A friend from northern China once said (and I’m paraphrasing a long ago memory of Shenzhen, circa 1995), “If you want to see Chinese culture, go to Beijing, Xi’an or Shanghai. Even Tibet has more culture than Shenzhen.”
Her pointed point was: if you’re doing cultural anthropology (and I was!), go to a Chinese city with actual culture. Even the ethnic minorities have culture. Shenzhen, not so much. In fact, she also explained that Taiwan felt more ‘Chinese’ than Shenzhen did. When asked to elaborate, she explained that in Taipei, she had been able to speak Mandarin. In contrast, in Guangdong it was difficult to find people who willingly spoke Mandarin, let alone fluently.
Of course, nearly thirty years (!!!) later, Shenzhen has come to represent China in ways that Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai do not. Moreover, Shenzhen is often held up as the most open of the first-tier four (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen). Shenzhen isn’t China’s past, my friends assure me, but its future, which is why, Shenzhen’s response to Covid-elsewhere is worth noting. How are Shenzheners positioning themselves and their city vis-a-vis perceived failures of Covid management in Shanghai?
Shenzhener’s impressions of the other first-four cities suggests the contours of its cultural geography. Most Shenzheners aren’t from any of the big-four cities, instead they’re from second- and third-tier cities or nearby rural areas. They came to Shenzhen to make a better life for their families. Indeed, more often than not, Shenzheners’ cultural geography is an experiential geography, reflecting how people from outside the big-four were treated when they visited Beijng, Shanghai and/or Guangzhou.
Beijing is difficult to live in, they say–bad air, horrible traffic, and the overpriced, but not really tasty food. Moreover, you can’t get a job without connections. Guangzhou is Cantonese, they say–it’s the city for people who want traditional cultural, and a more laidback lifestyle, and the food! Shenzhen people make road trips to eat in Guangzhou because the food really is that good and so fairly priced!!! But Shanghai, they emphasize, Shanghai is civilized. They sign and keep contracts; they are the country’s financial hub; their street culture is modern and edgy, yet there are all kinds of traditional amusements to be found in its alleyways; students are bilingual, and; they make tasty food for all budgets. The only problem is that they discriminate against outsiders (排外). In contemporary Shenzhen, Shanghai is an aspirational landmark. It’s proof that Chinese cities can be international a la Tokyo, London or New York.
Many of you know, that early on Shenzheners looked to Hong Kong for their international cues. Shen Kong–its opportunities and its boundaries, its styles and slang–was situated explicitly at the edge of neidi and the threshold of the outside world (guowai). But since the Universiade, circa 2011, Shenzheners have tended to see Hong Kong less as an aspirational landmark and more as a cautionary tale. Indeed, the online schadenfreude that Shenzheners expressed during Hong Kong’s recent omicron outbreak indicates how far they have distanced themselves from their neighbor. Nevertheless, Hong Kong and Shanghai remain important landmarks in Shenzhen’s cultural geography.
As Shanghai starts its ten-day battle with a covid shutdown that can be read as half-assed, Shenzheners are expressing smuggish sympathy: we’ve been there and now will take care of you. Indeed, on March 30, Shenzhen sent 500 tons of food to Shanghai.
So, I’ve translated some online comments that give insight into Shenzhen’s online cultural geographies and one axis of city pride, with a focus on the Hong Kong – Shenzhen – Shanghai relations.
Shenzhen is too awesome, when she was under attack by Covid, she also had to take care of Hong Kong. She’s just returned to normal order, and has to support Shanghai. It really is like genie from Aladdin’s lamp had come to Shenzhen, where all three wishes can be satisfied. 深圳真的是太牛了，自己被疫情冲击的时候，还要顾着香港，刚刚恢复正常秩序，又支援上海。真的是阿拉灯神灯来深圳，深圳都可以满足他三个愿。
Commentary: I find it particularly revealing that as Shenzhen’s economy has suffered since 2020, and especially the ways in which entrepreneurial businesses have gone under during the past month, economic activity is now being described not only as magical, but as magic that originates somewhere else.
Those who eat pig’s foot rice pot are assisting those who drink coffee, Shenzhen is great!!! Shenzhen is not only good at managing the epidemic, but also does everything well. The 500 tons of vegetables have been pre-packaged in family-sized (five pounds) packages. 吃猪脚饭的援助喝咖啡的，深圳太棒了！！！深圳不光是疫情管理的好，做事也精致，500吨蔬菜还都是打包好的家庭套装（五斤），到了就能直接发，太给力！
Commentary: The classification of Shenzhen as a city of working class migrants and Shanghai as a city of bougie coffee drinkers is interesting because the class critique (and its displacement onto national cultural geographies) in this quotation are pretty explicit. Pigs food rice pot are from the Chaozho-Shantou area and pig’s foot rice pot restaurants are one of the most common restaurants in the city’s urban villages. In Shenzhen, migrant laborers eat pig’s foot rice pot, while the middle class and returning overseas students drink coffee.
Genie: you have three wishes; Shenzhen: what do you think I should wish for?; Genie: ah, maybe give them to Shanghai. 神灯：三个愿；深圳：你说吧。神灯：额，送上海吧。
Commentary: Again, still with the magic resolution to problems that are arguably systematic.
Supply Hong Kong, protect Shenzhen, support Shanghai. I really love great Shenzhen. 供应香港，保障本地，支援上海。我好爱我的大深圳❤️
Commentary: Pretty explicit and to the point.
Once again we witness Shenzhen speed! It’s been hard for and repeated outbreaks made Shenzheners miserable. Nevertheless, we still help those in need. Well done, great Shenzhen. 再一次见证深圳速度！深圳本身已经很困难了，反反复复的疫情已经让深圳人苦不堪言了，依然义无反顾的去帮助要帮助的人，为我们大深圳点赞。
Commentary: Shenzhen speed, indeed. One of the things I noticed during the lockdowns was not so much speed, as the fact that the city was on call 24-hours a day. Friends who worked from home said that they were working more than they did in the office. In a post on Shenzhen speed as simulaneity, I have speculated that Shenzhen speed is less about how fast individuals work and more about keeping everyone working at the same time.
I suddenly remembered that our Guangzhou brothers sent us 5,000 pounds of food, transmitting true energy. 突然想起广州兄弟给我们送的5000斤菜，传递真能量。
Commentary: Yes, there was much Guangdong press about how the surrounding cities–Huizhou, Heyuan, Dongguan and Guangzhou–came to Shenzhen’s aid. Less viral press about how Shenzhen relied on its neighbors, however.