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The New Asian CityThree-Dimensional Fictions of Space and Urban Form$

Jini Kim Watson

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780816675722

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816675722.001.0001

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Transition Roads, Railways, and Bridges

Transition Roads, Railways, and Bridges

Arteries of the Nation

(p.167) Transition Roads, Railways, and Bridges
The New Asian City

Jini Kim Watson

University of Minnesota Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the implications of a developmentalist orientation for both official and alternative nationalisms through theorizations of the postcolonial nation. It focuses on the official national discourses of political speeches and government policies, and the refiguring and imagining of nations in various cultural texts. The chapter also analyzes infrastructures, such as the concrete and metaphoric road, railway, and bridge, which simultaneously turns national space into a free passage for goods, materials, labor, and commodities, and symbolizes the way chosen by the countries’ leaders toward successful development.

Keywords:   developmentalist orientation, postcolonial nation, cultural texts, national space, free passage, official national discourses, government policies

The objective of national liberation is, therefore, to reclaim the right, usurped by imperialist domination, namely: the liberation of the process of development of national productive forces.

—AMILCAR CABRAL, “National Liberation and Culture”

As the last section has shown, the rise of the much-applauded Asia Pacific miracle economies cannot be understood without acknowledging the ways they reorganized their productive systems through urbanization and the effects this had on laboring and gendered subjectivities. Moving away from the question of individual reconciliation with the spatial logic of tabula rasa development, the next three chapters consider the developmental state as the site of the deliberate expansion of the images, values, and logic of cold war-defined, export-led capitalism in terms of a national project. In this brief introduction to part 3, “Industrializing Landscapes,” I suggest we need to adjust well-known postcolonial theorizations of national culture for the New Asian City context and think through developmentalism as a contested expression of nationalist desires. In the era initiating the international flow of goods and capital we now call globalization, we will see how highly orchestrated and nationalized images of anticommunism and material wealth shaped the political and spatial forms of postcolonial Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. At the same time, we must ask, what are the implications of this emphasis on material progress for postcolonial theory, which has developed more often in response to the lack of such development? In particular, I investigate how the production of a modernized national space—arguably the preoccupation of these postcolonial developmental regimes—is narrated as the country’s future path (p.168) to freedom. In this Transition, then, my objects of study include the official national discourses of political speeches and government policies as well as the refiguring and imagining of the nation in various cultural texts. The topic of emphasis throughout is the concrete and metaphoric road, railway, or bridge—infrastructure that simultaneously turns national space into a free passage for goods, materials, labor, and commodities, and symbolizes the way chosen by the countries’ leaders toward successful development.

I argue that nationalist sentiment in these three sites—at the level of offcial discourse, to begin with—turns on the question of economic nationalism. While conventional thought may see the essence of the nation in opposition to material progress (see my discussion of Chatterjee in the previous chapter), postcolonial Marxist-oriented thinkers have not opposed the two categories as such. African liberationist Amilcar Cabral, for example, writes of the armed revolution against colonialism creating “a veritable forced march along the road to cultural progress” (64); he assumes cultural progress to be a corollary of militarized struggle and the material development this requires. With a slight rewriting of this formula, we might think of certain Pacific Rim postcolonies as evincing a developmental revolution creating a forced march along the road to material progress, positing a statist version of Cabral’s goal of national liberation as the “liberation of the process of development of national productive forces” (56). In the New Asian City context, physical infrastructural improvements and export levels themselves become the very terms of the national project: to produce or perish. This final section of the book interrogates the nature of this forced march—undertheorized as simply the Asian economic miracle—and its role in constructions of the nation.

It is necessary, then, to consider the remarkable physical form that political power has taken in the modernizing regimes of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, the Republic of China’s Chiang Kai-shek, and South Korea’s Park Chung Hee, in comparison with each other and with other postcolonies. The physical trappings of political power associated with grand architectural monuments were not (with some exception for Chiang Kai-shek) the goal of these postcolonial leaders. Lee remarks how he and his colleagues had no intention of memorializing their power in the usual manner of “renaming streets or buildings or putting our faces on postage stamps or currency notes” (From Third World, 50). Rather, political power (p.169) attains the more far-reaching physical imprint in the roads, highways, industrial zones, bridges, and airports built by these regimes. In terms of the differentiation across third world sites alluded to in the first Transition, the obsession with infrastructure may be one way of understanding certain Asian versus African postcolonial modalities of sovereignty. Achille Mbembe has described Cameroon in terms of its “aesthetics of vulgarity,” a political power defined by the grotesque, obscene, and “phallocratic” (103, 110). In his account, postcolonial rule “must be extravagant …; it must furnish public proof of its prestige and glory by sumptuous (yet burdensome) presentation of its symbols of status, displaying the heights of luxury in dress and lifestyle, turning prodigal acts of generosity into grand theatre” (109). State power is characterized by “the obsession with orifices” (109) and lecherous living, such that “the unconditional subordination of women … remains one pillar upholding the reproduction of the phallocratic system” (110). In these Asia Pacific sites, however, the solidity—perhaps the hardness—of the built environment replaces the need for such a vocabulary of masculinist power, while the submission of women, as we have just seen, takes other forms.

The attempt to explain the variety of widespread post- and neocolonial conditions dates to the early moments of decolonization. With reference to African postcolonies, Frantz Fanon famously diagnosed the postcolonial problem as the historical and current weakness of the “national bourgeoisie,” who become profiteering intermediaries between the nation and global capitalism. For Fanon, facilitating this “transmission line” (152) excludes the masses, inhibits the development of productive forces, and results in the stagnation of modern industry. In other words, without the intellectual—and not just muscular—participation of the masses, the “national bourgeoisie … reveals itself incapable of simply bringing national unity into being, or of building up the nation on a stable and productive basis” (159). He illustrates this nicely in the following:

If the building of bridge does not enrich the awareness of those who work on it, then that bridge ought not to be built and the citizens can go on swimming across the river or going by boat. The bridge should not be “parachuted down” from above …; on the contrary it should come from the muscles and the brains of the citizens. (200–201)

(p.170) In arguing that under no circumstances should development be “parachuted down” by the state, Fanon underlines the productive and political activity required of all members of the independent nation: although material progress is a prerequisite for cultural development à la Cabral, too much state-directed progress inhibits real nation building. Pheng Cheah has more recently argued that the failure of nationalism has not been due to unfortunate historic factors—most typically where the neocolonial bourgeois state takes over the national liberation project. Rather, it fails because of a “more original susceptibility” (Spectral, 229) inherent in the actualization of national freedoms. This is “the irreducible susceptibility of life to techne that afflicts political organicism” (227), where techne is an Aristotelian term understood through the lens of Kant’s moral philosophy. For Cheah, the basic assumption of postcolonial nationalism—tracing its conceptual origins in German idealist thought—is that people organized into an organically conceived nation is the best way to actualize political freedom; in other words, that political activity “finds its truth in culture” (7). Culture, conceived as “the product and self-conscious reflection of a society’s life, its economic and political activities, … enables a society to rationally grasp and regulate its own historical progress” (216–17). Not surprisingly, such ability explains the nation-form’s appeal to postcolonial movements. Yet Cheah goes on to show how the very positing of a national culture, which would overcome individual finitude and project society into the future, necessarily carries with it the risk of “contamination,” a problem inherent in all attempts to “incarnate ideals in the external world” (224). Drawing on Cabral and Fanon’s condemnation of the neocolonial state, Cheah defines the danger of techne as the alien, externalizing mechanism of the state, which is deadly to, but inherent in, the nation as organic metaphor.

Cheah’s study thus shares Fanon’s unease about the genuine constitution of the nation: “Can the social or political body transcend finitude and assimilate the artificial prostheses that threaten to contaminate it, or is it irreducibly exposed to an inhuman and nonorganicizable techne?” (224). What interests me is the way Fanon’s understanding of the precariousness of postcolonial nationalism is theorized as an inherent risk of contamination by Cheah: while its “economic and political activities” make the new nation viable, a materialism externalized in statist forms is fatal to national (p.171) culture. As we saw in the discussion of export-oriented production, the New Asian City countries enjoyed exceptional status precisely in eventually having built up a relatively “stable and productive basis,” and thereby accumulating capital. If this did not occur autonomously through the model of independent development and import substitution, it was nevertheless achieved with some kind of participation of the masses. In contrast to Cheah’s ultimately pessimistic pronouncement on the possibility for the organic nation, I suggest that in the cases of the New Asian Cities, we need to consider how the material operations of techne do not always oppose the emergence of a postcolonial nationalism, but may actually constitute it. In other words, state apparatuses direct development toward international markets in a neocolonial manner, yet do so under the banner of popular nationalism. To flesh out my claim, let us consider further the relationship between techne, the state, and nationalist sentiment.

In the well-known configuration traced by Benedict Anderson, the combination of vernacular languages and empty, homogenous time, ratified through the daily plebiscite of print culture, allows for the horizontally and spatially uniform imagined community of the nation. Anderson notes that by the late twentieth century, modern nationalism had become modular and extended to every contemporary society. In Imagined Communities, one of the important questions Anderson asks is how official—state or imperial—nationalism “enters post-revolutionary leadership styles” (160), that is, how a popular revolutionary or anticolonial struggle is coopted by a nationalism “serving the interests of the state first and foremost” (159). He is especially interested in how revolutionary postcolonial states such as Vietnam succumb to what he calls the “wiring of the [old] colonial state”: “Like the complex electrical system in any large mansion when the owner has fled, the state awaits the new owner’s hand at the switch to be very much its old brilliant self again” (160).1 Anderson identifies three important mechanisms for this ghostly inhabiting of existing state structures (or techne, to use Cheah’s term): the colonial practices of census, map, and museum. Underwritten by the new currency of ethnonationalism, these practices produce a grammar of colonial ideologies and policies, which have become surprisingly useful for postcolonial state-building activities (163). As always, Anderson is exceedingly good at accounting for how the most abstract of national identities gets expressed in bureaucracies, schools, (p.172) legal systems, and clinics and in time give “real social life to the state’s earlier fantasies” (169). Of particular interest to us is the way the physical form of the colonial map functions as a model for what it “purported to represent” (Thongchai Winichakul, qtd. in Anderson, 173); the unity of the map belies the often haphazard setting down of territorial boundaries as naturalized containers of certain ethnic and religious groups. Similarly, colonial monuments or ruins were crucial to the construction of Malay, Chinese, or Javanese identities and acted as “regalia for a secular colonial state” (182). The map, along with educational and touristic publications surrounding colonial monuments and archaeological studies, were all guaranteed by an “infinite reproducibility” (182) newly enabled by print capitalism. Archaeological objects, monuments, and native flora and fauna become fodder for schoolbooks, postcards, and eventually tourism sanctioned by the colonizers. Anderson writes, “It was precisely the infinite quotidian reproducibility of its regalia that revealed the real power of the state” (183).

For the Singaporean, Taiwanese, and South Korean postcolonial states, the British and Japanese colonial “wiring” has been both reused and elaborated. The colonial practices of ethnic categorization and museumization are vigorously retained, for example, in Singapore’s neat tripartite racial breakdown of the population into Chinese, Malay, and Indian, and the zeal with which Korea adopted the national archaeological system introduced by Japan. In addition to such cultural identities and regalia, I argue that trading facilities and incipient manufacturing industries were built upon to create efficient economies, and it is the real and imagined forms of these—enhanced by new productive technologies—that can also provide an imaginable map and give real social life to postcolonial nationalisms. Like other forms of visual and symbolic culture, infrastructural technologies give rise to certain representations that “[offer] legibility through the reproduction of what is seen” (Balshaw and Kennedy, 7). Narratives and images of roads and transportation networks—the very techne that fills in and connects the horizontal space of the nation—thus give us a way of viewing nationalism that works analogously to the temporal sleight of hand of the newly redrawn colonial map: the unity of the productive nation as both mechanism and image of the future.

There is one more important implication of the hyperproductive postcolonial nation. In his article on the rapid development of the Asia Pacific (p.173) Tiger economies, Castells gives a definition of the developmental state: “A state is developmental when it establishes as its principle of legitimacy its ability to promote and sustain development, understanding by development the combination of steady high rates of economic growth and structural change in the productive system, both domestically and in its relationship to the international economy” (“Four Asian Tigers,” 56, emphasis in original). What this definition reveals is precisely that a form of legitimacy—one that arises not from civil society’s consensual basis but that is coherent nevertheless—is fundamental to developmental states. To clarify, Castells gives the example of revolutionary states “which never pretended to be legitimate in terms of the acquiescence of the subjects, but in terms of the historical project they embodied, as avant-gardes of the classes and nations that were not yet fully aware of their destiny and interests” (57). In the revolutionary moment, the state “substitutes itself for society in the definition of societal goals” which include “the fundamental reorganization of the social order.” Similarly,

When the societal project respects the broader parameters of social order (although not necessarily the specific social structure) but aims at a fundamental transformation of the economic order … I propose the hypothesis that we are in the presence of what we call the developmental state. The historical expression of such a societal project generally takes the form (and such was the case in most of the East Asian experience) of the building or rebuilding of national identity, affirming the national presence of a given society or a given culture in the world, although not necessarily coinciding with the territorial limits under the control of the developmental state. (57)

In other words, despite obvious political and ideological differences, Castells tracks a basic structural similarity between revolutionary states and the repressive governments of the Asia Pacific. The latter enact an economic rather than political transformation but nevertheless see themselves in the business of rebuilding the national identity. Aside from abstract facts and figures (export earnings, growth rates) of the state’s nation-building discourse, the economic and structural change in the productive system is, I contend, most clearly perceived in the concrete achievements of urbanism and infrastructure. We will see how such forms are able to signify (p.174) future success to the outside (Lee Kuan Yew), become objects of national competitive development (Park Chung Hee), or showcase the operation of a model provincial economy in the face of political exclusion (the Kuomintang). In all cases, the shiftto a modern built environment is the leap into the future that legitimizes the national project of development. Complicating narratives of simple authoritarian repression, Castells observes that “the fundamental element in the ability of developmental states to fulfill their project was their political capacity to impose and internalize their logic on the civil societies” (“Four Asian Tigers,” 64, emphasis altered). Even though the forms of development promoted usually replaced local building methods and structures with generic layers of concrete or asphalt, when combined with the rhetoric of crisis and survival, they confirm that the most urgent national task is none other than accelerated economic development.

We thus arrive back at a strange reformulation of Cabral’s notion of the national liberation of productive forces. In the context of the New Asian City, the object of postcolonial independence is shifted away from the freedom of a people to the setting free of the national industries’ productive power. In other words, the subject of freedom moves from living societies to the dead labor of commodity production, and the mediating links between them are the fluid, nationalized transportation networks. National culture may be then defined as that in the name of which the shiftin mode of production is undertaken. The nation is produced, paradoxically, as the unchanging term that organizes and directs the transformation of the rest of society; it must carry and bear the weight of this process while never losing its own (mythical) status of continuity. If the historic destiny of developmentalism is narrated by the state through its inscription onto the nation’s physical spaces, it should not be surprising if literary and cinematic narratives of this period also explicitly allegorize the national way through alternative representations of its built forms. As Balshaw and Kennedy note, the city—and I would add built forms of the nation more generally—“clearly persists … as an imaginary totality which compellingly symbolizes generalised desires and anxieties—often, those configured around the meanings of nationhood, citizenship, urbanity and justice” (6). The contested view of the use and meanings of such apparatuses is thus nothing less than a contestation over the direction and content of the postcolonial national project.

(p.175) Finally, we can translate our understanding of statist development back into Lefebvrian terms. In his sustained account of the gradual historical rise and domination of capitalist spatial relations, he describes the concept of abstract space. A more totalizing version of representations of space, it tends toward homogenization, the logic of visualization, and phallic orientation (Lefebvre, 285–87) and can be thought of as the spatial equivalent of Cheah’s techne: “As a product of violence and war, [abstract space] is political; instituted by a state” (285). If social space is always polyvalent and contested, abstract space dissimulates an illusory coherence determined by power, tending toward the “reduction of three-dimensional realities to two dimensions” (285). The developmental states we have been discussing employ such a strategy, instrumentalizing space as “a stake, the locus of projects and actions deployed as part of specific strategies, and hence also the object of wagers on the future—wagers which are articulated, if never completely” (142–43).

In each of the following three chapters, I interrogate the way modernizing built forms, and especially transport systems, function as the imaginary totalities or wagers on the future through which developmentalist nationalism operates. To do this, I analyze writings and speeches of the long-tenured, authoritarian leaders of the three states. Accompanying this, I examine selected literary and cinematic texts that equally invoke the roads, planning, and infrastructure of national modernization programs, but that do so in order to make radically different claims about the nation. In the next chapter, I consider discourses of Singapore’s official nationalism as articulated by the inimitable Lee Kuan Yew and the responses to such ideas of nationhood by two prominent poets, Edwin Thumboo and Arthur Yap. I then move to Taiwanese New Cinema of the s and the early works of Hou Hsiao-hsien as the cultural texts that, arguably, most directly grapple with the new city-country relationship taking shape during the consolidating decades of Kuomintang rule. In the final chapter, I examine the Korean minjung literature movement exemplified by proletarian writer Hwang Sŏk-yŏng, whose work simultaneously responds to the issues of aggressive industrialization, cold war divisions, and the repressive regime of Park Chung Hee. Acknowledging differences in genre and historical context, I choose these specific cultural forms for their provocative responses to statist nationalisms and not because they are somehow (p.176) representative of that era or nation’s cultural production. Their relevance lies in the specific (mis)use of the spatial grammar of official nationalist discourses: of Lee’s way ahead, Chiang Kai-shek’s bridge to mainland recovery, and Park Chung Hee’s New Village rural industrialization. Narrating decidedly other experiences on the road, these works explore the way wider communities experience, and are reshaped by, railways, roads, and bus routes to provide alternative symbolic versions of developmental landscapes.

Thus, it is again my aim to complicate the story of the exception, or the good pupils of the third world, by examining the interlocking forms and narratives of postwar national development. In examining how the statedirected struggle for development is held up as the “fight for the liberation of the nation, that material keystone which makes the building of a culture possible” (Fanon, 233), we must reckon with a vastly different conception of the relationship between material practice and cultural unity than that imagined by Fanon or Cabral.


(1.) Pheng Cheah has also commented on Anderson’s provocative metaphor. See Spectral Nationality (226–27).