what happens when memories can’t keep pace with change?

“Shenzhen Speed” has become a catchphrase amongst urban planners and journalists, makers and ordinary citizens to describe the transformation of Bao’an County into Shenzhen Municipality. In less than forty years, highways have replaced lychee orchards, high-rises have replaced oyster fields, and wi-fi has become as common as coffee shops and fast fashion. Boom!

Here’s the thing: the speed of historical transformation may be blinding us to how quickly we’re forgetting how we got here.

On August 26, 2017, I participated in the final critique for the 2017 University of Pennsylvania and Southern China University of Technology Joint mapping workshop. The project was led by Jason Ho, a young and charismatic teacher who brings architecture students into diverse environments to challenge their understanding of the world. He asked seven groups of students to use an object to  focus on the social organization of Nantou Old Town, the site of the 2017 Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Architecture \ Urbanism (UABB). The students’ not only chose objects that illuminated the organization and use of Nantou, but also (and inadvertently) revealed the “generation gap” between students and their teachers. Below, I would like to introduce several of the objects that the students chose for their map, suggesting that the distance between the students’ and teachers’ understandings of these objects revealed how fundamentally Shenzhen has changed.

One generation’s hair salon is not like another’s

The first group’s project was called “Urban Portals” and focused on the twenty-three hair salons within Nantou. I call them “hair salons” rather than barbershops because in addition to washing, cutting, and styling hair, the shops provide other services such as head and shoulder massages, eyebrow shaping, and coloring for men and women. The students chose hair salons because at first glance there seemed to be too many for the space—approximately one hair salon per 300 square meters. Their research then compared and contrasted two shops, one on a small alley and the other at the edge of Nantou. They discovered that the owners came from other parts of China, had been living and working in Nantou for several years, and thus were able to act as intermediaries between their hometowns and Shenzhen.

The students’ conclusions surprised teachers who expected there to be some connection between hair salons and sex work. Until the 2006 anti-prostitution crackdown, most hair salons were primarily used for sex work. Women and men who wanted hairstyling and massage services learned to distinguish between the two kinds of “salons.” In fact, there are not only significantly fewer hair salons in Shenzhen’s urban villages, but also fewer nightclubs, after hours restaurants, and “mistress buildings.” In other words, the teachers and students’ understanding of salons represent two very different urban ecosystems, which are also different historical moments. As researchers and urban planners, architects and public intellectuals we are suddenly faced with questions about how to write the city’s history when so much has already been forgotten.

The depreciation of televisions

Similarly, the second group chose a material symbol—televisions—that had a significantly different meaning for teachers and students. The students examined the role of televisions in creating social spaces. They looked at three levels of organization—cable systems, street viewing, and inside private homes. They were particularly interested in how televisions brought people together, facilitating social interactions. The group talked about adults gathering to watch television on the street and children visiting their neighbors to watch a particular program as examples of “television communities.”

In contrast, teachers remembered a time when televisions, refrigerators, and washing machines comprised the “three commodities” that families wanted to purchase. Of course, the commodity fetishism of the 1980s was already a transformation of that of the 1960s and 1970s, when people wanted to buy a wrist watch, a bike, a sewing machine and a radio. What’s more, teachers also did not find it remarkable that people gathered to watch television or that particular programs could organize social interaction. After all, people who had lived in Shenzhen during the 80s and 90s, not only watched the 9:30 evening movie on Hong Kong television stations, most learned rudimentary Cantonese by following Hong Kong television dramas.

My modernization, your culture

Three of the groups examined how different kinds of objects mediated the social creation of public and private spaces in Nantou. One group looked at how drying clothing created armoires, another looked at how steps created a kind of urban theatre, while a third group took up the question  of how windows functioned as diaries, tools and toys and life stories accumulating in narrow window sills. The last two groups explored questions of how Cantonese sweet soups and flip-flops created identities in Nantou. These topics did not generate the same cognitive dissonance between teachers and students as hair salons and televisions had, but nevertheless, there were interesting questions raised about modernization and its normalization as “culture.” Teachers, for example, pointed out that even Chinese who can afford a clothes dryer preferred to hang their clothes outside, while others mentioned that many buildings had steps to avoid waste water that accumulated in the street. All agreed that flip-flops and sweet soup were features of “southern” culture, while windows became de facto diaries not by choice, but by necessity; there is not enough room in an urban village apartment to accommodate all the goods that are now cheaply available.

All this to say, I found yesterday’s critique interesting because it raised serious questions about the possibility of writing history in times of massive social transformation. After all, the students maps and the teachers’ comments revealed not only the extent to which Nantou exists as both a place and an idea, but also the limits to generational understandings of places that are relentlessly changing.

Pictures courtesy of Jason Ho.

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