Semester at Sea Fall 2006 Voyagebanner


Multi-Sited Ethnography Project: Cultural Influences in Urban Development in Large Cities - Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City and Istanbul

By Wren Chan


           Urban development is the discipline of balancing the needs of the community which takes into account the physical and social environment of the community it is applied to.  Although there is a growing focus of urban development in economic development, the influences of the community still significantly affects this process.  In this multi-sited ethnography, I will investigate the influences of culture on urban development of various districts of various cities encountered in Hong Kong, People’s Republic of China; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and Istanbul, Turkey.





           Each one of the cities that was described in the preceding chapters were different in many ways.  Ho Chi Minh City is a city that is administered by the totalitarian Vietnamese Communist government.   Hong Kong is a city administered by a municipal government that has some democratic elements even though it is a legal part of the People’s Republic of China.  Istanbul on the other hand is a city in a country that is thoroughly democratic.  Vietnam in the early to mid 20th century was a French colony while Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997.  These factors including history and cultural influences affect the urban development of the cities up to the modern times.

           Hong Kong, a former British colony generally has a grid outline which is influenced mostly by the British though in some parts of the New Territories, there may be some deviation.  Urban development and revitalization in the New Territories have been largely influenced by the birth of Modern Hong Kong due to the Second World War and the Communist takeover of mainland China which resulted in merchants and refugees flooding into the island.

           In the decades before and to a lesser extent today, Yuen Long served the purpose of traditional market town for people from the villages in northwest New Territories to shop and trade their goods which may include crops and fish.  Although Hong Kong currently functions as a finance and trade hub, much of the economy has shifted towards the service sector.  Currently there are a wide variety of the stores which is a testament to the variety of demands of the market which has largely shift from providing agricultural produces to providing a variety of goods that an urban dweller may need.  The shift in prominence in the last few decades from a farmer’s market to a commercial district coincides with the shift of priorities and focus of the people of Hong Kong.  While Alan Smart, in Participating in the Global: Transnational Social Networks and Urban Anthropology, focused on the social effects on the workers of Hong Kong’s shift and subsequent control of manufacturing in the Pearl River Delta region, it is important to emphasize the effect on  Hong Kong as well.  Some of the buildings which are inhabited by the stores today were textile manufacturing firms a few decades ago before the opening up of China.  With unskilled manufacturing jobs lost, Confucian values of merit through education has become a secondary force along with the cheaper wages and lower land value in China in further encouraging the shift towards the service sector.  The government has taken the initiative in increasing the trend of post-secondary education for the secondary school dropouts which includes vocational schools.

           Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, as a result of its French influence has wide boulevards that intersect at varying angles.  The intersections tend to be areas in which a monument is located or where an economic center such as a market develops.  Ben Tranh Market lies on one such intersection between two boulevards.  The placement of the shops in the market can be considered urban planning to some degree due to the necessity of the market to respond to the needs of the community that exists around the market and to a lesser extent the city.  One can’t help but to notice the chaotic arrangement of the shops.  From a cultural perspective it is said that Vietnamese value their clans over family.  This Vietnamese cultural aspect may carry itself into the modern era where the shopkeepers in the market see one another as members of the same “clan” due to proximity or wares sold.  The development of the clans may have been initially driven by the need of a community to work together and be identified together in both the ancient and modern times.  This may have carried over into the Ben Tranh Market in which contrary to expectations of a random placement of shops selling different wares, the shops that sell similar wares are generally grouped together to the point that the signs above are no longer relevant or useful for that matter in locating any given shop.  In the same way outside of Ben Tranh Market, some of the shops that sell similar wares are located nearby although supply and demand and competition is starting to play a vital part in varying the selections of the stores.

           Istanbul, Turkey which was originally a Greco-Roman city by the name of Byzantium/Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire until it was capture by the Ottomans.  Though the Old City is largely intact and unchanged with respect to the street plan since the ancient times, the shift of the Turkish Republic to the secularization and Westernization boosted the city’s population.  In Istiklal Avenue which is a wide avenue in the style of European cities through which mostly pedestrians travel through, the many streets and alleys that crisscross the avenue still retain an Oriental feel.  This may be attributed to the fact that urban planning is often done within the scope and limits of initial city layout.  The result is Istanbul swallowing the outlying neighborhoods and in the process developing like a European city in some areas such as Istiklal Avenue and some areas with makeshift housing constructed by the poorer segments of the population as discussed by Jenny White’s On Istanbul – Bridge between Europe and Asia.  The dilemma with the poorer segments of the population is reminiscent of Cairo in Remaking the Modern – Space, Relocation and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo in which Farha Ghannam explored problems faced by Cairo in attempting to modernize and take care of the displaced population.  The dwellers of the makeshift housings are facing a unique dilemma compared to their counterparts in Egypt due to the fact that the makeshift housing is still illegal and can be taken down at any moment by the government.


           Through my travels I noticed that there are many factors that play a role in the urban development of a city.  It is evident that culture plays a significant role in the overall city plan as well as the simple placement of shops as evident in Vietnam.  In Hong Kong the influences of Confucian value of education and the movement of manufacturing to the mainland contribute to a growing emphasis on service sector which will ultimately affect urban planning well into the future.  In Vietnam, the traditional clan-oriented preference is carried into businesses that are selling similar products though this is gradually changing due to supply and demand.  In Turkey, the dual cultures that resulted from the secularization of the state are competing in Istanbul for space whether it is politically or with respect to housing.  Such competition of space may at the very least influence if not shape the urban development of Istanbul.

Return to course home  Send me your comments: