“Big Whites (大白)” are the omnipresent and seemingly omnipotent figures of China’s 2022 lockdown, so named for their white full-body hazmat suits. Big Whites have been the Chinese government’s social interface for managing the Omicron outbreak. Big White teams consist of medical workers, police officers, community office representatives, and volunteers who come (as the government repeatedly emphasizes) from all walks of life. In their capacity as service providers, Big Whites conduct COVID tests, deliver food to residents in locked-down buildings, and coordinate other public services within a designated area. However, Big Whites are also the public face of COVID security. They conduct building sweeps for testing holdouts, they act as gatekeepers at locked-down estates and neighborhoods, and they patrol locked-down areas to ensure everyone else is in their homes.
The moniker “Big White” has a double origin story. First, it derives from the gear that the management teams wear. In addition to being fully masked, hands are gloved and shoes are covered. There is a turquoise blue stripe which runs along suit seams and some Big Whites have personalized their suits with magic marker inscriptions. Second, “Big White” is also the Chinese translation for the plus-sized inflatable healthcare robot named Baymax, a character from the 2014 Disney film Big Hero 6. In the film, Baymax teams up with 14-year-old robotics prodigy Hiro Hamada to save their hometown San Fransokyo from an evil supervillain. Baymax and Hiro team-up with four other nerds to form a band of high-tech warriors against evil uses of technology especially biotech.
In a 23 March post on the English language WeChat account, EyeShenzhen, author Li Dan explained the connection between pandemic work teams and an animated film: “Chinese netizens use it [Big White] as a nickname for frontliners who are fighting the COVID-19 pandemic because they wear white protective coveralls on the job, and they work selflessly to protect the safety of the public.”
This essay touches upon two interrelated issues in the social media representations of Big Whites in Shenzhen—the gender of caregiving and the role of animation in conceptualizing pandemic management.
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.
Two months ago, I walked from the old Bao’an urban center to Shanghe Village. I first walked this area in 2007, taking pictures of a village renewal project, which focused on demolishing and upgrading the old village settlement. The area exemplifies the first generation of formal upgrades that occurred in the mid-2000s, beginning after rural urbanization was completed in 2004–large public spaces, residential towers, and newly constituted rural identities, comprising the village stock-holding limited company, Qing-era ancestral halls and temples. In the background, traces of the village’s manufacturing history are still visible.
Biked around Qianhai this morning. It reminded me of the early construction in Hi-Tech park, but on steroids. Not sure what I think about this aesthetic other than it photos better than it lives. It’s as if our cities are now 3D-printed renderings. No small food streets, no everyday life, but perhaps in three years (or so) we’ll be able to bike along the coast and take amazing pictures. Sigh.
A great Shenzhen neighborhood brings together several generations and types of housing. There is usually an urban village or two, danwei housing that was built before 2000 (more or less), and a larger mall complex that brings in the subway. When these clusters of different building types are located within walking distance of each other, you end up with a thriving independent food scene, affordable housing for singletons and low-income families, and upscale spaces that provide air-conditioned comfort for a cup of coffee or a cram school.
Among 90s generation immigrants (who are twenty-something or just turned 30), Meilin has become popular because it not only provides a diversity of housing and shopping options, but also because it is centrally located; anyone who lives here is looking at relatively quick commutes to work. Nearby urban villages are also popular among low-income families, who can rent two-bedroom apartments for 3,000-4,000, which is expensive, but doable with two parents working and an elder who watches children.
The popularity of this kind of mixed housing neighborhoods means that Shenzhen doesn’t have enough elementary school places where most families live. Historically, Shenzhen has lacked school places relative to population, but that was managed through hukou. However, since the city has allowed the children of long-term residents to attend elementary and middle school, high-density schooling has increasingly become an issue in the city, especially in neighborhoods like Meilin, where low-income families live.
I was playing with the 1866 map of Xin’an County (above) and ended up labeling three important sites on the map–Chiwan, Nantou, and Xixiang. These are the important sites on what used to be called Dachan Bay, and is now known as Qianhai. The reference to all these place names is “Nantou,” which is the colloquially name for the Xin’an County Seat. “Xixiang” means “Western xiang” because it was west of Xin’an. Qianhai means “Front Sea” and Houhai means “Back Sea,” and both are named with respect to Xin’an. Chiwan, of course, was the site of departure for the Western Seas in the Ming and then the South China Sea in the Qing.
The historical relationship between these three places has been gradually restructured since the establishment of the PRC in 1949. First, the County Seat was moved from Nantou to Shenzhen. In practical terms, this meant moving from the PRD to the Kowloon-Canton Railroad. It also meant that Xixiang became the most important town on Qianhai. Second, in 1979, the development of the Shekou Industrial Zone incorporated Chiwan into the new port area. Third, when the Second Line was fixed in 1982, it was drawn just north of Nantou. The new county seat was built up between Nantou and Xixiang. This new county seat was called Bao’an, after the rehabilitated name of the county.
Most recently, this area has been restructured as Qianhai, within the context of the Greater Bay Area. The borders of the Qianhai area run parallel to the coastline (new, reclaimed, but another story), but do not include Xixiang. In other words, what is being restructured as the city’s future are Shekou and Bao’an, while Nantou has been repositioned as a tourist site and Xixiang is on the rise as a residential area.
Below are some impressions of Xixiang, its history, and residential diversity.
In December 2020, the central government called for speeding up rural modernization (加快农业农村现代化). As elsewhere on the planet, this means industrialization, more Science and Technology R&D, and a new role for Shenzhen in the region! (I know that’s what we care about.) Anyway, a few days ago, I visited the Huizhou City Shennong Fragrant Orchid Valley Ecological Agriculture Science and Technology Ltd. (惠州市神农兰香谷生态农业科技有限公司), which is a grape farm, where no grapes would naturally grow, let alone thrive. So what’s the connection to Shenzhen?
So, here’s a photograph that confused me for way too long. It pops up on Baidu, when I search “深圳老照片”. It was not immediately apparent to me, however, when and where this landscape existed. And then I stumbled upon a map of Futian Commune and it was like, wow, I get it. Here’s the map:
The English and Chinese online introductions to the Steel Structure Museum (深圳中国钢铁博物馆) emphasizes that the history of steel structures is an international story of human progress. The English intro reads: “We are the only museum in China themed steel structure, which is sponsored by CSCEC Science and Industry as an CSR project. Open to the public since May 18 “International Museum Day” of 2017, we narrate the story of steel structure both of China and rest of the world chronologically and in order of technical process, and explain steel structures’ advantages.” The Chinese introduction is a bit more specific but makes the same point: 深圳中国钢结构博物馆是中国唯一以钢结构为主题的博物馆，由中建科工集团有限公司举办。以“行业首创、中国一流”为建馆目标，以历史和科技并重为陈列原则，以实物、模型、图片、文字、多媒体等为展示手段，集收集、展览、研究、教育、交流于一体，融科普性、学术性、趣味性、参与性于一身，旨在让观众了解世界钢结构的发展历程、探寻中国钢结构的崛起之路以及感受钢结构文明的气韵，是建筑科普的重要基地和科技交流的重要平台 (in Chinese).
The museum tracks the use of steel as a sign of human developmental progress, which begins in England, is aestheticized in Paris, flourishes in the US and culminates in China. Important but missing from this march of progress are mentions of Stalin and socialist industrialization via centralized planning and concomitant movements like the Great Leap Forward, where steel was the key (以钢为纲 image below).
Nevertheless, the theme itself is enlightening, especially in the context of global restructuring in the post Cold War era. So, here’s what the museum has me thinking:
Good friend, Jonathan Bach looked up Hilda Nagel, the name on the gravestone in one of the photos from Holy Hill. He found her listed only as the wife of Rev. A. Nagel in a 1910 directory called “List of Protestant Missionaries in China” under the heading for “Basel Missionary Society, Hong Kong, Lilong”. http://divinity-adhoc.library.yale.edu/Resources/Directories/1910_Directory.pdf. He was then able to find the above photo of Rev. A. Nagel titled “Pupils of the Boy’s Boarding School in Lilong (China)” with an annotation “Teacher Tschong, the missionary Nagel, Teacher Tschin”.