海湾村: land locked futures

The Transformation of Shenzhen Villages (沧海桑田深圳村庄30年), Episode 9: Haiwan Village tells the story the Nantou Peninsula and the reclamation of land in Houhai (the southern coast facing Hong Kong) and Qianhai (the northern coast facing Guangzhou). This was the platform from which Hong Kong entered China and Baoan villagers once launched themselves to Hong Kong.

During the Mao era, Wanxia Village was divided into two production brigades, one land based for agricultural cultivation and the other water based for oyster farming. Eventually, the Wanxia Oyster Brigade was renamed Haiwan Brigade, creating two administrative villages through the division of one natural village. This division points to the importance of production — rather than history — in defining Maoist administrative units, especially in rural areas, where villages were integrated or split depending upon production needs. Importantly, however, these administrative categories were not naturalized in the same way during the early years of Reform and Opening, when some administrative villages re-instituted traditional boundaries while others did not. Haiwan retained Maoist status and began building village level factories.

Access to the sea shaped village demographics, with a population gap of people, ages 45-65 who escaped to Hong Kong in the last large flights in 1968 and 78, respectively. Nevertheless, traditional land rights enabled Haiwan to prosper. In addition, we learn from an older, Cantonese-speaking villager that Haiwan Village is an Overseas Chinese village, with many descendants scattered throughout the world with village association buildings in the United States and Hong Kong, representing support, ranging from monetary to knowledge to investment connections. The village has also maintained its identity through traditions and ritual that centered on a small Tianhou Temple.

Watching this episode, I suddenly realized something that was clearly obvious to the filmmaker: Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour coincided with the establishment of guannei villages as stock-holding corporations and urban neighborhoods. In other words, the second tour did result in new policies or breakthroughs as they are known. My a-ha moment was in seeing the connection between politics and the radical restructuring of the south china coast.  The episode ending rhetorically juxtaposes images of Wall Street with Houhai, asking if Shekou can become the next Manhattan. The question is illuminating not for its booster-hype pretensions, but rather because it clearly reiterates the primacy of investment and real estate over traditional livelihoods such as oyster farming. In such a world, insofar as the sea becomes a factor in determining property values and not an independent source of value, reclaiming the sea makes good business sense.

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