When I first moved to Shenzhen in 1995, I lived at Shenzhen University, which at the time was located on the northern banks of Shenzhen Bay and boasted oyster farming on just beyond its campus border. In fact, for the first decade that I was in Shenzhen (1995-2005), land reclamation and the reconstruction of the coastline was one of the major ongoing infrastructure projects, even as the city shifted its economic emphasis from manufacturing to innovation. So for over a decade, I walked reclaimed land. As the landfill settled, grass grew, squatters came and went, and the city itself “washed its feet and stepped on land,” an expression that was used in the 1990s to describe the transformation of farmers into urban residents. Locally, the expression referred to how local villagers left their paddies and fish ponds to become landlords, while in terms of migrants, it referred to migrant workers who left their home villages to work in factories. Continue reading
Several days ago, I walked from Coastal City (海岸城) to Shenzhen Talent Park (深圳人才公园). Previous walks–now long ago and far away, and besides that was a different city–had me wandering the reclaimed land behind Coastal City. However, the new coastline is as firmly in place as anything on shifting sands. What’s more, its a popular destination for families and this popularity deserves comment. After all, people are walking from the old new coastline (at roughly Houhaibin Road) to its newest coastline, a walk that takes at least fifteen minutes one way. Below are images that give a sense of the layout of the new park. In the maps, the purple line is Houhaibin Road, the approximate old new coastline. Continue reading
When I first came to Shenzhen in 1995, the idea was to find a group of people who were willing to be interviewed, fill spiral notebooks with handwritten notes, and return to Rice to write-up said notes in 1996, or at the very latest, 1997 and then writing my way into an academic position. That didn’t happen. Instead, I stayed in Shenzhen until 1998, finished the dissertation in 1999, held a post-doc for one year, and then began the transition from trying to secure a tenure-track offer at a US university to figuring out what an American ex-pat might do in Shenzhen, which was itself transitioning from being a manufacturing hub into an innovation city. Continue reading
The first week in ancient Heshun (腾冲市和顺古镇) was a rush to the senses. Clean air and clear skies set off renovated homes and fields of rape flowers, while at night it was possible to count stars. We ate bean porridge seasoned with local chili sauce and stood in line to eat bean cake rolls, and as we left the restaurant we brushed our hands against the cool surface of volcanic stone. Although roads now thread through protected forest areas, nevertheless tourism has transformed Heshun’s “scenic area,” which costs 55 yuan to visit. The ticket includes entry to the town’s main historic attractions. Consequently, “scenic” Heshun is as modern as anywhere else in China: within its narrow allies, tourists navigate a smorgasbord of imported goods and plastic containers, fluffy kittens and easy-going golden retrievers, as well as stores selling luxury items such as Myanmar jade, “southern red” jade, silver jewelry, and local ceramics.
In 2006, I visited Dafen Oil Painting Village for the first time. This was several years before Dafen became an important landmark–both in and outside China–in the Shenzhen imaginary. This was also over a decade before the metro system connected Dafen to downtown. In fact, even the road signs reflected the segregation between “Shenzhen” and the rest of the city. Consequently, the first time I visited Dafen I experienced it as a typical urban village that produced an atypical product.
Heshun is a township located in Tengchong, which these past few years has been heavily promoted by the Yunnan Tourist industry. Heshun is indeed a fun place to stop off and explore for a day or two. In addition to enjoying great local food, jade, hot springs, and Bai ethnicity architecture, tourists can learn about the role of Han Chinese in the history of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and the mainland territory of Malaysia. In Heshun, specifically, Han families tell multiple stories of cross-border family ties with settlements in Myanmar. In fact, in the Cun Ancestral Hall, the jeweled portraits of important ancestors were produced in Myanmar, while last year the wood for renovating the ancestral hall was imported from Myanmar. According to the tour guide, the wood cost over 5 million rmb.
The Myriad Transformations comprises sixty-four images that I created using photographs taken between 2002 and 2010. These dates are arbitrary but not random, marking the purchase of my first digital camera (August 2002) and the decision to my rudimentary photoshop skills to create a project to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (during an artist residency at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, December 2008-January 2009). I finished the images in 2010. In the process of saving and transferring these files to smaller drives with larger storage capacity, many of the original photoshop files were lost. What remains as a complete set are the files I created to print photographs of the images in 2011 or 2012. I reopened one of these files in January 2019 and realized they were more interesting in retrospect than they had been when I made them precisely because over the past decade (2010-2020), Shenzhen has re-invented itself yet again, and suddenly, abruptly, we see the latent structure of today in images that once upon a time seemed definitive, eternal even. Continue reading