shenzhener identity, reconsidered

This post about razed Shenzhen childhoods is inspired by an ongoing conversations with Melissa and several other post-80 young women (80后女性).

Melissa came to Shekou in the early 80s, attending elementary and middle school before going abroad. As I have indicated in other posts, Old Shekou and Old Shenzheners were different. Melissa was part of the Old Shekou group, those who came with China Merchants to establish the Shekou Industrial Zone between the years 1978 to 1988 (the year of the Shekou Tempest). In contrast, “Old Shenzheners” were those who came to build Shenzhen in the early 80s, when “Shenzhen” referred to the area from the Dongmen commercial area to the Shanghai hotel (at the western border of Huaqiangbei).

To paraphrase Gregory Bateson, the differences between an Old Shekou family and an Old Shenzhen were differences that have made for different lives. Melissa’s story is that of growing up with the Shekou spirit, which was progressive and liberal. I have written much about Shekou because Old Shekou people hoped to build a new society and it was, if anywhere in was in Shenzhen, Utopian. In contrast, Old Shenzhen (especially through Liang Xiang) has been more explicitly associated with the rise of the city’s explicitly materialist cultural.

Nevertheless, despite the opposing ideological significance of 80s Shekou and Shenzhen, I’ve spoken to several young post 80s women with similar life histories – came with parents to Shenzhen / Shekou in the 1980s, read books in parks, went for walks along the beach, enjoyed the city’s clean environment and small population, and did a lot of studying in high school before leaving for college (either abroad or Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou).

Interestingly, all speak of the same 近乡情怯 experience, which seems to have started as an inarticulate feeling toward the end of the 1990s and has grown into an expressed and discussed sentiment in the new millennium. The Shekou / Shenzhen that they remember are very different from the contemporary city. Shekou in particular has become a vexed symbol of past dreams. Today, Shekou is relatively backward, but more importantly has been absorbed into the surging mass of urban Shenzhen. At the same time, the city’s parks are smaller and more exotic (how many imported palm trees does one city need?), the skies are grayer, and the streets are now considered unruly enough that families don’t feel comfortable allowing middle school daughters to wander off by themselves. In other words, these post 80s women, whether they still live in Shenzhen or elsewhere, speak of a growing alienation from the city.

Ironically, their’s is precisely the generation that many once predicted as who would be true “Shenzheners” – people who identified with the city, rather than with their hometowns. People who would have an unproblematic relationship to Shenzhen as their “hometown”. This was in fact the generation for whom the city was built.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, the city has used the built environment to represent itself, its accomplishments, and the meaning of modernization. However, these young women don’t identify with all those tall buildings, even if they do enjoy the city’s comforts. What seems to have happened is that instead of identifying with the built environment (all our skyscrapers) these young women have instead identified with the values that Shekou and Shenzhen once represented — progressive social institutions, liberal education, and redefining the meaning of being “Chinese” — and today use those values to critique the city. Unlike others who emphasize that the city has succeeded in meeting and often surpassing world development standards (those pesty economic indicators), these women see that Shekou and Shenzhen have betrayed / forgotten/ discarded the social (or “spiritual”) promises of their establishment.

A sobering critique, indeed.

I am currently reading 深圳往事 by 谢宏, a local born and raised in Shenzhen. He writes a fictional account of how the urbanization of rural Baoan shaped the lives and possibilities of young men. I have also been talking to post 80s men about their experience of growing up in Shenzhen. I am wondering how critical gender is to this feeling of 近乡情怯 because men have been positioned to be the primary agents in the commercialization of Shenzhen’s culture.

Please join the conversation.

3 thoughts on “shenzhener identity, reconsidered

  1. You may wish to take a look at ; I posted a couple of comments on Shenzhen’s chief urban planner Sun Huashen (and link to an interview he gave). If you scroll down in the gallery of images, you will arrive at Weng Fen’s iconic images of Shenzhen as a highly fragmented cityscape, viewed through the eyes of very hesitant young women who are quite weary of entering and taking possession of such a space.

  2. I’ve enjoyed your writings for some years now, especially since I once lived in Shenzhen.

    When I lived in Shenzhen, I noticed that even if the schools taught Mandarin, many families still spoke their hometown languages among themselves. One time I was at a friend’s family’s apartment for a celebration, and as guests arrived, the languages multiplied. With me people spoke English and Mandarin. With some other guests they also spoke Mandarin. A large number of guests conversed in standard Yue. One high-school-aged girl met her mother at the door when she arrived and immediately switched to what sounded to me as another uique language. My friend explained to me that they were speaking a Yue dialect, but it was one she herself couldn’t understand very well. Many of the other party guests, like my friend and her siblings, were first-generation Shenzhen (if you can call them that). Most lived in the Old Shekou-Nanyou-Nantou areas. It seemed to me, though, that language will still identify them as being from their parents’ hometowns, rather than being from Shenzhen.

  3. TH, thank you for connecting me to Weng Fen’s images.

    Jen A, the question of language is fascinating. Yes, many children speak hometown dialect with their parents and grandparents. However, in my experience, 2nd generation Shenzheners are bilingual in much the same way that many second generation Americans are – parents’ language with parents and elders, but Mandarin (or English) with everyone else. The only second generation children I’ve met who speak their hometown language consistently and out of preference are from Guangdong and the language is Cangonese. Most others prefer to use Mandarin even when they are fluent in Cantonese.

    I have also found that even though 2nd generation Shenzheners are bilingual, they do not necessarily identify with their parents’ hometown culture. Instead, they pick and choose from home and Shenzhen and yes, from abroad, to create something new, which is distinctly “Shenzhen”. In many ways, hometown identity among this generation functions as it does in the US; it’s a cultural resource that different people use in different ways at different levels of intensity. Moreover, this generation seems to have inherited from its parents a future-orientation; they are not as interested in where they come from as they are in where they are going and how to get there. Thus, this generation strikes me as creative and ambitious, again in ways that are interesting mixes of hometown values, tradition, and the possible forms of internationalism that Shenzhen has provided them.

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