Decolonising “City-ness”

The call to decolonize imaginations of city-ness arose from the limitations that hegemonic categorisations impose on planning and policy-making, especially for developing cities. Looking at developing cities through the lens of Western forms of governance, city life, culture and economic success obscures planners from the innovative albeit makeshift and informal solutions that developed cities have created to wrestle with their own problems. Given the importance of this issue, I reflect on what it means to decolonize the imagination of city-ness.

Similar to Robinson, I think that a huge part of decolonising the urban imagination is rethinking the categories that authorities use to frame, analyse and plan for cities, be it transcending formal/informal dichotomy or global/Third World Cities frameworks. Arguing from a Foucauldian point of view, these categories and Western-centric discourse on city-ness are forms of knowledge-power, instruments of power and domination. As long as the subject of power classifies itself and everything related to it to be the standard and pinnacle of existence, everything else apart from it is relegated to the category of the Other, or deemed irrelevant, just like how developing cities are deemed economically irrelevant when they do not fit the narrow criteria of a global city (Robinson 2002, p.534). No matter how hard developing cities work towards achieving the qualities of “global cities”, they are almost always destined to fall short precisely because there is no one-size-fit-all global logic as to what constitutes city-ness. Rethinking these categories allows authorities to better appreciate and learn from the innovations taking place in the various sectors of developing cities and encourage growth that does not occur at the expense of their own people. For example, instead of being blindsided by the informal nature of Bangkok’s informal ambulance service, authorities can learn from its enterprising nature and possibly find ways to support this system with greater professional training. After all, this system came into being precisely because of the inability of the supposedly more proper formal system in efficiently delivering its services. With regards to the nature of economic activities, a decolonised imagination of the urban economy could instead prioritise local economic needs over global economic trade. As Robinson mentioned, despite developing cities’ enormous contributions to the global economy through manufacturing of intermediate components and assembly lines for global brands, they are ultimately still excluded from the global city category (Robinson 2002, p.537-538) under the justification that only cities with high-level and high value-added functions are deserving of that title. To be unbounded by these categories helps developing cities develop their growth agenda according to their own needs rather than being subservient to the agendas of developed cities.

Decolonisation of the urban imagination is a two-way process. As much as it is imperative for authorities to decolonize their way of thinking about city-ness, I think that the people inhabiting the cities themselves need to caution against simply accepting these categories and instead challenge them. As post-colonial writer Nandy writes in The Intimate Enemy, while the colonial power may have physically disappeared from the shores of the colonies, the effects of colonialism are long-lasting especially when they are psychological. Thus, decolonising the urban imaginary requires individuals to avoid passively accepting existing narratives and standards of urbanism and city-ness. As to why the decolonisation process also involves inhabitants of cities, it is because the city is constituted and created by the very actions, the very act of living and inhabiting of the urban space by the inhabitants. The way they think about their own cities is, therefore, significant and can have a profound impact on how the city is imagine and consequently, shaped and constructed (Goldman 2015, p.62). The city-ness and essence of a city is, in my opinion, something that is organically formed, something that emanates from the inhabitants and their social, cultural and economic needs. Granted, in a hyper-connected and highly globalised era, inhabitants of cities are participants of systems nested within regional and global networks of interaction which are bound to influence their needs and ideas about city-ness. However, while influences of this sort are inevitable and unavoidable, I think that a decolonised notion of city-ness is one that is not entirely and uncritically based on narrow and overly generalised ideas. It is extremely heartening to learn that increasingly, people are responding and questioning the masterplans and mega-projects rolled out by their governments typified by “skyscrapers, government palaces (and) soccer stadiums” (Goldman, 63). It indicates that people are increasingly seizing their “right to the city” by being more participative, engaged and critical in the decision-making and planning process of their own cities.

In conclusion, to me, decolonising the imagination of city-ness means the transcending and abandoning of restrictive, Western-centric categories. It also demands and requires urban inhabitants to critically engage in the planning of their cities and constantly challenge universalising notions of city-ness as espoused by various sources such as the media and the global economic hierarchy.


Goldman, M. (2014). “Development and the City.” In Miraftab, F., & Kudva, N. (Eds.).Cities of the Global South Reader. Routledge: p.54-65.

Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books.

Nandy, A. (2005). The Intimate Enemy. Delhi: Oxford University Press, p.ix-xx.

Robinson, J. (2002). Global and world cities: a view from off the map. International journal of urban and regional research, 26(3), p.531-554

dear diary...

Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo — Family VS Self

Recently, I broke my drama hiatus by watching the oh-so-popular Weightlifting Fairy Kim Pok Joo. I devoured it like how a hungry chap wolfs down his lunch having skipped breakfast.

One thread that ties the narratives of the different characters together is the theme of family. From Bok Joo’s unconventional family unit consisting of just her, her ailing father and uncle, to Joonhyung’s troubling and traumatising familial past since his mother suddenly left him in the custody of his aunt’s family, to Siho’s already faltering family ties further destabilised by the confrontation of financial difficulties brought on by her increasingly demanding gymnastics career.

They are all adolescents, at the cusp of adulthood. And to strengthen the notion of independent living and self-sufficiency, these characters are required to stay on campus, I suppose, as part of the college’s residential living programme. For the most part of the drama, we are shown the perspective of the main characters as they get by day after day, week after week of gruelling practice, their personal problems with relationships and their struggle of finding themselves, their own identities. Occasionally, the family intervenes be it through financial difficulties, the threat of break-ups and divorce, or through the worrisome health of an important family member (like Bok Joo’s father).

Having experienced a year of living independently on campus away from my family, these problems and some of the scenes in this drama resonated strongly with me. At times, I found myself getting really caught in playing this independent adult character, someone belonging to no one else but myself. I do my own laundry, I eat whenever and whatever I want to eat, I sleep the number of hours I feel like sleeping on the weekends, I invite the people I loved having over, and the list of liberties from living alone as my own person goes on. It felt good to throw away whatever troubles and considerations that would usually crop up when making decisions involving more than one person about the things they may not like, the compromises that I’ll have to make, the extra responsibilities that I’m expected to shoulder, the times that I have to fit my own schedule to in order to make plans work…the worries are endless, too.

Somewhere in the middle of the entire drama, Si Ho finds out about the impending divorce between her parents not from the parents themselves, but from her younger sister. She had an idea all along that if anything is going to break her parent’s marriage, it would be her budding career as a professional gymnast because of the financial strain it has brought upon her parents and the conflict of interests between her parents right from the beginning. Si Ho confronts her mother at her workplace upon receiving news of the divorce with anger mixed with disappointment. A squabble ensues when Si Ho says she’ll quit gymnastics and work for an income instead. The following in the translated dialogue between the mother and daughter:

Si Ho: I’ll quit gymnastics. I’ll work and make money instead.

Mother: Who says you can? Who says you can quit gymnastics? Do you think your life is just your own? Wrong, your life is part of my life, too.

Si Ho: That has burdened me the most. The fact that my life is also your life. Why are you being greedy over my life? You should have lived your own life better. Why did you have to put me through all of this.

(a thundering slap ensues, duh. How dare you challenge your mother’s authority and decisions, you ungrateful wretch.) 

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So, I have been wondering, at which point do I have full autonomy over my own life? Do I even have complete sovereignty over my self? Do we ever have full autonomy over our lives? Because, what about our parents, people who have made my life possible and existent in the very first place? Or perhaps our parents’ ownership over our lives ceases the minute we exit our mothers’ wombs. If so, how then can we explain the years of love and care given to us by our parents. Is that a simply biologically programmed instinct in parents for nurture or a socially constructed expectation that oblige human parents to care for their children till they are at least of a certain age? If my life is part of my parents’ life too, who makes the final decision?

dear diary...

Romantic Grocery List

Since young, I have been confronted with societal ideals of the kind of men I should be dating, and resultantly, marrying. They were subtle back then, appearing in the form of male protagonists in superhero movies, television shows and comic books. Some of them weren’t even human in form, but the fact they they prevailed at the end of the day appeals to me. I had known, that I wanted a hero, someone who can save me from all my problems as much as cure the world of its diseases, someone who can tirelessly give me all the material and emotional comfort that I crave.

Then in my teens, and as the societally approved dating age range approached, discussions about our ideal “types” of guys began to surface frequently, often being a hot topic among close friends. My group of friends was no exception. One day, someone initiated the discussion and I found myself running through a grocery list of things I want and envision to be consumed in the next few weeks, except that this list wasn’t about vegetables and ready-made food, it was about a human being, one that I forsee myself being attached to.

He is to be tall, have a matching sense of humour, attractive (a lean physique, and nice facial features)… I had ran out of things to say. As embarrassment visibly spread across my cheeks, I scrambled for other traits previously spoken by my friends and made them seem like I had included them in my list as well. Ambitious, financially stable, chivalrous, responsible… Having averted a small crisis, I was contented with myself and did not put much thought afterwards about the traits that I had just listed about my “dream guy”.

In college, after dating a few people, I realised that my list was futile, useless. It consisted of mere conjectures, of fantasies, an idea of romantic connection inspired by the unrealistic expectations driven into our young innocent minds by TV dramas and Hollywood Rom-coms. It has never felt the ground of reality. In reality, when I am attracted to someone, when I’m in love with someone, I don’t actually tick off all the traits that I had listed on my “grocery list on romance”. I love them without a reason, I love them for everything they are and everything they are not. In reality, “a good sense of humour” is as ambiguous as hell — someone could be funny but in an abrasive way, someone else could be good at cracking intellectual jokes but anything beyond that his jokes induce more of a cringe than a guffaw, nonetheless they are all compartmentalised under the trait “good sense of humour”. Sometimes, you find yourself in love with a guy who is not fantastic looking but makes it up in his character and how he treats you when he’s with you. Sometimes, you may be attracted to someone who’s not doing so well financially and is in a phase of limbo in his life. In all, human attraction is way more complex and unpredictable than just simply a fully checked list of traits, or a block of code that you type into a program expecting a desired end outcome.

When you are attracted to someone, you abandon whatever criteria or yardsticks you previously held. You like them for being them, even if they don’t perfectly fit the mould that you’ve constructed for them. You will find yourself loving how your hands fit perfectly together, how his touch could warm you even in the coldest nights, how he would run to the McDonald’s a couple of bus stops away just to get you McSpicy when you’re a whiny mess complaining of hunger, you’ll appreciate his courage even if his peck on your lips or cheek was sloppy, you’ll find yourself wanting to share with him every intimate secret about yourself, you’ll find yourself letting your guard down for once in a long time, because there’s nothing and no one to guard yourself from anyway.