In Shenzhen, the ongoing transformation of a rural periphery into a mega-city is the latest chapter in global grabs to control local significance. Located just north of Hong Kong, the Shenzhen area has comprised the Sino-British border since July 1, 1898, when the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory came into effect. Once upon a time, the Sino-Bbeen accomplished through a logic of practical means to endlessly churned out desires and there has been something cut and pastiche about the construction of Shenzhen. What, for example, to make of this advertisement for real east developer Vanke’s East Coast development in Yantian District? What kind of space is implied by the figure of Lifestyle Leading the People?
For several months in 2003, this advertisement for a Vanke real estate development covered the entire side of a building on the northern side of Shennan Road, just next to the parking lot of the Shanghai Hotel, where it was the first advertisement that anyone crossing Huafu Road (formerly Futian Road) on foot or by bus into “Downtown” would see.
At the time, the Shanghai Hotel still functioned as the gateway between “Shenzhen” and the rest of the “Special Zone,” even though after Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour, construction of the Special Zone had rapidly expanded west. Shenzhen’s original “Downtown” was a hodgepodge of commercial areas, green belt, and water resources, as well as residential, industrial areas, and warehouse areas. In practice, “Shenzhen” referred to the commercial area that had emerged on the footprint of the original Shenzhen Market (today Dongmen), which was located about a kilometer north of the train station. From the Dongmen / train station area, “Shenzhen” extended east into residential and park areas, and ultimately to the Shenzhen Reservoir or “East Lake,” which had provided water for Hong Kong since the Dongjiang waterworks went online in 1964. In turn, “Shenzhen” extended west via commercial and industrial areas to the Shanghai Hotel.
Created in 1986, the map of the “Already Developed areas of Luohu-Shangbu in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (below)” suggests the experiential contours of late 20th century “Shenzhen.” The Shanghai Hotel was located in the southwestern corner of an industrial area that had (during the 1990s) transformed into the Huaqiangbei. Other key landmarks include the Bagualing Industrial Zone, the Sungang warehouse district, and the Wenjingdu checkpoint, where container trucks brought goods from Shenzhen to the port of Hong Kong.
Anyway, that sunny afternoon in 2003, I had just crossed Huafu Road from the Shanghai Hotel bus station and was heading into Huaqiangbei to purchase shanzhai dvds and hang out in a coffee shop, when I noticed this advertisement for Vanke’s East Coast development. The text reads: Coastal Living—The Lifestyle that Leads the World. Clearly citing / plagiarizing Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” the advertisement caught me off guard because the transformation of Marianne from a symbol of the French Republic and the personification of liberty and reason into the spirit of Reform and Opening wasn’t meant ironically.
The Vanke advertisement is a straightforward one-to-one substitution of compositional elements from “Liberty Leading the People” to “Lifestyle Leading the World.” According to the Louvre’s website, “Liberty Leading the People” commemorates the Paris uprising of July 27, 28, and 29, 1830, which is known en France as the Trois Glorieuses (“Three Glorious Days”). Delacroix witnessed the uprising and, in a letter to his brother, claimed, “I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade, and although I may not have fought for my country, at least I shall have painted for her.”
In the original painting, Liberty leads an army of male representatives of France’s different estates. In contrast, Coastal Living is walking in a park surrounded by westerners at the beach. And the differences between the painting and the advertisement are, at some level, unsurprising. Instead of a western goddess we have a Chinese goddess. Instead of the tricolor flag of France, we have a red banner. Instead of torn clothing and a bare breast, we have a fashionable frock that covers the nipples. Indeed, it all seems straightforwardly photoshop 101 until we remember that Vanke advertisers must have thought that this image would help them sell real estate and not just any real estate, but second houses in the most underdeveloped district in the Special Zone—the East Coast.
Now, here’s the thing. Yantian was part of the original Special Economic Zone, but was cut off from downtown Luohu by the Wutong Mountain range. In 1986, Shenzhen’s east coast, with the exception of the Shatoujiao area, was The whole of Yantian doesn’t even appear on the 1986 map of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (below), the border between “downtown” and the rest of the SEZ quite prominent, while both sections of New Bao’an County and the Dapeng Peninsula are–literally–not on the map.
Although Shatoujiao (and the cross-border shopping street, Zhong Ying Street) are located on the East Coast, nevertheless the area did not develop as quickly as Downtown and the stretch of Shennan Road that connected downtown to the Nantou Peninsula and then to Shekou for many reasons, but primary among them was distance: bringing manufactured goods from Yantian to Wenjingdu required navigating mountain roads and narrow tunnels. Consequently, in 1993, Luohu was divided into Luohu in the west and Yantian in the east with the aim of developing coastal resources including the port, coastal real estate, and leisure activities. By the time Vanke was selling “East Coast” lifestyles in 2003, Yantian had been independent for a decade and would become the location of the largest terminal of the Port of Shenzhen. Nevertheless, in 2003 Yantian was still way off the beaten trail and for all practical purposes until the development of the Futian Central Business District in the 2010s, the Shanghai Hotel would mark the entrance into “Downtown.”
The image reminds us that the East Coast was part of a larger strategy to develop eastern Shenzhen as a site of coastal lifestyles, in a California-dreaming kind of way. This strategic intent explains the logic of substitution. To the right of the goddess of Coastal Living, for example, a swimmer who looks suspiciously similar to a “Baywatch” extra has replaced Gavroche, a figure from French revolutionary mythology who symbolizes youthful revolt and noble sacrifice. Instead, of wearing a faluche (a black velvet beret) like Gavroche, “Baywatch” wears black swimming trunks. Similarly, a surfer and his girl have replaced the factory worker and a bourgeois gentlemen that Delacroix included in his painting, while a young girl has replaced the kneeling artist. Importantly, in Delacroix’s painting we walk over the bodies of fallen comrades in order to achieve our goals. In contrast, in the Vanke advertisement, the two sunbathing women who replaced the corpses under Liberty’s feet now frame the image.
Nevertheless, inquiring minds want to know: why “Liberty Leading the People?” Surely there are other examples of French romanticism that would have worked just as well as a template for postmodern Chinese coastal living. It is at this moment, however, that it seems to me we take seriously the idea of “liberation” as an underlying “structure of feeling” of Reform and Opening chez Shenzhen, especially the idea of “breakthrough” as the process through which reforms were implemented and openings achieved. Shenzhen has been constructed not only as a spatialized attempt to “break through” the constraints imposed by Maoism, but also to “break through” the hierarchies of the postwar world system; Shenzhen was a space in which China and her people could be “liberated” from the mistakes of Maoism and the inequalities of the world system.
The overlap between national and individual experiences of liberation played a crucial role in the construction of early Shenzhen. Throughout the first decades of Reform and Opening, for example, the Downtown area of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone provided all sorts of opportunities for self-realization and carnal satisfaction that were not only absent in other Chinese cities, but also had been criminalized during the Cultural Revolution. During the 1990s, Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) not only made its fortune through theme parks such as Window of the World, but also by building housing developments such as “Portofino.” In fact, in the early 2000s, OCT joined Vanke in reshaping the East Coast as a place of leisure and foreign fantasy, breaking ground on the“Interlaken” resort area in 2004.
The cut and pastiche logic that makes sense of “Lifestyle Leading the World” helps us to see more clearly the logic of how California Dreaming and European tourist sites were imagined as vehicles for a kind of liberation. In other words, to approach Shenzhen, especially early Shenzhen as merely neoliberal or as merely a site of global expansion is to miss the point of why so many people came and “sacrificed their youth” in the SEZ. These sites were the means by an alternative future became not simply imaginable, but also connected to inchoate desires for another life. Shenzhen was an effort to create an alternative to Maoism.
In retrospect, all this consumption appears to be a glossy trap into the pit of global capitalism. However, dismiss these changes as merely neoliberal without accounting for the sense of liberation that accompanied them is to miss Shenzhen’s appeal both to early migrants and later day arrivals. Shenzhen sparkles and shines, seducing us in a very California kind of way. On first contact we feel free to be you and me in a bikini on the beach. Its only over time that we come to realize the bodies beneath the sand; the corpses of reform and opening–like the corpses of that have sustained American dreaming and French aspirations for a Revolution–have been vanished from the images through which we imagine our way forward.