Although my last entry about Bitao Alley focused on one architectural manifestation of globalization in Shekou, the most famous architectural sign of Shekou’s march to a global future is in fact the Minghua luxury liner.
Over twenty years ago, the Shekou People’s Government bought the Minghua from France and docked it in the port. At the time, the Minghua floated and Chinese guests had a sense of embarking on an international cruise. In 1984 Deng Xiaoping boarded the Minghua and, pleased with what he saw, wrote the four characters for seaworld (海上世界), which now grace the ship’s entrance. Throughout the 80s, the Minghua symbolized exotic consumption. Western restaurants and shops sprung up in the area around the ship; this is today’s Seaworld Plaza. However, by the 90s, the Nanshan District, Houhai land reclamation had spread along the coast, landlocking the Minghua. The ship fell into disuse and the newly created land next to it was turned into a golf practice field. At the turn of the millennium, Seaworld Plaza underwent an international facelift and the Minghua was restored as a luxury hotel and restaurant.
For Chinese visitors to Shenzhen, Seaworld Plaza is an important destination. They buy foreign knicknacks at kiosks, take their picture in front of the Minghua, and sometimes enjoy a foreign meal. Next, they walk along the ocean walk to take their picture with Nuwa, who saved humanity by mending heaven. The ocean walk is now also landlocked, but before, Nuwa stretched into heaven, the ocean at her feet. I confess that the mythological turn confuses me, not that I’ve asked anyone involved with the project what it once meant. According to legend, Nuwa first sutured the rent in heaven and then cut off the feet of the great turtle to support the four pillars of the universe. She also stopped the flood that had surged through the rent and finally drove away fierce beasts that had taken advantage of the chaos. Clearly a heroine. But I’m not sure what she’s mending in Shekou. The ocean? Communism? The separation of Hong Kong from the Mainland? Whatever the wound, landfill now stretches way past Nuwa, creating a new coastline and new room for the development of beachfront property.
The Minghua illustrates how spaces of sanctioned consumption have provided legitimacy for the globalization of Shekou. In particular, globalization has arrived as the consumption of Western culture. The beached luxury liner anchors the western restaurants and stores of Seaworld Plaza through the promise of global consumption. Indeed, for many years, Chinese tourists rented binoculers and looked toward Hong Kong across the water.
A friend once warned me against buying beach front real estate in Shekou, where, “Just as soon as they sell the last lot, they start over again, creating a new coast line.” Recently, however, Shekou’s newest coast has been turned into an upscale beach community, that echoes the western style of Seaworld. Unlike earlier homes that were built to entice western businessmen, these homes have been built for Shenzhen’s white collar workers, who now expect and enjoy a material standard of living often higher than that in Europe or the United States.
The irony, of course, is that the factories which have enabled consumption elsewhere in the world are a block away from Seaworld Plaza. There too one finds housing and urban villages that were built in the 1980s, when the Minghua floated. And that’s perhaps the point. These factories were to provide and ultimately did provide the means of Shekou’s globalization. Like the Minghua, these once-necessary buildings fell into disuse and disrepair in the 90s. Unlike the Minghua, however, these buildings were once sites of manufacturing. Today, they are one by one being rennovated to facilitate new forms of consumption as manufacturing gets pushed out of Shenzhen into Dongguan, which has recently appealed to me more and more. Someday soon I’m going on a photo-trip to Dongguan and look forward to reporting back. Until then, I invite you to take a tour through and around Seaworld Plaza, Shekou.