A strangely beautiful web comic shows urban Chinese life as a pixelated culture clash

China's Transition
China's Transition

A few years back, Baidu, China’s biggest internet search engine, began offering a unique Sim City-like cartoon view of the biggest Chinese cities. Based on custom 3D maps created by a company called Edushi, they depict sprawling mega-cities as clockwork machines, all drawn in a charmingly low-fi style.

Derek Man Lui, a US-born advertising copywriter based in Beijing, had the inspiration to use the Baidu eight-bit maps as a backdrop for Bird’s Eye China—his wry, often profane comic about life in the sprawling Chinese capital city. In the process he managed to create a visually striking comment on modern urban life that also happens to be hilarious.

(Bird's Eye China)

Quartz spoke to Lui last week via WhatsApp:

Quartz: What is it about those cartoonish Baidu maps that is so damn appealing?

Derek Man Lui: I grew playing videogames so I’ve always been attracted to digital worlds. The fact that Baidu Maps—an actual tool designed to help people get places —made a cartoon world is really interesting.

It’s interesting because I think technology is moving towards a direction where real life, games, and digital tools are merging.

Q: It’s like a whole other layer of abstraction added to the online map idea, makes us all feel like we’re living in a videogame.

Can you describe your “aha!” moment when you thought of making it into a comic?

DML: When I began exploring Baidu Maps, I looked up locations that I was familiar with. My home. My work. My favorite alleys. Then I imagined myself in it. I realized that I could populate this people-less world with characters that I come across in my daily life.

Funny thing is, the pixel maps haven’t been updated in a long time. So Beijing now is very different from what you see. Where there were once construction sites is now filled with shopping malls and skyscrapers.

I particularly love where the pixel maps end. It’s this strange empty expanse of land. A spatial 404 error.

(Bird's Eye China)

Q: So there’s a time element in what you’re doing—the city then vs. now—but it also seems like most of the entries have an east meets west element too.

DML: Yeah definitely. I’m what you call an ABC, an American-born Chinese. I always look at life with a Western sensibility. And Western culture is pervasive in China. I live across the street from an H&M and a Burger King.

Q: Does your sense of humor translate for Beijingers?

DML: I don’t think so. Sarcasm, satire, and social commentary—especially in a non-native language like English—isn’t really part of the culture here.

(Bird's Eye China)

Q: What’s your day job, btw?

DML: I work in the creative departments of ad agencies, currently freelance, as a copywriter. I make campaigns, films, events, social media things, etc

Q: So if Don Draper were living in 2014 Beijing…

DML: …he would be pitching social media campaigns on Weibo, selling cars, luxury fashion, and phones. And he’d be smoking twice as much and drinking baijiu instead of bourbon.

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