The Green Crab
In collaboration with Ian Tan and Onebite Studio, Hong Kong
‘The Green Crab’ is a companion piece to Zheng Mahler’s 2019 work ‘Nostalgia Machines’ which examined how the cultural positioning of Hong Kong through the aesthetics of cyberpunk was used to reassert cultural hierarchies in Asia through futurist modes of nostalgia in response to the economic reshuffling of geopolitical power between Japan and China in the 1990’s. While Hong Kong, as the cyberpunk city par excellence, projects and absorbs in equal amounts techno-orientalist fascination, horror and desire, Singapore is positioned in the western cultural imaginary as its opposite. In 1993, William Gibson, whose science-fiction novel Neuromancer established cyberpunk as a genre and cypher for East Asian, techno-dystopian futurity, visited Singapore and wrote an essay entitled ‘Disneyland with the Death Penalty’. Gibson expressed his frustration at being unable to look beneath the surface infrastructure of Singapore to find its underbelly because it is ‘infrastructure all the way down’. Leaving the constrained and orderly urbanism of Singapore, Gibson transits via Hong Kong and glimpses the Kowloon Walled City below, commenting in reverie; Hive of dreams. Those mismatched, uncalculated windows. How they seemed to absorb all the frantic activity of Kai Tak airport, sucking in energy like a black hole. I was ready for something like that... Similarly, in his longform picture essay Rem Koolhaas in the mid-1990’s called Singapore a ‘potemkin metropolis’, while also tempering his criticism with some prescient observations about the ‘Singaporean model’ as the template for the future of China in which the radiance of a thousand Singapore’s might burst forth in the mainland ‘minus the decadence, the democracy, the messiness, the disorder, the cruelty of the west.’ However, what these analyses of Singapore fail to account for is that in the early days of its independence, Singapore purposely renounced its former role as a chaotic and unwieldy third world colonial entrepot, and consciously rebranded itself as a financial hub with modern infrastructure to attract foreign investment. If it is condemned as an ‘disneyland with the death penalty’ or a propaganda village for global capital, then that is the very point, depending on whose metaphor you follow, it was either reconstructed as a modern and sanitized version of a South East Asian metropolis for the comfort and leisure of the global entrepreneurial class or potemkin show village to lure western capital and provide an economic base for its national survival. From the accounts of Gibson and Koohaas and their influence upon subsequent writing on its architecture, contemporary Singapore inspires at best boredom and at worst condescension for the utilitarian post-modern facades which shape this historically anomalous and highly efficient technocratic citystate. The question this work seeks to examine is what is it that frustrates the west about Singapore, when it was deliberately constructed in its pragmatic utopianism to directly appeal to its sensibilities?
With its urban planning led by the Housing Development Bureau and Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore recalls the circular concentric garden ring cities of tomorrow conceived by late-Victorian utopian Ebenezer Howard or even the Civitas Solis of Tommaso Companella. Nevertheless, it was the banality of UN bureaucracy with an action oriented approach to urban redevelopment which ultimately led to the realization of this urban utopia. However, beneath the outward signs of this functionalist western modernity, are the hidden qi flows of the ‘spiritual state’ woven into the fabric of Singapore’s urban design. Based on rumours about Lee Kuan Yew’s secret consultation with feng shui master Hong Choon, chief abbot of the Phor Kark See Monastery in the urban design of Singapore, this clandestine layer of esoteric Chinese metaphysics guiding the restructuring of the city is a central motif which undermines the notion of Singapore’s modernity as inauthentic and superficial. Instead, it is an adapted modernity which represents a new model of spiritually inflected east asian urbanism. While it might be easy to layer the luopan feng shui compass over the arteries of the city, every Singaporean knows that the really auspicious symbol for Singapore is the crab, whose shape the island resembles and whose limbs and organs mirror the geopolitical contours of the People’s Action Party control over the political landscape of Singapore. Zheng Mahler’s work goes further to tease out the ways in which the ‘Singaporean model’ of ready-made urban development based on technocracy, central planning and wide scale social engineering was exported to China and further afield to the redesign of cities in Africa, offering new prototypes for urban development deeply implicated in global capitalism, yet subtly different from the Western Neo-Liberal model which ultimately frustrates easy categorization and interpretation. The work is ultimately a speculative archeology of East Asian urbanism taking Singapore and Hong Kong as its two diametrically opposed exemplar’s. As the sun fades (in the west) and rises in the east, the interpretation of Singapore as an empty Barthean empire of signs, is eclipsed to reveal the spiritual epitome of a east asian feng shui city, engineered through (reverse) state alchemy-just because the spiritual structure is unintelligible, does not mean it does not exist. Singapore is the opposite of the cyberpunk city and the fears and desires which animate it, because it resists the techno-orientalizing projections which have shaped the interpretation of Hong Kong. This piece was produced in close collaboration with Hong Kong based Singaporean architectural historian Ian Tan and Onebite Studio, Hong Kong.