Spectacular skylines have often been seen as the ultimate symbol of China’s economic success in the past three decades. Yet, along with China’s breathtaking designer architectures, there comes also modern ruins such as urban slums and unoccupied new cities. This lecture uses a half-destroyed urban slum as an example to discuss how local residents and state authorities mobilized cultural and institutional resources from the imperial and socialist eras in their violent confrontation amid the postsocialist politics of urban renewal. Postsocialist China, in other words, is a departure from as well as a continuation of its recent past. Moreover, instead of viewing such urban ruins as static structures and their images as “ruin porn,’ the talk will focus on the process of ruination and consider these ruins as the debris of history. As well, this talk will address the methodological issue of merging scholarship with visual art, and having them to illuminate one another.
Tong Lam is a historian and visual artist. His research interests include modern and contemporary China and East Asia, technoscience, media and spectacle, cities, colonialism, and nationalism. He is the author of the acclaimed monograph A Passion For Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation-State, 1900-1949, published by UC Press (2011) as well as articles and book chapters on the late Qing empire, contemporary Chinese nationalism, and modern ruins. He is working on a book monograph called High-speed Nation, which analyzes the history of the deployment of exclusive zones—socialist factory compounds and contemporary science and technology parks—to build a utopian future. Lam is also co-editing a special journal issue on the history of science and technology in China and India. Another of his collaborative project is called Beyond Apocalypse: Ruinscape and Ruination in China, Japan, and the United States.
As a visual artist, Lam uses photographic and cinematographic techniques to document China’s hysterical growth, and to analyze the debris of history in industrial and post-industrial societies. He has published a photo-essay book, and is co-directing a documentary film about China’s urbanization. He has also exhibited his works—photography and video installations—in the United States, Europe, and China. One of his upcoming exhibitions will open at the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin this summer.
He received his PhD in History from the University of Chicago and is Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto. His most recent awards include a Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin Fellowship (2013) and a Taiwan Fellowship (2012).