On The Overlook Trail
Following the Book to its Source


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NOW THAT A NEW BOOK about the CLUI, called Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America with the Center for Land Use Interpretation has been published by Metropolis Books, and is currently in bookstores, it may be instructive to follow the book to its physical point of origin, to go upstream, as it were, to the book’s physical source.

While we don’t want to overlook the essential work of the publisher, designers, editors, and distributors, who after all conceived and created the book, their role may be viewed as the parental, genetic source. The book came into physical existence far from the cubicles of lower Manhattan and the studios of Los Angeles. The book was born into the world, in China.

427 Victoria Peak overlook, overlooking Hong Kong where, in the distance, across the harbor in Kowloon, Overlook’s print production manager’s company is located. CLUI photo

A journey to see how Overlook was made begins in Hong Kong, where the Production Manager for the printing part of the project, Carl Lau, and his deputy Ken Wong from Asia Pacific Offset Printing are based. They had been in touch with the publisher through their office in New York City.

Their offices are located in Kowloon Bay, across the harbor, away from the financial district of Hong Kong, with its famous skyline and bank headquarters, and not too far from an area that is said to have the highest population density on the planet, near the Kwun Tong subway stop.

Hong Kong has a great public transportation system including a modern subway, trollies, double-decker buses, funiculars (to Victoria Peak), ferries regularly crossing the harbor, and even escalators that rise up the steep urban neighborhood of Mid Level, for half a mile, reversing direction for the morning commute, and connected to a three dimensional labyrinthian pedestrian network of skybridges, and elevated walkways connected by bank lobbies and shopping plazas. It feels as if this entire city is flowing, constantly.

Not so much manufacturing goes on in Hong Kong anymore though. It has become a service economy. To get to the place where the book was actually being printed you have to first head inland for a half an hour, to the outer edge of Hong Kong’s “Special Administrative Region of China,” and past an abrupt line between the rural suburbs of Hong Kong and the huge new city of Shenzhen. At the border, right hand drive cars, the legacy of British Hong Kong, are exchanged for left hand drive cars, of China. A customs and immigration station filters all traffic between these zones, as if it were an international border, which of course it was, until 1997, and in many ways it still is.

428 Shenzhen, a city exploding with growth. CLUI photo

Shenzhen is one of the most rapidly developed cities in China, a place of scattered massive apartment buildings and office towers, wide boulevards and highways, surrounded by factory buildings on the fringe. There was just a small town here in 1980, when Shenzhen was designated a Special Economic Zone by the Chinese government, to attract some of the prosperity of nearby Hong Kong. A city of 12 million sprang up in 25 years, fueled by export-based manufacturing, factories with as many as 200,000 workers, owned by Hong Kong, Taiwanese, and international companies, shipping their product to the west out of Hong Kong’s port, one of the busiest in the world. More than half of the population of Shenzhen are migrant workers, earning less than $150 a month.

But Overlook was not being printed here. The economic edges of this edge city have broken off, and are now growing around communities throughout the province where more rural conditions find still cheaper land, better government incentives for development, and new factories. Its another two hours north of Shenzhen, along a modern, limited access highway, with western style guardrails. Along the way, farmland with cattle pulling plows and muddy duck farm ponds are mixed with cement block two and three storey buildings, that look new and government made, and are often incomplete, though inhabited just the same. Old farm sheds and houses with terracotta roofs are scattered around too, then an occasional factory building. Often it seems big apartment blocks are also used for manufacturing, with ductwork billowing out the windows. Along the road are billboards with government messages and faded illustrations of scenic places.

429 Although a monument declares it to be “Top Tourist City of China,” tourists are not readily visible in Heyuan. The nearest attraction is a scenic reservoir area 20 miles away. CLUI photo

The city of Heyuan is said to be typical of modern China. It has around 250,000 people at the moment, and has wide streets lined with three to eight story cement buildings covered in tile, with storefronts on the first level and apartments above. A main boulevard has the Great International, a western style hotel for Chinese tourists and business people, opened a few months ago, and crumbling on its edges. It sits next to a park with open plazas, at the confluence of the East and the Pearl Rivers. People farm the mud that has collected outside the floodwall, next to junky sheetmetal boats. Construction cranes and rising apartment blocks loom across the river above them.

430 The printing company is located in a new industrial zone located outside of Heyuan. CLUI photoTen miles out from the city’s core, business parks and industrial areas are forming. At one of these, past an archway designating the Heyuan Hi-Tech Development Zone, is a new factory compound being built by Power Printing. This is where Overlook was printed.

Power Printing has been around for over ten years, though it has just moved here, bringing most of its work force with it. With 1,200 employees, several four-color offset printers, and a bindery, Power Printing is one of maybe a dozen or so printing companies of this size in the country, according to the owner. And it may become one of the largest, as it hasn’t finished growing into its new home.

431 The printing factory had been functional at its new location for just a few months at the time it printed Overlook. The multi-storey administration building, left, surrounded by scaffolding, was still under construction, and the building on the right is the bindery. The low building in the middle contains the plate and print shop where Overlook was printed. CLUI photo

There are five main buildings on site, separated by flat areas of mud, future landscaping and building sites. One is a multi-storey administrative building, unoccupied and under construction. The bindery is a four storey building, mostly finished, and in use. There is a warehouse, and a three story commissary and recreational building. On the first floor, all the workers eat in a big room. The management eats upstairs. The top floor is unfinished and empty, except for some uninstalled disco lights and ping-pong tables. Next to this building, is the residential complex, several rows of brand new six-storey apartment blocks, where just about all of the 1,200 workers live.

432 Housing for the printing company workers at the factory. CLUI photoAt the center of the compound is the printing shop building, with the presses, a folding hall, and a paper chopping area. Upstairs, one end of the mezzanine has the computer workstations and metal plate printing area on one end, equipped with dozens of G5 Macintosh computers (operated nearly entirely by young men), and at the other end the desks of the accounting department (nearly all young women). Beyond that, the boss’s small office, and a few unoccupied rooms, one of which has been converted into a residence for the factory manager who, it seems, runs the show and never leaves. The entire compound is walled off and self-contained. Uniformed guards salute the boss as he travels in and out the gate, in one of only two vehicles that are on site (there is no parking lot, as nobody else drives there, though there are some bicycles and scooters near the employee entrance). Rolls of paper come in, and finished books go out.

433 Printer operator looking over a fresh spread of Overlook. CLUI photo
434 Overlook, all printed, awaiting binding at the printing plant. CLUI photoIt took three days to print Overlook’s 34 eight page spreads and cover. After the printing came the chopping, folding into signatures, and the binding of the signatures into books, which occurred at the factory, near the printing floor. The completed books were boxed, palletized, and wrapped, and warehoused. They were eventually loaded into a shipping container, and trucked to the port of Hong Kong, where they were loaded onto a ship, and journeyed west, across the ocean, to the port at Newark, New Jersey, with a whole lot of other Chinese stuff about to be absorbed by the American landscape. But then, who knows. One of America’s largest exports is paper scrap, bound for China. Maybe Overlook will be back, some day.

435 The swarming port of Hong Kong, the busiest container port in the world, where the Center’s book Overlook joined thousands of other products bound for the USA. CLUI photo