what water did you drink?

On Tuesday, September 11, 2018, Handshake 302 sent out a call for fifteen participants to join the first chapter of “Urban Flesh and Bones: Rediscovering Shenzhen’s Cultural Geography” series of walking tours. This chapter is called “What water did you drink?” and looked at how infrastructural relationships–pipes and container ports, for example–have replaced more immediate relationships–wells and small docks–in the local cultural geography. Kind of esoteric topic for a walking tour, but in less than an hour, the event was already completely booked! Who knew Shenzhen residents were so interested in esoteric takes on the city’s cultural geography? By Thursday afternoon, however, we were worried, would super typhoon Mangkhut land on Saturday, forcing us to cancel the event? However, the weather gods were with us, and Saturday morning was bright sun and blue skies—a perfect day for exploring the Shenzhen’s cultural history from the perspective of “water.”

We started our tour at an unlikely place—Fumin Exit D on the Luobao metro line. We say this was an “unlikely” place to start because Fumin Exit has little to do with Shuiwei’s history and less to do with the village’s cultural geography. That said, Fumin Exit is a nexus where “mainstream” Shenzhen connects with one of its urban villages. In other words, Fumin Exit is both a place and a metaphor. On the one hand, the Shenzhen metro allows us to conveniently get to Shuiwei from as far away as Shajing and Universidade. On the other hand, Fumin Exit symbolizes our understanding of “Shenzhen” as a modern city. In other words, the city’s infrastructure and our ideas about modernity mediate our understanding of “local” cultural geography.

When Guangdong people want to know where someone is from they ask, “What water did you drink?” Shuiwei villagers answer, “I drank Shenzhen water,” referring to the Shenzhen River. These were the original Shenzheners! In fact, Shenzhen Bay was the geographic center of a cultural-linguistic community that stretched from Huangbeiling in the east to Xiasha in the west, and then continued as far south as Yuanlang and Tunmen (today Luohu, Futian and the Hong Kong New Territories). Shuiwei was a community that lived “surrounded by water.” They traded with fishing families, harvested salt at Lok Ma Chao, had fish ponds, and rice polders. Their most important source of potable water was a well, which was located far enough from the bay that the water was sweet.

The relationship between Shuiwei villagers and local water changed after 1980. The introduction of assembly manufacturing meant that village sampans and carts were not large enough to transport containers of clothes, toys and electronics from the village industrial park to port of Hong Kong. Instead, asphalt roads replaced the paths that threaded through rice polders and the Huanggang checkpoint replaced the small docks at Lok Ma Chao. This new infrastructure connected Shuiwei village to global markets, but it significantly changed villagers’ relationship to local water. On the one hand, Shuiwei villagers became “landlocked” and were no longer able to freely navigate Shenzhen Bay. On the other hand, industrialization drew many migrants from the rest of China to Shuiwei. In response, Shuiwei had a village “housing boom” building handshake buildings to house the influx of people. The water from the original well was not enough to provide water for thousands, let alone tens of thousands of people. Instead, Shuiwei was connected to the municipal waterworks and like the people of Hong Kong began drinking Dongjiang water.

The highlight of the tour was a meal at Amo’s Congee Restaurant. Amo was born in Shuiwei and after graduating with a degree in food science, he and his wife Stella returned to Shuiwei to open a restaurant that supports healthy eating. At the restaurant, too, we were able to see how water continues to shape everyday life in Shuiwei. The meal began with soup and many of the dishes—shrimp, fish, and duck, for example—were raised in water, while the restaurant’s special congee required boiling rice for over three hours to achieve a smooth and delicious consistency. But here also, we experienced the transformation of the village’s relationship to local water. Most of the animals were raised on a farm in Taishan and then transported via truck to Shuiwei. In other words, even though this delicious meal represented “local” flavor, it was not locally produced, but instead actualized the possibilities of an industrialized cultural geography.

Event pictures taken by the ever thoughtful Fish.

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