Lake Fengze

Two days ago, I jumped on a 234 and made my way to Lake Fengze, which sits between a small chain of mountains and the Northern Loop. Along with developing real estate on land reclaimed along Shenzhen’s southwestern coast, developing real estate along the Northern Loop represents a sizable chunk of construction within the SEZ.

Before I wax poetic about the size of the construction sites and the magnitude of the city’s vision, a bit of geography is perhaps in order. Imagine a giant bird, stretching its wings for flight. The mythologically inclined have identified this bird to be a roc, and nicknamed Shenzhen, “Roc City”. At any rate, the city lies just north of the Hong Kong, joining the New Territories on a strip of land between Huanggang (in the west) and Wenjingdu (in the east). This area might be thought of our bird’s breast. The roc’s western wing extends into the Pearl River Delta, its tip at the Nantou Peninsula. From Nantou, one soars north to Guangzhou. The roc’s eastern wing juts into the Pacific Ocean, its tip at Nan’ao. From there, one heads north to Chaozhou.

Given the importance of river trade to China’s pre-modern economy, and that of the Pearl River to South China’s economy, folks living on the western wing have traditionally been better off than those living on the eastern wing. Indeed, this inequality seems to have constituted the area’s political-economy and cultural geography for at least a millennia. On the one hand, for roughly 1,000 years, the county seat was situated at Nantou, while Nan’ao was home to relatively poor fishing villages. On the other hand, Cantonese speakers, who remain culturally hegemonic in Guangdong Province, have occupied the western lands, while Hakka speakers have inhabited the eastern tip.

The construction of the Canton-Hong Kong railway in 1913 began to unmake this cultural geography, shifting wealth and influence from the western wing to the breast. The railway enabled the British to bypass Guangzhou and transport goods from the Mainland to Hong Kong, where they controlled the harbor and shipping. The first railway station on the Mainland side was Shenzhen Market. It bears mentioning that these two different forms of spatial integration produced two kinds of cities, riparian cities and colonial ports, which depended on the railways (there by shifting control from folks along the rivers to whoever owned the railroad). That is two say, the Canton-Hong Kong railroad was a means of redirecting wealth from Guangzhou (a riparian city) to Hong Kong (colonial port). Shenzhen emerged as part of this spatial reordering of China’s traditional political-economy. Nevertheless, until the early 1980s, when Reform and Opening completely altered the area’s demographics, this demographic distribution held more or less true: relatively wealthy Cantonese in the west, relatively impoverished Hakka in the east. These groups seem to have mingled on the Roc’s breast, where Cantonese and Hakka villages abutted one another. (For the classic analysis of urbanization in imperial China, check out G. William Skinner, “Marketing and social structure in rural China, Parts I, II, and III”. Journal of Asian Studies 24, 1 (Nov. 1964): 3-44; 24, 2 (Feb. 1965): 195-228; 24, 3 (May 1965): 363-99.)

So, historically two forms of transportation have connected what is now called Shenzhen to Guangzhou, the most important urban center in the Pearl River Delta region for 2,000 years (give or take). The older form of transportation was by water, connecting Nantou to Guangzhou. Significantly, villages with rights to the banks of the Pearl River also had small docks from which they could set sail. The younger of the two forms of transportation is the railway, which Hong Kong to Guangzhou by way of Shenzhen. In 1953, when the newly established government transferred the county seat from Nantou to Shenzhen, they acknowledged the growing importance of the railway for integrating the political-economy that would come to define socialism in the PRC.

The construction of superhighways at Lake Fengze represents an intensification of the political and economic integration enabled by both riparian and rail transport. Since the establishment of Shenzhen, the development of infrastructure has been central to the construction of the city. Indeed, on both the western and eastern wings of the roc, the city has built ports that are capable of handling large amounts of containers and combined, their capacity exceeds that of Hong Kong. Moreover, better rail lines have been put in place, although they are now used primarily for transporting human beings. However, the main thrust of development has been constructing roads that link previously isolated villages and market towns both within Shenzhen and to Guangzhou and Hong Kong. (For example, Nantou used to be an hour’s bus trip from downtown Shenzhen, in the belly of the roc. With the opening of Binhai, it’s now a twenty-minute express ride.)

From western to eastern wingtip, three main arteries integrate Shenzhen. The first developed was Shennan Road, which runs between Delta waters (in the south) and the Meilin Mountains (in the north). Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Shenzhen semis, trucks, and private automobiles rumbled along this one road, hauling products and persons to the Hong Kong border crossings at Wenjingdu, Luohu, and Huanggang. Small, often single lane tributary roads funneled these same products from Market and village enterprises. In the early 1990s, however, construction on Binhai road and the Northern Loop began. Binhai road was carved out of Delta waters; it is the mainstay of the city’s land reclamation project (for a partial intro to the land reclamation project, see: ).

The Northern Loop has been carved out of the mountains; it is part of an attempt to make useful land that had previously been given over to orchards. The expression “moving mountains to fill the sea”, which usually refers to the land reclamation project also points to the razing of the Meiling Mountains. From an airplane, one can see huge tracts of flattened land. Up close, when driving along the northern loop, one can see dump trucks lined up to haul the rocks and dirt to places in need of landfill. (Although this scene was much more common ten years ago, the level of construction is still quite remarkable.)

Designed to increase the volume and velocity of road traffic, these new and improved roads radiate out of Shenzhen in every direction—not only to Guangzhou and Hong Kong, but also toward Huizhou, Meizhou, and Chaozhou. Within the city itself, the single lane tributary roads have been widened and it is not uncommon to see semis lumbering between the remains of palm tree orchards and upscale housing developments (that take advantage of the natural beauty of former agricultural lands). Shenzhen and Hong Kong are cooperating to build the Western Corridor, which bridge the Pearl River and link the cities in the West.

Yet the historic geographic political-economy dies hard. At the national level, a colonial product of railways and ocean port shipping, Shanghai has emerged as the country’s dominant port city. Indeed, port cities have fared better than inland cities, most of which were established when riparian transportation integrated China’s regional economies. In Shenzhen, specifically, the eastern wingtip continues to be relatively poorer than the western wingtip.

In the late 1990s, the City designated a new urban district, Yantian to actively promote tourism and manufacturing to develop the eastern part of the city. One of the first projects completed was a four-lane tunnel through Wutong Mountains, which provided a natural barrier between the roc’s eastern wing and its belly. However, even with state of the art roadways, tourism and manufacturing have not been as compatible as planners might have thought. On the one hand, Shenzhen residents enjoy spending their weekends on the beaches in Yantian, the most beautiful in the city. In the evenings, they go to Yantian to dine on fresh and cheap seafood. On the other hand, the new district has not only encouraged the construction of factories, it has built a large, international port. And it is not unusual to see cars full of beach towels and umbrellas caught in a traffic jam with semis. More obviously, however, is simply the difficulty of dividing a finite strip of coastline between shipping, manufacturing, and leisure activities.

Why does all of this roadwork matter? Or perhaps the question might be phrased: what makes these contradictions so poignant?

Shenzhen was built with an eye to integrating China into world capitalist exchanges. Yet in order to achieve the kind of integration sought, China has also had to reconstruct the urban order of things. In places like Shanghai and Guangzhou, this has entailed an intensification of historic geographic inequality. In contrast, in Shenzhen, globalization has predicated a transvaluation of that same inequality—it is the first new city to challenge the hierarchy of Chinese cities. In this sense, Shenzhen is a new kind of Chinese city, admittedly built out of old landmarks and geographic habits, but nevertheless quite different than its predecessors. Unlike in Shanghai and Guangzhou, where the urban elite are very often the decendents of that city’s historic elite (whether traditional or communist), in Shenzhen the nouveau riche are exactly that: a new group of elites, who thirty years ago didn’t expect to be where they are because they knew their place in the older order. More importantly, Shenzhen’s elites have risen out of the construction of this environment. In building the city, they have constructed themselves as a new kind of Chinese subject.

For a look at Lake Fengze roadwork, please visit:

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