渔一村:of old men and the landfilled sea

Yesterday’s bloggy romance with the sea continues and although I have shifted my gaze from Cuba to Shekou, it is worth mentioning that the writers’ emphasis on masculine conquest continues; today, in episode 8 of The Transformation of Shenzhen Villages (沧海桑田:深圳村庄三十年), Chen Hong tells the story of Fishing Village 1 (渔一村), Shekou. Again, the story begins in a village, but this is also where similarities between the two narratives end. Hemingway figured human life through the isolated figure of an old man navigating the Caribbean on a rickety skiff and superstition. In contrast, Chen Hong figures humanity through the construction of ports, trading ventures and the world-making connections that they enable, suggesting that the opportunity to launch one’s skiff is itself a political decision which once made determines the fate of villagers. For those who remember the 1988 television documentary, River Elegy (河殇) which linked China’s decline and ultimate humiliation to the Ming decision to ban maritime activity, a not-so-subtle critique of Maoist isolation, Chen Hong’s passion for the sea and the [free trade] world it symbolizes is self-evident.

Episode 8 opens by juxtaposing images of Ming and Qing trade centered on Guangzhou with pictures of the construction of Shekou, reminding viewers that Zheng He (郑和) set forth from or loaded supplies at Chiwan Port at least five times. Lest the viewer forget the consequences of isolation, the opening sequence ends with bleak, black and white footage of a backwater port, overgrown and clogged with weeds, small wooden boats berthed in stagnant waters. Boom! The first explosion opens the door to new world order, which is also, new village order.

Traditionally, the villagers of Fishing 1 weren’t actually villagers but individual fishing families who lived on boats, coming onshore to sell the day’s catch. Families came from all over the Pearl River Delta forming a community through their livelihood, rather than through ancestry or even a common version of Cantonese. However, in 1959, the political decision was made to organize them as a brigade (生产大队). They were 90 households with a total population of 450 people and settled as four small production teams (小队) in Nantou, Gushu, Neilingding Island, and Shekou. The Fishing Brigade worked to modernize the fleet and in 1978 during a meeting on scientific production, Hua Guofeng actually gave the brigade a first place award. Indeed, at the beginning of Reform, the Brigade had 69 ocean fishing vessels, 72 transport ships, and 18 oxygen boats that fished the South China Sea and Pearl River Delta bringing in fresh seafood for Cantonese dishes and by 1992, had accumulated enough capital to invest in modern industrial deep sea fishing vessels.

From 1978 through 1986, the Fishing Brigade lived the socialist dream, which was a traditional Chinese dream; the men fished, going as far away as Guangxi, the women kept house, children went to school and had medicine, and all ate in a common canteen, where the work team provided delicious food, including squid and shrimp. The system was called the 8 provisions (八包). However, by the late 80s early 90s, the scale of urbanization and land reclamation meant that traditional fishing areas had been contaminated and fish breeding grounds buried, and it was impossible to continue living from the sea. Suddenly, the advantages of the sea declined as property values soared and Fishing 1 faced a contradiction that many other villages would eventually face — what to do when urbanization decimated the conditions of traditional livelihood?

Once the sea was gone, Fishing 1 had no way of making a living because it did not have any land, except for that which the government had given it for housing in 1959, including a section on Neidingling Island, which Fishing 1 decided to develop as a resort and in 1992 as part of the guannei rural urbanization movement, the Fishing Brigade became the Fishing 1 stock holding corporation. However, after Fishing 1 had already invested their accumulated capital and borrowed against the development, Shenzhen and Zhuhai began a court case over who actually owned the island. Traditionally, the Island belonged to Zhuhai. However, in 1955, the Center had assigned Neidingling to Baoan, but no one could actually prove whether or not the transfer had gone through until 2002, when a copy of 1955 decision was found. In 2009, the Guangdong Provincial government finally ruled in favor of Shenzhen’s claim to Neidingling Island. However, the case raged long enough to impoverish Fishing 1 as the joint stock corporation/ fishing brigade/ village could no longer fish and except for Neidingling had no other traditional land rights. Indeed, by 2009 when the case was settled, Fishing 1’s deep sea fishing rights had already been bought out by China Merchants, which in turn sold them to Wanxia, one of Shekou’s original land-based villages.

And so here’s the neoliberal twist in Chen Hong’s story of old men and their vanishing sea: Fishing 1 re-entered Shenzhen urban planning as part of the Together Rich Project (同富裕项目), and over the past decade restructured and invested elsewhere: an industrial park in guanwai Gongming and fish breeding farms in Zhanjiang, for example. In addition, the Municipality organized training for fishermen to learn new skills. Nevertheless, the members of Fishing 1 have not only been proletarianized over the past 30 years, but are still paying off one of the debts that fueled Shekou’s growth. After all, Fishing 1 had no rights to any of the coastal property developments that enriched both China Merchants and neighboring Wanxia Village. Instead, Episode 8 ends with exhortations — from the Municipality and from the filmmaker — for individual development and initiative, ironically and inexorably returning us to Hemingway’s sea, where old men struggle feed themselves because they have been isolated by .

For more on my obsession with Houhai Land reclamation, more entries, here. A wander through the earliest Shekou landmarks, including the Shekou and Neilingding fishing families settlements, below:

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