China Beat Archive


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December 15, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright December 15, 2009 Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. Used by permission.


I took this photo on my first day in Hangzhou when I arrived there in July 2005 for a six-week Chinese language course. I didn’t find the billboard especially interesting, but one of my friends hails from Kohler, Wisconsin, and I thought he might enjoy seeing that his hometown is known in a Chinese city that I’m fairly certain he had never heard of before I announced I would be spending the summer there. At the time, I didn’t give much thought to the billboard itself, or the thousands of other advertisements affixed to the sides of buildings, encircling construction sites, or coating the exteriors of Hangzhou’s buses. They simply surrounded me, providing a backdrop for the city’s more compelling sights; the moody and misty West Lake, I thought, was far more photogenic than the façades of the luxury car dealerships lining its shore.

In a photographic collection titled Learning From Hangzhou (Timezone 8, 2009), however, Mathieu Borysevicz places the focus squarely on those car dealerships, as well as innumerable other signs throughout the city. Images of billboards, store awnings, and digital marquees fill the book, which is beautifully printed on high-quality glossy paper (although that paper makes the book quite heavy — it’s not a good candidate for airplane reading).

Learning From Hangzhou, though, is not only concerned with advertisements — Borysevicz’s work examines the ways in which public spaces are filled, as well as how city residents appropriate and change those spaces through their interactions with them. As he explains in the volume’s introductory essay,

The goal of this case study is to index a moment in China’s evolutionary transition as it occurs in Hangzhou; to index through an extended visual essay the physical manifestations accrued by economic transition and to examine where sociological change and urban development overlap (23).