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Urban Aspirations and Theme Park and Casino Tourism-led Transformations at Hengqin Island

Article by Chin Ee Ong.

In this article, I consider one aspect of the Chinese urban governance process – the intended creation of the third ‘New Area’ in China (after Pudong in Shanghai and Binhai in Tianjin) on the island of Hengqin in the Pearl River Delta. Part of the Guangdong province and within the jurisdiction of the city of Zhuhai, Hengqin lies in the immediate west of the Cotai Strip in Macao and is envisioned to be an international leisure and residential enclave with strong emphasis on non-gambling and family-focused entertainment, ecotourism and environment. Specifically, I report briefly on the various ways in which polices were discursively-shaped and the current material manifestations and transformations on the island town.

Cities and urban areas in Asia are experiencing rapid transformations in urban governance. Such transformations have attracted much scholarly attention. There is a growing focus in urban studies and the social sciences on the networked, relational and mobile nature of urban policies and images (Bunnell, 2012; McCann, 2008, 2011; Roy & Ong, 2011). In particular, recent scholarly attention has been casted on the networked nature of regionalisation in Asia (Bunnell, 2012; Ong, 2011) and how such networked nature of Asian regionalisation is bound up with processes of policy emulations and diffusions (Bunnell & Das, 2010; McCann, 2008, 2011). Such attempts build on earlier work on the networked nature of global or globetrotting consultants and experts engaged in multiple urban projects (McNeill, 2009; Olds, 2001; Peck, 2002). China, one of the most rapidly urbanising countries in Asia, has received much academic attention. Here, I consider the case of Hengqin Island, China’s third National Level ‘New Area’ after Shanghai’s Pudong and Tianjin’s Binhai, to present a case of contemporary Chinese urban aspirations, their associated policy emulations and transfers and their resultant inter-referencing regionalisation in the Pearl River Delta in Southern China (see Figure 1). In this short article, I use some materials from my fieldwork involving ethnographic study of a Macao business delegation and field interviews in the town of Hengqin conducted in 2011 to narrate this emerging story of aspirations and transformations in a part of China undergoing massive tourism and leisure-led transformations.

Hengqin Island: A rapidly transforming town. © Author, Dec 2011

Urban Development, Chinese Urbanism and Regionalisation Urban governance takes on a key importance as cities become more neoliberal (Kearns & Paddison, 2000) and their economies, development and workers more global (McNeill, 2009; Olds, 2001). It is also important to attend to the networked, relational and territorial nature of contemporary cities (McCann and Ward, 2010). Although there has been close to three decades of attention to iconic world cities and aspiring world cities, there continues to be sustained grounds for further investigations and inquiry, particularly regarding the ways in which such aspirations are bound up with regionalisation, changing forms of urban aspiration of planners and citizens and policy emulation and transfer (Ong, 2011).

China’s transition towards a more capitalistic and market oriented economy and its consequent shifts in urban processes and landscape have been an important focus of academic attention in the past two decades (Davis et al., 1995; Friedmann, 2005; Gaubatz, 1999; Logan, 2001; Wang, 2004; Wu, 2002). These research endeavours have focused on understanding the impacts of economic changes on housing policies, aspirations and experiences (Pow, 2007a, 2007b; Wang, 2004; Wang & Murie, 2000), the increased interactions and tensions between city government, people and developers (Pow, 2007b; Pow, 2009; Wu, 1999; Zhu, 1999), experiences and implications of rural migrants (Chan, 1996) and urban governance (Bray, 2005; Wu, 2002). Through the work of Bray (2005) and Wu (2002), observers of Chinese governance have a better view of the Party-State, household registration and state work-units that characterise urban governance of socialist China. Their work also shed light on how some of these are changing under post-Mao reforms. However, these studies take mainland Chinese territories as their units of analysis and little is yet known about how such urban places are embedded in and undergoing complex regionalisation brought about by reference to China’s two Special Administrative Regions of Macao and Hong Kong and the ethnic Chinese majority Southeast Asian island-state of Singapore.

Of importance here is the interface between special zones and enclave spaces (Special Administrative Regions, development zones and ‘new areas’) and the rest of China. Such an interface is a place to locate complexities and connections concerning urban transformations. While there has been an existing strand of research on cross-border experiences of Macao residents in neighbouring Pearl River Delta cities (Breitung, 2004; Breitung, 2009) and Chinese residents in Macao (Ong & du Cros, 2011), more research needs to be done to interrogate the broader urban processes such experiences are grounded in. To do this, I draw upon recent and fast-proliferating works in understanding urban aspirations and urban policy emulations and transfers (Bunnell & Das, 2010; Bunnell & Goh, 2012; Bunnell & Miller, 2011; McCann, 2008, 2011; Ong, 2011) in the broa der research this short narrative is based on.

Currently, work on urban aspirations in urban studies has uncovered many salient aspects of urban life including the capacity for change, a channel for passion and energies from planners, entrepreneurs, citizens and migrants and platforms for ideologically and materially recycling the past for the present and the future (Bunnell & Goh, 2012, p. 2). However, routes of aspirations on the part of planners and elites are often rooted in discourses fomented in academic, business and scientific communities or dreams and fantasies built elsewhere (Bunnell & Das, 2010; McCann, 2008, 2011) and may cause problems on the ground as they could be divorced from the more urgent and immediate concerns of people living in these areas. With many city planners and elites holding on to similar desires and dreams, policies, products and migrants, are finding themselves increasingly footloose and mobile across the globe. For example, policies crafted and implemented in Malaysia’s capital city Kuala Lumpur found themselves replicated and ‘serialised’ in the Indian city of Hyderabad while North America’s drug strategy found its way into Vancouver and cities beyond. Some of these policy emulations and mobilities can be found in Hengqin Island as the Chinese government sought to plug the island into the networks of its internally-autonomous regions of Macao and Hong Kong.

Realising Chinese capitalistic dreams: Chime Long Corporation’s soon-to-be fully completed marine anima-based theme park, resort and mega circus. © Author, July 2013

‘Keeping the Waters from the Wells and River Separate’: One Country, Two Systems A brief recent developmental history of Hengqin starts in 1968 when the five organised groups from Shunde and Zhuhai relocated to the island for farming. Hengqin was seen as a socialist agricultural outpost closest to capitalism (in then Portuguese administered Macao) and resident population numbered 3200. In 1989, as agricultural outputs and local aspirations shifted, the first calls for urbanisation were mooted. However, as Hengqin was isolated geographically due to the lack of connections to the mainland then, various economic and urbanisation policies failed. In 1992, following then-Premier Deng Xiaoping’s travels to the South, the provincial government designated Hengqin as one of the four key developmental areas in the Guangdong Province. In 1993, Hengqin was upgraded to become a part of Zhuhai city’s five core economic zones.

These transformations took place within a more conservative reading of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy’ – a policy created that allows for Hong Kong and Macao to retain internal self-governance upon a return to Chinese rule after a period of colonisation by western powers. Using the Chinese metaphor of keeping ‘water from wells and rivers separate’, then Chinese president Jiang Zemin enforced a form of city association and engagement aimed at reassuring Macao and Hong Kong citizens that reversion to Chinese rule will not radically change their ways of lives and livelihoods and consequently, the two formerly colonised territories have been kept distinct through the Special Administrative Region status and strict immigration policies. However, with plans confirmed for a special tunnel access to their Hengqin campus for the University of Macao students and faculty that allows for the bypassing of immigration controls, visa-free travel and tourism access for Macao residents to the leisure hub and explicit official calls for collaboration with Macao and Hong Kong, a new form of intercity social network and tourism governance are emerging in the Pearl River Delta – one that emphases on plugging the ‘wells’ to the ‘river’. Hengqin’s close proximity to Macao’s answer to Nevada’s Las Vegas and the plan’s emphasis on easy transportation access to Macao hints at a shift in China’s postcolonial urban policies.

Billboards depicting what’s next on Hengqin Island in Dec 2011. © Author, Dec 2011

Plugging Hengqin to Global and Regional Aspirations In 2000, there was much public debate regarding the possibilities of subjecting Hengqin to Macao’s jurisdiction. In 2004, then-Provincial Committee Secretary Zhang Dejiang proposed a “9+2” (nine Pearl River Delta Chinese cities and two Special Administrative Regions) pan-Pearl River Delta economic cooperation concept. At a discursive level, the project was aimed at establishing Hengqin as an “international, integrated and open tourism and leisure resort zone – an extension of the success of Macao” (Figure 2).

A conference was organised in 2005 with the theme of “Pearl River Delta cooperation – Guangdong and Macao as vanguards”. The theme was aimed at gathering expert and public support for the development of Hengqin. A Pearl River Delta Economic Cooperation proposal was drafted then. In 2006, the Guangdong Provincial government approved the General Guidelines for the Development and Urban Planning of Hengqin Island. Although early planning directives alluded to the use of eco-friendly technologies with bold dreams of making the new island city a green one and that it would incorporate the canal-scapes of Venice in Europe and sunny beaches and ‘sunshine coasts’ of Singapore (probably alluding to Singapore’s leisure and tourism island Sentosa), it appears the urban transformations at Hengqin are largely political – one aimed at national re-integration of territories formerly colonised by western empires. When interviewed regarding the project, Zhuhai mayor (who oversees the island’s transformations) was quick to highlight the relevance of the project to the two formerly ceded territories. “It will be a pilot project for a new co-operation mode between Hong Kong and Macau under the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement,” Zhuhai mayor Zhong Shijian told reporters.

The original tourism entrepreneurs: Hengqin’s famed oyster seafood restaurants. © Author, Dec 2011

Chasing Chinese capitalistic dreams via mega-leisure and tourism developments Workers of China’s famed and influential leisure enterprise, The Chime Long Corporation, had worked round the clock to allow the mega-theme park to be ready for its partial opening last November. Boosting a 2000 room ‘Penguin Hotel’, a dolphin bay and several animal enclosures, the theme park promises to be a massive leisure attraction for residents of southern China (Figure 3 and 4).

However, such a top-down development has disrupted the existing leisure and tourism entrepreneurs on the island. Originally a place noted for its fruit orchards, small eco-tours, oyster farms and oyster-based seafood restaurants (Figure 6), massive land-reclamation for the theme park and other new construction had displaced the original land-uses. Many of the fruit orchards and small eco-tours have since closed down. There is only one surviving oyster farm on the island when there used to be at least seven thriving ones several years ago. Oyster-based seafood restaurants have commonly moved to new locations and are currently facing rental tenure issues. Some more well-resourced and funded oyster-based seafood restaurants have shifted to the town centre where the theme park is located. They had hoped that the increased tourism and visitation that the theme park potentially draws will help augment their business. However, given the all-inclusive nature of most theme parks in terms of visitor spending on food and beverages, accommodations and souvenir-shopping, it is unlikely that there will be much positive ‘spill-over’ effects deriving from the theme park development.

Behind the glittery facade of new 40-storey residential blocks and ‘eco-precincts’, the thirteen existing villages were also facing an unprecedented removal. Problems exist over the means and manner of compensation. For instance, there were intense debates and disagreements over whether government sanctioned monetary compensations should be allocated on a per capita, per household or per village basis. Many local residents also had their livelihoods disrupted. Although new jobs created in the theme park were advertised to local residents, many of these jobs require formal education and skills that the residents do not have. Ironically, new theme park jobs also subject residents into a tighter work regime compared to the autonomous and carefree life they used to have as independent farmers and small business owners.

As developments on the island has just commenced, it remains to be seen how things may exactly work out. However, preliminary observations point to a dissonance between the aspirations of local residents, small business owners and the intentions of planners and giant leisure and tourism corporations operating on Hengqin Island.


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maart 25, 2014

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