When I first came to Shenzhen in 1995, the idea was to find a group of people who were willing to be interviewed, fill spiral notebooks with handwritten notes, and return to Rice to write-up said notes in 1996, or at the very latest, 1997 and then writing my way into an academic position. That didn’t happen. Instead, I stayed in Shenzhen until 1998, finished the dissertation in 1999, held a post-doc for one year, and then began the transition from trying to secure a tenure-track offer at a US university to figuring out what an American ex-pat might do in Shenzhen, which was itself transitioning from being a manufacturing hub into an innovation city.
My earliest attempts to inhabit Shenzhen as someone who might stay for several decades, indeed for a lifetime, forced me to engage the city differently than I had as a researcher with plans to leave as soon as my work was done. Previously I had hung out at the Shenzhen University School of Architecture, chatting with scholars and organizing interviews with urban planners and real estate developers. Suddenly, however, I had to approach these friends not as “interlocutors” but as “connections” who might be willing to help me find a job.
Not unexpectedly, my transformation from superfluous eavesdropper (from the perspective of my friends) to supplicant shifted the contours of these relationships–some deepened, while others dissolved. As an ethnographer, I had thought that–much like a detective–I was tracking social facts in order to theorize something about the ways of the world and what it meant to be human swimming in and against global tides. However, as an expat looking for a job I realized that the experience of inhabiting Shenzhen was more akin to paranormal urban fantasy–the colors were dense and bloodstained, topographic highs and lows stimulated emotional responses, and friends began to expecting more from me. Even as my research had unpacked the hopes and desires that propelled the city’s development, nevertheless it was only as an (admittedly privileged) migrant that I felt how fear and suspicion have shaped the experience and possibilities of inhabiting Shenzhen.
My first job circa 2004 was teaching English to elementary school students. The school had just opened, but the promised “foreign teacher” did not arrive. In a plot line that was to become central to how I have come to navigate Shenzhen specifically and China more generally, there was a visa snafu. Said teacher couldn’t make it in time for the school’s opening and I was in Shenzhen, I had a visa, and my time was flexible. I agreed to be the substitute teacher until the contracted teacher arrived. I met the entire student body in a cafeteria. The 200+ students lined up by year and class and this first meeting became a call and response of mispronunciation and frazzled nerves. Elementary students need one on one teaching and it is impossible to provide this kind of attention in a class of 50 students, let alone several hundred. Five minutes into the class and all of us wanted to be elsewhere; they squirmed and I yelled.
The school was one of Shenzhen’s experiments, a private institution that offered small size classes and “enjoyable pedagogy,” which in practice meant less homework than in public schools. It also meant that the families who could afford the tuition didn’t actually trust the school to get their children through Shenzhen’s notoriously competitive high school entrance exam (中考 zhongkao). This meant that some homerooms only had four students, while the largest classes had up to twenty students. Over time, as the school grew and found its purpose, this would change especially because the school found a sister high school that solved the need to prepare students for the zhongkao. But during those early years, the fear that the experiment wouldn’t work, worries that teachers would loose their jobs, and anxieties students would be left “without books to read (没书读) shaped everyday interactions in the school. We wanted to be more relaxed about learning, but our survival as a school and as individuals depended on producing results (出成绩)–getting students into top schools either in China or abroad.
In turn, my emotional co-dependencies made me both more aware of and less forthcoming about what I have observed since my position shifted. I did not, as the expression has it “go native,” but rather came to realize that my relationships in Shenzhen were much more important than are abstract relationships with scholars and readers I might never meet.
During the same decade that I was trying to figure out how to make a life for myself in Shenzhen, the city was also restructuring. Beginning in 2005, the government began transitioning from manufacturing to culture and creativity as its core identity. In practice, this became a process of turning industrial parks into “creative parks.” The point, of course, Shenzhen was never just “the world’s factory.” Rather, from the establishment of the SEZ, the city had built its logistics capacity, while the Shenzhen Stock Market was established in 1990, and by the mid 1990s, Huaqiangbei was already the global epicenter for shanzhai phones and IT. What’s more, by the end of the 1990s, real estate development, artistic printing, and high tech manufacturing (eyeglasses and computers, for example) had already been established as important economic sectors. Thus, the push for culture and creativity might more accurately be described as a push to use design to capture higher profits on global supply chains. Suddenly, there was a market–albeit government funded–for art as well as industry. The first biennale, for example, was held in 2005 in a section of the Overseas Chinese Town industrial park that had been scheduled for upgrades and renovation.
My personal transformation and the transformation of Shenzhen dovetailed during the 2007 Shenzhen Biennale. At the time, I was working at the school, but during off hours and weekends, I participated in the Fat Bird / Silo Theater collaboration “Floating Lives.”
This early collaboration made explicit the way art and artists replaced manufacturing and workers in the Shenzhen imaginary. The OCT factories were not demolished. Instead, they were repurposed to creative work. This was intended to jumpstart the city’s creative industries, while modeling how space could be reused. “Floating Lives” told the story of contemporaneous land reclamation, staging the burial of Tianhou, the Goddess of the sea. In retrospect, it is clear that the performance anticipated the way in which real estate came to dominate the city’s everyday operations after 2010, once the coastline had been reclaimed and it was possible to build on this new land.
After the 2007 edition of the biennale, I continued to frequent Overseas Chinese Town because it was the first effort to use culture and art in the economy and was of a piece with efforts to transform Shenzhen into a first-tier city. Indeed in 2007, the transition from manufacturing to creativity was well on display， and during one of my visits to the OCAT Contemporary Art Terminal, I took pictures of myself in the windows of factories that were being renovated as design studios and boutiques. At the time, the transition felt forced–this was not a case of “revitalization” because the factories had been doing okay. Instead, the move to make Shenzhen a center of innovation felt on-the-ground as experimental as any of its other policies had been. Little did we realize, design and innovation as a pillar of the economy was incubating in Huaqiangbei, where we went to purchase shanzhai phones.