Tag: Globalisation

An Unequal Equation

An essay commissioned for the “Equivalence – Cans” exhibition held at Objectifs from 26 April to 14 May 2017

Just as the equal symbol is signified by two parallel lines, Equivalence presents two different things that are expressed to be the same. This is the equation—in the form of 1,001 photographs—that confronts visitors to the chapel turned gallery of Objectifs. Amongst a sea of a thousand pictures each depicting a crushed aluminium can recovered from the trash in Singapore sits a single image of a consumer good purchased from a shop. The former was discarded and deemed worthless by consumers. The latter was acquired in exchange for something of value. Yet, an equivalence connects the two.

Their common economic value of 15 Singapore dollars is what balances this seemingly unequal equation. That the scrap metal industry can turn a used aluminium can into a commodity is a testament of the free market economy’s ability to convert garbage into gold. But by equating the value of what some in Singapore need for survival to the cost of a thing that others covet for pleasure, Equivalence also sums up the inequality such an economy brings about.

This is a pressing issue for developed economies around the world today. Popularly expressed as the 99% versus the 1%, this income and wealth gap is the inevitable result of outsourcing the allocation of scarce global resources to the free market’s “invisible hand”. All things being equal, inequality is the answer. Besides polarising societies, such an economy blinds consumers to its mechanics too. From how industrial-scale production drives wages to unsustainable lows to mass consumption’s insatiable appetite for resources and the resulting huge amounts of waste, these products of the free market economy are often far away from snazzy shopping centres and liveable cities. Out of sight and out of mind, what consumers are left with is an abstract worldview: everything simply comes with a price tag, minus the hard to quantify costs. We value the things around us by flattening everything into a price. We quantify our lives as if we were nothing more than engines of value. We speak of our homes as income-generating properties, and even measure the worth of our cities based on their economies. We’ve developed a world that makes most sense (and cents) for those who can afford to live in such a free market.

For the many who struggle to fit into this equation, they have to turn to alternative means such as salvaging aluminium cans and other remains of the consumption cycle, often from the public streets. Even such avenues are increasingly being priced out by the widening reach of the economy. A recent drop in scrap metal prices has made collecting aluminium cans unprofitable. Public spaces in cities are increasingly being privatised, squeezing out those who cannot afford to rent. In a world that is becoming so rationally divided by the common denominator of the free market, what happens to those who equate to be the remainder? This is what Equivalence asks through its photographic juxtaposition of our wants and needs in contemporary urban living. This inquiry by the Beijing-based Chow and Lin—made up of photographer Stefen Chow and economist Lin Hui Yi—emerges out of the rapid urbanisation of Asia, a phenomenon that has prompted a next generation to question the region’s historic adoption of Western developmental models. Just as how the late German conceptual photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher visualised the architecture of industrialisation in the 20th century—capturing water towers, coal bunkers, factory facades, amongst others—Chow and Lin bring to life globalisation in the 21st century by methodically documenting the products of our global economy. Equivalence mirrors the spectacular readymade installations of leading conceptual artists in Asia, such as the Beijing-based Song Dong and the New Delhi-based Subodh Gupta, by assembling a near life-size infographic of everyday goods from Asia to visualise the architecture of living in this region today.

Faced with an equation that adds up to be correct, but not right, Equivalence offers us an answer that only prompts more questions: Why makes things equivalent? How can the world be equal? That any equation is balanced only reflects a state of affairs in equilibrium—not necessarily one that is equitable. If this is the cost of a stability today, dare we formulate another way to value our world tomorrow?

➜ Find out more about the Equivalence project here

McDonaldisation of Cities

The World Cities Summit is happening in Singapore now and one issue being discussed is the sustainable development of a city. I’m just wondering whether the city has become such a formulaic response to urban living that we fail to think outside the box on other ways of sustainable living.

This thought inspired me to take the photo above, where I juxtaposed the McDonalds store across The Bund in Shanghai with the city skyline itself. After all, the food chain is an expert on providing uniform service and food wherever you go. Check out my other photos of Shanghai.

Non-travels from Singapore to Shanghai

shanghai-to-singaporeShanghai, Singapore, Similar Cities

It felt like a 6 hour bus ride to a future extension of Greater Singapore, a city in a city, but I was in Shanghai, a drab-grey city, where I looked a part of, but felt so estranged from.

The problem with city-traveling is how similar a pscyhe they all have. Most cities are laid out in a grid-like fashion and the skyline is dominated by skyscrapers while its underbelly hosts the tension between the old and the new. In cities, similar gated enclaves thrive: the expatriate community and their exotic re-imaginations of home; shoppers in the malls dominated by global brands; tourists in the cultural districts and their attempts to encapsulate history, time and culture in one broad stroke. This was my problem with my six-day trip — Shanghai was a jaded expression of my impression of the city state, and as if reflecting my state of mind, the weather was foggy and I hardly saw the sun. In fact, the most colourful moment I had was when it rained — the streets were filled with all sorts of colours, the people brandishing their umbrellas and raincoats as if in some theatrical performace to wash off the grey that enveloped the city.

The Great Wall of Consumerism and Capitalism
To call Shanghai a modern facade of China would be a bit too harsh, but this expression is well-manifested in how it arranges its residential and commercial spaces. The facade facing the streets were shops, while in between every few shops one would find “弄”, an equivalent to alleys, that led to residential homes. It’s as if China built a modern wall of consumerism and capitalism to protect its culture and identity inside. What the people did in the residential spaces was private, gated and protected by a security guard who could sniff out residents just by looking at you. Or so I thought. I never dared trespass.

What was clear to me was that Shanghai lacked the strict urban discipline that so exemplifies Singapore. There was an air of spontaneity to the distribution of spaces, I could be standing along a street of old shops and the next corner I would find a office tower.

I am a Chinese lost in China
While I looked the part, a Chinese in China, I had never felt so alien and silent. Shanghai was probably a much more modern view of China today, but even so, my comfort in American and European culture was seriously exposed during this trip. I was always taking an extra effort, or reacting a second slower to my surroundings. I felt like a Singaporean Chinese, and this expression only serves to expose the absurdity of the racial model we have here; of this desire to paint imagined roots to a Chinese culture that is no longer recognisable to China’s.

During my trip, I also spotted and heard many Singaporeans. Yes, we do have a look. There came a point during a jaunt in a cafe where the table across mine hosted two Singaporean couples back-to-back. In their words, “Wah piang eh!” One thing I never figured out was what stereotypes the Chinese had of Singaporeans. In a strange way, knowing stereotypes gives us a sense of comfort in the day-to-day dealings with people, as if some identity theater, where you knew what the expectations were and how you could exploit them to your advantage.

Mao for sale
One thing that struck me was how commodified communism had become in China. Popular culture had appropriated a failed ideology into fodder for pop-art, and one could find it all over its clothings and art. And as if a nod to its newfound art in piracy, even the paintings for sale in galleries that I came across were copies! Two images are striking: one was revolutionary paintings plastered with brand names, while another was photos of grey Shanghai spaces photoshopped to accentuate the colours of certain items. To me, they were respective artistic responses to my observations of the commodification and greyness of the city.

And so that is what I can make of my short stay in Shanghai. I never felt like I traveled somewhere different, merely somewhere further. To the person, who told me that Shanghai was at least two years ahead of Singapore, I’m not sure what you meant. The future development of a city like Singapore? Then I’ll disagree, because Singapore is ahead.