thinking food: images from the houhai overpass, 2002-2010

this post is a brief contextualiztion of  china lab’s  landgrab city exhibition for the shenzhen-hong kong biennale 2009. the exhibit draws attention to the the ways that cities are imagined without reference to the countryside and food production. it also usefully brings china into international conversations about urbanization.

The countryside is a vital but frequently overlooked category in the contemporary discourse around spatial policy, and its role with respect to the future of urbanism is more often than not neglected. Landgrab City is an attempt to visually represent the broader spatial identity of the 21st century metropolis; it proposes a new spatial definition of the city and thereby a more complex understanding of urbanism, one that no longer considers city limits as the boundary of its remit, but instead looks beyond – even across international borders – to the spatial, social, economic and political implications of the planet’s rapid urbanization.

i support efforts to think about food – its production, distribution, unequal consumption – are all critical to how shenzhen is imagined, experienced, and reproduced. nevertheless, this exhibition disturbs me because it discusses shenzhen as if the city were one wealthy enclave, rather than an amalgamation of enclaves -rich, poor, and destitute, which abut and constantly disrupt one another.

shenzhen has sold itself and reform in precisely the terms that china lab uses to describe the city’s “reality”. unfortunately, by taking shenzhen’s self-promotion as fact, rather than promotional fantasy, china lab overlooks  how rural migrants inhabit and  transform shenzhen. this silence distresses me because the spatial, social, economic, and political consequences of shenzhen’s modernization are not implied; they are facts of life for many migrants.

so a very simple point:

In reality, of course, these agricultural territories are not actually clustered around Shenzhen, as in the installation, but scattered across China and contiguous regions.

counter point: a five minute walk from the land grab project, agrarian squatters have persistantly grabbed, evacuated, and reoccupied  a portion of the houhai land reclamation area to grow food, which they eat and sell. the differences between overpass then and now are now are instructive because they illustrate both the persistance of shenzhen’s rural poor as well as their increasing destitution.

the map below locates the land grab project with respect to several generations of agricultural squatters at the houhai overpass.  pictures of the squatters and their gardens, here.

the houhai overpass is located at the intersection of houhai and binhai roads. in the map, the squatter areas are located in the southeast quadrant of the intersection, coastal city in the southwest, and the land grab in the northwest. these areas are roughly a five minute walk from each other. in the map, the blue areas used to be underwater; the brown areas were not.

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