The changing face of Asia
- six cities 1994/2019

The Asia New Zealand Foundation has changed a lot over the last 25 years – and so has Asia. Skylines have shot up and land has been reclaimed to make space for booming populations. We take a look at six major Asian cities and how they've changed since 1994.

Shanghai, China

The Oriental Pearl Radio & Television Tower under construction in 1994 (left) and standing proudly among steel and glass friends in 2019 (right)]

The Oriental Pearl Radio and Television Tower under construction in 1994 (left) and standing proudly among steel and glass friends in 2019 (right)]

Shanghai was going through a time of radical change in 1994.

In the early 1990s, China's Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping declared that Shanghai would be "the head of the dragon", leading the country into the future. With that, a period of unparalleled development began.

During the 1990s, the city was growing so fast that authorities had to publish new maps every few months. Freeways were constructed allowing for further growth as people poured in from the countryside to take up jobs in the city.

While many of the old neighbourhoods of narrow allies and brick buildings that were a feature of the city still existed in 1994, their days were numbered, soon to be replaced by multi-storied apartment complexes.

The Pudong development, begun in 1993, was a big part of this regeneration.

In 1994, Pudong was largely comprised of one and two-storey buildings, and building sites.

Starting with the construction of the Oriental Pearl Radio and Television Tower (pictured) in 1994, over the next 25 years Pudong transformed into the business heart of the city with dozens of skyscrapers including some of the world's most recognisable, such as the 88-storey Jin Mao Tower, the 101-storey Shanghai World Financial Centre and the 128-storey Shanghai Tower.

With massive rural to urban migration occurring in China, Shanghai’s population has more than doubled – shooting up from 11 million in 1994 to 26.3 million today, making it the largest city in China and one of most populous cities in the world.

Over 25 years, Shanghai has gone from an inwardly focussed and relatively sleepy city to a truly international metropolis the rival of any in the world. 


Singapore’s waterfront in 1994 (left) and 2019]

Singapore’s waterfront in 1994 (left) and 2019]

Singapore is unique in Asia and a rarity in the world. It is a city state, meaning that the city of Singapore is synonymous with the country of Singapore. It joins only two other modern city states, Monaco and the Vatican City.

Through extensive and ongoing land reclamation, the total land area of Singapore has increased by about 11 percent since 1994, going from 641 square kms to 712 square kilometres in 2019 (Auckland is 1086 square kms). Over that period, the population has increased from some 3.4 million to 5.8 million people.

Land reclamation projects, such as the Marina Bay development, have provided Singapore with room to grow. The land for this project was reclaimed in the mid-1980s, but the buildings that have become so iconic have mostly been constructed over the last 15 to 20 years.

As you walk down the waterfront in 2019, the massive Marina Bay Sands (often known as the buildings with the boat on top) towers above you.

On the waterfront, there are now many glitzy places to eat with brightly coloured awnings and water mist spraying to keep the humidity at bay, but the best places to eat are a little less fancy.

Back in 1994, street food was largely confined to small markets and mostly frequented by locals. Nowadays, both tourists and locals are as likely to head to the hawker stalls as head to the glitzy restaurants.

Top eats in Singapore include a Michelin-starred soya chicken rice and noodle dish served street-style from a humble hawker stall in Chinatown. It is the cheapest Michelin-star meal in the world at two Singapore dollars.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The banks of the Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh City in 1994 (left) and 2019]

The banks of the Saigon River, Ho Chi Minh City, in 1994 (left) and 2019]

Over the last 25 years, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, has seen rapid growth, both in infrastructure and population. The number of people living in the city has more than doubled, going from about 3.5 million to about 8.9 million inhabitants.

In 1994, The New York Times reported that Ho Chi Minh City was headed for a “catastrophe” due to the city not coping with rapid population growth.

It was described as “bursting at the seams with people,” including peddlers and beggars cluttering the streets.

However, Ho Chi Minh City has proved the naysayers wrong. Having emerged from the turmoil left by the American-Vietnam War, market reforms in the mid-1980s began a process of economic revival and modernisation that was in full swing by 1994.

Today, Ho Chi Minh City is a hub of innovation that attracts tech companies from around the world. It is one of the biggest rivals to the American Silicon Valley, with multinational companies like Samsung, Intel, VNG, GetSpaces and many more setting up shop there.

Ho Chi Minh City's burgeoning tech scene has played a significant role in seeing Vietnam's GDP (gross domestic product) increase from about USD 94 billion in 1994 to some 250 billion in 2019, which, according to the World Bank, has seen some 45 million people lifted out of poverty. 

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The landmark Petronas Towers under construction in 1994 (left) and in 2019

The landmark Petronas Towers under construction in 1994 (left) and in 2019

In 1994, Kuala Lumpur had a population of about 1.2 million residents, by 2019 it had increased to just under 2 million.

Greater Kuala Lumpur, which includes outlying cities, is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in Southeast Asia and has more than doubled in population over the period to about 7.8 million.

The early 1990s was a period of economic boom for Kuala Lumpur, and this was reflected in the proliferation of malls and the skyscrapers that now dominate the skyline. During this period, some of the old city charm was lost, with many old buildings demolished to make way for the new. 

The construction of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur is often seen as Malaysia’s springboard into the 21st Century. 

Excavation of the 40-hectare site began in 1993, with construction of the superstructure beginning in 1994. The buildings were opened to the public five years later in 1999.

Architect César Pelli had the vision that the Petronas Towers would be “a multi-faceted diamond sparkling in the sun.”

They were designed to be landmark buildings of Kuala Lumpur and have since achieved iconic status, becoming a symbol of the city.


Seoul, South Korea

Seoul as viewed from Seoul Tower in 1994 (left) and 2019

Seoul as viewed from Seoul Tower in 1994 (left) and 2019

Seoul is by far the largest city in South Korea; almost 20 percent of the county's 50 million inhabitants residing in the city and close to 50 percent living in the greater metropolitan area. 

Unlike most Asian cities, the population of Seoul has declined over the past 25 years, from about 10.26 million to 9.96 million. This is largely due to South Korea's declining birth rates and very low immigration.

Despite this, Seoul is also one of the most dynamic cities in Asia with thriving music, film, television, fashion and technology sectors.

Most famously, Seoul is at the heart of South Korea's K-pop industry. In 1994, K-Pop was largely unknown outside of South Korea but over the intervening years it has taken the world by storm, contributing greatly to the economy and to the 17 million tourists who visit the Seoul each year.

For someone returning to the city for the first time since 1994, one of the biggest changes they would notice would be the the sight of a stream flowing through the downtown Seoul, where once there had only been roads and parking lots.

In 2003, the USD 900 million project to return the Cheonggyecheon stream to the city began, with work completed in 2005. The 10.9-kilometre-long project is viewed as a shining light of urban renewal and is an attraction for locals and tourists alike.

Seoul is renowned as a foodies paradise. Korean barbecue and of course kimchi are top of the list of most foodies visits.

Other must try classic Korean dishes include Ddukbokki (spicy rice cakes), bibimbap (a rice dish), hoeddeok (sweet pancakes in syrup) and japchae (stir-fired noodles).

Hong Kong

Johnstone Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong in 1994 (left) and 2019]

Johnstone Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong in 1994 (left) and 2019]

Hong Kong has been in the spotlight for much of 2019, with massive protests closing down large swaths of the city on a regular basis. What began as demonstrations against an extradition bill has expanded to now include calls for greater democracy and government accountability. 

In 1994, Hong Kong was still under British rule, as it had been for almost 150 years.

However, on 1 July 1997, Hong Kong was handed back to Chinese rule with the promise of “one country, two systems", which allows for Hong Kong to function with a large degree of autonomy.

Already a modern metropolis in 1994, on the face of it the changes that Hong Kong has seen over the last 25 years may not seem as drastic as other cities on this list. However, between 1994 and 2019 the population increased from just over six million to about 7.4 million and the city continued to expand and develop. 

By the 1990s Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport was one of the busiest in the world and struggling with increasing passenger numbers. The airport was famous for planes having to fly close to high-rise buildings before landing on a single runway that extended into Kowloon Bay.

In 1991, construction of the USD 20 billion Chek Lap Kok Airport began. Over the next few years, two neighbouring islands were flattened and some 12.5 square kilometres of land was reclaimed, creating a new island and adding 1 percent to the total land area of Hong Kong. The new airport was opened in 1998.  

1994 saw the demise of the infamous Kowloon Walled City, a densely-populated, largely lawless neighbourhood that was home to some 50,000 people.

Built on the site of an old Chinese military fort, at its peak the Walled City was the most populated neighbourhood in the world and synonymous with Hong Kong's underbelly. It was torn down in 1993/1994 and replaced with a park.

Today, Hong Kong has a bit of everything: slick city streets of Wan Chai (pictured) and Central Hong Kong, Jade Markets, colonial-era buildings, beaches and forest. Some of the best street food in the world is sold from small stalls in Causeway Bay or Mong Kok, Tsuen Wan and Sham Shui Po.