haunting images–houhai land reclamation

I’m having difficulty thinking about these images. I took them about two and half years ago with my first digital camera, which wasn’t a high resolution instrument and for some reason the fuzziness of these pictures bothers me. I look at them and see “unreliable camera” rather than “artsy interpretation”, but that perhaps is part of the point of this post (that and the dangers of alliteration.) The challenge of documenting Shenzhen has been not simply that the place in question constantly changes or even that that how I see Shenzhen has also changed, but the moral, political, and aesthetic evaluations that I make about these changes have also been twisting themselves into new and often unrecognizable forms. One of the more immediate consequences of all this change (or at least my most pressing concern du jour) is that it’s often difficult to squeeze those past images into today’s project, which (if I’m honest) is more often than not what happened when I was distracted from what I thought I was doing in the earlier photographs.

To contextualize subsequent musings about images of land reclamation in Shenzhen, it might be useful to check out two other sites. First, the scale of these changes can be grasped by watching the time-series satellite images of environmental transformation in the Pearl River Delta. As the image zooms from a picture of the world toward Shenzhen, you will note that the municipality is located in the southeast of China, just north of Hong Kong. (Future posts will include much about the various border crossings and ideas about connections, contacts, and enforced exclusions, for the moment, however, I’m sticking to the point of land reclamation. Although, I do wonder about the point of a post in which most of the information has been placed in parantheses…) Second, you can look at a more detailed map of Shenzhen. (This map is in Chinese. I haven’t yet found a decent English map of Shenzhen on-line. If you, gentle reader happen to know of one, please let me know. Also at this site, you can view a version of the 1996-2010 Shenzhen Urban Plan.) There are six districts in Shenzhen: (from east to west at the Hong Kong border) Yantian, Luohu, Futian, Nanshan and (from east to west just north of these districts) Longgang and Baoan. The Nantou Penisula juts out into the Pearl River in the western region of the city (Nanshan District), just south of the airport (there should be an icon). If you zoom in, you will see the area that has been designated for reclamation. The western passageway linking Shenzhen to Hong Kong is also noted on this map (it should be finished sometime next year).

Now the question that haunts me is “other than measuring change, (which the folks at NASA seem to be doing quite well), what’s the point of these images?” Is change in and of itself what’s interesting? Or is the point the goals we think we’re pursuing through efforts to direct (inevitable) change? What does it mean to witness transformation? In these earlier pictures, I was interested in the scale of change, the kinds of inequality that I saw as coming into being with the new landscape, the leveling of the coastline, and the incongruous placement of a desert, where there had once been oyster and big-head fish farms. I’m still interested in these issues, but they are now differently encoded in the landscape. It is more difficult to find traces of massive land reclamation because most of that work is done. Those who visit Houhai today encounter real estate developers, newly laid roads, and Mangrove Park, a lovely coastline park, while the squatters that once occupied the land created out of buried fish farms have been pushed elsewhere. What’s more, much of the undeveloped land has been either cordoned off into construction sites or hidden behind imported topiary.

Perhaps I’m trying to say that these images capture something that no longer exists today. These displacements–of people and fish and water and earth–constitute an invisible history. Yet this invisibility is different from the invisibility of bikes and bikers, where I had learned to see them but not register their presence in my world. Here, the invisibility of those other landscapes has to do with absences, deliberately created or not. Buried fish, unlike harried water deliverymen, will not crash into my consciousness as I walk to school. The previous coastline is gone. I pose a teapot on a bench at the new border, which from a distance, looks almost like the old border, which is itself a measure of the relative economic states of Shenzhen and Hong Kong. (In a nutshell, Shenzhen’s booming and Hong Kong has settled into slow growth.) A story of death, in other words. Or perhaps, more acurately a ghost story. Shenzhen haunts me. And that’s the rub. As an anthropologist, I have been trained to write dissertations, not ghost stories. I look at traces of past encounters with Shenzhen, these pictures or hastily scribbled fieldnotes in deteriorating notebooks, and have difficulty thinking about them. But thinking may be the problem. Watching Houhai, I have learned both the unreliability of documentation and the sadness of witnessing what still feels like needless destruction. Is this sensibility itself the ethnographic object?

A friend and poet, Steven Schroeder has taught me much about the intellectual rigor of story-telling. His poem, “Fish” written after a walk on reclaimed Houhai, poignantly evokes these ghosts and their fragile existence. Thank you.


dying, gasp
at the bottom of the air
for water.

City, rising
on dry bones, gasps
at the bottom
of heaven
for air.

For more of Steve’s poetry, please visit his site.

One thought on “haunting images–houhai land reclamation

  1. Pingback: houhai / xuefu rd | Shenzhen Noted

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