Back in Shenzhen

After two and a half months in North Carolina, I’ve finally returned to Shenzhen. My first photo opportunity was, not unexpectedly at Shenzhen University, where I first came in 1995. At the time, University lands abutted the bay, and oyster fishing families lived on the strip of land between the University wall and coast. I remember walking along the path and looking out toward the horizon where dump trucks hauled earth to build what is now the Binhai Expressway. Later, I learned that the entire western coast was being transformed through the Houhai land reclamation project.

Today, I came upon Shenzhen University’s new South Gate, which connects the University to Houhai Road. Carved into the land, the gate formalizes this space, makes it part of a larger pattern, when before it had been a wild border, unkempt, untended, with tendrils of purple flowers bursting open. As I walked, I remembered this space ten years ago when fish gasped the last drops of water left. Five years ago, I crawled through a hole in the temporary fence that separated the Houhai Road construction site from the campus, clay oozing into my shoes. I also remembered walking past the frame of a demolished building and thinking I should get a camera and take a picture—document the transformation, not simply being a kind of anthropological imperative, but an attempt to inhabit this space.

Lately however I’ve been wondering about my fascination with Houhai. Indeed, Houhai has been one of my favorite haunts. I visit regularly to see what has changed and what I still am able to re-member as another housing development or shopping mall rises. Yet, I don’t spend any time systematically investigating the actual construction of Houhai. I haven’t tracked down the engineers who planned the project and don’t intend dig through the various urban plans to track the discrepancies between planned and actual land use. I’m not sure if I even want to theorize about the meaning of globalization or environmental reconstruction from what I’ve seen of Houhai.

Instead, I seem compelled to pick my way through the mud and take pictures of cranes and transported dirt, the remnants of squatter housing and the lush vegetation that flourishes whenever dust is allowed to settle. I am obsessed with how the Houhai land reclamation project continues to encroach on my cognitive maps of the world and my place in it. And perhaps there’s rub. I don’t know how much of myself I can hold onto as memories that were once constituted through another landscape have already been razed. Two new pictures from the transforming border between Shenzhen University and Houhai are up at: The picture in the corner is for reference; I took it over three years ago from more or less the same place.

You can also visit houhai ghosts, a previous entry that shows these changes even more clearly:

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