the dalang graffiti festival

Today we held the design workshop for the Dalang graffiti festival. 27 people attended the workshop, which involved creating designs for manhole covers. With the exception of one individual, none of the participants admitted to having taken any art classes outside of school; none admitted to sending their children to art classes. All were immigrants and during their self introductions, they mentioned their hometowns; one made a joke that her hometown was “too small to have English names”. Next week, participants will take their designs and begin painting manhole covers at a workers’ dormitory, a neighborhood, and a school.

Dalang is a manufacturing street office, with a population of 500,000 and roughly 8,000 original villagers. It is part of Shenzhen’s “frontier”–the rough and tumble world of guanwai, which is considerably more immigrant working class than guannei, where art classes and workshops proliferate. According to the cabbie who drove us from the subway station to the Youth Dream Center, the police canvass internet bars and industrial areas in order to “grab (抓)” illegals. Apparently, in this part of the city, the police do not only ask to see hukou identity cards, but also work permits because, “they don’t want three withouts (三无人员) here”.

Against this larger background of (by Chinese standards) unregulated population, the graffiti art festival represents another effort by the Dalang Street Office to transform itself and its inhabitants through community art events that range from this workshop through music and historic preservation. It is a simultaneously bold and relatively weak vision of how to transform migrant culture into something–for lack of a better word–better.

On the one hand, as a Street Office, Dalang is considered the most basic level of government. Within the government apparatus, the Street Office has the most direct access to the population and its decisions most directly affect residents’ quality of life. Consequently, the decision to use community resources to teach painting and singing as well as opening libraries and continuing education classes reaches many ordinary people who might otherwise go through their lives without picking up a paintbrush. It embodies a hope that creativity can open minds and bring joy and thereby has the potential to create a harmonious lives and Chinese dreamy neighborhoods.

On the other hand, as a Street Office, Dalang has limited power to actually write the laws and implement the policies that might create more a more equitable society. Most Shenzhen residents will attest that Street Office officials “clearly understand (明白)” what is happening on the ground. They have the most reliable sense of neighborhood demographics and the problems that ordinary people face finding jobs, securing a place to live, and educating their children. In this sense, during off-the-record conversations, they are quick to point out that what is necessary for realizing the China Dream is a living wage, affordable housing, and education reform. However, these policy decisions are made at higher pay grades, where officials have less clarity about life on the ground at each successive level of government in part because specificity inevitably gives way to generalizations and also in part because most officials are crafting “acceptable” generalizations for their superior.

Dalang Street Office and its constituents navigate this double-bind by doing “what they can (能做多少是多少)”. These activities are easily absorbed by the State as evidence of happy working conditions. That said, the Dalang workers and groups that participate in these activities say that the like Dalang precisely because it organizes cultural activities. Many workers who left Dalang for other manufacturing areas, have returned because they like the Street Offices parks and libraries, in addition to its events. Thus, the graffiti festival, like other cultural events, has the added benefit of satisfying some of the changing expectations of Shenzhen workers.

Impressions of the workshop, below.

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