cutting edge: shekou and the construction of the global order

On October 27, Handshake 302 welcomed 15 Shenzhen people to participate in the second chapter of “Urban Flesh and Bones”–Shekou: Globalized Geographies. Our walk traced the original coastline of old Shekou and made several stops in the landfilled gardens of new Shekou. terms, Walking along the coastline of the Old Shekou reminds us that the “local” Shekou is actually composed of important elements such as international connectivity, industrialization, business culture and personal mobility.


The most critical element of Shekou’s globalized landscape was its original container port. In 1979, the Shekou Industrial Zone was formally established. Yuan Geng and other reform and opening forwards faced a very very abstract goal: “surpass England and catch up with America (超英赶美).” Of course, this abstract ideal had a specific spatial form. Simply put, the industrial zone was connected to the rest of the world with a modern logistics system.

The “first shot” of reform and opening up exploded in Shekou Bay, and then the coast of Shekou. In fact, in 1970, the Japanese government began to invest in containerization, and in 1972 launched its own container ship, its goods will be sold in North America and Western Europe. In 1972, Tokyo Bay took over the first container ship from the Kwai Tsing Container Terminal in Hong Kong. It also made Hong Kong’s container terminal the ideal port for Tokyo or Singapore. In other words, the Shekou Industrial Zone is not simply a “catch-up” of international cultural geography, but is actually involved in the construction of a new cultural geography around the world 70 years later. Today, Shenzhen Port is composed of eight port areas, namely Shekou, Chiwan, Mawan, Dongjiatou, Yantian, Fuyong Airport, Shayuyong, and Indus, which ranks third among the world’s container ports.

This new global cultural geography has several important components—an economic system based on market principles, a celebration of bourgeois fashion and consumption, and industrial manufacturing—all of which are inscribed on the former Shekou coastline.

Obviously, everyone knows the famous slogan “Time is money, Efficiency is life.” This is a basic principle of the market economy, an economic system in which the decisions regarding investment, production, and distribution are guided by the price signals created by the forces of supply and demand. At the time, the importance of this slogan was not that it was a new idea (after all, most western countries had developed some form of market economy), but rather that by using market principles, the Industrial Zone produced a global cultural geography in Shekou.

For example, the “Time is Money, Efficiency is Life” billboard is located at the foot of “Microwave Mountain.” During the planned economy, telecommunication with the outside world was limited to the export bureaus in Beijing and Shanghai. In other words, there was no legal way for foreign investors in the Shekou Industrial Zone to communicate with their home countries. The construction of China’s first microwave communication station not only bridged Shekou to the world, but also put emplace an important element of a global geography.


The 碧涛苑 villas comprise a second example of how market principles create a global cultural geography in Shekou. Under the planned economy, housing was built according to a national production plan. This means that housing reflected national priorities. In contrast, under a market economy, houses are built to make a profit. This means that housing forms reflect the taste and desires of individuals. The 碧桃园 villas embody individual desires to have a large home, comfortable environment, and (at the time) a beautiful ocean view.

Parks for sports and leisure activity were another important aspect of Shekou’s global cultural geography. The short-lived Shekou “sand beach” exemplified the Industrial Zone’s commitment to creating a modern environment. Importantly, this environment was a “stage” for new kinds of bodies and relationships. On the one hand, swimming was a healthy activity that emphasized taking care of oneself. On the other hand, swimming allowed young people to show off their bodies to each other, even as young children played in the water.

Of course, consumption is one of the most popular stereotypes of global culture. At the beginning of Reform and Opening, the Shekou People’s Government bought the Minghua from France and docked it in the port. This international cruise ship symbolized the Industrial Zone’s willingness to go into the world and engage on its own terms. After the cultural revolution, any kind of consumption was viewed as “bourgeois.” In 1984 Deng Xiaoping boarded the Minghua and, pleased with what he saw, wrote the four characters for Sea World (海上世界), which now grace the ship’s entrance. Consequently, throughout the 80s, the Minghua not only symbolized exotic consumption, but also legitimated using the market to satisfy those desires.

The modern economy is located in cities, rather than in rural areas. In terms of cultural ecology, this has two important effects. First, is transformation of economic structures. Instead of relying on agricultural rhythms, the economy relies on industrial rhythms. For example, product life cycles instead of seasons. This means that innovations become important in terms of the market, but also production schedules run according to the market with “high” seasons before Christmas or other seasons. In addition, the location of factories is not dependent on natural conditions but on social conditions, such as levels of infrastructure, access to markets, and price of labor. When Kaida and Sanyo entered China, both Hong Kong and Japan had already passed through this first stage of industrial development and were developing higher value industries at home.

Second, industrialization catalyzes large-scale demographic transformation. People leave the old economy, which was located in rural areas to live in cities. However, as a general rule, people do not migrate as communities or even as families, but rather as individuals who take up a specific job. This means that social life also changes. In rural areas, human relations were based on traditional social ties, including family, local traditions and language, and religion. In cities, however, modern social ties are created by individuals, primarily through work but also through other institutions such as schools, professional associations, news media, and clubs.

After lunch at Shekou’s Beijing restaurant, participants reflect on how diverse life trajectories converged in Shekou.  We took advantage of Shekou’s rich cultural resources, visiting the Sanyo Commemorative Exhibition, Nvwa, and the Shekou Museum of China’s Reform and Opening. At each of these historic landmarks, participants discussed topics such as, have you ever worked in a factory? What landmarks best represent a community? And What were you (or your parents) doing in 1978? These questions helped us to “flesh out” Shekou’s cultural geography. On the one hand, we were able to explore how larger, global trends have shaped our lives. On the other hand, we realized that by adapting to these global trends, we were also giving the city its vitality and dreams.

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