London Calling East
By Minh Toan
Imagine Hackney 15 years from now, where, on the once burning streets that saw violent clashes highlighting income disparities felt by disenfranchised locals, the future sons of daughters of these one-time rioters are offering directions to lost Chinese tourists looking to buy luxury designer goods in perfect Mandarin.
“Louis Vuitton…? Oh. “Zài jī pù duìmiàn!”
(Translation: Louis Vuitton? Oh. It’s across from the chicken shop!)
Somewhere between satire and a bizarro parallel universe the seeds of such a future are playing out in present day. The proposed Hackney Fashion Hub development is at the centre for such a future reality. Billed as the “East End’s answer to Carnaby St” it is perhaps more accurately described as “London calling East”. While criticism of the plan remain deep, the target for this development are “the armies of Chinese tourists” but their story and impact on cities is largely unexplored.
With struggling European economies and cities finding growth in the lucrative tourism industry, cities are competing and shaping themselves to attract more visitors. Now with Chinese tourists becoming the dominant demographic driving growth, their motivations and actions and its impact on the future of cities is one that should be told. When David Cameron recently urged British youngsters to take up learning Mandarin because it is the language that will “seal tomorrow’s business deals”, he probably didn’t imagine it meaning selling’s tomorrow’s high-priced bags and scarves. But again in today’s reality that future is quick becoming true.
Beginning at the Burberry Outlet that serves as ground zero for Chinese tourism in London the mere location of the Outlet and the proposed Fashion Hub demonstrates one way the tourist landscape of the City is already changing to accommodate this group. Located deep in the heart of East London, far away from the usual tourists beats of the City, the fully loaded coaches of Chinese shoppers which come here show that this area is quick becoming what academics call a “New Tourism Area” for the city. The coaches which empty in front Burberry demonstrate how differently Chinese tourists consume and capture the City on their trips. While sampling local foods and drink and attending cultural activities may dominate other travel itineraries, shopping for local souvenirs to give to extended friends and family back home in China is a popular and necessary travel past time. The shops that are catering to them are doing brisk and lucrative business.
And so the very busy Burberry store anchors the handful of other luxury British retailers that depend on spill over from handbag and apparel giant. With Royal Warrants and proud English histories articulated in Chinese, it is no accident that these crop of stores are all British. It speaks to the fact that Chinese tourists during their travels draw upon broader images and notions of Britishness and London to capture and consume that don’t necessarily have spatial equivalents. In fact, Chinese tourists are known for whirl-wind bus tours that see them only momentarily at well-known landmarks for obligatory photos before being shuttled to the next.
The foreign business activity that is drawn here is enabling investors to build the proposed Fashion Hub and directly reflects the influence of this increasing important group into shaping parts of London. Today Chinese tourists with their idiosyncratic travel sensibilities are challenging more established spatial patterns. Looking forward, as China’s middle class grows there will be increasing numbers of visitors and many of whom will be younger and more adventurous. When we imagine parts of London or the future of many cities to come, there will be more and more places that will have consciously changed to adapt and attract these visitors from the East.