home, tianmian garden

home, tianmian garden
Originally uploaded by mary_ann_odonnell.

I realize that I’ve spoken about inhabiting Shenzhen without actually taking about where I live. I’m not sure if this evasion was deliberate or simply the result of habits—research is other than my quotidian reality, even if I write myself into the story. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t taken pictures of Tianmian, the village/development where I live, but have thought about the actual story being elsewhere, in the anywhere but here mode of ethnographic inquiry, which, I’ve come to suspect, is tied up in the throes of middle class American angst about standing still when I should be moving on (to something better, of course). Certainly that impulse, even more than an affinity for things Asian, propelled me out of high school and into China studies.

Today’s project then is to sit and think about Tianmian.

An urban village, Tianmian is located next to Shenzhen’s Central Park, west of the Shanghai Hotel. Throughout the 80’s and most of the 90’s, the Shanghai Hotel marked the western edge of “downtown”. The Luohu Train Station, a main crossing point into Hong Kong, marked downtown’s eastern border. However, since the mid-90’s, development has moved west and with it the city’s center, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the edges between downtown and the rest of the municipality have blurred. Once considered part of the “suburbs”, Tianmian is now prime real estate, being located just west of the new City Hall Building (the old building was located east of the Shanghai Hotel) and a ten-minute cab ride from Huanggang, a recently opened crossing point into Hong Kong.

It is important to understand that Tianmian encompasses a wide variety of folks and livelihoods. In this, Tianmian is highly representative of Shenzhen, although at a smaller scale than in Longgang and Baoan Districts, where the villages retained much more land than did villages within the SEZ proper (Nanshan, Futian, Luohu, and Yantian Districts). Millennium Oasis is a high-end housing development, where established professionals and their families live. Interestingly, many of these are extended families, who either live in the same condominium or have bought condominiums in the same building (older sister lives on the fifth floor and younger on the seventh, for example). New Tianmian Village includes the Village’s factories, mid-level housing development (Tianmian Gardens), and the New Village proper. These constitute the basic livelihood of all Tianmian villagers, who have stock options in both the factories and Tianmian Gardens, where young professionals and working families live, again many extended families here in a smaller space than Millennium Oasis. The New Village condos/apartments are the cheapest to own or rent. Many singles live there, as do friends who have pooled their money to move in together. Each of the buildings in the New Village belongs to one of the village men and it provides revenue that is independent of collective resources.

I’m not sure how many people live and work in Tianmian, but there are approximately 670 units (9 buildings) in Millennium Oasis, 780 units in Tianmian Gardens (5 buildings), and 2,048 units in the New Village (63 buildings). There is also a dormitory associated where Tianmian factory workers live. I live in Tianmian Gardens.

I first came to Tianmian in 1996 to interview the developers, who subsequently became good friends. The government requires developers to build a kindergarten and school as part of the development. Once the school has been built, the developers can choose to either give the school to the state to run, or to run the school themselves. My friends chose to run the school themselves. Part of the curriculum included an emphasis on English. They originally hired a teacher, who for various reasons, didn’t come. Subsequently, they asked me teach until another teacher could be found. That was four years ago. The first year, I thought it was a temporary arrangement. I left to take a visiting position at the Rhode Island School of Design and maintained my research affiliation with Shenzhen University. However, when I returned two years ago, I had signed a three-year contract with the school, where I am now vice principal in charge of internationalization. Crudely, internationalization includes reforming the English curriculum, setting up programs with international schools in Shenzhen, and implementing an English language curriculum in the High School.

Sometimes, I think my trajectory from conducting research to setting up a school is very Shenzhen, where folks pride themselves on being practical rather than idealistic. Before I came to the school, my friends joked that I was wasting myself at the University, especially as everything was happening outside the (increasingly porous) University walls. I also recognize in it a disconnect between my research style and that of the US Academy, where I managed to obtain visiting positions, but never a tenure track appointment; I grew tired of looking for the next job. Yet my husband lives and works in Shenzhen. My friends live and work in Shenzhen. One day I realized that I wanted to commit to being present to those lives. So I stayed.

In my personal map of Shenzhen, Shenzhen University has symbolized my attempts at ethnography. From 1995 through 1998, the University was my base while I conducted fieldwork for my dissertation. I have taught there and continue to return for seminars and to meet with friends to talk about our various projects. The University also symbolizes a particular way of being in the world—moving from one academic appointment to the next, placing that ambition in front of everything else. In contrast, Tianmian has represented another impulse, one to settle, to come home after years of always moving on. It is not simply that I have resided here for the past two years, but that Tianmian is where I settled. Please visit.

13 thoughts on “home, tianmian garden

  1. I am so glad that you posted this. I am an architect and I studied Urban Design at Columbia University (NY). I am living temporarily in Shenzhen and I am doing a research on the Tianmian Village. It is the first post that helped me understand a little bit the urban fabric of the village and its social consistency. Hard to reach data in China and also to communicate with the locals as they do not speak English, your post was critically useful for me. I saw that you will be offline till Aug 20th and I will be in the city till July 23rd. Your knowledge on the field is so valuable for me and I would really appreciate if I could learn more from your research in the early future.

    • Hi Elena,
      I’m sorry that we didn’t have a chance to meet in person. Please let me know what specific kind of information you are looking for and I will try to help. Also, I’m curious; why Tianmian? Best,
      Mary ann

  2. Hi, I’m an architecture student in Hongkong university and i’m conducting a comparison research between the regeneration and adaption of some specific site.Tiamian is actually the urban village site in SZ due to its tends in reusing the factory plants and characterizing in brandind itself as ” culture village”. But during my last site visit the people in the joint corporation didn’t want to offer the data and old photos before the renewal and the villagers seemed to be afraid of interview.I’m wondering if i can learn something from you. Thank you

    • Hi Jan, yes, I’d enjoy talking with you. What exactly are you trying to find out? How did you go about doing interviews? I’m curious about how you have structured your research.

      • I’m trying to find out first of all the percentage of villagers which are immigrants and if they are immigrants to what extent to they approve the village as their home.And since the government is trying to add a feature to the redevelopment of the urban village and I also saw the so called “creative industries” at the entrance of the village.But to what extent are they related to the villagers urban life?Do the villagers actually get involved in the industries or they are separate part. I’m trying to figure out when the village is regenerated with a full package of supermarkets,schools, creative industries,do they indeed become a more conserved and self-maintained community or if the boundary of the village is blurred into the city.

  3. i’m actually comparing it with the macaurthur park neighborhood regeneration in Los Angeles which actually opened the village to the neighbouring park and by adding urban life in the park to the community, the immigrants in the community has more feelings of belonging into the city.I’m just wondering if this kind of approach is more suitable than adding features to the urban villages and enhance its identity as” village in the city “

  4. And i tried to talk to the people range in different ages and also the shopkeepers and the people who still leave in the original low house to ask about if regeneration of the village made their life quality better and what’s the actual deal in the regeneration like during the construction of the new living units where they live and are there any bursary,and if the village is now run by the government or the joint coporation? But they seem reluctant to talk with me with just answering” I don’t know, ask the manager” or” we are new, we don’t know anything” so….there wasn’t much to talk about.Maybe they are just afraid of getting into trouble.

    • Hi Jan, your project seems interesting and important for your community in LA. However, in terms of a research methodology in China, I’m curious about why you chose Tianmian. One of the tricks of the anthropological trade is sometimes called “rapport”, which roughly means that your interlocutors trust you and understand (in some way) that your research also matters to them. How much time have you spent in Tianmian getting to know the residents? Have you spent time hanging out in public places and getting a feel for the rhythm of public life? Or, are you part of a group that is trying to help Shenzhen migrant workers? In other words, what links you to Tianmian other than your research question? Without trust or a common goal, people who live in Tianmian have no reason to talk with you about their lives. In my experience, the most efficient way to get strangers to talk about their lives with you is to have someone introduce you; friend chains will probably yield more interesting conversations, than just walking up to someone and talking with them. Especially in the context of renovating the villages, rent, and what not.

  5. Thank you for the advice However, the school only scheduled one day for the site visit for some general information.it’s just my personal interest to go into more depth in the research.For Tianmian, it’s more about it’s location near the central axis “shennan road” and the park that makes it a more interesting and comparable site with my other site in LA.It’s just interesting to compare city with similar structure having similar problems of housing and how they deal with it.Maybe I won’t have time for shenzhen before the final handin. But I’m still curious do you have any your own information about my previous questions since you can also fall into my category of “immigrant”:-D~Thank you

  6. Actually, my most interest is if the creative industry plants activated or involved the residents in the Tianmian new village in or there are just located there for a “face project” of the government.According to your experience, do you have any opinion on that?

    • Hi Jan, your question is too broad to answer. So I will reframe and answer. First the question of who is a resident in Tianmian New Village is based on property rights. There are three kinds of property rights in Tianmian – building ownership; shares in the collective business holdings; and rentals. Residents are those who have village ownership, shares, or some kind of combination there of. Their status and concomitant property rights are based on pre-Reform membership in the village. Gender is also a factor. Housing rights were usually given to sons and grandsons, however, in cases where all the children were girls, daughters may have been given housing rights, with the stipulation that the property stayed in the village holdings (but that’s true for sons as well). Shares in Tianmian Inc were distributed based on contribution to the village economy, which again included gender and age bias because “contribution” was measured by “responsibility”, which in turn was usually given to older men. Renters are just that; people who rent an apartment or a commercial space from a villager. Importantly, Tianmian Inc also has collective property (Tianmian Garden) which is managed for the collective by a property management office. Ownership and profits from these rentals are based on an individual’s investment in the development. Now, about the converted factories. The factories are the primary source of collective wealth; shares in Tianmian Inc include dividends from the profits generated by production in the factories and now in the design/office spaces. So, is it a “face project”? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that when the government shifted its development focus from industrial manufacturing to creative industries, village enterprises were required to shift production accordingly. No, in the sense that this is still a source of village wealth. What I don’t know is whether or not villagers have taken a collective loss because of the shift in production emphasis. I do know that rents in Tianmian are relatively high because of the area’s convenient location. For a more theoretical introduction to the issue, check out Jonathan Bach’s article, “They Come in Peasants and Leave Citizens,” (CULTURAL AN THROPOLOGY, Vol.25, Issue 3, pp.421–458.) Hope this helps, Mary Ann

  7. Hi Mary Ann
    I am a teacher of Year 2 children (aged 6 turning 7) and when we return to school after this holiday break we will be doing a topic for the Chinese New Year and encorporating it into our curriculum topic in which we have to investigate the local area around our school ie Green Oasis School in Tianmian. We would like the children to learn about how life in Tianmian has changed over time including what the buildings were like, how has transportation change etc and would love someone to come into school to chat to the children and they could ask them questions. Is there any chance that you could be that person or do you know someone who could do it for us? We would be very grateful and the children would love it.

    I look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Kind regards

    Trish Fiddy

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