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From Wallsend to Macau

Photographs of contemporary China and post-war Britain by Chris Killip and Paul Tsui reveal how capitalism shapes everyday landscapes.

In 2018 Paul Tsui, an amateur photographer from Hong Kong, uploaded a photograph to National Geographic’s participatory “Your Shot” section. Taken on a trip to Macau, just across the Zhujiang River estuary from Hong Kong, his image looked along a densely packed street, a ravine of rough-hewn balconies, each with air conditioning units, drying clothes and every-day traces of a working-class existence. Towering over it all, filling sky wedged between the bending street, is a starkly jarring Bladerunneresque unidentifiable form with upward-facing lips of gold. Tsui titled his image “The INVASION”.

‘The INVASION’ (Credit: National Geographic)

The ‘invader’ is the Grand Lisboa, 47 floors of hotel rooms bursting like a Minecraft firework over casinos below, themselves ensconced alongside the world’s largest cushion-shaped diamond within an enormous glass bauble, studded with LEDs illuminating city night. Tsui’s photograph plays on the juxtaposition of form, material, and colour, while emphasising the contrast between luxury tourist architecture and dense apartments facing one another across the street. The composition seemed to encapsulate the city’s shifting identity from Portuguese trading colony to global gambling hub and site of excess.

While not the first photographer to capture this view, Tsui’s Invasion rapidly spread over social media, usually accompanied with comparisons to cinematic and gaming scifi, cyberpunk, and dystopia. However, when I first saw it my mind was taken not to the future but the past – to  Chris Killip’s 1970s photograph of Wallsend’s Swan Hunter shipyard, with the brooding hulk of the Tyne Pride supertanker dominating facing workers’ terraces. His vantage descending towards the shipyard was one many local photographers were drawn to, with similar compositions to Killip’s also found by Amateur photographer Peter Loud. The great chroniclers of Newcastle’s working class history, Amber Films, also pointed their cameras down Leslie Street towards the ships at various stages of ascent over the community below.

Tyne Pride at the end of the street, Wallsend. Given by the artist to Laing Art Gallery in honour of all the shipyard workers of Tyneside, 2017 ©Chris Killip

Killip says he was drawn to the streets of Wallsend because of the “proximity of the housing to the shipyards, how they were just co-joined, how people who worked in the shipyards lived so close to the shipyards and visually it was just an amazing place.” The ships were a result of this tightness, a gigantic coming-together of people, materials and processes from the wider North East region, and symbols of deep pride and expertise in the local communities.

The Tyne Pride and Grand Lisboa also represent a glorified image of place to the world. After launch Wallsend ships acted as enormous icons of British military and commercial strength, while Macau’s shiny architectural trophies promote a new Chinese variant of free-market neoliberalism offering the individual a chance to win big. Both act as totems to the industries of their time, symbolising the extractive forces of industrial capitalism and neoliberalism.

The spectacular presence of the Grand Lisboa presents a show of power and success, a new urban emblem for Instagram and magazine reproduction. In doing so it also distracts from the labour which fuels it. At street level, as shown in Tsui’s image, the hotel compresses its immediate working class neighbours not only through physical scale and economic power, but across all the senses. It dominates through scale and aesthetic, casting a long shadow filled with synthetic glow. 

Casino Grand Lisboa and surrounding buildings at night. (Credit: Vmenkov)

Just as a landscape is described by Don Mitchell as “forever masking of the labour which makes it”, so too do both the Grand Lisboa and Tyne Pride conceal signs of labour, control and agency. In Macau, an ever-growing profit for the casinos is dependent upon extracting capital from an increasingly indebted visiting population, and extracting cheap labour from a pressured workforce living in tenements like those captured by Tsui. In Wallsend, tankers nailed together expertly enabled oil companies to generate obscene wealth through mineral extraction and trading.

The Tyne Pride was the largest supertanker constructed in Wallsend’s Swan Hunter shipyard. At 260,000 tonnes, it descended into the Tyne in 1975, a gigantic product of local skills, regional industrial processes, and national manufacturing industries. Workers and their families came together to celebrate the launch as a final act of their labour, the output of workers, unions and trades coming together to create something of such scale and audacity yet held together with hand-made rivets and sheet metal.

The yard produced over 1600 vessels of various types in its lifetime, with the oil industries of the 1970s demanding a series of huge tankers for global trading. In 1977 the yard was nationalised for ten years, then utilised for the war effort with HMS Illustrious rush-finished and sent to the Falklands in 1982, laden not with oil but young soldiers. 

The World Unicorn. (Credit: The Newcastle Chronicle)

From 1557 until the Opium Wars forced China to ceded control of Hong Kong to the British in 1841, Portuguese Macau had been the main port of call for European ships trading with Asia. By the mid-19th century, furthered by a rapid growth of intense commercial activity in Hong Kong, it found a new role as the space of escape and otherness for travelling traders to relax in. Sailing over the bay from Hong Kong, the decaying and atmospheric European houses provided calm and respite, and as Chinese and English authorities controlled Hong Kong with an increasingly strict regime, Macau reacted by becoming a space of vice and sinful pleasure. This, noted W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, was juxtaposed with Catholic and spiritual symbolism built into the colonial architecture.

Gambling had long been practised in the city, concealed behind crumbling colonial facades, and by the early 20th century its renown for the excesses of gambling, prostitution, smuggling and spies led it to be known as the “Monte Carlo of the East”. After returning to Chinese rule in 1999, Macau’s gambling sector in the city was opened to commercial competition, followed by a construction explosion of vast casinos and hotels. In doing so, it brought activities synonymous with the shadows, back-rooms and side-streets out into the open, presented as the marketable image of place, taking iconic architectural form.

As one of those icons, the Grand Lisboa exudes wealth, refracting a shimmering golden light over dense concrete flats packed with the service-sector workers who make beds, clean floors, and serve drinks. While wages for some positions in the industry – primarily management levels and the casino-floor croupiers – are very high and offer a good quality of middle-class living in edge-of-town new build apartments, life for the majority is precarious and low-waged. As with all factory towns, career prospects outside of the dominant trade and associated labour (the private security industry is a large employer) are already limited. Visitors luxuriate in hotel rooms which cost more a night than the hotel’s cleaner or cook earns a month, mother of two Hoi Kwan explaining to the Guardian, “I guess it’s good that there is some development in Macau, but I live on the fourth floor of a residential building that has no lift and has mould on the walls”.

Macau’s casinos are aided by a Special Economic Zone offering tax-breaks and deregulated licensing; a latter-stage development from the special zones that Thatcher ushered in during the 1980s de-industrialisation in places like north-east England. As she presided over the dismantling of pits and docks, a new kind of spatial re-organisation was designed to fill the physical and commercial voids they left. Enterprise Zones – which in simple terms cut state regulation, reduced taxation and lowered planning restrictions – are one of Thatcher’s  major legacies, firstly spreading to the USA and Europe before firmly becoming embedded as a global neoliberal strategy.

The enterprise zone concept emerged from post-war economists and planners observing the financial successes of Hong Kong as an island of economic freedom. Chancellor Geoffrey Howe saw the territory as a model of light tax, low regulation and flexible monetary policies, while the planner Peter Hall also drew on the ‘extreme’ example of Hong Kong. In the Conservative dismantling of the industrial sector, not only the physical infrastructure was lost but also the social and communal infrastructures so entwined with the landscape. Wallsend wasn’t made an enterprise zone, though the MetroCentre shopping mall and surrounding retail park on the other side of the Tyne in Gateshead was regarded as one of the success stories of the Conservative free-market strategy.

Such discrete zoning made visible the ideological decisions over which communities, industries and economies were of value and which were not. This notion of zoning in and zoning out was also picked up by John Berger in his essay from the same period written as introduction to Killip’s landmark book In Flagrante, which included his Wallsend images: “the abandoned are those born into zones where it is no longer possible to earn a living, and where the idea of any future has been ruptured. The safe-guarded are those, elsewhere, who believe that the future belongs only to the profit motive. The profit motive, however, is always clothed in robes which moralise. For example, a secretary to a northern city’s Chamber of Commerce declared, ‘There are the people who aspire, and the people who can’t or won’t aspire.’ The latter of course live in the zones.”

In 2018, Macau provided $12 billion in tax revenue to the Chinese government. The International Monetary Fund has predicted that by 2020 Macau will overtake Qatar to become the richest place on the planet. But as with all industries built around speculation, any benefits of a boom go to the few while the damage of a bust gets spread across the many. After the 2009 economic crash, two Macau casinos laid off 11,000 workers, with the impact felt across the whole supporting economy and community.

After the post-Falklands warship orders, construction at Wallsend slowed. When there are no orders, the yard must wind down work, and the longer the system is wound down the harder it is to get going again. As Killip said, the people were co-joined to the shipyards, and with this proximity and entanglement of identity between landscape, labour and product, any decline would always be felt across all three. In 2006, Swan Hunter was the last shipyard in the region to close. The percussive noise of construction became an echo in the memory of those who lived the newly silent streets, the smell of manufacturing now just an olfactory spectre. The towering cranes were dismantled and sold to Indian shipyards.

Demolished housing, Wallsend, August 1977. Given by the artist to Laing Art Gallery in honour of all the shipyard workers of Tyneside, 2017 (Credit: Chris Killip)

When Macau does overtake Qatar as the richest place on earth, it will be a symbolic moment in the slow post-industrial shift to systems centred on speculative finances and service. Killip’s and Tsui’s photographs sit at either side of this forty year gradient, illustrating the change in how powers seek to represent their image. They poetically mirror one another not only in aesthetic, but also in the relationship of labour to the object of production, and the way in which spectacular symbols obscure a wider reality. The images remind us of the local and human impact within the geopolitical and socio-spatial, imparting the sheer force of a place’s dominant industry, and the workers in its physical, political and cultural shadow.

Leslie Street in Wallsend, along with parallel Hunter, Davis and Gerald Streets, is no more. They have been demolished, with Segundum, a Roman fort, unearthed where the terraces rising from the ships once stood. Macau is booming. A constant reminder of industry’s dominance is the constant glow of blinding LED lights infiltrating nearby Macau workers’ bedrooms. As one Macau resident observed: “[The Grand Lisboa] seems far too intrusive to the old city centre of Macau. The blinding LED lights cause a lot of light pollution to the surrounding neighbourhood, particularly to the residential directly opposite. I have a friend who lives there, right next to the Bank of China, and she must have her curtains shut 24/7 together with added layers to her curtain fabric to block off the flashing lights.” (Macau and the Casino Complex, Stefan Al (ed.). Reno & Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 2018)

This is a 21st century update of the sounds no longer heard in Wallsend. A local resident noticed the change: “The noise of the riveting, even from your home, was like putting your head inside a 45 gallon drum and someone hammering it, and this would go on through the night if a ship was nearing its launch. I’m struck by the flowers and empty space, the peace and quiet now.