Of Rats, Rice and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre, an Episode in French Colonial History.” French Colonial History 4 (2003): p.191.

[2] Ibid.,p.192.

[3] Ibid.,p.196.

[4] Ibid.,193.

Foreigners in Nineteenth Century Treaty Port Japan

The opening of Treaty Ports in Japan, in particular the Treaty Port of Yokohama in 1858, brought with it an abundance of opportunity for foreign visitors and Japanese natives alike. One such opportunity, was for the local Japanese population to gain their “first impressions” of western foreigners arriving within the Treaty Port.[1] Many Japanese artists capitalised upon this opportunity within the form of Yokohama-e, a form of woodblock print associated with representations of visual depictions of the Treaty Port and primarily western foreigners who occupied a very small portion of the population residing within the port. John Downer’s essay “Yokohama Boomtown; Foreigners in Treaty Port Japan,” makes clear reference to one primary source which prompts wider questions into representations of foreigners of the five Treaty Port nations in Yokohama.


Utagawa Yoshitora’s, “Eight Views of Yokohama: Sails Returning to the Landing Pier,” 1861, depicts a typical woodblock scene of foreigners participating in leisure within the Treaty Port. Whilst the image, produced by local Yokohama woodblock artist Yoshitora, depicts the meeting of a couple, it is evident how such “first impressions” of foreigners catered more to the imagination then reality. As Dower has explored such images were produced with degree off caution on behalf of the Japanese artists, as for example as “foreign women [were viewed] as conspicuous as their merchant husbands.”[2]


This caution towards foreigners is also represented through artists idealised perception of foreigners. As Dower highlights further “the departure from strict reality” in which woodblock prints representing foreigners in Treaty Port Yokohama depict perhaps a more fanciful ideal reality to that of what was witnessed within Yokohama at the time. This is evident within Yoshitora’s treatment of foreign dress, as the foreign woman’s pineapple headdress which was employed to symbolise “a fashion statement that apparently was inspired by a profile on a U.S coin”, opposed to an actual worn garment. [3]


Whilst it was unlikely that the artist was in fact reproducing an image from a first-hand account, as Dower has argued many local artists took inspiration from the chronicle Illustrated London News, from which they gained inspiration as to the treatment of such European subjects. Further due to the proliferation of these images as well as the range and treatment of subjects in woodblock prints of Yokohama, there was a disproportionate amount of representations of foreigners as opposed to the modestly numbered foreign community living within the Treaty Port.


Nevertheless, the image represents how within local art and custom Japanese natives first interpreted and proliferated early impressions the people of the five treaty port nations, even if such were done with a slight air of caution.


Dower, John, “Yokohama Boomtown, Foreign community in Treaty Port Japan 1859-1872”, MIT Visualising Cultures, 2008,<> [10 October 2019].

Utagawa Yoshitora’s “Eight Views of Yokohama: Sails Returning to the Landing Pier,” Woodblock Print, 1861, Yokohama, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

[1] John Dower, “Yokohama Boomtown, Foreign community in Treaty Port Japan 1859-1872”, MIT Visualising Cultures, 2008,<> [10 October 2019].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Space, Religion, Government and Dragons in Twentieth Century China

The Role that Dragons have occupied in Modern Chinese history, to many historians may be understood as contested. The history of Dragons within China’s past not only debates the mere existence of Dragons as physical entities, but as popular religious deities. Thus, through the examination of Dragons as popular religious deities, such as the Dragon King of Wuhan, we may attempt to understand how space, religion, government all facilitated towards a wider belief system of worship for many people at the time.  In particular, how people viewed such deities in response to environmental catastrophes such as the 1931 Yangtze River Flood. Chris Courtney’s illuminating article and further monograph examine such popular beliefs held by the residents of Wuhan in light of the flood, which provides the background for this analysis.


Primarily the role of Dragon’s as popular religious beliefs may be examined in light of the space that they occupied physically. For example, for local populations in the 1930’s such as those within Wuhan, worshiped the shrine of the Temple of the Dragon King. Such people prayed for fertility for their crop growth before a harvest to the Dragon King who was in control of the rains. Physical manifestations of worship within Wuhan, were also eminent, such as parades in celebration of the Dragon King annually. Following the demolition of the Temple prior to the 1931 catastrophe, many within Wuhan held popular belief that it was in fact the anger of the Dragon King which “was causing the deluge in order to wreak vengeance upon Wuhan.”[1] The destruction of the Temple, whilst not linked to any religious cause for its demolition, but for the purpose of modernization within Wuhan, further pays homage to ideas expressed within Joespeh Esherick’s work on modern zoning principles. By citing Wuhan an example, the modernising nature of the city exposes the relationship between religious space and modernisation within Wuhan as “if the nation was to modernize, the cities had to take the lead.”[2]


However, in spite of the municipal authorities of Wuhan officially outlawing belief in the Dragon King in 1928 as superstition, Chris Courtney gives a poignant example of how belief was maintained not only privately but physically. Courtney described how members of the Wuhan population “descended upon the site of the former temple. Daoist, priests, monks and Shamans were hired to chant incantations and pray”, for forgiveness in light of the catastrophe.[3] Following the example given by Courtney, this allows us to see how the role of government rose within this relationship between understanding how space, religion, and government all facilitated a wider belief system for many people at the time. As described by Courtney, municipal authorities in spite of denouncing belief in the Dragon King as superstitious, Courtney observed that they still however paid lip service to belief in the deity in times of inundation, even if this was only to appease members of the population. Thus, supporting the idea that space, religion and government all serve to facilitate a wider belief system employed by residents during times of disaster. By ultimately affirming how “the disaster had revealed that in spite of vigorous criticism, popular religion continued to exert a powerful influence over conceptualizations of the environment.”[4]





Courtney, Chris. “The Dragon King and the 1931 Wuhan Flood: Religious Rumours and Environmental Disasters in Republican China.” Twentieth-Century China, vol. 40 no. 2, 2015, p. 83-104. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/tcc.2015.0018.


Courtney, Chris, The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood, (Cambridge, 2018).


Esherick, Joseph, ed. ‘Wuhan’s Search for Identity in the Republican Period’. In Remaking the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, 1900-1950, Pbk.ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002.


[1] Chris Courtney, ‘The Dragon King and The 1931 Wuhan Flood: Religious Rumors and Environmental Disasters in Republican China.’, Twentieth-Century China, Vol.40 no.2, (2015), p.84.

[2] Joseph Esherick, ‘Wuhan’s Search for Identity in the Republican Period’. In Remaking the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, 1900-1950, Pbk.ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, (2002), p.7.

[3] Chris Courtney, ‘The Dragon King and The 1931 Wuhan Flood: Religious Rumors and Environmental Disasters in Republican China.’,p.96.

[4] Ibid.,p.83.

Thinking about Sounds: ‘Sounds of a City’

When thinking of everyday sounds, whether that be where one lives, works or takes leisure, the importance of sound is rarely considered in its role in creating and forging “individual or collective identity.”[1] David Garrioch examined the importance of sounds “as crucial sources of information in semiotic systems.” [2] The importance of such systems served to “convey news, helping people to locate themselves in time and space and making the point of an auditory community.”[3] Thus through this appreciation of sound we may deploy this thinking to the example given by Alain Corbin within the History of Bells in nineteenth century Europe. Garrioch employs this argument in order to examine how sounds again served as “signals, marks of local identity, as symbols of authority and resistance, hence sites of social and political struggle.”[4] This argument may be contrasted with how we think about urban spaces now. When thinking of sound within an urban city we may view the changing nature of sounds in the community. As for beyond its integral use in seventeenth and eighteenth century sound scapes as Garrioch has proposed, Antoine Pluche has made an argument to suggest that “sound calls us busy with the things they signify but they start to tire and annoy us when they are no longer signals of anything.”[5] When thinking of this argument in relation to urban spaces, we may suggest that the role of sound still plays a vital role in community albeit to a varied degree as well as to signify a growing array of signs in different geographic regions. As for example sound is still of vital importance within middle eastern urban cities such as for example within Morocco, witnessed with the daily call to prayer. Equally the argument may be applied to the signal which the sound of the tram warning systems evokes in the city of San Francisco for local residents. Thus through examining such places, this serves to show how the role of sound occupies an important role within communities across the globe, albeit varied.


Garrioch, David, “Sounds of the City: the Soundscape of Early Modern European Towns.” Urban History 30, no. 1 (2003): 5–25. doi:10.1017/S0963926803001019.

[1] David, Garrioch, “Sounds of the City: the Soundscape of Early Modern European Towns.” Urban History 30, no. 1 (2003),p.6.

[2] Ibid., p.5.

[3] Ibid., p.5.

[4] Ibid., p.6.

[5] Ibid., p.25.

Looking Back on Perspectives of Anglo-Japanese Tourism

In the October 13th, 1938 edition of the Japan Chronicle Weekly, there is a full page spread on the relationship between Britain and Japan in the context of tourism. The author of the article, A.F. Thomas, asserts that despite the tenuous political relationship between the two countries, the people of Britain maintain a friendly disposition towards Japan and are a potentially fruitful market for Japan’s tourist bureau. At the time this article had been published, Japanese troops had already invaded and were in the process of occupying much of China. The Rape of Nanjing had occurred early in the year and the Battle of Wuhan just four months prior.[1] Thomas ignores the Japanese Empire’s brutality and crimes throughout its invasion of China – perhaps partially as a result of lack of information about the atrocities that were taking place. Regardless of whether Thomas’ ignorance of the geopolitical situation of the time is conscious or not, he laments Britain’s lack of cultural relationship with Japan. He articulates that “everything is to be gained by beginning , even during the present Conflict, an intense publicity campaign to attract tourists and students to Japan after the regrettable crisis is over.”[2] Thomson points out that while there are Japanese Tourist Bureau offices in New York and Los Angeles, there are none in Britain. Despite the lack of bureaucracy facilitating Anglo-Japanese travel, Thomson says that “England can show a train of first-class Japanologists which America would find difficult to rival.”[3] He goes on to say that he envisions a new class of traveller emerging should Anglo-Japanese tourism proliferate. This new class of traveller would be scholarly and more focused on understanding Japanese people and their ways of life than the stereotypical Globetrotter of previous decades who ostensibly only travelled for the sake of travelling. An increasing amount of cultural understanding, Thomson says, “leads to international friendships of the more lasting kind.”[4]

Thomson’s account of the lack of a tourist-centred relationship with Japan in 1938 elicits an examination of the nature of Anglo-Japanese tourism in earlier periods. When Thomas references the “Globetrotter” he is referring to a stereotype of Western travellers that toured Asian countries, most notably Japan, in the late 19th century. Thomas Cook was an early pioneer of Anglo-Asian travel. He founded a travel company (which still exists today) that brought groups of British tourists on an around the world tour, the first of which set off in 1872 and after traversing the United States, arrived in Yokohama. An author and traveller by the name of William Griffis, writing sometime between 1870 and 1874, noted that tourists “have become so frequent and temporarily numerous in Yokohama as to be recognized as a distinct class.”[5] Other Westerners who had spent extensive time in Japan made fun of these eccentric travellers. One of these figures, Basil Hall Chamberlain, describes the interests and character of globetrotters as widely varied, from those interested in wildlife to politically-minded nobles.

These accounts show that there is a rich and entertaining history of Anglo-Japanese tourism in the early Meiji period that contrast to Thomson’s campaign for the re-establishment of tourist ties over half-a-century later. While the upheaval of the early 20th century undoubtedly curtailed opportunities for travel, the phenomenon of Anglo-Japanese tourism may in fact be more deep than Thomson suggests.


[1] Thomson, A.F. “England and Japan’s Tourism and Culture.” Volume 1938 – Japan Chronicle Weekly Edition. (13th October 1938).

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Hockley, Allan. Globetrotter’s Japan: Foreigners on the tourist circuit in Meiji Japan. MIT Visualizing Cultures. (2010)

Bachelard and Nenzi: Comparing Spatial Perspectives

In Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, he discusses the idea of the house as a place of imagination where subconscious memories are imbued in the physical structure. In his words, ‘he [the occupant] experiences the house in its reality and in its virtuality, by means of thoughts and dreams’.[1] Thus, Bachelard envisions a space of imagination where the walls of a building can not only be viewed solely on ideas of its function but also, as an embodiment of dreams’.[2] These ideas are also reflected in Laura Nenzi’s Excursions in Identity: Travel and the Intersection of Place, Gender, and Status in Edo Japan. In it, she argues the road is a site of individuals’ dreams and gives he or she a space to imagine a version of themselves or their place in society differently as they travel outside their fixed role within it.

Most of the tourism readings, like Japan’s pocketbook of travels, outlined routes, sites, and activities as recommended by the government, with a clear agenda or push to include certain historical places in the weaving of a larger national narrative. Nenzi, on the other hand, creates what one could term the ‘choose your own adventure’ outlook where she takes the journey of travelers and contextualizes them in the wide range of possibilities enabled on the road. Nenzi’s outlook can be extended towards the Meiji era where tourism rapidly expanded as Japan opened to the west. She discusses the role of mass consumerism which sees items like trinkets becoming important indicators of the trips undertaken which she argues expands the accessible nature of travel. However, this interpretation, while interesting, also pigeonholes the experiences and perceptions of places to a singular craft, institution, etc. This offers an interesting comparison to groups like the globetrotters, where the tourists shallowly engage with the people, places, and cultures they visit, the perception of the country produced from the trip will be undoubtedly be skewed.

However, there is a degree of difference as the globetrotters were usually foreign visitors thus their understanding of the country would significantly differ from visitors from other parts of the same country yet both experiences reflect the multiple realities of a single space. Thus, as Bachelard discusses the web of consciousness projected in a house, and Nenzi discusses the endless perceptions and imaginations able to occur on the road both emphasize the versatile meanings of one space.

[1] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston 1994), p.9

[2] Ibid., p. 15

Shanghai Homes as Private Domestic Spaces

Following the end of the Opium War, the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 symbolised the opening of treaty ports. Shanghai’s opening welcomed an influx in  Western traders as well as foreign settlers. The influence of such foreign settlers was apparent across broad swathes of the Chinese community. Such influence was clearly recognisable through the development of architecture in Shanghai. Such an exchange between western modernity and traditional Chinese emerged within Shanghai’s neighbourhoods, in particularly Shanghai’s lilong residences.[1]The rise in Shikumen style housing, which made up a significant proportion of lilong residences, by 1930, serve as insightful spaces of historical artefact, in which Jie Li, has examined thoroughly within her work on Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life (2015). Through maintaining an interdisciplinary approach to the comparison of two shikumen style houses, in which both Jie Li’s paternal and maternal grandparents and family subsequently lived from 1930, through the combination of ethnography and microhistory Li creates her own approach to the subject of such housing in Shanghai as palimpsests, through her approach “Excavate Where I Stand.”[2] Thus through the analysis of the private and domestic space, witnessed with Jie Li’s work the author reclaims the importance of such domestic spaces, and reclaims the space of Shanghai alleyways in history as “Shanghai alleyways.. a palimpsests of voices and noises, past and present.”[3]


Despite critiques of microhistory, which focus on its limited scope, the strength here within Li’s work shows the role of microhistory as facilitating the ‘excavation’ of details, within the private domestic space, which overall serve to contribute to the readers understanding on the topic of enquiry as a whole. By expressing that whilst “a microhistory is not the last nail on the coffin of its subject matter, but rather an invitation to examine similarly obscured lives and to open up the Pandora’s box of a past era.”[4]


Moreover, the approach through its focus on ethnology additionally succeeds in transforming the role of local gossip into a tool, for the use of the historian. As “the private narratives of the past form gossip and family lore.. an undercurrent of private interests, voices and beliefs.”[5] Thus, through this approach historians are able to gain access to otherwise lost oral narratives of a private closed spaces. Which may be viewed as particularly crucial in the case of reconstructing narratives of the private space within Shanghai alleyway homes throughout the early twentieth century. This is summarised accordingly by Li as, “the history of any alleyway should be written as an anthology of gossip exchanged among its residents.”[6]


The importance of the private domestic space in this instance of understanding Shanghai Homes within the period, is reclaimed through the deployment of Li’s ethnographical and micro historical approach, which succeeds in light of sceptics views of microhistory. Let us hope that Jie Li’s insightful approach may be adopted as an alternative approach to examining otherwise unavailable private domestic spaces by historians in the future.





Li, Jie, Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life. (New York:, 2015).

Yang Xianoneng, ‘Shanghai Alleyways: Situating Jinahua Gong’s Shanghai Alleyways’, Cross-Currents East Asian History and Culture Review, Volume No.2, March 2010.


[1] Lilong, is a term used to describe a street, sometimes interconnected where Shikumen housing would be found.

[2] Jie Li, Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Lives, (New York, 2015) p.11.

[3] Ibid.,p.12.

[4] Ibid.,p.14.

[5] Ibid.,p.23.

[6] Ibid., p.142

Rebranding History in Beijing

If one walked around the old, seemingly timeless neighbourhoods of Beijing five or six years ago, they would have seen the character “拆” (chai) spray painted on some of the grey shabby walls of hutongs or traditional Chinese family homes. 拆 is the verb for “destroy” or “to pull down.” Once that mark appeared on any given home, it was only a matter of time before it would be bulldozed and made into whatever the government wanted.

Zhang Yue, in their essay “Steering Towards Growth: Symbolic Urban Preservation in Beijing, 1990-2005,” outlines some of the destruction and renewal Beijing has undergone for the sake of urban development.[1] Zhang describes how Beijing’s real estate development has washed away  – both literally and metaphorically – the city’s historical and cultural DNA. Out of the rubble of many Beijing hutongs has risen massive shopping complexes or high rise office buildings. Traces of the Beijing’s ancient heritage have completely evaporated in many parts of the city.

In the early 2000s, local residents and others lamenting the disappearance of the historic parts of Beijing were appeased by the local government through projects aimed at rebuilding the city’s grandest historical buildings. Coinciding with this effort was the construction of the immense Olympic park north of the city centre. Zhang highlights the reconstruction of the Ming-dynasty south city-gate, Yongdingmen, as the epitome of the government’s cultural preservation effort.[2] Beijing, throughout its many centuries of history, has been built around an auspicious north-south axis, based on the geomantic practices of Feng Shui.[3] Yongdingmen is the base of the axis, while the Forbidden City lies at the heart and the Olympic Park at the head. Rebuilding Yongdingmen at the same time the Olympic Park was taking shape helped to complete Beijing’s power line.[4] The north-south axis was displayed as the pulsating vein of Chinese history – from its cultural grandeur and its deep historical origins to the flourishing world power it has become.

Zhang questions whether Yongdingmen was rebuilt for its cultural and historic authenticity or merely to prop up the image of the city as it became a destination for tourists and world leaders alike in the wake of the Olympic games. While the heart of Beijing’s city life – the hutong – is plagued with destruction, grand buildings and tourist traps like Yongdingmen have risen in its place. As Zhang says herself: “symbolic urban preservation prioritises monuments over urban texture, exploits the economic value of cultural heritage without protecting it, and entertains visitors at the cost of the original inhabitants.”[5]  In effect, Beijing’s rich historical landscape has been appropriated to serve the commercial and political needs of the city as China has assumed its place as one of the world’s foremost powers.




Zhang, Yue. “Steering Towards Growth: Symbolic Urban Preservation in Beijing, 1990-2005.” The Town Planning Review 79, no. 2/3 (2008): 187-208.

Meyer, Michael. “The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed.” St Michaels Publishing, 2008.

[1] Zhang, Yue. “Steering Towards Growth: Symbolic Urban Preservation in Beijing, 1990-2005.” The Town Planning Review 79, no. 2/3 (2008): 187-208.

[2] Ibid

[3] Meyer, Michael. “The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed.” St Michaels Publishing, 2008.

[4] Zhang, Yue. “Steering Towards Growth.”

[5] Ibid