Just like its economy, China's urban centers are growing rapidly. The German photographer Hans-Georg Esch currently has an exhibition in Cologne that provides an insight into China's urbanization.
Hans-Georg Esch spent six months travelling around China
At an old warehouse in an industrial part of Cologne, 34 massive photos give exhibition visitors a different view of China's more or less well-known megacities. Guangzhou, Wuxi or Shenyang are just a few. How many Chinese megacities do you know? Here in Cologne, people seem to find it difficult to name three Chinese cities with a population of more than a million.
"Shanghai, Beijing and…um…" says one visitor. He is not the only one to go blank after naming the most obvious two – yet China has over 160 such cities and many are bigger than Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne.
The photographer says the haze can be seen as an allegory of China's unknown future
The German photographer Hans-Georg Esch wanted to give a face to these "unknown" cities. The 46-year-old travelled across China for more than six months. He did not want to take postcard shots of megacities such as Chongqing or Harbin. Instead, he wanted to convey what he saw as the real picture.
"First of all, the photos have a documentary role, showing how the cities are developing," he says. "I want the viewer to have the feeling of being in the city, if they look at the picture long enough. They should have a sense of interaction and a sense of how the inhabitants live and in the end how they think."
Aerial views of cities night and day
All the pictures offer aerial views of the city in daytime – piles of concrete, steel and glass. When people can be made out at all, they are tiny. Some cities, including Guangzhou in the south, were taken at night as well. The pictures depict Guangzhou as a grey ocean of buildings in daylight and as an illuminated metropolis after nightfall.
While the exhibition visitors admire the photos of skyscrapers and skylines, they can hear sounds of urban China in the background. Ahead of the exhibition, several German sound artists travelled to China and recorded various urban sounds - traffic, people yelling on the streets, or the hum of air conditioners, for example.
The photos are accompanied by a sound installation, creating an urban atmosphere
Each picture shows a city covered by what seems to be a haze. Esch says this can be seen as an allegory of China: "A favorite picture is a foggy picture, where no-one knows where the journey is leading to and everyone is curious about how China will develop. When the fog or smog clears, it will all become clear where the journey is leading to. It’s also a bit mystical."
A constantly changing picture of China
Shenyang in the north-east has a population of over seven million
Esch says no one picture can fully represent China, which has too many facets and is constantly changing. He plans to continue documenting the changes.
"In 2020, there will certainly be even more big cities in China. We will definitely take the same pictures again in 2020 or 2025 to show how China has developed."
Experts estimate that by 2030 around 300 million more Chinese will have moved from rural to urban areas. This means that there will be 900 million Chinese people living in a city.
Maybe by then, people outside of China will be able to name other megacities than Beijing and Shanghai.
Author: Chi Viet Giang
Editor: Anne Thomas