Woody Watson’s forty years on the other side of the border

I’ve just finished reading James Watson’s piece “Forty Years on the Border: Hong Kong / China” and am struck by the ongoing creation of national culture throughout the area, even before the establishment of the SEZ and concomitant migration deepened this trend. Consider Watson’s description of the Lok Ma Chau Lookout:

Stretched out in front of us is a meandering, muddy creek that constitutes the border, or what the British called “the Frontier.” On the south side, in the British zone, is a set of three, steel-link fences, topped with barbed wire. One hundred yards back from the fence are gun emplacements for Gurkha troops. Land Rovers filled with Scots Guards and the Black Watch drive by, along single-lane roads. British regiments are in full battle garb; weapons are on loaded and ready.

On the north side of the Shenzhen River, in Chinese territory, one can see bright red political banners hanging on drab commune buildings. Through binoculars I read the following slogans:

“Support our Vietnamese Brothers!”

“Long Live Chairman Mao!”

“Down with American Imperialism!”

As far as I know, national slogans and politics came with the zhiqing; locals were more interested in eking out a living or sneaking genealogies (and themselves) across the border. And, as the Cold War thaws, the border not only softens, but also teaches the desire for urban rather than rural lifeways. From a Shenzhen story about the border:

When Wu Huoqi visited his hometown, Nanyuan Village (in Futian District), he is reported to have sighed regretfully and said to his kinsman, “Weitai, you’re a Communist Party cadre, you do socialism (gao shehuizhuyi); you’ve done it for several decades and what’s the result? I’m not going to mention anything else, just this alley – isn’t it as decrepit and dirty as ever?” As reported in Shenzhen, Huoqi’s critique renders Weitai speechless because “He [Weitai] staunchly objected to saying that socialism was bad, but Huoqi spoke the truth. The alley really was as muddy and dirty as it had been several decades before (Zou 1991: 119).”

Thus, as Watson notes, kinship has played an important role in bringing capitalist know-how and investment back into the SEZ, which in turn, further contributed to the urbanization of the area and the dwindling relative importance of local culture.

Indeed, it bears remembering that Shenzhen, like Hong Kong is an immigrant city and locals (as opposed to Shenzheners and Hong Kong people) often find themselves excluded from changing definitions of urban belonging, their wealth and history notwithstanding. In other words, an unintended side effect of the socialist border was maintaining kinship and single-surnamed villages as important social structures. As the border has dissolved, however, so too has local society given way to new forms of Mandarin cosmopolitanism, even in Hong Kong:

There are many signs of disappearance and absorption: Mandarin speaking taxi drivers and shopkeepers are now found everywhere; this is a dramatic change from 1997. Hong Kong now supports a virtual flood of mainlander tourists, whereas in the past only a handful was admitted each month. Residents of the Shenzhen SEZ can get easy, quick visas for Hong Kong (they no longer need to return to their place of permanent residence to apply). Today there is fierce job competition in all Hong Kong professions from Chinese university graduates (much to the irritation of local university graduates.) Meanwhile, Hong Kong universities are fast becoming national centers of education; instruction in Cantonese is disappearing rapidly, while English and Mandarin are encouraged among recently recruited faculty. And, as Rubie Wason shows in her recent research, mainlander mothers are crossing the border to have their babies — babies that are essential to maintain Hong Kong’s fertility rate, which is perhaps the lowest in the world (Watson 2010).

“Forty Years” was published in the Research of Note section of the Fall 2010 edition of ASIANetwork Exchange. As of this writing, the Fall edition is not yet online, however, as all other volumes are, I suspect in the not distant future it will be and those interested can read about the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border from the other side, before Shenzhen was Shenzhen. In the meantime, the other volumes are worth perusing.

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