China’s Global Beacon

In our age of roving capital and global tourism, cities yearn to distinguish themselves as places to visit and invest in. For some that means excavating a rich past or tapping valued qualities of landscape and geography. Others are fortunate enough to possess an iconic architectural symbol—the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sydney Opera House, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. For the upstart towns in the sprawling Pearl River Delta of southern China, identity often comes by way of local industries. Xiaolan is known for locks, Shaxiis the casual garment city, and Dafen, the oil-painting village, produces much of the world’s knockoff art. Guzhen, a town in the northwest section of booming Zhongshan City, is the lighting capital of China. Having flooded the global home-improvement market with inexpensive fixtures, Guzhen decided to build itself an appropriately mighty icon.

Americans may not be familiar with the Pearl River Delta, but they know its vast manufacturing output. A visit to Wal-Mart or Home Depot is essentially a visit to China; a large share of the goods therein hails from the People’s Republic, many from Delta factory towns like Guzhen. “Guzhen exports to more than one hundred ­countries and regions and is one of the biggest manufacturing bases worldwide for lighting appliances,” public relations officer Cui Chaowen says.

Lighting is a fixture in the city: after all, some 2,000 factories generate 70 percent of its GDP and employ half the local population. Just off Lighting Square is Guzhen’s main drag, Lighting Street, lined with more than a thousand showrooms. Every year the town hosts the China International Lighting Fair, one of the largest in the world. And in 1999 town officials announced plans to erect a lofty symbol of its native industry. What could be better than the world’s biggest lamp? “The idea came from the chairman of the Guzhen Communist Party, Wu Renfu,” Cui says. “He felt we needed a tangible icon that spoke of Guzhen as much as the Eiffel Tower spoke of Paris,” something that might also “serve as a totem for the people, a reminder of the source of their livelihoods and prosperity.”

Chairman Wu realized that Guzhen’s icon should be universally recognizable. Thus the colossal 833-foot luminaire is not a funky torchiere or Song antique but “the world’s only architecture shaped like a huge Western classical oil lamp,” as promotional material describes it. Scheduled for completion in time for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, the $38 million Century Giant Lamp Tower will stretch 430,560 square feet over 48 floors, with an immense glass chimney on which an array of images will be projected at night from inside. With an observation deck at its crown, the building has a base that will contain shops, restaurants, and a museum to document “humanity’s quest for light against darkness.”

Town officials hope that the gigantic Century Giant Lamp Tower will put Guzhen on the tourist map, drawing visitors from nearby Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. It remains to be seen if other Delta towns, such as Foshan—which manufactures most of China’s “sanitary ceramics” (i.e. lavatories and toilet bowls)—will follow Guzhen’s lead.

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