九街:an ethnographic post-script


remnant gateway to the xin’an fairy town walking museum

one of the earliest articles i published was “becoming hong kong, razing baoan, preserving xin’an: an ethnographic account of urbanization in the shenzhen special economic zone” (cultural studies 15(3/4), 2001, 419-43). i argued that hong kong appeared in shenzhen urban planning as both the origin and telos of modernization. as origin, hong kong capital, know-how, and connections jump-started manufacturing in shenzhen. as telos, hong kong’s glossy skyline provided a model for urbanization. at the same time, contemporary hong kongers were integrated into guangdong society through narratives of hometown and tradition; according to this story, everyone in shenzhen and hong kong were all descendants of xin’an county natives. in this way, hong kong was inscribed into the history of the prc and hong kongers into local history.

hong kong was originally part of xin’an county, and this fact shows up in hong kong histories. however, xin’an county ceased to exist as an administrative unit of guangdong province in 1913, when the nationalist government renamed it baoan county. consequently, histories of shenzhen identify baoan as the city’s rural predecessor. thus, various levels of shenzhen government have found it necessary to stress the common spatial origin of the two cities precisely because hong kong and shenzhen have distinct temporal origins.

at the time i was writing up those earlier fieldnotes, the slippery twists of socialist nostalgia fascinated me. a shared origin – xin’an county – structured this nostalgia, where hong kong’s postwar history (1950-1979) became the past that shenzhen (rural baoan) would have had, if not for cold war politics that isolated the county from global markets. indeed, locals offered hong kong’s prosperity as evidence that socialism had delayed modernization in shenzhen. in order to prove that xin’an county was the origin of both shenzhen and hong kong, it was necessary to engage in acts of historic preservation – at the tianhou temple in chiwan, the pengcheng fortress at daya bay, and old nantou city.

in anticipation of the return of hong kong to chinese sovereignty in 1997, the nanshan district government collaborated with an overseas chinese investor to restore some buildings in “nine streets”, creating a walking museum. nine streets is the contemporary name for nantou, a market town that had been the xin’an county yamen. nantou was the yamen where, after the conclusion of the first opium war in 1842, representatives from the qing and british empires met to sign the papers that made hong kong island a crown colony. indeed, nantou was the xin’an county seat for roughly 600 years, from the ming dynasty until 1953, when the communist government moved the county seat to shenzhen market, which would in turn give its name to the new special economic zone in 1980.

the idea behind the walking museum was to demonstrate the historic links between shenzhen and hong kong. thus, for example, the nanshan district government designated nine streets the nantou old city (南头古城) historic area, which was the actual name of the market town. in contrast, the museum was called xin’an fairy town (新安故城). ironically, the gateway for the museum still looms in front of the nantou city wall.

from the museum’s opening, few people came to explore the restored pawnshop, opium den, brothel, gaol, and yamen. instead, most went to the restored temple to guandi (关帝), the god of wealth to burn incense and pray. at first, the temple was explicitly used as the gateway to the museum, and visitors could purchase tickets there; museum staff tolerated but did not encourage supplicants. however, nine street residents soon dominated temple and, during my latest trip to nantou, the museum had closed and the temple had a resident monk who was reading fortunes in the god’s shadow. rooms that had once held exhibitions about shenzhen and hong kong’s common history had been transformed into alcoves for new gods.

another historic transformation: when i was doing the research for that long-ago paper, i had been unable to gain entrance to an old orphanage, which had built by italian missionaries at the turn of the 20th century and was located in jiujie. however, on this trip, it was possible to visit because it had become the center of the patriotic catholic church of shenzhen. the deacon lamented that the church had been razed and they were now using the orphanage instead. i was struck by the building’s similarities to macao’s churches.

i invite you to take a walk through nine streets, once upon a time the yamen of xin’an county. note that the temple was moved outside the city wall in order to attract visitors. museum designers also intended to make the old ming-era gate the first element of the walking tour.

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