shenzhen garbalogy


this morning as i walked the edge of houhai i stumbled upon another former settlement, where the squatters’ housing and kitchens had been razed, but then reconstituted in even more transient form–beds have been made inside the water pipes that are now being installed. signs of life: shoes, mosquito coils, and makeshift offerings. when i asked one of the women salvaging plastic wrapping from the site, she said that the settlement had been razed just this week. two more permanent fixtures remained–a pink shrine and a 42 stall traditional outhouse. the outhouse seemed relatively clean; perhaps it has been built in anticipation of the work teams that will soon move onto the site.

this is the second time this month that i have stumbled upon housing arrangements that have been hidden in plain sight on the border between housing built on the reclaimed land and newly reclaimed construction sites. just three weeks ago, while walking near the western corridor bridge, i came across a squatting settlement. the small pup tents were located along a sidewalk that was temporarily out of use due to construction. however, a hill and mounds of dirt in the reclamation site kept the settlement out of sight. i only came across them because i jumped the temporary barrier that had been installed, while a more permanent; it seems easier to go through concrete one was being built.

during a brief and admittedly superficial engagement with the other three anthropological subfields, i took several archaeology courses. i didn’t understand the joy of finding bicuspids, nor did i fantasize about going off to dig up the remains of lost civilizations. i did, however, like the idea of theorizing a life out of garbage, which william rathje initiated in 1973 with the tucson garbage project and popularized in 2001 with the publications of rubbish! the archaeology of garbage.

one of rathje’s points is that there are discrepancies between what we say we do and what are garbage reveals that we do. i’m not terribly interested in catching people lying; it seems unnecessarily stressful to constantly assess the degrees of truthfulness in any statement. nevertheless, i think that garbalogy might be useful when looking at how shenzhen has razed and continues to raze squatter settlements. officials maintain that shenzheners are building one of the most modern cities in china. the promise of modernity includes the promise of material comfort for all residents. however, the garbage that this process generates includes neighborhoods, family homes, and migrant livelihoods.

i like thinking about houhai through garbagology because it makes facts about squatters’ lives immediate and visceral, stubborn. it is difficult to talk one’s way around the image of a child who cut his head playing near his mother’s salvage cart. indeed, that child’s life measures the degree of truth in any statement about how globalization has been beneficial for shenzhen.

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