Asian Cities: Globalization, Urbanization, and Nation-Building

Asian Cities

Author(s): Malcom McKinnon

ISBN:          978-87-7694-079-9

Publisher: NIAS Press

Year:          2011

Price:         $90.00

Reviewed by Jason R. Harshman, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A.

While there is no denying that globalization has accelerated change and interconnectedness around the world, in order to understand the pace of change occurring in cities throughout Asia, a more sophisticated explanation is needed. Since globalization is a multifaceted process rather than a singular event, urbanization and nation building, according to Malcolm McKinnon’s Asian Cities: Globalization, Urbanization, and Nation building, must be given equal consideration when discussing geographic, economic, political, and cultural changes across Asia. The author conducted research in Bangalore and Mysore, India; Jakarta and Semarang, Indonesia; and Shanghai and Yangzhou, China, because, as he writes, “they are the three most populous countries in Asia, accounting for two-thirds of its population” (p. 12). It is not the intent of the author, however, to have his findings applied to cities in Japan, South Korea, or anywhere else in Asia because urbanization patterns and approaches to nation building look different in each place. This assertion, however, is compromised before the end of the first chapter when McKinnon explains why he chose his focus cities, claiming the purpose of the study is to “draw out common elements in the urban Asian experience of globalization” (p. 13). Generalizing his findings to explain phenomenon in other cities and countries is in direct contrast to the point made at the outset of the book that globalization, urbanization, and nation building constitute complex processes with multiple influences and outcomes. Second, to claim there is an “Asian experience of globalization” is to homogenize the very people and places the author intends to prove to be complex and nuanced. Finally, one should proceed with caution through the author’s observations since he admittedly does not speak any of the languages used in the places he conducted research. Instead, McKinnon relies on research completed by other scholars (p. 16), interviews with “scholars, journalists, and city officials” in Indonesia and India (p. 17), and a limited population of interviewees since one’s ability to speak English was a necessity. Thus, the reader must rely on a Westerner’s perspective of how globalization, urbanization, and nation building have shaped six cities in Asia.

 McKinnon uses the first chapter to outline his argument and establish his definitions for urbanization and nation building. Urbanization is to be understood as more than just a “transformation of the built environment” but responsible for “a massive social and cultural transformation” over time (p. 6). The other leg of the author’s thesis, nation building, is defined as the top-down attempt by governing bodies to establish a unified population so “a population in a particular state or territory acquires a shared identity” (p.6). When one considers the popularity of globalization rhetoric in Asia and the sustained dedication to top-down nation building by governing and cultural institutions, the author’s argument that urbanization has been wrongly ignored as a transformative force across Asia proves to be an important addition to studies in critical geography, global politics, and cultural studies. A limitation to this argument, however, is that sources written in dialects of India, Indonesia, and China could not be consulted to counter any claims made by interviewees or translated sources consulted by the author.

Chapters two and three constitute part two of the book and focus on urbanization and urbanism in Asian cities, respectively. The author addresses gender roles and makes passing reference to religion in China, India, and Indonesia across a few pages before attempting to evaluate the influence of urbanization, globalization, and nation building. At the end of part two McKinnon writes the experiences of the people he interviewed “cannot be explained by globalization” (p. 107). Here again there is departure from assertions at the start of the book in which the author claims there are multiple types of globalization and it is problematic to rely on Western conceptualizations of globalization to describe changes occurring in Asia. McKinnon does, however, point out that people with diverse practices and shifting loyalties to traditions and modernity inhabit each of the cities he visits.

The third section of the book begins with a chapter dedicated to businesses and Asian cities. The chapter blends history and contemporary developments across the three countries with the author relying on many secondary sources. Interviews with residents to better understand how capitalism and other forms of globalization have affected the relationship between culture and capitalism, along with employment patterns, education, and gender roles would be a welcome addition to this chapter. The remainder of the section includes chapters on migration and travelers in Asian cities. Each chapter includes interviews with citizens to gain better insight into how their experiences have been shaped by global flows of capital and technology at a local level. Of note is attention given to changes in how local tourist shops and artisans have benefitted from media advertisements that aim to entice citizens to visit areas marketed as rich in cultural traditions as part of the nation building project (p. 170). Chamundi Hill, “the top-ranked site in Mysore [India],” hosted 12.27 million visitors in one year, with only 270,000 coming from outside of India (p. 171).

Chapter seven, which concludes the third section of the book, examines how globalization has affected popular culture and consumer preferences in areas of India, China, and Indonesia. Primarily an overview of shifts in cultural practices during the twentieth century, the chapter focuses on music and movies, as well as widespread adoption of mobile communication technology (p. 180). Similar to efforts taken to attract visitors to Chamundi Hill, the promotion of South Indian films has created a large, sometimes violently loyal fan base. In 2004 patrons of movie theaters in Mysore protested outside of theaters that showed films made in languages other than the local dialect of Kanaada, with some moviegoers smashing the windows of movie houses that showed non-Kanaada films (p. 187). While it may be assumed that English films are pushing Kanaada out of the theaters, the Indian film industry is much more diverse than Bollywood. As a result of migration and urbanization, there are 80 million Telugu speakers and 70 million Tamil speakers in the states surrounding Mysore where 40 million Kanaada speakers reside (p. 188).   As a result, there is also a Tollywood (Telugu cinema) and Kollywood (Tamil cinema) film industry, and each has its own stars, film styles, and fan base.

The book concludes by looking forward into an uncertain future that will undoubtedly bring change to urbanizing areas of Asia. Primarily a summation of arguments posed in the previous chapters, the author does branch out to include developments in Japan, but most of the final chapter focuses on cultural and economic changes in China.While the research methodology used to collect “data” for this study has its faults, the argument that more areas of Asia are urbanizing as a result of migrations of people and access to information and capital is an important perspective to consider. Disrupting the belief that globalization is a monolithic, Western based concept to instead attend to the “on the ground” realities of people’s lived experiences helps us better recognize how citizens, non-citizens, and governing bodies are changing what it means to be urban.Reviewer Info: Jason R. Harshman is a Doctoral Candidate and Lecturer in Social Studies and Global Education at The Ohio State University. His research interests include examining the relationship between social justice and critical geography within global education, critical theory and pedagogy, and developing how media and technology are used to support global citizenship education in social studies.

Suggested citation:

Jason R. Harshman(2013). Review of “Asian Cities: Globalization, Urbanization, and Nation-Building” edited by Malcolm McKinnon, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 6, no. 9 , Internet file: