magic moments

shenzhen buses have televisions, which broadcast pre-recorded programs which coble together news reports of major events (such as the expo in shanghai), as well as produced clips of famous skits (小品), imported western comedies (home video moments of children jumping and cats in baby carriages), strange competitions (in which restaurant staff compete to set a banquet table the most quickly), and top ten music video countdowns (which are often repeated and always interrupted midway to announce bus stops).

i understand these programs to be negotiations of the tension between ongoing propaganda campaigns (it was on a bus that i first heard of the campaign to conserve water in shenzhen, for example) and approved-yet-profitable popular culture (the buses also provide advertising blitzes for movies and pop singers). that is, these bus programs are useful indications of both what the party thinks shenzhen people should be thinking and what actually engages shenzhen people’s minds. consequently, when these programs added clips of magic tricks – card tricks, woman sawed in half tricks, vanishing boat tricks, multiplying cheer leader tricks – to their programming, i began wondering about when and why the manipulation of appearances had become so popular in a city that is explicit in its support for and origin in science.

[side note: shenzhen was an explicit realization of the four modernizations. as such, it has used scientific (科学) to describe what in the u.s. we would call “rational” as in “rational development (科学的发展)” and “rational management (科学的管理)”. “scientific” is also a term of commendation, as in: she does things in a rational/scientific way (她做事很科学).]

so what follows is speculation on why magic in shenzhen, now.

there seems to be a connection between interest and magic and a desire to control worlds that exceed what we can grasp – in all senses of the word. shenzhen used to be a city that was small enough that inhabitants could imagine themselves as changing it. moreover, how the city operated was more transparent, if for no other reason that there was nothing in place except what was being built. the tangible accessibility of urban construction enabled one to feel part of the change, rather than simply caught up in the rush. in other words, i’m wondering how popular interest in magic points to a distancing – an abstraction – an increased alienation that residents feel from the ongoing re/constructions of the city.

shenzhener identity used to be intimately connected with the construction of the city; as the city’s urban form has stabilized is it harder to imagine oneself as part of the history of this place? i ask as someone who never built anything in shenzhen but remembers when it was easier to understand (perhaps only viscerally?) what was happening around me. now things change (as abruptly) without me actually seeing what is going on. in magic shows, its all about the appearance of the object; we don’t actually see the work.

[side note: how much of my fascination with houhai is part of my desire to see how the world is changing, rather than simply stumbling unaware and unprepared to already changed – mysteriously transformed – places?]

in addition to the construction of the city having moved further from everyday life (walking through a construction site on the way to work, for example), shenzhen’s economic base has also become more intangible as manufacturing has been replaced by financial, research and development, commercial and service industries.

previously, we could see how shenzhen worked. there were factories churning out toys and radios and computers and container truck convoys on the main roads. today, most shenzhen money gets made off site (manufacturing in dongguan) and out-of-sight (stock prices rising and falling), while remnants of previous manufacturing have been shifted to baoan and longgang, while shipping containers are hauled on specialized arteries, rather than main roads [yes, there used to be container trucks trundling down shennan and huanggang roads!] i’m wondering how much of these beyond site/sight production encourages magical realism as a form not only of pleasure, but also understanding.

i also wonder if the use of the expression “mysterious / godlike (神)” was an earlier indicator of the ongoing reification of and concomitant alienation from the city. at the turn of the millennium, i noticed that people who could do things that no one could do were described as “神”. a clear example occurred during the sars quarantine of shenzhen university, when students without special badges were not allowed either on or off campus. however, there was one former student, who had no badge and did not know any of the guards, but who walked on and off campus without any problem. the rest of us were stopped, our badges checked, and if we didn’t have a badge, we were not allowed to cross the checkpoint. indeed, some students took to crawling over walls and cutting through chain link fences. however, rongbing passed through every single checkpoint without question. this behavior was regularly described as a result of him being “神” (他那个人很神).

and how far is it really from divine intervention to magical moments?

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