大鹏所城 (II): history in the making

Almost seven years ago to the day, I posted thoughts on cultural history. The prompt for my speculations was Dapeng Garrison, which at the time was the lack of recognition for the site, which is Shenzhen’s only national level cultural relic. Two days ago, I returned and the space was hop, hop, hopping in all sorts of telling ways. What changes had allowed Dapeng Garrison to suddenly attract students, busloads of tourists, and random day-trippers? Like most Shenzhen stories, the answer is a twisting, convoluted story of profits, grey economies, the allure of accomplishments, and the real consequences of administrative failure.

(The dates used in this post are based on several interviews, and are vague, rather than confirmed reference points).

When Dapeng Garrison was first identified as a national level cultural relic, many of the residents in the eastern section were moved out. However, migrant workers in neighboring factories continued to live there because it was possible to rent a room (without water or electricity) for 100 rmb a month. This low level occupation continued until roughly 2009, when the conflict between villagers and the government reached a head; the government had failed to develop the space and the villagers were still (more then twenty years after the site designation) unable to profit from it.

In 2010/11, the single farmer homes of neighboring Jiaochangwei (较场尾) were being repurposed as hostels, where enterprising young Shenzheners have set up a thick nexus of hostels for weekend beach parties. As Jiaochangwei has grown, the hostel owners have been sending their guests over to the garrison for cultural afternoons. Many artists and filmmakers came to take advantage of the site’s obvious ambiance.

Meanwhile, Dapeng villagers incorporated as a tourist company that paid villagers a fee for their homes and then re-rented them to small businesses. In fact, many of these small business owners are former factory workers, who used their savings to open up small kiosks. At this point, the government was still enforcing upkeep of the space and limiting use. Indeed, rents up through 2014 were actually quite low because in order to use any of the buildings, renters had to invest in upgrades. Some of the most expensive upgrades include putting in toilets (because there are no sewage lines) and attaching oneself into the improvised connections to Shenzhen electrical grid.

So there was a gradual influx of small scale entrepreneurs, many of whom wanted the carefree life that they envisioned hostelers at Jioachangwei enjoyed. In fact, the transfer costs for a hostel at Jiaochangwei are now between 500,000 and a million rmb, effectively precluding small-scale operators from moving in. In contrast, even with the growing costs in Dapeng Garrison, rents for a store front on a main artery were still less than 1,000 a month, with a transfer cost of 10 to 20,000, making it a viable investment.

However, this Spring Festival, there was no enforcement of regulations governing snack shops and kiosks selling knick knacks. Consequently, there was a bit of a boom. Now that enforcement has picked up again, there is less money to earn because–as one of the entrepreneurs said, “No one feels safe walking into a small space. Also, people want to eat snacks while they explore. Now no one is satisfied.”

I left Dapeng with the the sense that there is general agreement that something needs to be done, but no one knows what: the entrepreneurs want to make a living; the villagers want to earn rents; the District wants to fulfill its obligation to history, but all these desires conflict with one another, especially as making a living involves producing all sorts of waste that the Garrison is currently unable to process. What’s more, because the site is a national ranked relic, harming the site could mean a demotion, even as current strategies have resulted in accelerated wear and tear on the buildings.

Curious to see how these competing interests get resolved into a historically relevant site. In the meantime, the pictures below give a sense of how crowded Dapeng Garrison feels as well as the changes that are in process.

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