This afternoon I walked along Huanggang Road, which runs along a north-south axis, from the Hong Kong border (at Huanggang) to Shenzhen’s North Loop road. The North Loop connects up with Buji (one of Shenzhen’s manufacturing centers, located just beyond the SEZ’s border in Longgang District) and then on to Guangzhou by way of Dongguan. Although less well known than Shenzhen and Guangzhou, Dongguan is a major manufacturing center.
The point is that everyday, hundreds of semis pass back and forth along Huanggang Road, hauling containers full of goods from Shenzhen, Dongguan, and Guangzhou and then returning from Hong Kong for another load. I’m told that with turn around time at the border, its possible for drivers to make two trips a day. These containers are then loaded on to ships in Hong Kong and shipped throughout the world. (Just last week, I led a group of Shenzhen students on a study trip to England, where they amused themselves looking for souvenirs “made in China”.)
The drivers are licensed in both Hong Kong and Shenzhen, although the trucks are designed to drive on the left side of the road, British style. They rumble past housing developments from about 6 a.m. to midnight. At rush hour, they make Shenzhen’s already clogged streets even more impassible, squeezing traffic into the safety lanes and causing more impatient drivers into mid-stream k-turns to get off Huanggang Road. Bikers continue to weave fearlessly through the mess.
I have had difficulty representing these semis because they stretch beyond my line of sight, precluding a total image. Yet up close, they seem formless, sheets of metal that are themselves the reason the horizon stops just off the sidewalk. When not forming an inadvertent convoy, they growl past pedestrians, shaking the earth and burping up carbon monoxide. Commuters, waiting at Huanggang bus stops, cover their noses and mouths with their sleeves or handkerchiefs; some wear surgical masks, which they remove once on the bus.
It is at this level, that “global flows of production” have become tangible to me. I have been to the ports, where containers pile one on top of another, and have read reports about so much tonnage a year passing from China to the world by way of Hong Kong, but those figures remain too abstract. Crossing the street, inhaling carbon monoxide for several blocks, listening to the engines rev—these have made visceral the feel of mass production, the ways in which manufacturing, importing, and exporting goods are not simply a matter of economy, but also choices about the kind of world in which we want to live. The containers moving along Huanggang Road constitute my backyard.
These images of claypot on Huanggang Road remain awkward, out of balance, and I think its because my claypot and even three semis do not belong to the same representational scale. Reason enough to re-consider the world being made in China; my life plays out at claypot scale (in a manner of speaking) and yet I am trying to imagine, understand, and evaluate a world in which thousands of containers, semis, and ships pass by daily. If I can’t make this imaginative leap from where I am, what can I know about this world? More to the point, to what extent does the irritating lack of balance in these images actualize more than a cognitive inability to grasp where I am, but rather the impossibility of making semis part of a human world?