Terra Incognita

I was recently hooked into a “game”.

It is in fact a very simple game. You just need to install a Google Chrome extention, and there you’ve got it. Whenever you open a new tab on Google Chrome, you would be shown a city and its place in a map, there is also a few links to news coverage about that city (if there are any such coverage recently).

(you can try it now for ten minutes before moving on to the rest of this article.)

It is interesting because most of the time, the places or cities that are shown to you are places that you might have never heard of.

It is part of a research project initiated by Catherine D’Ignazio, Matt Stempeck and Ethan Zuckerman at MIT Center for Civic Media.

Now, quite a few of these cities on the Terra Incognita database are cities in China.


They are cities like Handan, Xiangyang, Zhangjiagang, Qidong, etc. Names that I have only heard of during weather forecast hours when i was young and when my family still watched CCTV. (it’s good that these names somehow get etched into my brain so i do not feel too alienated from them.)

But somehow the distance is readily felt.

It felt like terra incognita.

I’ve never been to any of those places, nor is any of my friends coming from those cities.

I wonder what does it feel like living in one of those cities.

Out of curiosity, I googled these names.

Much to my surprise, they all have some amazing stories.

For example, the city of Xiangyang is rich with history, actually, it is where much of the stories of Romance of the Three Kingdoms (btw, this is an essential book about China if you are curious about the culture of this country) happen. And then there is the city of Handan, it happens to be a city rich with idioms, in fact, over 100 Chinese idioms come from Handan.

But then another question comes to my mind, why is it that I’ve almost never heard of these places in any domestic news coverage?

I believe this is what the Terra Incognita research team wants to find an answer to.

Many people migrate to bigger cities in China in the past 30 to 40 years because they find that cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are more interesting, more diverse and more accommodating.

Not to mention that you can find more business opportunities in these metropolitan cities.

As a result of this massive immigration, most of the best brains in China are concentrated in a few big cities. That’s why you always hear stories from the big three (Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou), but very rarely would you hear news coming from Nanyang, for example – except if you live there.

Ethan mentioned in his blog post that “part of the success of Terra Incognita may rest on whether we can find these sorts of high quality, low context stories for a thousand cities”. This is so true.

It might also be a question of pride. There are some small cities in the world that makes one feel at home, or has their distinctive styles that works like a magnet, drawing in people who want to explore life beyond big cities. They are cities like Yilan in Taiwan, or Austin in US. I’ve been to both, and I was amazed by both of them for their lifestyles.

Perhaps we could ponder on these questions in our search for the answer to the Terra Incognita team’s original quest.

  • how can we make a city interesting?
  • how do we tell stories of a city and its people?
  • what makes a city desirable for living and for life?

At the end of the day, it might be more of a question of placemaking and pride-building. Once you have that, the journalism will come.