will 2016 be the year of culture?

December in Shenzhen is known as “Creative December”. The city has been officially promoting culture and creative industries since 2005, moving manufacturing to the outer districts, incubating start-ups, and funding creative spaces and so forth. Many of the large-scale, government promoted events during Creative December 2015 focused on history and memory and the scale of these imaginary formations. For those who often what to do on a weekend afternoon, this past December offered an embarrassment of choices in addition to the city sponsored Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale of Urbanism/ architecture and the Shenzhen Public Sculpture Exhibition, every single level of government and private art spaces sponsored large-scale cultural events that ranged from the first Kylin Dance Festival (in Longhua) to the Indie Animation Festival in Overseas Chinese Town. In addition, every weekend has been filled with lectures, workshops and salons. For those of us who work in culture—we paint or run galleries or act or produce plays or think about society and take critical photographs of changes in the land—December is the month when we present a year’s worth (or not) of endeavor to the public.

In January, before Shenzhen turns its gaze back to the problem of making an industry of culture—Culture, Inc, we begin rounds of New Year’s dining privately with friends and family, as well as formally with colleagues. During these meals, culture and Culture, Inc are discussed in tandem; there is a potentially large market for culture because everyone is vaguely dissatisfied and looking for spiritual forms of satisfaction that are also economically viable.  

Yesterday at lunch, for example, we ate with friends from the Shenzhen Arts Federation. We talked about “Oysters and Champagne” and future projects; one of our friends, Wu Jun has a movie opening at the end of the month. We also learned about a rural arts project that a friend is starting up. He is building stages that can be boxed up, pulled by motor tricycle, and then opened on the street for performances. An independent businessman, he isn’t so much interested in “pop ups” or other forms of high art as he is in “meaning”. He said, “Now that everyone has resolved the problems of where to live and what to eat, we need something to do.”

Culture, Inc even makes makes itself felt at corporate New Year’s parties. Last night, for example, I attended  a mega-dinner with 25 tables (and 10 people per table). The dining hall boasted  a large stage with an LED backdrop and a matched pair of sparkling MCs; she shimmered head to toe, while sequins covered his lapels. As we took our seats, a roasted piglet with flashing eyes was placed on the table. The MCs welcomed us and then announced the names of the company CEO and C-level leaders who sat together at the central table. As their names were announced the stood and bowed to the room. The meal was served after the company leadership went on stage to toast employees and welcome the new year.

The meal itself was Cantonese and comprised a series of dishes–shark fin soup, roasted pigeon, braised chicken, abalone and vegetables, steamed fish and noodles, fried rice, fried milk custard, heart shaped sweets and finally, fruit. As we ate, a computer generated backdrop appeared onscreen and we could watch a series of performances while eating. Dancers wearing traditional costumes danced in front of an animated ink painting. Acrobats took a space walk, and one of Shenzhen’s more famous male belly dancers moved across the stage. Throughout the dinner, the MCs invited different managers (in reverse order of rank) to run the door prize lottery. There were 20 third prizes, 15 second prizes, 10 first prizes, 3 special prizes, and 3 cash awards and winners were greeted with cheers; tables were organized by division, and a win for one colleague was treated as a win for the table.

Here’s point du jour: Shenzhen’s creative industries are now thought to have relevance beyond the strictly economical. And that something, it seems, is can’t be bought or sold, even if it comes with a price tag. So, 2016 may see a cultural boom in the city because Shenzhen’s managerial class wants to relax into comfortable, open relationships, and many think culture will be the way to do that.

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