There is this sense or perhaps compulsion to make sense of the city through its cultural history, as if history were the whole story and not some narrative, which has been retrofitted to the needs of the moment. This is not to say that the needs of the moment are unimportant, merely to highlight that what counts as history and when history may come to count (so to speak) are themselves effects of other social processes which may or may not have anything to do with what happened, but are (nevertheless) important to understanding what we think happened. All this to say, answering the question “how did Hakka-scapes come to the foreground of Shenzhen’s current embrace of history?” requires double think: we not only need to rummage around to figure out what happened then, but also to posit why then-and-there have been positioned at the origin of here and now.
Mapping the distribution of local dialects once spoken in and around Shenzhen provides a point of departure for theorizing why Hakka-scapes have become the default “origin” of contemporary Shenzhen culture.
Speakers of Dongguan-Bao’an Cantonese (pink) dominated coastal plains and had direct access to the Pearl River and South China Sea, while Nantou Cantonese (dark blue) was the dialect spoken in and around the former county seat of Xin’an County, which is today known as “Nantou Ancient City.” In contrast, Hakka speakers (light blue) occupied the area’s mountainous interior. Although they had rice paddies and lychee orchards, nevertheless they did not have direct access to the Pearl River. Speakers of Weitou Language (orange) and Dapeng Creole (light green) comprised the cultural linguistic periphery to the Cantonese and Hakka core of Xin’an County. Weitou speakers occupied a small valley, where they had access to the Pearl River and South China Sea via Shenzhen Bay. Lack of arable land, however, constrained the expansion of Weitou villages. Consequently, while Weitou villages were considered “local,” nevertheless, they remained smaller than and subordinate to Dong-Bao Villages. This situation was more extreme on Dapeng Bay, where arable land was at a premium and the majority of villages survived through deep-sea fishing and trade.
Circa 1979, at the practical start of Reform and Opening, Shenzhen’s historic cultural geography again produced significant social and economic differences, albeit with unexpected consequences. Weitou speaking Shenzhen Market became a hub of cross-border commerce, while “Luohu” referred to the SEZ’s earliest “downtown” area. In the SEZ, this cross-border community was known as “Shen Kong,” a shortened version of the expression “Shenzhen Hong Kong.” In Hong Kong, this cultural continuity was used to explain many of the informal relationships and formal institutions that boomed during the 1980s and 1990s. By the early 1990s, Luohu was a commercial hub, while low-end assembly manufacturing was primarily located either along the Kowloon-Canton Railway with stations in Shenzhen and Buji, as well as in Dong-Bao townships (light blue on the map) and villages, with products hauled to Hong Kong or Shekou for export to other places throughout the world.
During Shenzhen’s roughly 25-year manufacturing boom (1980-2005), its Hakka territory remained underdeveloped. This meant that traditional compounds and villages were not demolished. Instead, “new villages” were built next to traditional homesteads, creating a patchwork of old and new villages that were situated in relatively rural areas. The only exception to this trend was Buji because the Hakka market was the second stop on the Kowloon-Canton (Guangzhou) Railway, allowing for goods to be shipped directly to the Port of Hong Kong. By the time Shenzhen began developing its historically Hakka territory, circa 2005, the city’s economic strategy shifted from manufacturing to innovation. In this new environment, Hakka compounds and villages were no longer considered “backward,” but suddenly and abruptly recoded as “historic.”
Established in 2006, the Guanlan Woodblock Print Base was part of this developmental recoding of the city’s landscape. The Print Base held its first woodblock print biennale in 2007 and moved to Ox Lake Paddy Village (牛湖大水田村) in 2008, occupying and renovating three Hakka Compounds as artist residences and office space in addition to building a state-of-the-art print studio. By the time I visited for the first time in 2009, Guanlan was the third Hakka site incorporated into the municipal cultural apparatus. The first was Dapeng Garrison (大鹏所城), a military installation in the eastern part of the city. The second was Crane Lake Compound, which is now the Hakka Folk Custom Museum (深圳客家民俗博物馆鹤湖新居) in Luoruihe Village, Longgang (罗瑞合村). A visit to any of these Hakka areas not only belies the idea of Shenzhen’s history as a tabula rosa, but also forces us to consider the ways in which cultural heterogeneity has shaped the landscapes of southern China.
Ideologically, Hakka-scapes have resonated as Shenzhen’s cultural “origin” not only because Hakka speakers migrated to the area from other parts of China, but also because their non-local status justified unequal legal status. Historically, Guan-Bao and Weitou speakers have been considered “local (bendi or punti). In contrast, the expression “Hakka” literally means “Guest People,” indicating that Hakka speakers lived in the area at the sufferance of Locals. In other words, although Hakka villages have two- and sometimes 300-year histories in the area, nevertheless traditionally they have enjoyed fewer rights than Locals. The most glaring instance of this structured inequality was the right to sit for the imperial exam, where of every ten seats eight were reserved for locals and two for “guests” (for more on the rise of Local and Hakka ethnicity and concomitant political and economic consequences see Helen Siu and David Faure, co-editors Down to Earth: the Territorial Bond in South China).
The questions “why hakka-scapes” and “why now” are interesting because in the twenty-odd years that I’ve lived and worked in Shenzhen, the city’s intellectuals have gone from lamenting that “Shenzhen has no Culture (深圳没有文化)” to promoting “cultural economy (文化经济)” as a means of keeping up its GDP. Of course, the meaning of “C/culture” has undergone revision. In the 1990s, the statement “Shenzhen has no Culture” primarily meant that the city had no recognizable classical Chinese culture–“Culture” capital C if you will. More recently, the idea of small c “cultural economy” has referred to creative industries–design and architecture, for example–that were once thought to be a way through the postindustrial forest. Today, folks are more likely to associate Shenzhen’s future with information technology (IT), nevertheless innovation more generally is considered part and parcel with “culture.” In other words, in Shenzhen debates over C/culture have also been efforts to claim the city’s history as a resource for future development.