coastal mediations: what is desired and what can be sold

Shenzhen has beautiful coastlines, especially in Dapeng District, where the coastline hasn’t been over-reclaimed and recreational areas still remain. Here’s the the thing, however. In order to generate income, most Dapeng beaches have been stutter-stepped developed within the city’s tourist industry. I know, this is what capitalist inclinations do to coastlines–remake water’s edge into commodity. So, in a manner of speaking, nothing new here. Why then visit Shayuchong 沙鱼涌 and/or Xichong 溪涌? Well, two reasons (in addition to going for a swim). First, these beaches make visible what a 涌 is, allowing us to imagine life before agriculture, when coastal dwellers first settled the area 7,000 years ago. Second, capitalism packages history and geography in order to profit in the present. So, when we’re visiting Shenzhen beaches, we’re not only looking at what sells, but also what is allowed to be sold, trying to figure out how red capitalist tides have restructure the coast since the late 1980s.

Both Shayuchong and Xichong are located in Kuichong Subdistrict (葵涌街道), which traverses the Dapeng isthmus, facing Dapeng Bay in the south and Daya Bay in the north, map above. Impressions from yesterday’s trip to Shayuchong and Xichong, below.

Shayuchong is something of a cypher that begs a pirate-centric history. According to contemporary online posts that target tourists, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, Shayuchong was the most prosperous port in eastern Xin’an-Huizhou area, connecting land-locked mountain settlements to the South China Sea. During the colonial area, Shayuchong was a haven for gambling. Then after Chaozhou, Shantou and other coastal cities fell to the Japanese during WWII, Shayuchong became the only postal station in the region, bringing in remittances and packages from Overseas Chinese to family in inland settlements. Today, envelopes with the Shayuchong stamp are highly valued among collectors. In 1946, the PLA liberated the town, which is today an important site for teaching red history–the history of China’s Revolution. Located on the northern banks of Dapeng Bay, until recently Shayuchong was primarily accessible by sea and even today, buildings hug the banks of the Shayu River flat against vertical cliffs. In English, Shayuchong would be called an inlet. However, the Chinese 涌 emphasizes the surge of the water into the sea.

Similar to Shayuchong, Xichong is a coastal area that since the late 1980s has served as a resort area. Originally, it was reserved for cadres and workers from “Shenzhen” comprised Luohu-Shangbu. Subsequently, as part of the post 2010 push to develop coastal tourism, Xichong has gone through several iterations. But the one that has stuck (the 2019 Biennale notwithstanding) is a backdrop for wedding photos. Indeed, because travel out of Shenzhen has been curtailed during zero-Covid, internal tourism has received an unexpected bump, especially the wedding photos industry.

These beaches throb with desire–to secure a more just society (in Shayuchong) and to have a happy future (in Xichong). Indeed, these desires are front and center to what the Shenzhen tourist industry purports to sell, even if at the end of the day all we take home is a glossy photo. Today, I’m cringing. It’s not because hope for the future is foolish, but rather that what is potentially the best in us is so easily reduced to campy scenes for drive-by tourists.

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