speculative design
urban design

field research

When & Where?

October 2019
Chinatown, LA


3D modeling

About City of Compression

City of compression explores how an ethnic enclave preserves and presents its culture identity in a foreign culture context. This project took Los Angeles Chinatown as research subject and studied its current situation in relation to immigration history, urban plan, politics and other social cultural domains. The final design outcome is a reimagined Chinatown that keeps its culture authenticity and fluidity under extreme spatial compression.


Project Brief

Create a city, a metropolois. An absurd task to try to tackle literally within six weeks. Your project will be a creative and radical abstraction, a speculative imagining where certain conditions or situations are reinterpreted and amplified. Crucially, rather than taking a top-down approach to designing your city, you will create it from the inside out. You will let its form emerge through a combining of custom parts which you will formulate. Your city will ultimately take the form of a composite multimedia drawing, which you will collectively engineer, annotate, and imagine inhabiting.

Field Research


My research includes three field tips to Little Tokyo, Chinatown and Slab City. During my first two field trips, I documented, analyzed and visualized the current situation of how ethnic enclaves present culture identifies in a foreign context. Based on my conclusions, the third field trip inspired me on an alternative way for a community to present its true culture identity under certain constraints and limitation.

01 Little Tokyo

My field research started from Little Tokyo in DTLA. I intented to understand the current situation of how an ethnic enclave present its culture identity in foreign context. So  I started collecting things that represent Japanese culture based on my understanding (I have been traveling to Japan several times but I alsoacknowledged my limitation in understanding its culture).

As the name Little Tokyo sugeested, this place is a condensed Japonesque space filled with world-famous Japanese culture symbols. In addition to some statues and museums, most of its cultural representations are in form of commodities in sushi restaurants, ramen bistros, toy stores, cosmetics shops, supermarkets and Japanese bookstore. It is clear that in Little Tokyo, Japanese culture is presented through the process of commodification, thus the engagements of the place are moslty by shopping and consuming. It is hard to find out the lifestyle of the residents in this area. On the other hand, some of the cultural entities didn’t symbolize Japanese culture, but were misplaced inside the ethnic enclave creating an Asian fusion ambience to the place. I started questioning:

Compared to a district in Tokyo, what is missing/altered in Little Tokyo?
Does culture authenticity matter in an ethic enclave?
How do local citizen perceive/interact with the space?

02 Chinatown

In order to get a deeper understanding of my previous findings, I did my second field trip at another ethnic enclave in Los Angeles Chinatown. As a Chinese, I wonder how culture and lifestyle is presented there. It seems that both Little Tokyo and Chinatown have similar situation in their culture presentation: symbolic culture semiotics fulfills the space in forms of commodities. Lanterns, pagodas and colorful architectures suggested a style that was rather decoratively Chinoiserie (a broad sense of Asian) and doesn’t fit into its environment. It felt to me more like an amusement park: compacted and symbolic with a sense of unreal.

What is the relationship between residents, visitors and an ethnic enclave?

What particular history shaped the Chinatown we see today?

In a foreign culture context, is it possible to present one’s culture identity in a non-commoditized way?

How to avoid culture stereotypes and cliché in promoting a foreign culture?

I did another research about the history of Chinatown.The history of Chinatown has undertaken a constant compression and displacement through time and space. Early Chinese Americans had persevered against violence, racism, housing discrimination, exclusion laws, unfair taxation, and physical displacement. The architectural aesthetics of the new Chinatown was primally defined by Hollywood film set designers, and a "Chinese" movie prop was donated by film director to give Chinatown an exotic atmosphere. Thus, Chinatown had transformed from the early Chinese immigrants‘ inhabitancy into a stylized cultural commodity for tourists.

Combining with my previous field trip findings, I made a visualization of the Chinatown compression in relation to space, time, lifestyle and culture.

This analysis visualized the process of Chinatown being compressed from a lively cultural community into an oriental decorative shell filled with commodities. I reminds me of a special marketplace during Chinese emperors’ birthdays back in Qing Dynasty where court servants dressed up as peddlers in a special market setting for royal family to enjoy shopping inside the palace without necessarily engaging with the real life outside the palace wall. (“宫市”)

In order to make a living, presenting culture stereotypes and commodifying culture in many cases were not by choice for Chinese American back in history. But to construct a more inclusive and diverse society, we need to present our culture that we can live in and experience instead of a culture that caters to tourists’ fantasy.

03 Slab City

My field trip to Slab City inspired me a lot in terms of culture presentation under extreme compression. With spatial constraints, every material becomes matter, every action becomes a statement of life. Also when a thing gets compressed, mobility and portability become its crucial features. In slab city, I saw a lot of RVs that constructed a fluid living community. Artworks at the front of the cars blend with living spaces creates its distinguish culture identity and aesthetics. This special combination of open gallery and RV turns the community into a fluid semi-public space that allows public engagement, mobility and reconfiguration. In Slab City, culture is fluid (depends on its mobility) and reflects lifestyle (minimal materiality).

Reimagining Chinatown

Inspired by the mixng lifestyle of the “residents” in Slab City, I reimagined Chinatown under extreme comression. In the future of Chinatown, architectures become flying RVs that construct a fluid collective space. As living rooms reflect lifestyle and personal taste, the new Chinatown is a collection of individual livingrooms where authentic lifestyles and its aesthetics revealed without being commodified. The structure was inspired by Metabolism architectures and Jenga.

The mobility of the construction units allows reconfiguration in space as well as  presents its dynamic culture indentity in time. Therefore the visiting experience become participatory and more engaging. In order to visit the space, people have to become instant neighbors, which potentially rejects stereotyping from an outsider’s perspective.

I designed 21 different types of livingrooms in different aesthetics and culture references to portray the diverse aspects of culture.