Old Shenzhen

Last Friday, took friends on an almost tour of Shenzhen — almost because the tour was planned, but then it rained and so we drank coffee instead and talked about what we would have seen… Anyway, here’s the point. I mentioned some of the “really old” areas and when asked, “how old?” answered, “25-28 years.” And the reply was, “Hmm. That’s not old in Europe.”

It’s not old in Shenzhen either. There are Ming Dynasty ruins to be walked in Zhongshan Park, next to Nantou (or Jiujie) and there are traces of 1,000 years of salt and oysters to be pursued; archaeological digs suggest pre-historical human settlements in the area. However, in terms of post Mao reforms, 1980 architecture is as old as it gets and the first compounds were not finished until 1981-82. 

Indeed, technically speaking, the first generation of Old Shenzhen is pre 1986; the second generation arrived before 1991ish and; after the 1992 Southern Tour, it’s all new Shenzhen, in a manner of speaking. In fact, within the Old Shenzhener generation, there is a minor division between those who came in 1982 and before, when the actual work was putting in infrastructure (the civil engineering corps in Shenzhen and China Merchants in Shekou) and those who came to work between 1983-1986. And between 1989 – 1992, there was an interesting influx of what might be called “Tian’anmen refugees”, who looked for and found alternative jobs in the SEZ and Shekou.

Why does this dating matter?

It matters because in retrospect, “Old Shenzhen” refers to pre-Tian’anmen efforts to transform society and not just rev up the economy. In contrast, after 1992, Shenzhen not only became increasingly neo-liberal, but institutionalized these changes with administrative restructuring, which included incorporating Shekou and bring New Baoan County into the Municipal apparatus (as Baoan and Longgang Districts). Thus, “Old” Shenzhen refers not only to long ago, but also to a previous generation of progressive dreams.

Architecturally, 2010 Shenzhen was very, very different from its 1992 incarnation, even as Shenzhen 1986 and 1992 were architecturally quite similar. However, in terms of political ideology, today we live in the after effects of the Southern Tour; 1986 was another world.

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