Member of the Week: Carmen C. M. Tsui

Carmen Tsui_PhotoCarmen C. M. Tsui, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering, City University of Hong Kong

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

Growing up in Hong Kong, I was always fascinated that such a tiny city can accommodate a population of 7 million people. Nevertheless, I have a fundamental concern with how the housing history has been written in China and Hong Kong, and this concern has led to two current research projects. The first project studies the origins of public housing in China. I wish to correct a common misconception that Communists invented public housing in China after 1949. My research traces the origin of public housing in China back to the Republican era in the 1920s and examines the state’s efforts to make housing a domain of the government. My second project studies philanthropic housing in Hong Kong from the 1950s to the 1960s. I challenge the official account that often describes the beginning of welfare housing in Hong Kong as a government response to resettle victims of a disastrous squatter fire in 1953. The project points out that, in fact, philanthropists invented welfare housing in Hong Kong, and these philanthropists had developed several housing estates for the local working class even before the official government public housing program.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I am teaching a lecture course on the history of architecture and urbanism, a seminar on architectural theory, and a studio course on architectural design. I hope that through a comparative global perspective, students can develop a critical eye in looking at China and Hong Kong. In my courses, I often challenge my students to think critically about whether Western urban and planning theories can be applied to China. For instance, while teaching the City Beautiful Movement developed around the 1900s in the United States, I analyze the ways that this movement impacted the city planning of early modern Chinese cities. When teaching the modernist planning ideas, I ask my students to compare the rationality and monotony of Le Corbusier’s planning models with their experience of the new towns in Hong Kong. By linking history and theory with familiar Chinese examples, my students are more engaged in learning when they see how history and theory link to familiar Chinese examples.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I am currently reading Nancy Kwak’s A World of Homeowners: American Power and the Politics of Housing Aid. This book reveals how the ideal of homeownership was developed in the United States and further exported to the rest of the world. I am also happy to see several new books published recently on the architecture and urban history of Asian cities. These books include A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Colonial Networks, Nature and Technoscience by Jiat-Hwee Chang and Globalizing Seoul: The City’s Cultural and Urban Change by Jieheerah Yun.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

I think young scholars should set their career priorities and stay focused. Urban historians and scholars often have broad interests. We are curious about everything that is happening, or has happened, in the city. Nevertheless, it is hard to do everything at once. Sometimes, we need focus on the project at hand and be realistic about our working capacity.

What architectural details do you enjoy looking for when you’re exploring a new city?

I love visiting architecture made by the common people: traditional markets, street food stalls, and so forth. I am always intrigued by the vernacular wisdom in construction and the way architecture is woven into everyday life. I also like to visit historical buildings that have been adapted for contemporary uses.

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