Despite my terrible grasp of Mandarin, I started looking out for Chinese books after encountering the cover designs of Taiwanese designer Wang Zhihong (王志弘). His type-driven designs exploit how Chinese characters are logographics, symbols that visually express the objects and concepts they represent. By deconstructing and reassembling them into elements of a modernist visual language, Wang shows how tradition can be made contemporary. Design by Wangzhihong.com (2016) compiles over 200 of his covers into a visual tome that is a treat for the eyes.
#ADesignLibrary spotlights lesser known design books, and invites public access to my personal collection of titles that focuses on Singapore architecture and design, Asian design, everyday design, critical and speculative design as well as design theory and philosophy. I welcome enquiries and physical loans.
Clad in grey and white tiles, arising 11-storeys above the ground, the China Cultural Centre towers over Queen Street in Singapore. Like a fortress, the boxy development thrusts itself out between an eccentric-looking hotel and the generic blue-and-white striped public housing podium block, maximising every inch of its sovereignty as the bulwark of Chinese culture in a foreign land. Established by the People’s Republic of China to promote and facilitate cultural exchange with Singapore, this centre is part of a network the rising superpower has established around the world as part of its global charm offence.
If China-backed infrastructure is changing the face of cities in developing regions such as Africa, then cultural acupuncture is its other weapon of choice, particularly for developed cities such as Paris, Seoul and Berlin. The China Cultural Centre in Singapore, which officially opened last year to mark 25 years of diplomatic relations with the host country, offers an alternative to existing “Chinese” developments in a city that is pre-dominantly Chinese. While existing Singapore-developed spaces like the Chinese Garden (1975), Chinatown Historic District (conserved in 1989), the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall (1994) and the Chinese Heritage Centre (1995) have used the narrative of the “overseas Chinese” to shape the identity of the Singaporean Chinese, the China Cultural Centre and the Confucius Institute in one-north offers a contemporary face to who the Chinese are today.
The new cultural centre is also a concrete manifestation of how China is increasingly linked to Singapore as its “urban solutions” provider. The Singapore centre marks the first time it is designed by a citizen from the host country: Liu Thai Ker. Lauded as the architect of modern Singapore, the former chief of the city’s public housing, and later, urban planning, has built up close ties with the Chinese since he briefed its late premier Deng Xiao Peng on the urbanisation of Singapore over three decades ago. Since then, Liu has been the go-to for advisor for several Chinese cities including being invited to chair the jury for the master plan of the 2008 Beijing Olympics Park.
This growing development raises intriguing questions. Will China come to resemble an upsized version of Singapore in the coming decades? There are already a proliferation of shopping malls by Singapore developer CapitaLand, including an upcoming Raffles City Chongqing in which starchitect Moshe Safdie seems to have designed a larger version of his iconic Marina Bay Sands for Singapore. Conversely, how will Singapore be shaped from its close urban relationship with China? The China Cultural Centre could be a harbinger of how Singapore develops as more of its architects operate in the megacities of China: where this colossal foreign relations centre now stands was once a two-storey community centre that fit much more snugly into the neighbourhood.
After learning how sexist the Chinese language is, designers Tan Sueh Li and Karmen Hui put their typography skills to use. The two Malaysian women, better known as TypoKaki, designed new Chinese characters incorporating the radical for woman (女, pronounced “nu”) to redefine the traditional patriarchal language for the country’s modern women.
Take, for instance, the typical Chinese character for peace (安), which depicts a woman (女) who stays within the house by covering it with a top radical (宀). To express how women in Malaysia are often segregated in public spaces because of Islam, the duo hacked the Chinese character for space (间) to insert the radical for a woman instead. This is just one of 30 characters Li and Hui designed for Women’s Words, a tiny red dictionary created with fellow Malaysian writer and researcher Tan Zi Hao. Created for a feminist art event in Malaysia, it’s just one example of how TypoKaki has been using typography and design to explore Malaysian culture since 2012.