as if it never happened…

So, after a long silence, I return to The Great Transformation (沧海桑田:深圳村庄30年) and the ongoing composition of an official history for Shenzhen’s villages.

This official history begins with poetry. Located on Shenzhen Bay coastline, Shazui Village was established over 900 years ago. Villagers were surnamed Ou and their ancestors immigrated from Pingyang, Shaanxi via Shaoguan in northern Guangdong. At first, Shazui specialized in harvesting sea salt. However, over time the water became sweeter and it was no longer possible to making a living harvesting sea salt. According to Shazui oral history, village ancestors then started fishing and expanded village holdings inland, planting lychee orchards and rice paddies. The village’s history was recorded in poetry and couplets that villagers transmitted orally. For example, a seven-line poem that traced the history of the migration guaranteed hospitality between communities that shared the Ou surname.

金陵被乱始南辕    Chaos during the Jinling era forced the southern migration

唯有祯昌百代传    Only luck has been inherited by a hundred generations

一举汀州二细滘    The first stop was Dingzhou, the second Xijiao

三子石壁四陈村    The third stop was Shibi, the forth Chen Village

自从棉圃而交广    Leaving northern cotton fields, they entered Guangdong

世起堂梁厉宗元    The ancestor re-established the family

支派不拘分欠别    And new branches were established

明溪桥内祖根源    The ancestral well is by the Ming Creek bridge

In 1943, over 40 of Shazui’s less than 400 villagers died during a drought. This history was recorded in the following verse, “Thousands remember, ten thousands remember that in the 33rd year of the Nationalist era, a dollar bought 10 grams of rice (千记万记,记得民国三十三,一元买米三钱二).”

Subsequently, the official history of the transformation from socialist to capitalist collective begins with creative appropriation of the household responsibility system. In 1978, Shazui took advantage of easing policies to introduce a hybrid form of collective production, selling surplus vegetables and fish both in Shenzhen and in Hong Kong. One person from each family could join a voluntary association of 10 people. Each group gave 100,000 rmb to the collective, and then divided the profits amongst association members. Leaders were not permitted to join an association, however, any laborer could join an association. Within five years, many Shazui villagers had become rich and by 1983, Shazui villagers had put up new homes on their 30 m2 Mao-era plats. The villagers then decided to plan Shazui New Village, putting up handshakes as well as collective property, including factories.

Building the factories further transformed village organization, as the village secretly formed a limited stock-holding company. In 1984, Shazui leaders asked each villager to invest 10,000 into the factory zone. At first, villagers refused and leaders hoped to borrow 5 million from a bank. However, at the time, banking restrictions were strict and villages did not have an opportunity to secure finance capital. Instead, village leaders went back to the village with the following proposal: each villager would invest 10,000. Over the next three years, the village could use this capital to grow its industry. Beginning in the 4th year, the village organization and village investors would split profits 40-60. In the eleventh year of operation, the percentage would reverse, with the collective receiving 60% of the profits and villagers sharing 40%. At the end of this second decade, all profits from the collective enterprise would go to the village.

As of 1985, the new village occupied an area of 6.3 km2 and had earned commendations from Shenzhen Party Secretary and Mayor, Liang Xiang. Many villagers secured plats (宅基地) of 300 m2, three times larger than the area that would be formally recognized by the Shenzhen Government in later years. Moreover, the village also had to put in roads that would be wide enough to connect the village factories to cross-border shipping points at Wenjingdu. Indeed, although Shazui was only five kilometers from the Luohu border, until the new roads were laid, it took one hour to travel from Shazui to the Luohu. And this is where the official story ends until it jumps twenty years to a village cleanup and environmental upgrade.

What happened during the twenty years that the official story skips? In the years between 1985 well into the new millennium, Shazui went from being an enterprising village to Shenzhen’s most infamous second wife village. Village investment in planning and construction meant that relative to the surrounding area, Shazui New Village was a cheap, convenient, and comfortable place to live. Investors and visitors took up residence in Shazui and villagers opened restaurants, discos and bars. By the early 1990s, the collective was itself promoting the shift to a sex-based economy building hotels, restaurants, rental properties, and spas. This history cumulated with the infamous public shaming of Shazui prostitutes in 2008.

And there’s the rub: if we are to talk about the transformation of Shenzhen’s villages from poor rural settlements into neighborhoods for the working poor, we aren’t actually talking about what the villagers alone were up to. We’re actually writing the history of global capitalism and its rebranding by ambitious governments. Suddenly, Shenzhen’s villages become the quintessential rags to riches story. Or to quote Mark Ravenhill’s observation in Shopping and Fucking: Making money is barbarous, but having money is civilization.

One thought on “as if it never happened…

  1. Mary Ann:
    I am a friend of Cathy Clayton’s. I sent a message to your yahoo address about an event at University of Macau in April. I am not sure if you received the message or if that address is still operational. But I just wanted to call it to you attention. Thanks.

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