Welcome to Wuhan

Almost two months after embarking on a my teaching studio in Wuhan I am slowly starting to get a tiny hold of this city. Having spent most of my day walking around the old city center of Hankou, the township on the opposite shore of the Yangtze River, I was trying to sum up my impressions of Wuhan on the long bus ride back to the university campus. Besides being one of the top ten cities in China in terms of size, Wuhan is somewhat of a dark horse, and it's quite hard to pinpoint its main asset. For all its universities and collages - one out of ten inhabitants is a student at one of them, 1.2 million(!) in all - it's still far away from what I would call a "university town", like Cambridge, Lund, Heidelberg, Leiden or Austin; small, convenient, well-developed, highly academic and full of students. Education in Wuhan, it seems, is more like one of the city's main industrial bases. It's the production of students that is emphasized, not production of new knowledge. And since very few universities in China - Wuhan is no exception - promote studies in the humanities, the output every year is a very large batch of engineers with unspoiled belief in "Scientific Development", i e the extension of which you would call a technocracy.

The riverfront of above mentioned Hankou is lined with night clubs and bars, massage parlours and luxury cars. The buildings are "restored" early 20th century colonial-style buildings turned into a locale where the new rich get their groove on. As a public space it's decent, and I'm sure some of those night clubs are too, but that typology of space is as played-out as the colonial era it originates from. The rest of Wuhan is all about bigness, and it's architectural space as impressive as any one-liner dropped from a helicopter alongside 10-lane motorway strip or wedged in around a roundabout the size of Latvia. The physical dimension of most of this city - I'm sorry to say - is not worth looking at with anything other than fascination - for its brute ugliness and lack of human scale.

Actually, after understanding some of the more underlying messages widely and explicitly published on billboards across the city, I am starting to think that socio-anthropologists could have a field day here in Wuhan. According to my sources, most of the advertisement on buses, billboards, tv and radio revolve around plastic surgery, potency-enhancing medicine, underwear, cars, alcohol and women's hospitals (abortion clinics). In other words, an unsavoury cocktail of emerging-market-induced indulgences.

Or as Wuhan based artist and curator Gong Tian expressed it: Wuhan is a mix of everything cheap, loud and low, plus some anarchism. It's also known as a punk city, a side that I have yet to explore. It all seems so difficult when the city is the size of a European country and there's no subway (yet).

Well I'm not sure the photos below support my story, but at least they are moments from the past two months.