the photography of he huangyou

A current exhibition of the photography of He Huangyou (何煌友), Shenzhen Memory is something of a historical mashup. It includes many of He’s most-well known photographs, which have shaped our visual imagination of the Shenzhen before and at the cusp of reform. These photographs are well worth seeing in person. However, the exhibition neither contextualizes nor places the photographs in chronological order, leaving interpretation up to the viewer. This form of representation may in fact conform to what we know of how memory works–it is highly personal and unreliable–but it makes it difficult to place the images into larger histories. It feels as if we are suddenly viewing the illustrated introduction to the “fishing village to world city” narrative without bothering to mention that the exhibition includes pictures from at least three different coastlines and two different epicenters of reform (Shenzhen and Shekou).

That said, the selection of He Huangyou’s photographs opens all sorts of interesting reflections on the meaning of Shenzhen’s cultural geography and further unpacking of the fishing village myth. Three points worth mentioning.

First, the tension between Shenzhen and Shekou as simultaneous “origins” of the Special Zone. On the one hand, He’s pictures of Shenzhen Market suggest a bustling market town. There is dense housing, transportation connections–via trucks and the railway–to both Hong Kong and the rest of china, and vibrant consumerism.

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On the other hand, his images of Shekou reveal a much more ordered transformation of the local geography. “The first shot” of reform and opening was fired when Shekou’s Sixth Bay was detonated to build the port, literally replacing fishing docks with international ferries and a container port, factories, and a well planned coastal city. In fact, this model of “port–industrial park–downtown” is the model of development that China Merchants is currently sponsoring in ocean ports along the maritime road of the Belt and Road initiative.

Second, He’s pictures remind us that “Shenzhen Speed” was a result of simultaneous construction and development through the Special Zone. During the 1980s, work units (such as China Merchants in Shekou and the Shenzhen Land Resources Ministry) worked to emplace a modern grid upon a rural landscape. At the same time, township and village enterprises as well as entrepreneurs built up the area along the road. Historically, Shennan Road has been the symbol of this transformation.

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Thirdly, He Huangyou’s pictures remind us that Reform and Opening was a response to the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Bao’an County had already been integrated into the national state apparatus when Reform and Opening began. This meant that the city’s informal development was neither disorganized nor isolated, which in turn facilitated integration into the world economy via Hong Kong.

The Shenzhen Memory exhibition was on display from September 30 through October 15, 2018.

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