one tradition, two villages

The entrance to Changling Village (长岭村) is located on the southern side of Luosha Road at the foot of Wutong Mountain. Before the construction of the Binhai Expressway (1999) and the opening of the East Coast Highway (2008) made traveling across Shenzhen commonplace, Changling marked the practical eastern edge of the early Special Zone. Today, however, Changling is conveniently located on the J1 bus route which connects Seaworld at the southern tip of the Nantou Peninsula to Dameisha on the eastern edge of the Dapeng Peninsula. The entire trip takes 90 minutes without traffic, but usually takes over two hours. Indeed, the J1 route traverses the entire Shenzhen-Hong Kong border, and its constituent roads—Houhai Road, Binhai Expressway, Binhe Road, Luosha Road, and Huishen Coastal Express—literally name the waterways and migrations that once shaped the area: Backwaters, Oceanside, Riverside, Luohu to Shatoujiao, Huizhou to Shenzhen.

January 19, 2017, I was one of over 2,000 people who welcomed spring in Changling Village (长岭村) by eating pencai (盆菜 c. poonchoi). The Changling Limited Corporation hosted the banquet, inviting the 40-odd families who belong to the village, affines and friends from neighboring villages, relatives from Lianmatang Village in the Hong Kong New Territories, and other cross border guests, Luohu District and Liantang Street Office Officials, and representatives from the developer who aims to transform Changling into high end real estate. The 200 plus tables were arranged in a parking lot located next to the village and between Luosha Road and the barbed wire wall that separates Shenzhen from the New Territories. Like a wedding banquet, a pencai banquet constitutes society table by table. Pencai 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.

Years ago, pencai banquets were simple and infrequent; according to my friends, they were also smaller and more intimate. Often families—rather than villages—celebrated milestone events such as a wedding or a birth with a pencai banquet for select guests. 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 and their in-laws, political leaders, and economic partners. Nor is it cheap to bring all these people together for roughly 90 minutes of dining and entertainment. 1,000 yuan per pencai hotpot multiplied by (at least) 200 tables means that the village corporation spent a minimum of 200,000 yuan 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 leftovers, not to mention the cost of entertainment, security, and servers. Images from my visit to Changling, below:

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Now the idea of pencai as a tradition that unifies people in place through time becomes interesting when we recall that Changling Village is one of Shenzhen’s border villages. Its ancestral hall and homestead are located in Lin Ma Heng (莲麻坑) Village on the other side of the barbed wire in the Hong Kong Frontier Closed Area (FCA). Seventeen days after the Changling New Year’s pengcai meal, on February 5, 2017, I joined another 2,000 people who had signed up to join Changling’s twin village, Lianmakeng to welcome the year of the rooster with a poonchoi banquet. The guest list to the Lianmakeng banquet was similar to the Changling banquet with an eye to symbolically gathering the community by inviting local families, relatives, and elected officials to participate. However, unlike the Shenzhen event which was hosted and paid for by the village company, the Hong Kong event was hosted by the village, but guests paid for their own tables. Many guests were Hong Kong people with no direct connection to the village except for their interest in history; they actually purchased their place in the community in order to experience a “traditional” New Year’s poonchoi. In addition, local scholars and educators had taken advantage of the event to organize a tour for high school teachers so that they could better introduce Hong Kong traditions and landscapes into the curriculum.

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view of the border between Lin Ma Hang (left) and Changling (right)

On the day of the banquet, guests met up near a park in Sheungshui (上水 m. Shangshui), where a list of poonchoi participants and their identity cards were recorded because in order to visit Lianmatang, it is necessary to first register with the border police. We then boarded large buses that brought us to a public bus transfer station at Liantang, which will be the largest border crossing between Shenzhen and Hong Kong. At the transfer station, we were organized onto minibuses, that took us to Lianmakeng—Changling’s twin village on the Hong Kong side. The road to Lianmakeng, like the J1 route to Changling, lays parallel to the Shenzhen River. We drove between the high rises of downtown Shenzhen and the lush foothills of Wutong Mountain range, the meandering river an unimpressive border between the looming gold skyscrapers of Luohu and vegetable plots of Daguling Village (打鼓岭 c. ), before turning onto a single lane access road into the FCA. Although concrete and barbed wire enclosed the access road, Shenzhen’s skyscrapers were still visible, and indeed within the FCA the gap between the scale of development on the two sides of the border was even more marked causing one of the Shenzhen guests to remark that “the local villagers must be provoked when they see the difference.” The visitor was a member of a cross border village with its center on the Shenzhen side, and was commenting on the jealousy that he assumed simmered when the results of history are so visible; after all, during the 1960s through the 1980s, his family lived for years watching former kin and co-villagers prosper in Hong Kong, while they did not.

Once we entered Lianmakeng, the space abruptly opened into a public basketball court, where middle aged men and women practiced tai chi, their pastel satin outfits shimmering in the clear mountain light. Traditional Hakka and two-story buildings abutted narrow roads that led to a dense settlement of houses, temples, and ancestral halls which in turn fronted a half-moon pond. Threading from door to door in noisy good cheer, the Hong Kong Unicorn troupe danced blessings performed a traditional dance, blessing each home and receiving red envelops of money in return. The landscape was exceptionally—almost excessively—bucolic. The newer houses proudly announced that had been constructed in the 1970s through the early 1980s, while the larger traditional buildings had been restored as recently as 2014. Left in a time warp, Lin Ma Hang is simultaneously beautiful and strangely abandoned. Other than family homes and spaces for commemorating clan identities, there are no signs of actual life; Lin Ma Hang exists in a kind of social amber, a monument to our yearning for tradition.

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The crescent pool at Lin Ma Hang

Thought du jour: for most of the participants, in addition to eating, one of the key activities of both events was to document the food, the entertainment, and the space, especially in Lin Ma Hang; we were all of us actively participating in tradition in order to place ourselves in relationship with it. The irony, of course, is that both Lin Ma Hang and Changling are no longer villages, if by village we mean a recognizable group. Instead, tradition is the mechanism through which their respective functions–affordable housing in Changling and historic monument in Ma Lin Hang–can be legitimated and naturalized. Images from my visit to Lin Ma Hang, below:

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