Binhai Library, where patrons stand on some steps while white curved shelves of books extend far above

Creating the Photogenic City

Tianyu Fang

A 30-minute ride by high-speed rail from Beijing, Tianjin’s Binhai New Area is home to one of China’s most futuristic-looking architectures. Over the years, the eye-shaped atrium of Binhai Library has attracted millions of visitors, traveling from neighboring metropolises to experience what architects behind the design dubbed a “new urban living room.”

The only problem? Some books are so high up the curved shelves that they’re practically inaccessible for readers — but if you take a closer look, these copies on display are either fake, or worse, printed on the bookshelves.

Places like Binhai Library are known for being wanghong, or “internet famous.” Wanghong spaces are, in the words of Amy Yueming Zhang, a lecturer in urban planning at the University of Manchester, spots where urban consumers produce “hundreds of similar photos… from the same angle in order to demonstrate that they are keeping up with the trend.”

Wanghong spaces — walls, beach resorts, coffee shops, light rail stations, and restaurants — are not known for their advertised purposes. Most of Binhai Library’s traffic comes from online influencers, not eager readers. And there is no single wanghong aesthetic in the vast world of photogenic backdrops. Wenheyou, known as a wanghong mall, recreates an old neighborhood lightened by neon signs amid skyscrapers in Changsha. Signs in propaganda fonts, reminiscent of a Maoist past, are engraved on battered cement walls. But modernity reappears where the nostalgia ends — QR code payment replaces ration stamps, and diners are not there because of their socialist work units but popular online posts.

These spaces stretch beyond urban boundaries. Consider Xiapu, a county in the southeastern province of Fujian that has attracted visitors from China’s metropolises. A social media search gives you images of a beachside utopia, where locals, secluded from modernity, are still dressed in old-style clothes and rely on water buffaloes for transportation. This, unfortunately, is too good to be true — there’s almost nothing in Xiapu that isn’t staged, so absurd that The New York Times called it “a visual factory where amateur photographers churn out photogenic evidence of an experience that they never had.”

Wanghong is about internet fame, but it reflects wider trends of a society living on social media-driven consumption. A shorthand for wangluo hongren, the Chinese term wanghong originally referred to online celebrities.1 In recent years, however, the term has been used to describe social media influencers and subsequently, as an adjective, physical or spatial products an influencer would consume. The rise of China’s social media platforms, alongside its growing e-commerce consumption, led to a large number of influencers advertising and selling goods on social media, videos, and livestreaming.

The poster child of the influencer economy is Xiaohongshu, an Instagram-Pinterest hybrid app whose user demographics skew towards young, affluent, urban women with strong purchasing power. According to writer and investor Lillian Li, the Chinese app is designed to be “actionable” in contrast with Instagram; in other words, Xiaohongshu influencers are encouraged to share pro-tips instead of vibes. People do not go to Xiaohongshu to keep up with their friends; rather, they are more likely to browse the app to figure out which hairdryer to buy or which beach to visit next weekend.

On Xiaohongshu, influencers want the platform’s algorithms to promote their posts and make them trendsetters. By posting about a certain product — a lipstick, a pair of sneakers, or a chic coffee shop — the synergy of influencers helps users develop a desire for consumption. (Though some influencers are paid by firms to write posts about their products, most are not.) In Chinese internet slang, this process is often called zhongcao, or “planting grass.” Once the seeds are sown, the user-turned-consumer wants to “pull out the grass,” or bacao: to quench that desire by finally making the purchase.

To complete the loop, consumers who hope to become mini-influencers themselves then post about their bacao experiences — reviews and buying guides for physical goods, pictures of wanghong spaces, and photo shoot advice. To visit a wanghong place is called daka, or “check in” — cross the item off your bucket list, snap a photo, and move on with your life. “It is best not to wear white clothes when you come here to take pictures,” one popular daka post, written from Binhai Library, suggested. “Don’t go on weekends when it’s too crowded to shoot photos,” another wrote. “Letting the library staff take pictures will be much easier.”

When the wanghong economy turns urban spaces into commodities that can be consumed, cities embrace wanghong aesthetics. In designing restaurant chains, shopping malls, buildings, and public infrastructures, developers and architects understand that the best way to gain foot traffic is not to serve their functional purposes well. In the public arena, tax money is invested into building libraries where nobody reads. Privately owned collective spaces like community malls, coffee shops, and tea rooms should serve social functions for neighborhood residents. Now they sell latte drinks that no locals can afford.

If you look closely enough, wanghong urbanism is everywhere. Just picture that pink wall in Los Angeles, or that artificial island by NYC’s Meatpacking District. The Brooklyn neighborhood that rhymes with “jumbo” — does anyone even live there? Or Binley Mega Chippy in Coventry, a little-known chip shop that attracted tourists from all over the United Kingdom because it was featured in a TikTok sensation.

If spaces are built around the wanghong economy, the crumbling of platforms leads to the crumbling of spaces.

The ritual of location check-ins weren’t invented by Chinese influencers — it was U.S. urbanites who first started daka at popular places on Foursquare, a location-based social platform trendy in the early 2010s. (The logic was simple: Visiting a hip bar in SoHo? Check in to share with your mutuals.) Dennis Crawley, co-founder of Foursquare, wanted to build the “location layer” of the web. While the check-in feature eventually lost traction and was spun off from the main app, the notion of mapping spatialities to social networks is virtually ubiquitous in social apps today. Cities becoming wanghong isn’t just a Chinese phenomenon; according to urban geographer Carwyn Morris, China “is just a more extreme case,” where people developed the language for the phenomenon.

Foursquare’s initial success was made possible by a small group of superusers who, in the words of geographer Will Payne, “crawl[ed] the city” by creating and maintaining venue data, so that details such as unit numbers and opening hours were up to date. User-generated check-ins also helped platforms and advertisers measure the popularity of locations and accuracy of geotags. This invisible “free labor,” as media theorist Tiziana Terranova calls it, was essential to almost all big data-powered online services. By making local knowledge legible and accessible, Foursquare users simultaneously facilitated the gentrification of neighborhoods — often their own. “Crawling the city is lucrative for technology companies, the real estate industry, and other beneficiaries of gentrification,” writes Payne. “But what happens when the users who crawl the city can no longer afford to live there? What happens when services like Foursquare and Yelp lose their labor supply?”

Similarly, Chinese users of apps like Xiaohongshu contribute a loop of free labor that requires not only posting but also real-life consumption supported by wages. If spaces are built around the wanghong economy, the crumbling of platforms leads to the crumbling of spaces. Moreover, wanghong aesthetics are a digital construction, a technological ecosystem built on broadbands, smartphones, photo filters, platform algorithms, and mobile payment apps — none of which are guaranteed to always function properly. Imagine if Foursquare’s network effects were large and critical enough that, when users stopped checking in online, customers no longer came to the physical restaurant. Who would, after all, be the clientele of overpriced restaurants with bad food and photogenic neon signs if they could not brag about the experience? Once the network ceases to exist, a wanghong space loses its raison d’être.

Once the network ceases to exist, a wanghong space loses its raison d’être.

It is not too far-fetched to imagine a future in China where wanghong ecosystems fall apart. Under Xi Jinping, Chinese leadership is increasingly anxious about the unrestrained growth of consumer internet firms, whose success has boosted GDP numbers but also encouraged excessive consumerism, exacerbated social inequalities, and promoted values Beijing deems unpalatable. Xi’s “common prosperity” campaign has already targeted video games, private tutoring, fintech, and ride-hailing. Two of the best known livestreamers in China’s influencer economy have been banned from the country’s social media platforms: Viya was fined $210 million for tax evasion in December 2021; Li Jiaqi had his livestream taken down in June after trying to sell a tank-shaped cake on the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, during which an unidentified protester was photographed standing before a column of tanks. (We still do not know what Li’s intentions were, or whether he had been aware of the political message.)

But building cities around wanghong aesthetics is not necessarily bad. Wukang Road, located in Shanghai’s former French Concession, is home to historical architecture built in the 1920s and 1930s. In recent years, the road has become an iconic wanghong neighborhood; while bougie cafés set up shop alongside local steamed bun vendors, Wukang Road’s wanghong-ization also led to restoration efforts of its century-old buildings. “There’s a tendency to think of wanghong architecture as needing to stand on its own,” writes Jiang Jiawei, assistant professor of architecture at Tongji University in Shanghai. “But the Wukang Building suggests another approach: not building something flashy and new, but making holistic improvements to an entire area until it becomes a place people want to visit and spend more time in.”

Wanghong cities are, according to the urban geographer Morris, “a bottom-up vision of the city where digital systems — and how people socialize and consume culture on digital systems — are key to reinterpreting what the city is.” In the past decades, the Chinese state has deployed various schemes to push for top-down visions of urban spaces: they need to be civilized, modern, global, and most recently, smart. Digital cultures are more malleable than technocratic plans to create legibility and maintain stability; under authoritarian systems, networked popularity creates a leverage against centralized visions of how cities are organized.

To be clear, cultures of consumerism are not necessarily a tool of democratization; real estate developers, advertisers, and technology companies are the primary beneficiaries of the wanghong economy. But that should not stop us from striving for healthier, more stable forms of wanghong urbanism. More specifically, embracing wanghong aesthetics while preserving utility can engage a broader citizenry in reimagining our living spaces; there are also ways to redirect tourist attention to local, actually existing economies, as opposed to restaurant chains or new commercial real estate. The Palace Museum, housed in Beijing’s Forbidden City, became a wanghong destination of sorts over the past few years due to popular historical dramas and a cultish online obsession with its gift shop merchandise. The museum saw an increase in the number of visitors, and growing revenue allowed for the opening of previously enclosed areas of the historical palace to visitors. If shopping complexes can make the nostalgia of Changsha’s street foods their selling point, why not bring back the actual street food vendors whose livelihoods were sacrificed for cities’ scramble for civility and order? Since photogenic public libraries get a lot of traffic, wouldn’t it be nice if cities invested in more libraries in residential neighborhoods — and encouraged people to bring home a book after the photo shoot?

Decreases in user input of free labor, network effects, consumption, and increased state control can break the wanghong-industrial complex. When this happens, will we be left with cities built to serve an influencer economy that no longer exists?

1 For a history of wangluo hongren, see Shaohua Guo, The Evolution of the Chinese Internet: Creative Visibility in the Digital Public (2020).

Tianyu Fang (he/him) is a writer and researcher in San Francisco. He is part of Chaoyang Trap, a newsletter about everyday life on the Chinese internet.