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.