The other day, while showing a group of visitors the Goodbye, Urban Villages (再见，城中村) exhibition, one asked, “Well what will they do about it?” meaning what will the residents do to prevent the forced evictions?
He, from Western Europe, was grappling with the question of democracy (or not) in China. She, from Hong Kong answered saying, “They don’t do anything because they can’t. That’s what it’s like here.”
Our visitors seemed to have settled on a variant of the local intellectual script, A Hong Kong Resident Explains Shenzhen to a Westerner, so I found relief speaking with someone from Beijing.
He commented, “The artists in Shenzhen seem really pure.” I laughed and answered, “That’s because there’s no market for art in Shenzhen; it has to be a hobby (爱好) [literally something done from love].” He smiled, “All we have in Beijing are markets because everything’s for sale.”
As a group, we then moved on to the Kojève exhibition, which is a bit too pure art for my taste, but nevertheless provided enough common ground that the conversation turned to light and pleasant topics.
In retrospect, I have realized that what irritated me about the visitors’ response to Goodbye, Urban Villages was that it had been a variation on a constant theme — contempt for Shenzhen and by extension for those of us who live here.
Intellectual Westerners, who dabble in romance languages, but have never heard of Shenzhen will ask me, “Will you live here, forever?” the unsubtle emphasis underscoring the fact that migrants and their displaced families will not stop the united forces of government and state-owned real estate developers from razing the handshake homesteads, low end eateries, and improvised bicycle repair shops that flourish on the sidewalk. I understand that elsewhere these might appear as insurmountable contradictions, but… and here I pause rather than answer a question that has set me up either to defend what I clearly oppose or to agree with the unspoken contempt in the question. Instead, I point out that no one lives forever.
Likewise, young Hong Kong students who do not cross the border except to purchase books and older aunties who come for sauna and massage will ask me, “How can you live there, is it safe?” and then advise me to move to Hong Kong. Yet others lecture me on the truth about Shenzhen — it is dirty and corrupt and teeming with mafia types who cannot be arrested because they’re in cahoots with governments — this they have learned in Hong Kong newspapers and from their Hong Kong relatives. I understand that many of their foreign friends may have just recently heard of Shenzhen, but… and here I pause rather than answer a question that has set me up either to play the innocent foreigner abroad or to instruct Hong Kong Chinese on what it means to be Mainland Chinese. Instead, I point out that I am still alive.
And there’s the rub: These pauses are difficult to cultivate. On bad days, find myself skeptical of good intentions so poorly phrased that the tone of my response may range from biting to sarcastic, amplifying the contempt with my own. On good days, I treat these questions as possible moments of mutual enlightenment, taking this speech at face value: they do not know and want to learn. Most days, however, I turn pedantic and finish my sentences, trying to make my interlocutor see — not just the political mess and entrenched despair, but also to observe the efforts some are making, and the care that some have brought to what is a vast and tumultuous and often unimaginable transformation.