The other day I had an interesting conversation about Baishizhou with a friend visiting from neighboring Hong Kong. In a nutshell? She asked me what there was to see in Shenzhen that would be intrinsically interesting to someone who knew nothing about Shenzhen. She remarked that it was easy to figure out what to see in Shanghai and Beijing because they had a history. I mentioned that I have blogged on this very topic, including touristy suggestions.
I then said something less gracious to the effect of “If you can’t be bothered to learn about Shenzhen before visiting, maybe you’re not here to visit the city. Maybe you’ve come over to go shopping at the Luohu Mall or Book City.”
The problem, of course, is that ignorent global trotting passes for global chic living. We expect to arrive in an unknown place and to be able to read the lay of the land immediately, as if our homegrown geographies might be easily transported thither and yon. In a sense, the frustration we feel comes from a misplaced sense of entitlement: the world is my oyster. I know oysters. I should be able to open this oyster, grab the pearl and move on to the next delicacy. And while I’m at it, I should have the help of friendly English-speaking underpaid minions, who are not only not going to take advantage of my ignorance, but also show me where to find bigger and better and cheaper oysters because they. like. me.
Of course, tourists don’t want to visit an actual mall; they want something “authentic”. But as my friend pointed out, they don’t want to visit Baishizhou either because it is not self-evidently legible. Tourists — whether homegrown or from elsewhere — want something in-between the global standardized mall and actual working class neighborhoods, something edgey without being dangerously sharp. Something like a cheap Xintiandi (新天地).
And there’s the rub. The expectation that Shenzhen should be immediately legible to tourists and other strangers is itself a species of mall-think. Mall-think refers to the idea that the world has already been standardized into chain-stores that sell, among other things, samples of local history and culture. By extension, mall-think tourism refers to the idea of one-stop tourism (I visit Dongmen, the Civic Center, and Huanggang Village) which will produces a pre-conceived and therefore “intrinsically interesting” experience the Shenzhen difference.
Xintiandi, is of course, the most obvious and obviously successfully of mall-think development. The fact that they are expanding from Shanghai to Chongqing, Foshan, and Guangzhou should really be a wake-up call; Euro-American mall-think is transforming the Chinese landscape into accessible and therefore interesting shopping experiences. The view from Baishizhou reminds us, however, that mall-think tourism confuses global recognition with authenticity, and in doing so fails to see the intrinsic value of working class lives.