You may be wondering, how much more literal a representation of a cultural ecology can we get than that of a prospector walking a grid on reclaimed land? Not many prospected on the rubble beneath Coastal City, circa 2006, but for a few brief years–after the fill had dried but before it had settled–the stretch of bay which would become Coastal City, the Nanshan Cultural Area, including the Shenzhen Bay Arena and Talent Park gave rise to a strange ecology of squatters, tree farmers, hi-tech garbage pickers, and children who set off firecrackers at the city’s edges. The images below, for example, were taken one overcast day in April 2006 at the former site of a squatting community and the future site of the Tencent building. That day, several men had driven onto the land fill in order to fly their planes.
For years, it was easy to dislike Shenzhen, especially if one came (as I did) from a wealthier part of the world, where the coffee was good, where the libraries plentiful and the second hand bookstores idiosyncratic, and where thoughts of immanent demise were entertaining, bordering on high-art even. Clearly, this disdain for Shenzhen was not purely literary and I have ranted elsewhere on the snarky profiles that young white men who couldn’t speak Chinese and didn’t know anything about the history of modern China churned out for several years. In retrospect, I believe it was easy to dislike the city not simply because it was relentlessly industrial in its rush to the future, but also because that rush seemed straight out of bad science fiction. The out dated aesthetic combined with the best-we-can-afford architecture made Shenzhen dreaming seem tawdry–even before most of the city had been built. We didn’t need, like William Gibson and his collaborator, Michael St. John Smith to go back to the future to discover the seeds of our own destruction being planted by scientists and creepy politicians; we thought we were watching it unfold before-the-fact and yes, there was a certain pleasure to thinking oneself to be right.
Today, of course, even as the next batch of white men infiltrate Huaqiangbei to pursue their maker dreams (and yes, they are as quick to mansplain Shenzhen as the first batch, but this time its a good thing) the image of prospecting takes on a whole new meaning. I mean, we’re always already poised at the edge of somebody’s ruined city, even if its the same city that keeps reappearing (hello, NYC) . . . or have I misunderstood the genre?