changling village: spring festival traditions

Tonight, I was one of roughly 2,000 people who welcomed spring in Changling Village (长岭村) by eating pencai together. Like a wedding banquet, a pencai banquet constitutes society table by table. The hosts were the 40-odd families who belong to the village, and their guests came from the Hong Kong side of the family, affines from neighboring villages, friends, street office officials, and representatives from the developer who aims to transform Changling into high end real estate on the Shenzhen River. 

Pencai (盆菜) is a one pot dish in which a variety of vegetables, seafood, and meat are cooked together and then shared at a table. Currently in Shenzhen, a small pencai costs 500 yuan and does not include abalone and oysters. The larger, more expensive pencai cost between 800 to 1,000 yuan, depending on size and the presence of abalone and oysters. Traditionally in Shenzhen, there are Hakka pencai (heavy on the water fowl) and Cantonese pencai (with a preference for abalone and oysters). According to another friend, this culinary distinction corresponds to local geography; Hakka villages were situated in the mountains, while Cantonese villages were located along the Pearl River and its tributaries.

Changling Village is one of the city’s true border villages; its ancestral hall and homestead is located on the other side of the barbed wire, across the river in the Hong New Territories. According to the friend who invited me to the celebration, some of the poorer villages had crossed the river and set up shanties and built small homes on this side of the river. When the border closed at the beginning of the Korean War, the 40-odd families decided to take their chances in the PRC because the country was implementing land reform. Originally, these were poorer families who did not have a homestead in the main village and suddenly they had land rights in the new regime.

Years ago, pencai banquets were simple and infrequent; according to my friends, they were also smaller and more intimate. Today, however, pencai banquets are prevalent throughout Shenzhen’s urban villages as a means for bringing together members of a local society. As Changling’s extensive invitations suggest, this society is not limited to village members, but also includes cross-border relatives, married out daughters, political leaders, and economic partners. Nor is it cheap to bring all these people together for roughly 1.5 hours of dining and entertainment. 1,000 yuan per bowl X 200 tables means that the village corporation spent at least 200,000 on the event, not including drinks (there was a bottle of wine, soft drinks, and water at every table), peanuts, mandarin oranges, plates, chopsticks, and containers for taking home relatives as well as the cost of entertainment, security, and servers.

The irony, of course, is that tonight there was a celebration of a village that is scheduled for demolition. The urban village typology has allowed villagers not only to maintain the relationships that sustain them as an identifiable society, but also to do those relationships bigger and better. This pencai banquet embodied a particular understanding of the village and its place in the world.  However, once the handshakes and narrow streets have been replaced with high-rises and shopping malls, it will be harder to maintain these gatherings, especially as fewer and fewer villagers live near each other and depend upon each other for their livelihood. Thought du jour is speculative: the next decade will reveal how Shenzhen’s village identities adapt to redevelopment and the material absence of a “village”–urban or rural.

Images from tonight’s pencai banquet, below.

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