shenzhen speed: nan’ao

I have this longing to believe that somehow what came before was less fragile and much less fleeting, more easily touched and grasped than is the present. The irony of this longing caught up with me in Nan’ao, where three generations of fishermen live side by side on a beach front urban village (that, yes, is scheduled for partial demolition and redevelopment).

In Nan’ao circa 1962, Dan fishermen were given lands rights and “washed their feet and came on land (洗脚上田).” In the first decade of Reform and Opening, they set up small businesses selling dried fish to visitors. In the 1990s, migrants from Chaozhou came in and began fishing. The original fishermen became landlords, although some still fished. However, by the end of the millennium they no longer went to sea and Chaozhou businessmen had taken over most of the commerce in the area, opening restaurants and running the market stalls. Today, most of the fishermen are migrants from Hunan, who came to find  work in a factory but instead ended up learning to fish.

In 2011, Dapeng became a New District and Shenzhen’s eastern peninsula was abruptly contiguous with the inner districts. In five short years, Jiaochangwei has become a major resort area, Guanhu and Shayuchong have become tourist villages, and Nan’ao has emerged as the object of governmental desires to transform the area into an upscale, coastal retreat.


My mother began her life in a log cabin that had neither running water nor electricity and grew up to travel much of the world. I was born in LA at the height of the midwestern rush to the coast, when California Dreaming inspired a generation and today I live in Shenzhen, which has become a formidable city in 30-odd years. I don’t remember a time when time was slow, but I do have visceral experience of watching happy days as a young teen and feeling that the 1950s were so far away. Now it feels like the Civil War and WWI are too close for comfort.

I’ve lived more consciously in Shenzhen than I ever did in the Jersey suburbs, and yet the past here seems simultaneously as distant and present as my mother’s childhood. Most days I am reminded that my yearning for a solid tradition (if not there, perhaps here) is simply a longing for an object that does not exist. But that’s the point. I have to remind myself that “history” is being created to fit my yearnings, rather than the facts.

Impressions from a walk in Nan’ao, August 22, 2016.

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