华强北:constructing progress

located in futian district, 华强路 (huaqiang road) is the name of the central axis of the area known as huaqiang north. the area itself is bordered by yannan road (east) to huafu road (west), and hongli road (north) to shennan road (south). importantly, the southern border of shennan road with its strip of postmodern glass and steel buildings is often included in the area. with dongmen, huaqiangbei is one of the two most important commercial areas in the city. it has an area of roughly 1.45 square kms and according to futian government online, as of april 25, 2006 boasts over 700 shops, averages 500,000 visiters per day, and generates 26 billion net sales rmb per year. catic, the chinese aviation bureau and major huaqiangbei investor has uploaded a flash picture of the huaqiangbei skyline (looking east) to celebrate the area’s economic vitality. and the commercial interests in huaqiangbei have opened their own webpage.

we have come to a reader be warned moment: telling this history frustrates me because i end up feeling like i understand the general process, but have missed all the details. the problem of course is that i suspect the story is to be found precisely in those lost details. indeed, i don’t know if the details can be known. in part, my doubt springs from the lack of reliable books and information on the web. the early years of shenzhen simply weren’t systematically documented. in 1995, i went to the city’s 15th anniversary exhibition at the shenzhen museum, but it was a celebration of the present, rather than an investigation into the past.

moreover, with all the different governments moving from one building to another (part of the huaqiangbei story below), stuff got misplaced. i once tried to gather pictures and documents from the 80s, but was told either the pictures weren’t taken or the papers lost in a move. the thing is, i don’t believe i was simply being kept at bay to protect state secrets. what got boxed and moved is around here somewhere, but… i understand. i too have lost papers and documents in moves from one office to the next. i also believe my interlocutors when the tell me that in the early 80s there wasn’t time to take pictures; they worked long hours and moved from one job to the next. also, its sometimes hard to remember that over 25 years ago, there weren’t all that many personal cameras in shenzhen, and so people tended to take pictures of people and places that mattered to them.

i doubt the availability of relevant details because (given the lack of documentation) they can only have been carried in the hearts and minds of the people who were actually there. even allowing for the instability of human consciousness, these events are scattered accross the population, rather than located in one neat spot. so, no matter how many people i talk to, i feel i’ve missed something.

i also feel outside the historical loop because the process itself remains counter-intuitive to me, in the way that football does. so even when i do meet up with someone who can tell the story, i’m not always sure what to ask or, more importantly, how to ask it. now, i have chinese friends who can memorize levels of government and rankings as easily as my brother remembers footbal statistics. in fact, not a few have patiently gone through the system with me, two of them several times. but still i need to lay things out and look at organizational charts before i understand what i’ve been told and then i find myself feeling about it the same way i feel about my brother’s statistics. i realize it matters to him, i appreciate the time and effort that went into cultivating that kind of knowledge, i even understand why someone would want to have that kind of knowledge easily available in any conversation. but, political ranking isn’t my game.

all this to say, i realize this history is important. i’m trying to figure out why the space itself fascinates me, but the history doesn’t. it may be that i’m interested in a different kind of history, smaller, more persoanl and intimate. it may also be that at the level of generalities, i’ve heard this story all too many times. i once heard a reknown sinologist say that research was boring because marx had already outlined the process; been here, done that. at the time, i was outraged. how can it be the same? how can people’s lives be boring? but i have come to hear that comment as a comment on the limits of knowledge. we do reduce everything to generalities, and then are surprised when we don’t find anything new. so if i could find another way to approach urban rankings it might fascinate me.

by shenzhen standards, huaqiang north is an old area. and, like most of the city did not start out as either a commercial area or an administrative unit within a district government. indeed, the history of huaqiang north not only anticipates many of the transformations happening in other parts of the city, but also illustrates the neo-liberal vision of progress: through hard work the people have moved from working in factories through owning commercial properties toward wheeling and deeling in international finance. what’s more, this vision is not simply futian district’s plan for the huaqiang north area, but rather a scaled-down version of the overall plan for shenzhen, which has called to transform the economic base manufacturing to higher value-added production in real estate and financial services. the critical point, which is glossed over in the neoliberal account, is that those working and those benefiting aren’t always the same people. economic growth and expansion hasn’t meant that every shenzhen immigrant has worked their way out and up of relative poverty; many factory workers are still factory workers; many factory owners are now stock brokers.

also, like other places in shenzhen, the history of the area has resulted from complex negotiations between different interests, none of which fall into neat categories. a brief history of those interests:

when the central government first elevated baoan county to shenzhen city in 1980, it did not immediately redristrict the lower levels of government. this meant that although shenzhen city now existed, it was placed on top of a rural administrative apparatus. in an ordinary chinese city, administrative levels are: city (市), district(区), street(街道办事处), and neighborhood(居委会). at the time shenzhen replaced baoan county(县), but beneath it were communes (公社), large and small brigades (大小队). the large and small brigades corresponded to administrative and natural villages (行政村、自然村), respectively.

crudely, one of the main purposes of the new city government was to transform rural administrative structures into urban structures. in previous entries, i have focused on the structural position of the new villages within shenzhen, in this entry, i want to look at the new urban structures which replaced the villages. what is interesting is to keep in mind the dissolving and restructuring of economic units within the government. specifically, although shenzhen has been heralded as a place where state-owned industries constitute a small percentage of actual businesses, it remains the case that the most lucrative businesses are linked to the government either directly or indirectly.

the earliest shenzhen plan was approved in 1982. in it, shekou was set up as an independent industrial zone (another fascinating history of 1980 experimentation). in what would become downtown, the plan identified about 50 square kms, stretching from the wenjindu border crossing in the east to huafu road in the west. within this area, land was appropriated by urban work units that were then responsible to develop the area according to the plan. the area that is now know as huaqiangbei was originally part of the shangbu industrial area.

the organizations that came included the former national electronics ministry (电子工业部), the weapons ministry (兵器部), the national bureau of aviation (航空局), and the guangdong provincial bureau of electronics (广东省电子局). each was given the authority to negotiate for a tract of land on which to construct electronics factories. of course, this included putting in the infrastructure necessary to run this factories. nevertheless, the project took off and by 1986, the shenzhen municipal and guangdong provincial governments brought these companies together to form the shenzhen electronics company, which was named saige electronics (赛格电子集团)in 1988.

a bird’s eye of huaqiang north bears traces of this history, where the tracts of factory buildings stretch across the landscape:

first attempt to restructure the area was in 1998, when the municipal government invested 45 million rmb in infrastructure for huaqiang road to build better sidewalks, install better street lighting, a large screen, more electrical wires, and benches for resting under imported palm trees. these investments transformed huaqiang road into a pedestrian friendly strip of large malls. according to the above mentioned futian government online statistics the government’s investment stimulated 1.2 billion rmb commercial investment in the larger area.

visit huaqiangbei.

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