playback shenzhen

Established in 2007, Shenzhen’s Ya Ya Theatre is an amateur troupe that specializes in playback theatre, a form of improv in which audience members tell stories from their lives and watch players enact the story. Ya Ya meets once a week to rehearse and have occasional performances in diverse venues, including Shenzhen’s indie bookstore Feidi (飞地书局), the Yuehai Community Culture Station, and Shenzhen’s Fringe Festival. On Saturday September 23, they brought their program “One Person, One Story” to Handshake 302. What follows are impressions and clips from that program.

Ya Ya takes a traditional approach to playback. They organized Handshake 302 into a performance area (the bed, a ladder, and a cloth tree) and a “house” (stools lined up against the wall). The Conductor asked audience members to share something from their experience and each playback began with the invitation, “let’s watch.” During the show that I attended, for example, I heard and the watched stories about visiting 302, about a first experience in Baishizhou, and about doubts about the future. The interaction between the audience and the performers, the content of the stories, and the location of the performance in a handshake building became the treads of a collective meditation on Baishizhou and its meaning.

The thing about improv is that it is very much about this time and place, forcing the audience and performers not only to pay attention to each other, but also to be aware of the venue. This sensitivity to the present moment makes improv one of more “zen like” of the arts because scenes cannot not repeated. Nevertheless, once filmed, playback scenes become semiotic texts that can be analyzed and interpreted. The performance about whether or not one should visit Handshake 302, for example, is now a short scene about different kinds of “hesitation”—physical, emotional, and practical that prevent us from having a new experience. Similarly, a story about walking through and around puddles in Baishizhou’s uneven streets has become a symbol about “repugnance,” while an account of doubts about the future feels like a slightly Brechtian mediation on the impossibility of arrival; we are all waiting for Shenzhen.

One of the scenes that resonated with me in particular was called “Impressions of Shenzhen.” As told, it was a thwarted version of the stereotypical migrant story. Back home, the speaker thought Shenzhen would be a modern city of glass and steel, where anything was possible. Once he arrived in Shenzhen, however, he ended up living in an urban village, which with its narrow alleys, boxy apartment buildings, and crowded markets reminded him of his hometown. What’s more, he believed he wouldn’t be able to purchase a home in Shenzhen, and so he felt as if he had been tricked into coming. As performed, however, the story was simultaneously abstract and specific. The performers used one of the scarves from the cloth tree, the transparent fabric representing the mushroom cloud that resulted from the city’s boom and lured the story teller to Shenzhen. However, even as the fabric brushed slipped through his hands, it twisted into a thick cord that trapped him. The scene then moved to the ladder—a cramped and narrow handshake building.

If migrants are the vulnerable heroes of Shenzhen myths, then locals are the villains. Indeed, locals’ imagined riches and concrete investments have shaped migrant consciousness about the moral value of leaving home and starting over in the city of dreams. The subtext bristles. What is the value of a person who stays where they were born?

In the Shenzhen press and casual conversation, locals have been portrayed as uneducated, while migrants are seen as cultivated. Locals we have been told and told repeatedly are lazy, while migrants are hardworking. Locals are tellingly aimless, in contrast to migrants who have clear ideas about their future. Not unexpectedly, the most despised local figure is a caricature of the only local that a migrant most likely knows—the landlord.

We were “corporate migrants.” Every time my father took a promotion or changed jobs, we moved and so from a young age I learned not to settle. When I was in the fifth grade, my family moved to New Jersey and I would spend the next years there before leaving for college. When Shenzheners ask me, “Where are you from?” I answer, “New Jersey.” Sometimes, however, I narrate familial peregrinations. “I was born in California,” I say. “I started elementary school in Maryland, finished high school in New Jersey, and then went to college in Vermont, worked in Japan, studied anthropology in Texas, and then came to Shenzhen where I have lived for almost half my life. My parents retired to North Carolina, so for about twenty years when I say, ‘I’m going home,” what I mean is ‘I’m going to the place where my parents live.’  Where do you think I’m from?”

In terms of Shenzhen migrant generations I am an “Old Shenzhener,” someone who came before the city began restructuring and rebuilding circa 2004. I estimate that I arrived about 15 million people ago. I remember when Shenzhen was a booming industrial town with huge ambition and little oversight, when the second line was a paroled border, and when Hong Kong men set up mistresses in neighborhoods along the border. I witnessed the transformation of unruly and informal settlements into superhighways and upscale shopping mall. And I remember how the subway system integrated what used to be scattered settlements. Before the first subway line opened on December 28, 2004, it took at least 90 minutes and two buses to travel from Shenzhen University to the Luohu train station and even longer to visit the coastal areas of the Dapeng Peninsula, which didn’t really become everyday accessible until the completion of the Yanbei Highway in March 2010.

I’ve lived in Shenzhen longer than I’ve lived anywhere else on the planet. Nevertheless, the question whether or not I belong is unsettling and is approached tentatively, “I suppose this means you’re an Old Shenzhener,” some joke, assuming that Shenzhen is a station on a larger journey that will eventually return me to the United States. Many are visibly relieved to learn that my husband is from Tianjin. “Ah,” they exclaim with sudden confidence, ready to teach me about Chinese culture. “Marry a chicken and live like a chicken,” they chortle knowingly, “Marry a dog and live like a dog!” The casual sexism not only settles the question of where I belong—with my husband, but also makes salient the anxieties that shapes my sojourn—even if I spend the rest of my life here, can I ever be at home in Shenzhen? Economic precarity also informs my sense of displacement. I reside in China on a two-year family visa, which allows unlimited entries but prevents me from legally working. Moreover, my husband and I haven’t bought a house in Shenzhen. Twenty years ago, it was a decision not to take out a mortgage so that we could be artists without the burden of debt. Today, however, we simply cannot afford purchase a house in Shenzhen and like my parents, we will retire elsewhere because once we stop working we won’t be able to pay the rent.

In Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell argues that all myths share the same structure or monomyth: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Stories about migrating to Shenzhen, like stories about immigrating to the United States draw on this mythology, and most im/migrant stories are rags to riches narratives that resolve with the successful entrepreneur giving back so that, in turn, others can realize their dreams.

Like myths about the hero with a thousand faces, the stories of migrant dreams begin with gnawing dissatisfaction; home may be where the heart is, but (in the beginning) it is a place where it is impossible to realize our ambitions. Sometimes social conditions frustrate heroes and dreamers—poverty and outdated traditions, for example—and sometimes fucked up families and neighborhoods stymie them. However, to become the hero of one’s life, one must set out and so we do, overcoming a series of challenges until we fulfill our destinies, which (in theory) deliver us beyond this limitations. This is a key point. Contemporary cities attract dreamers because they are places, we believe, where dreams might be realized despite inequality. In contrast, back home, inequality thwarts our dreams, while the inequities of big cities is imagined as surmountable. New York and San Francisco, Wuhan and Chongqing, Kuala Lumpur, Toronto, Lagos, Ghaziabad, Kabul, Pune, Brasilia, Nairobi, Ciudad Juarez, and Perth—these cities shimmer at the edge of contemporary consciousness; there the only thing stymying im/migrants from realizing their dreams is laziness or a lack of vision or a run of bad luck. And Shenzhen—with its fishing nets to riches pedigree, its shanzhai production ethos, its fearless commodification of communist plots—the Shenzhen firmament blazes with twenty million migrant dreams.

That said, the journeys of Shenzhen migrants differ from Cambpell’s monomyth in one key aspect. The hero of a thousand faces “comes back.” The heroic journey is circular: from home to home via a series of adventures, or as T.S. Elliot eloquently phrased it in Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

In contrast, migrant dreamers do not return home; they establish home elsewhere. The traditional elements of a Shenzhen dream—urban hukou, a permanent job, and a house—explicitly iterate local common sense; the point of migrating to the city is to stay. Unsurprisingly, legal residence, a reliable source of income, and a safe place to live are also the basic elements of urban dreams across the planet. This is why it is so easy to dismiss migrant dreams as mercenary. On the one hand, the realization of a dream requires material resources, while on the other hand, the procuring these resources places migrants into competition with earlier arrivals for status and goods. A few migrants may dream of enlightenment, but most are determined to live in a pleasant environment, eat whatever they want, and give their children more than they had and so yes, we follow the money. In Shenzhen, the hero with a thousand faces is someone like Chen Yidan, one of the five founders of the internet company, Tencent. Chen Yidan migrated to Shenzhen from Shantou and over the past twenty years has become one of the best known philanthropists in China, not only funding rural projects but also incubators. Enlightenment and its boons suddenly manifest as entrepreneurism and start up capital.

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