good bye urban village, hello middle class

The ideological consolidation of Shenzhen’s middle class identity continues. Of note is the subtle repositioning of urban villages as sites of upward mobility that have outlived their social usefulness, rather than as the home village of local people. This is particularly interesting because efforts to map Shenzhen’s cultural heritage through the history of local villages have also intensified.

At the OCT B10 Gallery, for example, the Zeus Cultural Communication Group has installed a photography exhibition “Goodbye Urban Village (再见城中村)”, which was part of ceremony to celebrate the commencement of production on an eponymous film. As a company, Zeus specializes in filming large-scale documentary films and documenting engineering projects and “Goodbye Urban Village” will document urban renewal projects in several Shenzhen urban villages.

The images have been mounted in various formats — actual printed photographs, large wall posters, and backlit windows. The content of the images, however, is consistent: the daily life of urban migrants. In the forward to the exhibition catalogue, Zeus CEO Zuo Li provides the ideological gloss for exhibition visitors, “The truest moment in any urban village is that everyone who has made the leap here – man or woman, elder or child, is arduously struggling for a better tomorrow (城中村里最真切的落点,是每一个跃动在这里的身影--男女老少都在为明天艰辛地努力着)”.

Zuo Li’s gloss highlights two sites — migrant bodies and architecture — where new discourse about urban villages semiotically parses them into two, distinct elements of Shenzhen identity — rural migrants and local heritage.

With respect to the representation and ideological construction of a stereotypical urban villager, urban village residents are identified as migrants, who have come to pursue the Shenzhen dream of a better life. A series of portraits literalizes this understanding as young workers pose next to a sign in which they have written their job, salary, length of time in Shenzhen, and dream. These scenes of everyday life relentlessly publicize what in middle class homes are kept private. We see, for example, people sleeping and eating, children playing and urinating, friends playing cards, local security apprehending someone, and prostitutes resting.

Concomitant with this fascination with the display of “real life” in the urban villages is the marked absence of images of Shenzhen locals. This absence is particularly glaring when we remember that as recently as five years ago, photographers still took pictures of village holidays, ceremonies, and festivals to include in discussions about urban village life. Today, those images have been naturalized as local heritage and appear in magazines, travel blogs, and, of course, the Shenzhen Museum.

With respect to the representation of urban villages as human settlements, the urban village environments that are presented are decrepit and dank, and the images overwhelmingly dark, except for moments of muted color. Indeed, many of the pictures frame the human subject with handshake building walls and the garbage that hangs from overhead wires. Again, absent from these images are recent renovations, such as those at Xiasha or Huanggang, where village ancestral halls, temples, small parks, and plazas provide the historical links between contemporary Shenzhen and “ancient” or “traditional” China.

Extant urban villages place middle class Shenzheners in an ideological conundrum: on the one hand, Shenzhen’s rise continues to represent the fulfillment of rags-to-riches dreams. On the other hand, many of those who are now rich want to take the rags out with the trash, cleaning up the environment. The social justice question, of course, remains does cleaning up the environment mean making urban villages sites of clean, convenient and affordable housing? Or, does cleaning up the environment mean transferring urban village land rights to real estate developers and forcing residents to less convenient sites outside the downtown area?

The representational choices made in the Goodbye Shenzhen photography exhibition ellide the important question of the place of (or a place for?) urban poverty in Shenzhen. Instead, they reframe migrant dreams of a better life as being already realized in the anticipated jump from neighborhoods of handshake buildings to those of glass and steel.

In keeping with the theme of exploring the ongoing rise of Shenzhen’s middle class identity, it is interesting to view this show along with the Kojève exhibition in the OCAT Contemporary Art Center. The most obvious difference is the respective intended audiences (OCAT has translated its program into English, while Urban Villages has not). However, at the level of content, the two shows are uncannily similar. OCAT offers Kojève’s photographs/postcards of post-historical spaces and Urban Villages provide realist documentary of Shenzhen’s anticipated past. In both exhibitions, we find ourselves positioned to look at what no longer exists.

The urban village photography exhibition will be up through Saturday September 29. Kojève will be up through November 16.

6 thoughts on “good bye urban village, hello middle class

  1. This is a very interesting account. Really enjoyed reading this piece. Fascinating to find how images are selectively depicted to deliver certain messages that render urban villages as something of the past…

    • Hi Hyun, yes, it’s amazing how quickly our social categories shift and become something else. When I first came, urban villages were called “new villages” and a point of pride. Now they are “urban villages” and thought of as something close to slums.

  2. hey,

    one question: we’re going to visit shenzhen next month, because of a field trip with university. are there still existing urban villages in shenzhen and is it possible to visit them?

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