…and what happens to people after they leave shenzhen and return home?

Heshun is a township located in Tengchong, which these past few years has been heavily promoted by the Yunnan Tourist industry. Heshun is indeed a fun place to stop off and explore for a day or two. In addition to enjoying great local food, jade, hot springs, and Bai ethnicity architecture, tourists can learn about the role of Han Chinese in the history of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and the mainland territory of Malaysia. In Heshun, specifically, Han families tell multiple stories of cross-border family ties with settlements in Myanmar. In fact, in the Cun Ancestral Hall, the jeweled portraits of important ancestors were produced in Myanmar, while last year the wood for renovating the ancestral hall was imported from Myanmar. According to the tour guide, the wood cost over 5 million rmb.

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I was in Heshun for two weeks, teaching an anthropology at a Spring Festival camp for high school students. The students came from Yunnan and first tier cities with an eye to studying abroad. Before classes started, I went to Heshun for a few days to familiarize myself with the town and figure out what resources we had for an ethnography class. While we were there, a friend from Shenzhen flew in to enjoy the sites with us. We ended up doing a very Shenzhen thing: the first day of our time together, we went to historic sites and ate local delicacies. The second day, we made an appointment with a real estate agent to see nearby developments because no mater how expensive these homes are in local terms, they are cheap by Shenzhen standards. What’s more, the quality of construction and design is often better than anything we could afford in Shenzhen. So while on vacation, Shenzhen folks often visit real estate developments with an eye to purchasing a retirement home or investing (because real estate is considered more reliable than the stock market).

I enjoy tagging along on these trips because the conversation shows up aspects of local life that you don’t actually learn about on the tourist track, which is inevitably defined with respect to “ancient” China and “local” customs. This trip, for example, our guide was a young woman from a small mountain village of roughly 30+ households. Xiao Xu was–to use a term from my father–a “go getter.” After graduating from high school, she went to Tengchong where she was a wage laborer. She has waitressed, worked in a factory, and sold appliances on commission. She became a real estate agent several months ago. Her territory is Heshun and her potential clients are tourists who fly in during the Chinese New Year and National Day holidays. In contrast, most of her high school classmates got married before they were twenty and settled into local lives, while their husbands left for a coastal city, sending (or not) remittances and returning (or not) over Chinese New Year. Xiao Xu emphasized that the best decision she ever made was holding off getting married until she was twenty-four. Her friends, she said, have many regrets.

I also learned that about five years ago, the Yunnan government began supporting the development of tourism in the province’s third and fourth tier provincial cities–like Tengchong. By 2017, policies included more real estate development, with an emphasis on second and retirement homes. These new developments tend to be either collaborations between large out-of-province enterprises and local governments, or commercial projects that are given to national level enterprises, which (again and unsurprisingly) are either provincial level or out-of-province. The Tengchong Tusholdings Ice Kingdom (启迪冰雪小镇), for example, construction has begun on the state of the art indoor ski slopes and frostbitten recreation areas. The Ice Palace is the central attraction in a development that combines innovation and incubation with high-end living, including villas and triplexes with private gardens. Then we visited a development that was located just outside the city limits. Ground breaking was just over a year ago. The development will have a volcano mouth theme park as well as hospitals and commercial areas for people willing to live roughly 40 minutes from downtown Tengchong.

All this, of course, was interesting, but what actually caught my attention was that many of the young people directly interfacing with the out-of-province clients (such as ourselves) had returned from working in Dongguan and Shenzhen. Our driver, for example, had spent two years in Dongguan working in a factory. Like Xiao Xu, he had married late, gaining experiences outside traditional relationships. At another development in the area, our guide was a Shenzhen University Normal School graduate and had worked as a teacher in Longgang for several years before returning home. Again, she chose to marry “late” and to return home “because there are more opportunities here.” At another, our guide had also worked in “Guangdong.” The point, of course, is that these returnees had both local connections and the social skills, including speaking standard Mandarin to interact with clients. What’s more, they were enthusiastic about Tengchong as well as improving their own standard of living.

All this to say that during my time in Heshun, many of my interactions were with people who were either from Shenzhen or had returned to Tengchong from the PRD. Objectively, I had “known” that many young people were choosing to leave Shenzhen because of a shrinking entry level job market, but this was the first time I had experienced first hand how returnees are mediating the expansion of national developers from the coast to the interior. On the one hand, they know and love their hometowns. On the other hand, they are able to communicate this love to out-of-province clients in terms that are both sincere and highlight the economic potential of a second home here (and not, for example, in neighboring Ruili).

(Apologies. I just realized that the photos I thought I took of the real estate tour are missing in action most likely because my i-phone and I aren’t really in sync. So it’s just a written account of my Shenzhen elsewhere real estate experience. Sigh.)


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