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  • The Persistence and Significance of Small Urban Spaces in China
  • Tim Simpson (bio)
Di Wang. The Teahouse under Socialism: The Decline and Renewal of Public Life in Chengdu, 1950-2000. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2018.ix, 311 pp. Paperback $29.95, isbn 978-1-5017-1549-5.

When I moved to Macau in 2001 to take up a university position, only two years after Portugal's return of the territory to the People's Republic of China at the conclusion of half a millennia of colonial rule, I was immediately charmed by the city's provincial atmosphere. This atmosphere was exemplified, in large part, by the lack of transnational corporate chains and fast-food franchise outlets in Macau, and the predominance of "mom and pop" shops, independent cafes, and simple eating establishments scattered among the neo-classical colonial-era Portuguese buildings which defined the central cityscape.

My early urban explorations included extended periods patronizing several Portuguese coffee shops located in the central city, so I was understandably dismayed when Macau's first Starbucks outlet opened one year later in a predominant locale on the city's central square, and I correctly interpreted its arrival as a harbinger of coming changes. Sure enough, Starbuck's entre was quickly followed by a number of international retail and food outlets around the square, and as rents increased in lock-step with transnational capital's efforts to reach Macau's burgeoning population of Chinese tourists, all of the traditional Portuguese cafes in the area disappeared.1

Fifteen years later there are no fewer than eight Starbucks outlets in Macau, each of which is strategically positioned to reach the 35 million annual tourists who visit the city, the majority of whom are from the mainland. Those tourist visits are enabled by a special exit visa which grants select mainland tourists privileged access to Macau and Hong Kong, and by aggressive efforts by the central government to promote tourism as a mode of economic development. It is therefore possible for local patrons in practically any Macau Starbucks outlet to observe tables crowded with mainland tourists, and to understand in a palpable manner the ways in which the demise of European colonialism, the onset of China's market reforms, and the neo-colonial creep of [End Page 169] fin de siècle corporate globalization are articulated in the cafe environment, such that the otherwise banal experience of drinking a cup of coffee at Starbucks is indicative of sweeping world-historical forces of geopolitical transformation.

The Teahouse Under State Socialism

It is such an ability to read the complex intersection of traditional Chinese teahouse culture, popular forms of folk entertainment, and the strategic reach of the emergent socialist regime into the intimate spaces of daily life which makes Wang Di's exceptional historical study of the Chengdu teahouse under state socialism so fascinating. Wang argues that teahouses are not simply self-contained and vital "small urban spaces," but are linked at ascending scales to otherwise ineffable concepts such as "the public, society, and the state" (p. 13), such that it is possible to understand these broader phenomena through the social window which the teahouse affords. "By looking back at Chengdu and capturing the push and pull of various forces," Wang argues, "we can narrate changes in the situation of the urban teahouse (the small spaces) and the publics (smallest human units of society) who frequented them in China's new socialism (the state)" (pp. 11–12). Wang provides a detailed analysis of the various ways in which the new government authorities attempted to mobilize these ubiquitous and popular small spaces of the city to mold Chinese subjects appropriate to the socialist regime.

Scholars familiar with Wang's work will immediately recognize the relevance of this book to his oeuvre. Aside from an earlier account of the Chengdu teahouse in the first half of the twentieth century, Wang has published two other recent books about Chengdu-related topics; the first is focused on street culture and public space in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the second (also released in 2018) is a micro-history of the Gowned Brothers, a secret society active in a...


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