Asia - Issue 95 - Magazine | Monocle

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Dancing up a storm


Noise is a persistent irritant in Chinese cities, be it in the form of jackhammers, bleating horns or squawking loudspeakers. In some neighbourhoods though, the sound that generates the most ire comes from an unlikely source: middle-aged and elderly women who descend on public parks and squares at night to dance in unison to music cranked up to nightclub levels.

After fed-up residents in many cities began retaliating with increasing hostility and, in a few cases, outright violence, the government stepped in last year to regulate the rogue “dancing grannies”, as the women have become known. Beijing instructed local authorities to regulate the impromptu boogie sessions by introducing 12 official dance moves in order to bring a more “scientific” approach to the activity. One Chinese newspaper called it a new “national choreography”.

However, in a rare instance of community spirit winning out over bureaucratic mind control in China, the women haven’t ceded any dance-floor space or control over their routines. “We haven’t learnt the steps made by the government,” says 55-year-old Cai Hongtao, who dances with a troupe every day in Xining, the capital of western Qinghai province.

In a rapidly ageing country lacking in resources for the elderly, many older residents are also loath to give up square dancing, one of their only forms of exercise and social interaction. “Dancing along to cheerful music makes me happy,” Cai says. “Every time I hear the music, I want to dance.”

The government seems to be aware of their feelings and is moderating its tone. In its guidelines for the Healthy Development of Square Dancing it acknowledges that the activity is “loved by the masses” and offers the women an olive branch: free dance lessons and future competitions for the best dance troupes.

City living


The Filipino capital is booming but rapid growth brings its own problems. Here is what the city needs to do to improve.

Spend more time revitalisng Manila’s old city centre; it is home to many of the capital’s historic buildings.

Manila is a patchwork of individual municipalities with each coming up with a separate plan. A unified vision would help with cohesion.

The long-delayed Mega-Manila Dream Plan to ease traffic needs to be kick-started to ease the congested roads, a serious dead weight for the city’s economy.

Crime is high and security forces need to be improved, although the brutal methods advocated by president Rodrigo Duterte should be avoided.

Stimulate growth in other cities by moving some central government agencies to the regions.


Joel Kotkin

Presidential fellow in urban futures, Chapman University


In new book The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, Kotkin champions Singapore’s quality of life over urban density.

Why is Singapore the “best-run” high-density city?
It’s a very clean, well-run city with very little crime. If you’re going to do high density you have to have fairly high per-capita income and a very good infrastructure.

Why aren’t high-density cities desirable anymore?
I never said, “Hey, don’t build high density” but unfortunately a lot of high-density development is simply going to people who have multiple residences. In many places we’re building something for populations that don’t even live there. So the question is, if we are building a high-density city, who are we building it for?

You advocate for “retro-urbanism”. What is it?
Retro-urbanism means recreating the 19th-century city in the 21st. The vast majority of people, for most of their lives, would rather live in, if not low density, certainly medium density. There are not many people who want to live chock-a-block after the age of 30.

How can the average Asian city become a “human city”?
By encouraging people to move to the second or third cities or even trying to make the villages, let’s say, in India, economically sustainable. Shoving more people into Mumbai or Tokyo is not going to be preferable in the long term.

Quiet progress


You’ll spot a Hong Kong double-decker tramcar by the sound of its distinctive bell. Known as the “ding ding”, the tram is a popular ride for commuters and tourists. Yet residents aren’t charmed by the noise especially as the squeaky trams run from 05.00 to midnight. But a sound night’s sleep could be just around the corner.

The French-owned operator of the tramway is piloting a new rubber-coated track in residential Shau Kei Wan. “We have received a lot of compliments from the neighbourhood and the public,” says Emmanuel Vivant, CEO of HK Tramways.

The sky’s the limit


To stimulate development, Japan has relaxed the rules on the amount of space required to build skyscrapers in overcrowded areas. Two 65-storey residential towers are now going up in the middle of Tokyo.

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