Just when I thought it was safe to go out in public without having to refute the fishing village myth and the city’s nets-to-riches origins, I attended a meeting organized for foreigners visiting Shenzhen. The host (from England via Beijing) asked me point blank to talk about the city that used to be a fishing village. Clearly, my efforts to get a more accurate first impression into the world have not been as successful as I had hoped. Sigh.
There was, however, an unexpected silver line to this encounter; I’ve streamlined my takedown!
Shenzhen as a place name referred to a market town, which was the County Seat of Bao’an. Second, the territory that today we think of as “Shenzhen” used to be known as “Bao’an.” Thus, there are two levels of analysis at which the fishing village myth fails to help us understand Shenzhen. Factually, there was never a fishing village called Shenzhen. Also, development in the city was not a case of expansion from a single epicenter until all of Bao’an was occupied, but rather, the component elements of Bao’an all became epicenters for development. Integrating these diverse elements into a single city has been the real work of urban planning in Shenzhen.
There was a second and more interesting silver lining to this encounter.
After the event, as I was mulling and redrafting my response in the silence of my own head, I realized something I hadn’t noticed before: Shenzhen is the only city in the PRD that changed its name due to reform and opening up. While other counties, such as Huizhou, Dongguan, Zhuhai and Jiangmen, for example, eventually were elevated from rural to urban status, none of them changed their name in the process. So, there’s a direct and easy to follow in writing the history of Huizhou County to Huizhou City, Dongguan County to Dongguan City, Zhuhai County to … In contrast, we speak of Bao’an County to Shenzhen City, which not only complicates the telling of history, but also begs the question: WHY? Why use the name Shenzhen, rather than simply calling the new city, “Bao’an?”
And my head was no longer a tranquil place. I don’t actually know the answer to this question. I suspect that the reason is tied to Shenzhen’s place on the KCR and to the town’s importance on postwar Hong Kong maps, which tend to include Shen Chuen / Shum Chun. But I don’t have enough evidence to make any claims. I’ve started asking around, and hope to encounter someone who’s heard something from someone (six degrees of anthropology, anyone?) In the meantime, however, I’m throwing this question out into the universe; why is Shenzhen called Shenzhen and not called Bao’an City?