In order to talk about the ways in which urban villages are both the form and content of the emergence of Shenzhen, the mind searches for a narrative arc in the earnest hyperbole of a Sci-Fi universe where the good is still mostly good and the bad drags its slimy tale through fetid waste streams. However recycled and repurposed, we’re still talking about the contradictions that made Fritz Lang’s Metropolis so compelling. Above ground, the Metropolis boasts spires and towers for scientifically enhanced bodies that play in an Olympian stadium and pleasure gardens. These beautiful bodies can only be achieved through exploitation and guided mutation; evil is attractive. Underground, human workers endlessly labor. Unappealing and gaunt, shriveled and inert, these low-end bodies are fashioned through usefulness to the machine and dreary tenement lives.

My recent turn to Sci-Fi is (as were Mary Shelley’s and Fritz Lang’s respective turns) informed not so much by a fear of mad science, but by distress over how technology is produced, distributed and used in neoliberal cities. Technology has been central to the form and content of social polarization in Shenzhen. Urban villages are not substandard living spaces. In fact, when compared to low-income neighborhoods in other Chinese cities and abroad, Shenzhen’s villages are almost middle middle class quality. But here’s the rub. Shenzhen’s urban villages are substandard with respect to the city’s gated communities, shopping malls, and office towers–and the gap is growing.

The other day, two occurences converged in a way that highlighted how even if the emergence of Shenzhen is tied to shanzhai cellphones, we-chattification, and big data minefields, it is also tied (irrevocably and more importantly) to the social organization of labor in and around its urban villages.

First, I received a copy of iClan: The Chinese Ritual Economy in the 21st Century by Man GUO and Carsten Herrmann-Pillath (2018). The article tracts the intersection of clan rituals, globalization, and new technologies–especially the internet and We Chat–as used by the Huang of Shangsha and Xiasha Villages to revive and renew kinship practices, which are also economic practices. Of note? Guo and Herrmann-Pillath posit a Huang ritual economy. In Shenzhen, Huang build internet platforms for electronic trade, use lineage structures to create business organizations, and combine ritual activities with social networking in business. These activities are coordinated domestically and internationally through actual and virtual organizations, including the World Huang Association (世界黄氏宗亲会), which is currently headed by HUANG Yingchao, the head of the Shenzhen Huang lineage.

Second, on April 22, the Remix Garden  was the opening exhibition of the CFutureFestival, which is currently on display in the Zhongzhou section of the Coastal City Mall complex. The exhibition also includes the CFutureLab, where many ideas about participatory and creative urbanization are on display. The next day, I participated in the “supernova” forum, 科技·艺术:连结于人 (Human at the Crossroads of Technology and Art). The participating artists and CEO of Zhongzhou, Lv Hua (吕华)  introduced the artwork and ideas behind this recent real estate project. The six speakers were: Daan Roosegaarde, Charles Lindsay, Keith Lam (林欣杰), Ivan Nefedkin, Nimod Weis, and Wai TANG (邓伟健) former managing partner of Aedas. Of note? The order of these six presentations provides a clear map to thinking on and ideologies of urban development in Shenzhen.

Roosegaarde’s work explored space as a media for solving social issues. Lindsay’s work presented interspecies communication as a media for artistic exploration. Lam explained his work through the metaphor of coding and defined creativity and/or artistic expression as an act of transcoding. Nefedkin then talked about the relationship between branding and art. Weis spoke of designing experiences that brought meaning to the city. TANG closed the session with an introduction to the pavilions that will bring all these ideas together in 中州湾 CFutureCity, the development that will be built in Shangsha Futian CBD.

Long and short connection between these two forms of knowledge: iClan tracks the role of technology in repurposing historical kinship and ritual to global ends and Supernova celebrated the role of technology in imagining the city’s state-of-the-art future. The social object of transformation in both cases is Shangsha, an urban village in downtown Shenzhen. And there you have it: two unrelated events that when taken together highlight the ongoing role of urban villages in the production of Shenzhen 3.0, its players, and their games.

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Previously, the Huangs of Shangsha developed their new village through assembly manufacturing and handshake real estate development. As Shenzhen’s political, economic and cultural center shifted from Luohu to Futian, Shangsha’s informal housing and commercial economy thrived, even as the old factories were upgraded for the creative economy. During the early 2000s, many of the factory workers from the Chegongmiao Industrial Park lived in Shangsha, famously crossing from urban village to electronics manufacturing via a footbridge over the Binhe Expressway. Today, the Shangsha Huangs are benefiting from the demolition and renovation of that urban ecology. Zhongzhou has promoted a redevelopment plan that will make Shangsha into a new kind of space, one which takes seriously issues of environmental conservation and new forms of global living which are mediated at the intersection of art and technology.

The simultaneously local, global and virtual Huang iClan will no longer be associated with an urban village that manufactures electronics components, but with one of the city’s most progressive mall complexes, which will organize meaning through stimulating interactions (made with electronic components that are assembled elsewhere). And yes, the artwork and ideas at CFutureLab are compelling. And yet. We are also talking about the deepening of the gap that separates Shenzhen’s homeowners and its renters. The recent college graduates and working class families who have been displaced from Shangsha have dispersed not to the city’s bowels exactly, but to its “outer districts,” which are no longer cheap, while those who remain are gentrifying handshake buildings in order to compete with state-of-the-global-mall redevolopment.

All this to say, Shenzhen’s demovictions (demolition + eviction) and renovictions (renovation + eviction) resonate with the earnest morality of a Sci-Fi melodrama (inclusive redevelopment=flawed but good, demoviction and renoviction=sexy evil) because that all we ever “make” and all we ever “hack” are ourselves and other beings.

Impressions of Shangsha as simultaneously a site of developer-led demoviction and informal renoviction, below:

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