The man who helped de­sign China’s ur­ban land­scape

Since meet­ing with Deng Xiaop­ing in 1978, Sin­ga­porean has helped plan nearly 50 ci­ties na­tion­wide

China Daily European Weekly - - Front Page - By LOW SHI PING in Sin­ga­pore For China Daily

He is best known as Sin­ga­pore’s “fa­ther of city plan­ning”, but Liu Thai Ker can also boast of hav­ing a hand in shap­ing the ur­ban land­scape in China.

You could say it started in 1978, when Deng Xiaop­ing vis­ited Sin­ga­pore.

“I was asked to take care of him as I could speak Man­darin well,” re­calls Liu, the chair­man of Mor­row Ar­chi­tects & Plan­ners, who served as chief plan­ner and CEO of Sin­ga­pore’s Ur­ban Re­de­vel­op­ment Au­thor­ity from 1989 to 1992.

Deng was taken to the rooftop of the Min­istry of Na­tional De­vel­op­ment build­ing, where Liu ex­plained Sin­ga­pore’s ur­ban plan­ning.

“I like to think that partly be­cause of that, when Deng went back to China a few months later, he made the an­nounce­ment (that China would learn) ur­ban plan­ning from Sin­ga­pore,” Liu, 80, says.

Back then, Liu was a ju­nior staff mem­ber at the Hous­ing and De­vel­op­ment Board of Sin­ga­pore, where he rose to be­come chief ar­chi­tect and CEO.

“I was an ig­no­rant young man, but I knew that Deng was a very im­por­tant re­former for China,” he says. “He was very down-to-earth with no airs. He asked pointed, prac­ti­cal ques­tions. I was very com­fort­able brief­ing him. He made a very good im­pres­sion.”

A year later, Liu made his first visit to China, where he made stops in Bei­jing, Tian­jin and Shang­hai, and had the chance to see the coun­try at the start of re­form and open­ing-up.

“I saw the his­toric parts of Bei­jing, with a lot of si­heyuan,” he says, re­fer­ring to the cap­i­tal’s tra­di­tional court­yard homes. “Un­for­tu­nately, most of them are gone al­ready.

“In those days, peo­ple in the street wore ei­ther black or blue col­ors. They were very drab-look­ing, and yet the his­toric build­ings were so beau­ti­ful.”

It wasn’t un­til the early 1980s that Liu re­ceived his first com­mis­sion to plan a city in China — Fuzhou, the cap­i­tal of Fu­jian prov­ince — through the Sin­ga­pore gov­ern­ment.

His ex­pe­ri­ence on the topic stems from plan­ning new towns for Sin­ga­pore, each ca­pa­ble of ac­com­mo­dat­ing about 200,000 peo­ple. By the end of his 20-year HDB ca­reer in 1989, he had cre­ated 23 new towns, in­clud­ing pub­lic hous­ing and com­ple­men­tary fa­cil­i­ties and ameni­ties for their res­i­dents, such as play­grounds for the chil­dren and com­mu­nity cen­ters for recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties.

“When I did the plan­ning at HDB, I also planned the sur­round­ings to pro­tect the neigh­bor­hoods,” Liu says. “This meant I would have to keep up­dated on the ur­ban plan of Sin­ga­pore. By ex­ten­sion, I had no prob­lems plan­ning a city.”

A lot of con­vinc­ing

That the city in ques­tion was Fuzhou was prob­a­bly no co­in­ci­dence. The eth­nic Chi­nese liv­ing in Sin­ga­pore mostly had roots in south­ern Chi­nese prov­inces like Guang­dong and Fu­jian.

“It was prob­a­bly to en­cour­age them to in­vest in China, too,” Liu says.

On a more per­sonal note, Liu’s mother hailed from Fuzhou, which fur­ther com­pelled him to take up the com­mis­sion.

“As a child, I heard a lot of sto­ries about the city, so I was com­fort­able,” he says. “For ex­am­ple, Fuzhou has the nick­names of Rongcheng (banyan tree city) and San­shan (three hills). In fact, I went to San­shan Pri­mary School, es­tab­lished by the Fuzhou peo­ple liv­ing in Sin­ga­pore.”

“The plan­ners in China are more ex­pe­ri­enced and so­phis­ti­cated than in many other places, which have not gone through the same process.” LIU THAI KER Sin­ga­porean ur­ban plan­ning ad­viser

One of the first things he did in Fuzhou was to look for the three hills. When he could not find them, he re­al­ized it was be­cause there were no roads lead­ing to the hills and they were ob­structed by build­ings.

“I cre­ated roads around the hills so they can be seen more eas­ily,” he says.

An­other cause he cham­pi­oned was the preser­va­tion of the city’s his­tor­i­cal build­ings. The most fa­mous area is San­fangqix­i­ang (three lanes, seven al­leys), which had been home to the literati, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and the wealthy up­per class. How­ever, rather than pre­serve the area, the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties were de­ter­mined to raze it to the ground.

“Those were beau­ti­ful build­ings with unique styles that you don’t see else­where in China,” Liu says. “It took a lot of con­vinc­ing not to de­mol­ish them.”

He found him­self re­peat­ing the same ar­gu­ments when it came to the Min­jiang River that runs through the city. Although it was filled with sewage, Liu could see its po­ten­tial.

“They protested, but I forced them to se­lect a site to put a sewage treat­ment plant to treat the sewage so the river would be­come clean,” he says.

In the early 1990s, to­ward the end of Liu’s work on the Fuzhou mas­ter plan, Xi Jin­ping, now pres­i­dent of China, was ap­pointed Party sec­re­tary of Fuzhou.

Liu met with Xi to brief him on his plans for the city. Later, he was asked to de­sign the Fuzhou Changle In­ter­na­tional Air­port. “I said no be­cause I had never planned an air­port,” Liu re­calls.

A few months later, Xi vis­ited Sin­ga­pore and asked to see Liu pri­vately, and again he broached the sub­ject. “He said he ap­pre­ci­ated two things about me: First, the timely de­liv­ery of the Fuzhou mas­ter plan, and sec­ond, its good qual­ity.”

Xi said if Liu could do that, then he was con­fi­dent Liu could do the same for the air­port. In the end, Liu ac­cepted and had the Changi Air­port Group help out.

An im­por­tant learn­ing point was not to un­der­es­ti­mate the rate of ur­ban­iza­tion in China. While Liu con­sciously planned for the longterm growth of the city, it de­vel­oped much faster than an­tic­i­pated.

“The change of China is re­ally dra­matic,” he says. “In those days, when I planned the area, I thought it would last a long time. But ac­tu­ally the rate of ur­ban­iza­tion has moved much faster than that.”

Last year, the Fuzhou gov­ern­ment knocked on his door again to ask him to plan greater Fuzhou, which will stretch all the way to the coast. He is now work­ing on the mas­ter plan.

Back in the ’ 80s, be­fore he fin­ished plan­ning Fuzhou, Liu re­ceived his sec­ond com­mis­sion — for Xi­a­men Is­land, also in Fu­jian. Again, the thirst for progress drove the au­thor­i­ties to want to pull down his­toric build­ings to re­place them with skyscrap­ers.

Liu says: “I told them if you in­sist on pulling down these build­ings, it’s like throw­ing the gold mine of tourism into the sea. Do you re­ally want to do that?”

To­day, vis­i­tors to Xi­a­men Is­land can see a neigh­bor­hood of her­itage shop­houses that Liu saved from de­mo­li­tion. They can also make a stop at Yuan­dang Lake, which Liu says was a “cesspit of sewage” when he first vis­ited.

The au­thor­i­ties had in­sisted on break­ing the dam that di­vided the lake and the sea, and let the wa­ter flow out.

“I told them it was one of the high­lights of the city and that they were not al­lowed to,” Liu says. “One day in a meet­ing, I sat down and said I’m not go­ing to dis­miss the meet­ing un­til we find the so­lu­tion for a sewage treat­ment plant to treat the lake — so we talked un­til we did.”

For many years now, Xi­a­men Is­land has been rated one of the most liv­able ar­eas in China, Liu says with pride.

“Old habits die hard,” he says. “You needed to give a lot of ex­pla­na­tions to con­vince them. But I sensed they were all pa­tri­otic about re­build­ing China, so if you told them it would be good for the city, at the end, they would ac­cept.”

An­other note­wor­thy project was the mas­ter plan for Ningbo, Zhe­jiang prov­ince, which Liu did af­ter he left the Sin­ga­pore civil ser­vice to join RSP Ar­chi­tects Plan­ners and Engi­neers as se­nior di­rec­tor.

To show just how im­por­tant the project was to the Sin­ga­pore gov­ern­ment, the city-state’s found­ing prime min­is­ter, Lee Kuan Yew, joined in the fi­nal pre­sen­ta­tion of the con­cept to the Ningbo au­thor­i­ties.

Liu re­mem­bers want­ing to plan the area around the port.

“It took me three and a half hours to drive there,” he says. “Ten years later, when I re­turned to the city and asked them to show it to me, it took me 35 min­utes to drive to the port. That’s the power of plan­ning.”

Ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory

A more re­cent project is one in Xi’an that was ap­proved in 2016. It is a mas­ter plan for a new cen­tral busi­ness district that will con­nect the cap­i­tal of north­west­ern China’s Shaanxi prov­ince with Xianyang, a neigh­bor­ing his­toric city to the west.

In­te­gral to the plan is a line link­ing the cen­tral busi­ness district to a site dat­ing back to the North­ern Zhou Dy­nasty (557-581).

Rather than ig­nore such an an­cient site, Liu in­cluded a pedes­trian walk­way along the line that will be paved with con­tem­po­rary build­ings de­signed in ar­chi­tec­tural styles pro­gress­ing from the North­ern Zhou Dy­nasty to the Qing Dy­nasty (16441911).

“When you walk along this line, you walk through China’s ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory,” he says.

Liu has planned close to 50 ci­ties in China over al­most 35 years. More are in the pipe­line, in places such as Qing­dao, Yan­tai and Ji­nan, all in Shan­dong prov­ince.

Two years ago, he was ap­pointed chief plan­ning ad­viser to Yun­nan prov­ince and has been busy work­ing on plans for greater Kun­ming, Shangri-la and Dali.

He said ur­ban­iza­tion in China has be­come more so­phis­ti­cated, thanks in part to the Chi­nese peo­ple and their ex­ten­sive trav­els. This has in­evitably af­fected the way Liu de­signs mas­ter plans for his Chi­nese clients.

“I have to pro­vide a greater range of ur­ban fa­cil­i­ties to sat­isfy their needs,” he says. “For ex­am­ple, I have to show them more clearly the ed­u­ca­tion plan, such as the lo­ca­tion of the uni­ver­si­ties.

“In the past two to three years, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping has been em­pha­siz­ing more than be­fore about the im­por­tance of the pro­tec­tion of eco­log­i­cal ar­eas. They are also more spe­cific about what they want to use the space in the ci­ties for.”

Even as he works, Liu is con­sci­en­tious about im­part­ing his knowl­edge of ur­ban plan­ning to Chi­nese plan­ners. He of­ten uses the anal­ogy of cook­ing, say­ing there are three things re­quired to de­sign a good city.

The first is good raw ma­te­ri­als. Most ci­ties in China have out­stand­ing ones by way of his­toric build­ings and gifts en­dowed by Mother Na­ture.

Sec­ond, the recipe must be well­writ­ten. Chi­nese ur­ban plan­ning needs help in this area, which is why he goes there to help them “write the recipe”.

Third, good cook­ing skills are im­por­tant. This means the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the plan has to be strictly en­forced.

“I de­scribe the Sin­ga­pore ur­ban plan­ning ex­pe­ri­ence used by me as be­ing up­dated, Asian­ized, Western plan­ning the­ory,” he says. “While the con­cept of ur­ban plan­ning orig­i­nated from the West, it can­not be used whole­sale in Asia, since 60 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion lives on 30 per­cent of the world’s land area — mak­ing it high-den­sity. The de­mands on ur­ban plan­ning are more com­plex than be­fore. For ex­am­ple, there are chal­lenges like in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, pol­lu­tion and traf­fic.

“This ap­proach is not well un­der­stood in the West and China, there­fore I feel they have not quite reached the level of un­der­stand­ing we take for granted in Sin­ga­pore.”

Still, Liu says he feels other Asian coun­tries have plenty to learn from China.

“In the con­text of ur­ban plan­ning, China has four strengths,” he says. “It has a strong gov­ern­ment, so if you have a good idea, it will be im­ple­mented. It has to­tal own­er­ship of land. If you want to de­velop, the most im­por­tant cap­i­tal of de­vel­op­ment is the land. China is eco­nom­i­cally well off. When­ever there is the need for in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment, they can af­ford to do so.

“Fi­nally, there has been a large amount of ur­ban­iza­tion in the past four decades. The plan­ners in China are more ex­pe­ri­enced and so­phis­ti­cated than in many other places, which have not gone through the same process,” Liu says.

Liu of­ten tells his Chi­nese clients that China, in the near fu­ture, will be the best coun­try in the world in terms of its mil­i­tary, eco­nomics, cul­ture and sci­ence. To com­plete the list, they must create good ci­ties. “That part is their big­gest chal­lenge,” he says.


A model of the Fu­jian-Sin­ga­pore Friend­ship Med­i­cal Ser­vice Cen­ter, de­signed by Liu Thai Ker, is un­veiled in Xi­a­men, Fu­jian prov­ince, on Aug 8, 2009. The cen­ter was opened in 2011.


Liu at his of­fice in Sin­ga­pore, against his fa­ther’s paint­ing.


Liu Thai Ker talks with lo­cal me­dia in Wuhan, Hubei prov­ince, on Nov 20, 2013.

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