So, I have been catching up on the Shenzhen documentary, 沧海桑田：深圳村庄30年. After setting the historic stage with rural poverty and economic immigration / cold war defection (episode 1) and then national policy (episode 2), the documentary turns to specific villages both to illustrate general trends in SEZ history and to introduce the players. So today, 渔民村 (Yumin Village – episode 3), at the heart of the earliest reforms.
Yumin Village has an important place in both national Chinese and local Shenzhen symbolic geography for three reasons, but most importantly for revealing the prejudices built into the landscape, locally, nationally, and internationally.
First, the name “Fisher People Village” indicates the ongoing smoothing of local hierarchy and integration of Dan households into first Baoan County and then the city. Yumin Villagers are ethnically 蛋家 (Literally “Egg Households”), the group of South Chinese fishermen who did not have land settlement rights. Helen Siu and Liu Zhiwei have written a wonderful account of “Linage, Market, Pirate, and Dan: Ethnicity in the Pearl River Delta of South China” (Empire at the Margins: Culture, Ethnicity, and Frontier in Early Modern China, p 285-310), which outlines discrimination against Dan. “Transformation of Shenzhen Villages” simply mentions that historically local governments did not permit Dan to wear shoes when they came ashore, to use red lanterns at wedding ceremonies, to marry land villagers, or to participate in the imperial examination. Under Mao, the Dan given land from Caiwuwei Village (location of Baoan County headquarters), moving onshore (渔民上岸), to build homes.
Second, Yumin Village was one of the first villages to take advantage of reforms, but not in the form of the Household Responsibility system, but rather as a collective. In 1979, village head Deng Zhibiao organized the purchase of tractors to build increase the size of Yumin fish farms by converting all unused land into fisheries, increasing production from several to over 100 mu. According to Deng Zhibiao’s calculations, at the time one mu of fish produced several thousand yuan. Within a year, the village had saved enough money to collectively build 2-3 story private homes as well as factories. Yumin Village thus had the distinction of being the first “10,000 yuan village” in the country. Indeed, when Deng Xiaoping visited Shenzhen in 1984, he was taken to view the small 2-3 story houses that the villagers had built and shown their modern parlors, complete with tvs, curtains, and new furniture. In news reports about Deng’s 1984 Southern Tour, Yumin Village was mistaken for the area’s “original settlement” and the myth that Shenzhen was once upon a time a small fishing village embedded itself in future reports about the city.
Third, Yumin Village’s location meant that they were positioned to develop rental properties for the massive influx of Shenzhen migrants. Even as Deng Xiaoping was pushing through reforms to the 14 coastal cities, Yumin villagers were razing the original private homes and putting up 6-8 story handshake buildings to take advantage of the opportunity. Over the next 15 years, rent kept coming in and land value increased. Consequently, in 2,000 when Luohu began to negotiate village renovation with Yumin Village the stakes had been raised significantly. At the end of the process, 2004, Yumin Village was an upscale residential area, under a single village owned property management company. The area had eleven 12-story buildings and one 20-story multi-purpose building. Each village household was given 30 units within the new complex. The episode ends on this celebratory note of how Yumin Village and villagers successfully became urbane in the transition from rural poverty through relative enrichment and then ugly handshake greed to high-rise landlords.
Despite cheesey music plays throughout the interviews, the older villagers stories are moving because they are clearly grateful for how reform and opening changed the material quality of their lives. That said, the documentary’s ideology is clearly neoliberal, celebrating private property as the means of achieving happiness as if giving villagers more property and higher rental returns somehow has made local people more, rather than less accepted by the general Shenzhen population. And that for me is the two-fold crux of the matter. Socially, material possessions are merely symbols of relative worth; at its cruelest, poverty manifests our disregard for each other’s well-being. Individually, material possessions only bring happiness to the extent that they enable us to live meaningful lives; to think otherwise is to confuse means and ends.