Posts Tagged ‘nostalgia’

China 2011

June 26, 2011

Another beautiful day in Beijing – this much clear weather is rare…

“Tour packages to red tourism spots have become increasingly popular this year. The whole market has been stimulated by the enthusiasm to commemorate the Party’s birthday.”

Guo Yi, China Comfort Travel

“The promotion of red tourism will become more of a market role than a government role.”

Song Ziqian, senior policy researcher, China Tourism Academy

These are quotes from two articles in the China Daily this morning, part of the continuing coverage of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Community Party. They are striking in two ways: first, they conflate and confound the old distinction between communism and capitalism as the difference between a planned economy and a free market economy. Both quotes note how “red tourism” – tourists seeking out important sites in the 20th century history of the Communist Party – has become an important and growing segment of the free market economy.


The first article discusses how cultural heritage tourism is a growing phenomenon in many countries, which means that tourism to sites associated with pivotal CCP events like the Long March of 1934-36 is a type of heritage tourism, just as Americans would visit Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon or Gettysburg or other places central to the founding of the nation. A tourist is shown wearing a mock Red Army uniform posing next to a weaver’s loom in Yan’an in Shaanxi. How is that different from dressing up as a cowboy in Tombstone or Ben Franklin in Philadelphia? From a national tourism point of view, they are parallel activities. From an economic point of view, they are identical activities.

So, I was first struck by the marvelous mixing up of capitalism and communism implicit in “red tourism”. The second thing that struck me was the history and its timing, because I met again last night with my Global Heritage Fund friends Han Li, Firth Griffith and Will Shaw. We were talking about the history of the Community Party and how this could provide opportunities to promote certain heritage sites that GHF may want to get involved in. My instinctive response was very positive, not simply because the Party has power and influence and it would be good to choose sites associated with their history. That fact has the same importance as the idea of getting banks to connect to the Chinese banking history in Pingyao detailed in my last blog.


No, the reason I instinctively saw the promotion of Party history as a positive was exactly the same point made in the quotes in this morning’s paper: I saw this history as trending; hitting a point of popularity because it was far enough in the past to become nostalgic. Nostalgia is a distortion of history, often a kind of cleansing of history that sieves out the unpleasant memories in favor of the warm and fuzzy. Nostalgia was active when Williamsburg opened in the 1930s and is still active today. Just as certain architectural styles only become popular after a certain amount of time has elapsed – witness the slow adoption of Victorian by the preservation movement in the 1960s and 70s – historical periods only become nostalgic and subject to tourism appropriation after their elements of active agency have ended. Old-style Chinese communism ended in the late 1970s, and the majority of Chinese have no personal memory of it. Hence, it can be nostalgic.


As I have noted in a whole bunch of blog entries about Mid-Century Modernism, there is a generational aspect to what become heritage, whether it is historical or architectural. The impulse to preserve is often attendant with obsolescence: when a technology, building style, or historical period loses active agency, it becomes a potential subject for preservation.


we swam in the water cube (above), ran along the Great Wall, and bicycled down from the wall area – sort of a Beijing Ironman!

All of the pictures you see in this blog were taken with the same camera, which Felicity and I bought in 2004 and is the only digital camera I have ever owned. I was slow to adopt digital, just as I was slow to adopt cell phones and digital music. Some of this Luddite tendency is actually visible in blog entries from four or five years ago. I recall my cousin Andy saying about digital cameras “That train has left the station.” And he was right. But two years ago I had an 18-year old freshman student at SAIC who started collecting film cameras – he has at least two dozen. As soon as the technology became obsolete, there was a huge desire – especially on the part of those who did not live through it – to preserve it.


The generational challenge is exacerbated by the accumulation of capital by an older generation, especially if that capital is not directed to the exploitation of the growing market segments. That is, in fine, the point of the quotes above and the point of my discussions with my Global Heritage Fund friends. We can recognize the emerging market segments and trends in heritage conservation and heritage tourism. Can we find the capital needed to catalyze those emerging markets? Or will the Chinese beat us to it?

Death To Nostalgia

August 26, 2008

Back in the late 1980s I was in a hearing at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks on the landmark designation of some surviving 1870s buildings in the Loop. The great real estate expert Jared Shlaes was testifying against the designation of several buildings because they had no functional or economical use. Somehow we had become a “party” to the hearing and I was able to cross-examine him. I thought I was clever and brought up the Chicago Water Tower, which was also functionally and economically obsolete. He fired back with a withering glare noting that the Water Tower was a landmark with great nostalgic value.

That hurt, man. Not losing an argument to Shlaes (although in retrospect he was wrong – the buildings are still around). What hurt was THAT WORD. Nostalgia. He was calling me nostalgic and that stung.

Nostalgia, is, as the ending of the word implies, a disease. Pining for a past that is dead and gone. What, you say? Isn’t that historic preservation? NO. Check out this quote:

“The National Trust for Historic Preservation promotes community development in older and historic neighborhoods.”

This was news today, thanks to a $1.3 million grant from the Knight Foundation to the National Trust (link at right). The grant is part of a $5 million loan pool targeted at developing affordable housing for some 28 communities across the U.S.. As this news makes clear, historic preservation is in fact an attitude toward the future – an attitude that our environment is richer by preserving HISTORIES embodied in buildings; that our future is brighter by preserving the ENERGY embodied in existing buildings; and that our life is richer by preserving the ARCHITECTURE of earlier periods. And preservation is a mechanism for securing a range of development goals including affordable housing.

Nostalgia afflicts many of those who support preservation, but I recoil at the term. I LIKE it when things change because that is history. History is not about standing still, it is about dynamism and the mechanics and infinite variety of change. We lived in a lovely house for 12 years and sold it this spring and now everyone is telling us how the new owners painted it white. So what? They should paint it however they want. It’s theirs now. I loved and enjoyed that house for 12 years and so did Felicity and the girls and it was time to move on so we moved on. That house will always be a part of my life but I don’t need to get DISEASED about it. I need to move on.

“The Moving Finger writes, and, having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it”
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam by Edward Fitzgerald

I don’t want to perpetuate the 1970s or the 1980s or the 1990s and even if I did it wouldn’t work. Nostalgia the disease leads the pious and the clever to attempt erasure, to attempt to stop time, to hold on to institutions, practices, media, social orders and technologies that have died. That is as creepy as the stuffed Jeremy Bentham at the London School of Economics.

I hate it when people suggest that preservation is about stopping time. Ludicrous. Preservation is, in part, about limiting formal changes to the environment, but that is an attitude toward the future, not a misplaced reverence for the past. Museums can be about describing what life was like in the past, and there are architectural museums and house museums and museum villages and Civil War reenactments and the like. Those things could be described as nostalgic, although I would prefer to call them interpretive and educational. But museums – as much as they have proliferated in the last half century – are still relatively rare. You can have one for every 20,000 people or so. And even then, your goal is not to preserve something in aspic or amber or dry ice but to create an educational experience about the past that can plausibly (and usually positively) influence the future.

I like house museums. But I like historic districts and landmark buildings when they aren’t museums – and 95% of the time they aren’t. I like them because they served one purpose once and serve another now – because they have more and richer histories than most one-note new buildings. I like them because their history is visible and legible in patina and alterations over time, and I like them because they show me a style, a design and a sense of place that appeared once and will never appear again in exactly the same way.

I don’t ever want to go back AND I don’t ever want to forget.


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