processing shajing oysters, the postcard edition

One of the purposes of this blog has been to document changes in Shenzhen’s cultural geography. A second purpose has been to observe changes in what is represented and how the representation aesthetic have also shifted. Sometimes it’s like we’re not seeing and talking about the same city. Postcards from a long-ago Shajing oyster culture museum give a sense of those discrepancies–what was thought valuable and who was able to transform cultural geography into what kind of story.

I was going through stuff collected at various Shenzhen museums and came across commemorative postcards from the first Shajing oyster industry museum (蚝文化博物馆) in the old offices of the oyster commune. The 12-card series takes you step by step through the production process. The original scissor cuttings were by Rao Kaiyu (饶凯玉) and the block prints were made by Chen Yongshen (陈永申). The aesthetic strikes me as simultaneously folksy and optimistic in the way of traditional socialist realism. The sun is large and bright, the workers dedicated and skilled, and the results are shared with the world.

The postcards were produced as part of anthropologist, Cheng Jian (程建)’s ongoing efforts to write Shajing’s cultural history. He trained at Zhongshan University and was assigned to the Shajing Market (镇) cultural station in the 1990s. He immediately turned his gaze to the local oyster industry, documenting the industry and interviewing older practitioners. For years, Chen Jian was one of the main advocates for designating the Shajing oyster industry an important cultural heritage. (What is Cantonese cooking without oyster sauce, after all?)

Cheng Jian’s main obstacle to gaining recognition both for his research and the cultural-historical importance of Shajing was the market (and then street office)’s place in Shenzhen’s self-image. On the one hand, during the first two decades of Reform and Opening, Shajing was infamous for smuggling. On the other hand, up until the late 2010s, it was primarily known as a manufacturing center, with large, messy and unregulated TVE industrial parks. These two features of its most recent cultural geography obscured its deep history, which extended back to the Guangdong salt circuit and the Canton trade at Guangzhou and the role of the Chen family in consolidating oyster production.

In style and content, these postcards are very different from the glossy and social media upgrade that Shajing underwent in 2019, as part of the city’s push to (im)prove its cultural relevance. The architectural studio 趣城 transformed the older section of Shajing into a large-scale exhibition. Not a venue so much as the site itself become an object of observation (images below from the retrofit opening, more images at archdaily). As at Nantou, the cultural retrofit highlighted the contradiction between an “urban village” and “deep history” (沙井古墟:在深圳,一座“城中村”的新生).

In May 2022, in the eighth provincial cultural heritage list, the Shajing oyster industry was designated an intangible cultural heritage (第八批省级非物质文化遗产).

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