lion dancing

During the 1990s, when commercial housing first took off in Shenzhen, double lion gates were common. Today, they seem reminiscent of a time when the desire to muscle forward seemed the point of all this development. In retrospect, it is tempting to see in the commercial appropriation of the double lions intimations of the ways in which China Merchants is the successor the British East India Company: from chartered monopoly to state-owned enterprise in the South China Sea via US American containerization. Below, images of the EIC coat of arms and the door to the Shazui ancestral hall, circa 2010.



first look at the belt and road

Its difficult when looking at a map of the proposed Belt and Road and not associate the maritime road with British colonialism, albeit in reverse and more than a century after the fact. But that’s what’s so distressing. When the British parliament dissolved the East India Company (EIC), it did not dismantle the systems of unjust and unjustifiable extraction that EIC had put in place over roughly four centuries of occupation, exploitation, and forced participation in the system. Instead, independence movements saw the rise of local elites who were determined to benefit from the system, justifying their profits with respect to local values and structures of oppression. In other words, it was never just the Brits, but also the Brits and their local running dogs (to use Mao Zedong’s felicitous phrase) and even after Independence, the dogs kept yapping, securing military support from the US and elsewhere (for the distressing tale of the fate of the Third World as a revolutionary ideal, check out The Darker Nations by Vijay Prashad).

The problem, of course, was that the profitability of the British system depended on opium; where would surplus profits (to fund industrialization, for example) come from without monopoly, forced labor, and addiction? Certainly, once India regained control of the Bihar plantations and China retook its ports, both countries were faced with the problem of “surpassing England and catching up with the United States” in the absence of captive markets and a drug monopoly to finance their industrial revolutions. And this may be why Europeans and US Americans fear the Belt and Road: if you’re not a running dog with Chinese characteristics, just what are your options in the new world dis/order (and yes, I’m looking at you, midwestern farmer)?


Map from an early analysis of Belt and Road, eurasia review.

Continue reading

remembered origins

For those who haven’t visited the Shekou Museum of Reform and Opening, it’s worth a trip if only to check out where the story begins. All stories of the Special Economic Zone begin with Deng Xiaoping, however, the historical problems that Deng Xiaoping is said to have solve differ from museum to museum. At the Shenzhen Museum of History, for example, Deng Xiaoping solves the historic problem of colonialism. In contrast, at the Shekou Museum of Reform and Opening, he solves the social problems that were caused by political mistakes–famine during the Great Leap Forward and relative poverty during the Cultural Revolution.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Continue reading

self governing trade zone, thoughts from

Speculation about what the 自贸区 (self governing trade zone) continues to shape all sorts of conversations. On Monday I participated in a public planning forum for the OCT, where comparisons between China Merchants in Shekou and Overseas Chinese Town in its eponymous neighborhood, the OCT illuminated contours of Shenzhen’s history. Four ideas of note popped up.

First, that China Merchants (in Shekou) and OCT (in the OCT) have been the two state owned enterprises most responsible for creating the Shenzhen image. During the post 1992 era, many of the images of reform (in terms of built environment) were of the OCT and its neighborhoods, tourist industry, and theme parks. Continue reading

shekou relaunch

So the Biennale has been extended two weeks. Good news and great press for the curators, the SZ Center for Design, and China Merchants. And that–generating a Shekou Buzz–has been the point of all this productivity, or as the current campaign is called “Shekou Relaunch”.

This afternoon, I attended one of the final scheduled events, a forum on how to renovate the Dacheng Flour Mill, which has been designated the site of the future Shekou a Industrial Culture Center. The program included repurposing the buildings and designing more public space, a visual culture center, a theater, and an office building. The responses hinged on determining the purpose of the renovated buildings; just what does China Merchants hope to accomplish through these renovations? Just what is being launched again? And why?

Indeed, there is both something primal about the campaign; we are setting off, again (再出发), and yet something equally unsettling; again? How many times do we need to remake society? Or is it just the persistent dissatisfaction of capitalism and vague anxiety that we may never get it right?

I actually believe that creative activity makes people happy, but not redundant assembly line production. I have experienced happiness in creative activity that nourishes my connections with others. I am particularly enjoying 302 because it brings together research interests, social commitments and friendships. I also really, really like working with my hands. This seems to me the goal of social transformation; improving the quality of life of family, friends and neighbors, and not just achieving higher economic indicators.

Today, I’m thinking that to the extent that traditional socialist industrial culture aimed to improve the lives of worker, it offers inspiration for possible renovations and building. However, without a discussion about what’s being relaunched and why, another round of pretty and smart and interesting construction seems to me to be beside the point.

2013 szhk biennale of urbanism/architecture, thoughts on

This year’s Biennale occupies two spaces, the The Value Factory (venue A) and The Border Warehouse (Venue B), which are connected by a shuttle bus. Metonyms for Shekou history, the two sites index the industrial zone’s early manufacturing and connections to Hong Kong.

Team Ole Bouman curated The Value Factory with an eye to making it a catalyst for urban change. They cleaned up and slightly modified six areas of original factory complex — the entrance, the machine shop, two silos, the warehouse and the grounds themselves. This clean-up allows the site to be repurposed for new kinds of production. The grounds have been transformed into a garden, for example, and the silos opened for viewing, while the machine shop houses exhibitions as well as spaces for creative encounter, such as workshops, performances, and lectures.

Team Li Xiangning/ Jeffery Johnson conceptualized the Warehouse as a space to reassert the importance of knowledge and research to urban design. The exhibition includes a vast catalogue of investigations into borders and intances of boundary crossing, including a timeline, case studies, videos, installations, and national and regional pavillions. The sponsor, China Merchants has also curated an exhibition of Shekou history, which is displayed in the warehouse.

China Merchants Shekou (which built the ferry terminal and float glass factory) sponsored the fifth edition of the Biennale as part of its Shekou Relaunch campaign, in turn an element of the larger project to rebrand Shenzhen as a creative industry hub. This underplayed, but vital fact predicates visitors’ experience of the Biennale as a cultural enterprise. Creative activity in the Factory produces the knowledge archived in the Warehouse, which in turn provides tools for new creative activity in the Factory… Consequently, although some exhibits critically engage the inequalities that comprise capitalist production, nevertheless the Biennale as a whole ultimately celebrates accumulation as the highest social value.

In this context, my perception of Pierre Bourdieu’s critical analysis of The Forms of Capital abruptly shifts. Instead of a blueprint for socialist intervention, I see a conceptual toolkit for transforming the SEZ into a nexus of cultural industry:

“[C]apital can present itself in three fundamental guises: as economic capital, which is immediately and directly convertible into money and may be institutionalized in the forms of property rights; as cultural capital, which is convertible, on certain conditions, into economic capital and may be institutionalized in the forms of educational qualifications; and as social capital, made up of social obligations (‘connections’), which is convertible, in certain conditions, into economic capital and may be institutionalized in the forms of a title of nobility.”

Thought du jour: I’m not sure if it is necessary the Biennale Borg as it is easily avoided, but I do wonder about my continued participation in these events. To redeploy the theme of this edition: just when do we cross the boundary between engagement and complicity? Or is it more the case that “boundary crossing” is simultaneously both a judgment call and an instance of social speculation?

To get to the Biennale, take the Shekou Subway to Shekou Ferry station and walk about 500 meters. To then move between the spaces, take the shuttle. Or, if in Nanshan, my favorite bus line, the 226 stops at both venues. Jump off at Shekou Ferry Terminal (to visit the Warehouse) or Glass Factory (玻璃厂 to visit the Value Factory). First impressions from The Value Factory in previous post. Impressions from The Border Warehouse, below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

shekou tour — from villages to the new coastline via a few side streets

Wonderful walking tour of Shekou with Huang Weiwen, Director of the Shenzhen Center for Design. Of particular note (in no particular order):

Nanhai Road was the primary artery and all industrial parks and housing were built along that road. This road has pride of place on the original China Merchants plan for Shekou. However, on the same map, the village areas were blank. Moreover, road and infrastructure construction served to isolate, rather than integrate the villages into Shekou society. Nevertheless, public facilities such as hospitals, post offices and schools were built in the border zones between the village and China Merchant settlements.

The craze for creating material traces of a history for Shenzhen continues. Next to the Shekou wet market — which has been externally renovated with LED screens — a strip of village holdings / former factories is being converted into “Fishing Street”, where there will be restaurants and other places of consumption. The design for Fishing Street juxtaposes three different Chinese traditions: Guizhou style houses, bas relief murals of Dan or Tan people fishing history, and palm trees. The Guizhou houses were first seen in the Meillen hotel and apartments, but the style has clearly trickled down. The Dan, of course, were the people who lived on fishing boats, only coming online with land reform during the early Mao era. Before they were used as ornamental topiary, the palm trees were used locally as cash crops to make fans. This new development further deepens other murals and village museums in the area.

The most distressing change? The almost complete privatization of the coastline. The new marina includes a private road to that last stretch of leasure coastline. Indeed, residents may now access the coastline either through the Shenzhen Bay Park or window views from a highrise.

ALso, as we walked from the village areas toward China Merchants developments, I couldn’t help but notice the abandoned telephone booths — they litter the older sections of the city. Moreover, it is only when actually noticing these empty stalls that I realize there are no public phones throughout the newer sections of the city. Instead, we all carry phones (of varying degrees of intelligence.)

Impressions, below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

渔一村:of old men and the landfilled sea

Yesterday’s bloggy romance with the sea continues and although I have shifted my gaze from Cuba to Shekou, it is worth mentioning that the writers’ emphasis on masculine conquest continues; today, in episode 8 of The Transformation of Shenzhen Villages (沧海桑田:深圳村庄三十年), Chen Hong tells the story of Fishing Village 1 (渔一村), Shekou. Again, the story begins in a village, but this is also where similarities between the two narratives end. Hemingway figured human life through the isolated figure of an old man navigating the Caribbean on a rickety skiff and superstition. In contrast, Chen Hong figures humanity through the construction of ports, trading ventures and the world-making connections that they enable, suggesting that the opportunity to launch one’s skiff is itself a political decision which once made determines the fate of villagers. For those who remember the 1988 television documentary, River Elegy (河殇) which linked China’s decline and ultimate humiliation to the Ming decision to ban maritime activity, a not-so-subtle critique of Maoist isolation, Chen Hong’s passion for the sea and the [free trade] world it symbolizes is self-evident.

Episode 8 opens by juxtaposing images of Ming and Qing trade centered on Guangzhou with pictures of the construction of Shekou, reminding viewers that Zheng He (郑和) set forth from or loaded supplies at Chiwan Port at least five times. Lest the viewer forget the consequences of isolation, the opening sequence ends with bleak, black and white footage of a backwater port, overgrown and clogged with weeds, small wooden boats berthed in stagnant waters. Boom! The first explosion opens the door to new world order, which is also, new village order.

Traditionally, the villagers of Fishing 1 weren’t actually villagers but individual fishing families who lived on boats, coming onshore to sell the day’s catch. Families came from all over the Pearl River Delta forming a community through their livelihood, rather than through ancestry or even a common version of Cantonese. However, in 1959, the political decision was made to organize them as a brigade (生产大队). They were 90 households with a total population of 450 people and settled as four small production teams (小队) in Nantou, Gushu, Neilingding Island, and Shekou. The Fishing Brigade worked to modernize the fleet and in 1978 during a meeting on scientific production, Hua Guofeng actually gave the brigade a first place award. Indeed, at the beginning of Reform, the Brigade had 69 ocean fishing vessels, 72 transport ships, and 18 oxygen boats that fished the South China Sea and Pearl River Delta bringing in fresh seafood for Cantonese dishes and by 1992, had accumulated enough capital to invest in modern industrial deep sea fishing vessels.

From 1978 through 1986, the Fishing Brigade lived the socialist dream, which was a traditional Chinese dream; the men fished, going as far away as Guangxi, the women kept house, children went to school and had medicine, and all ate in a common canteen, where the work team provided delicious food, including squid and shrimp. The system was called the 8 provisions (八包). However, by the late 80s early 90s, the scale of urbanization and land reclamation meant that traditional fishing areas had been contaminated and fish breeding grounds buried, and it was impossible to continue living from the sea. Suddenly, the advantages of the sea declined as property values soared and Fishing 1 faced a contradiction that many other villages would eventually face — what to do when urbanization decimated the conditions of traditional livelihood?

Once the sea was gone, Fishing 1 had no way of making a living because it did not have any land, except for that which the government had given it for housing in 1959, including a section on Neidingling Island, which Fishing 1 decided to develop as a resort and in 1992 as part of the guannei rural urbanization movement, the Fishing Brigade became the Fishing 1 stock holding corporation. However, after Fishing 1 had already invested their accumulated capital and borrowed against the development, Shenzhen and Zhuhai began a court case over who actually owned the island. Traditionally, the Island belonged to Zhuhai. However, in 1955, the Center had assigned Neidingling to Baoan, but no one could actually prove whether or not the transfer had gone through until 2002, when a copy of 1955 decision was found. In 2009, the Guangdong Provincial government finally ruled in favor of Shenzhen’s claim to Neidingling Island. However, the case raged long enough to impoverish Fishing 1 as the joint stock corporation/ fishing brigade/ village could no longer fish and except for Neidingling had no other traditional land rights. Indeed, by 2009 when the case was settled, Fishing 1’s deep sea fishing rights had already been bought out by China Merchants, which in turn sold them to Wanxia, one of Shekou’s original land-based villages.

And so here’s the neoliberal twist in Chen Hong’s story of old men and their vanishing sea: Fishing 1 re-entered Shenzhen urban planning as part of the Together Rich Project (同富裕项目), and over the past decade restructured and invested elsewhere: an industrial park in guanwai Gongming and fish breeding farms in Zhanjiang, for example. In addition, the Municipality organized training for fishermen to learn new skills. Nevertheless, the members of Fishing 1 have not only been proletarianized over the past 30 years, but are still paying off one of the debts that fueled Shekou’s growth. After all, Fishing 1 had no rights to any of the coastal property developments that enriched both China Merchants and neighboring Wanxia Village. Instead, Episode 8 ends with exhortations — from the Municipality and from the filmmaker — for individual development and initiative, ironically and inexorably returning us to Hemingway’s sea, where old men struggle feed themselves because they have been isolated by .

For more on my obsession with Houhai Land reclamation, more entries, here. A wander through the earliest Shekou landmarks, including the Shekou and Neilingding fishing families settlements, below:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

song of the china merchants group

Lest we forget the relationship between art, patriotism, and corporate success, the Song of the China Merchants Group reminds us how easy it is to fall for the singer, rather than observe what’s happening on the ground, say in Shekou. Click and sing along, “You ask how far my ship has travelled”.

bitao alley—the morning after

i love you
Originally uploaded by mary ann odonnell.

The school I work for is currently going international. Consequently, I’ve been going to an international school in Shekou to meet with administrators and teachers in order to figure out what to do. The school is located right next to the infamous Bitao Alley, where sex and money get mixed up in soul-chilling ways. Bitao Alley is lined by bars that cater to the many single Western men, who live and work in Shekou. At night, music blares and there’s a sense that people are trying to forget where they are, or rather trying to get someplace else through each other. Most of the Chinese women have come from poorer areas in China’s underdeveloped rural areas and are looking for boyfriends or husbands, while the Western men seem determined to pretend they aren’t in China and haven’t bothered to learn even enough Chinese to give a taxi driver their address. So it’s never clear who’s using who, and a desperate insecurity infuses the relationships that litter Bitao. One morning I was in a Seaworld coffee shop eating brunch, when I overheard the following conversation:

He: “You’re a liar…”
She: “We just met for coffee.”
He: “A liar. You lie about everything.”
She: “You don’t understand.”
He: “You told me you were staying at home. And then you went out for coffee.”
She: “My friend called…”
He, throwing hot coffee at her: “Liar.”

She wiped the coffee up and started read a newspaper, while he continued yelling at her. I turned around to ask her if she need help and she said no. I then asked him to tone it down, but by then, most of the other English speakers had left the coffee shop. Distressed, I also paid and left the two of them there.

The political-economic background to this scene is common to most ports, where the sudden influx of capital usually means the arrival of single men, who are overpaid relative to the local economy and hookup with local women as a strategy for negotiating their very real loneliness and cultural incompetence. Bitao Alley is located in center of Shekou, which was the first area in Shenzhen opened to foreign capital. Even before Shenzhen had been established, the Shekou Industrial Zone was open for business. Until municipal restructuring in the early 1990s, Shekou was independent from the municipal government. So important was Shekou to Deng’s image of Reform and Opening that in 1984 during the meetings to discuss opening the fourteen coastal cities, Yuan Kang, Shekou’s head officer, rather than Liang Xiang, the city’s mayor, represented Shenzhen in the discussions.

Like Overseas Chinese Town, Shekou has been administered by a governmental ministry for economic ends. China Merchants was a branch of the government responsible for overseas trade. This model represents an expansion of a similar pattern in downtown Shenzhen, where different ministries and provincial governments were allotted land to pursue economic projects. Overseas Chinese Town and Shekou, however, are much larger and unlike Overseas Chinese Town, Shekou’s initial political independence continues to shape local politics and investment patterns. Indeed, China Merchants, the Ministry that ran Shekou is now one of the largest enterprises in the country, with interests ranging from financial services, shipping, and real estate to manufacturing and new technologies. For a sense of the scope and range of the company’s investments, visit China Merchants Group, where Shekou is only one of many projects.

Importantly, Shekou is also the headquarters for Chinese oil exploration in the South China Sea, where sovereignty debates continue to vex development. Seven countries have diverse claims to the region: Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Not unexpectedly, representatives from the Seven Sisters oil companies (Exxon, Shell, BP, Mobil, Chevron, Gulf, Texaco) are based in Shekou. For a dated but relevant synopsis and map of the claims and disputes please visit the Department of Energy’s briefSouth China Sea Tables and Maps. I’ve heard, but not confirmed that the foreign companies shoulder all exploration expenses and then when oil is discovered split profits with the Chinese government. I’m sure there are more complicated negotiations that go into dividing up tracts, especially given the international sovereignty debates. You can also check out China Merchants petro-businesses on their website.

What is interesting about all this, is that for many Chinese, Bitao Alley both actualizes and provides a working metaphor for all that is wrong with the way that Shenzhen has reformed and opened. So pervasive is this sense, that in everyday conversation, the expression “开放”, which means to open, also means to be sexually liberated tending toward the promiscuous. In contrast, “改革”, which means to reform has retained its political meaning. On the one hand, it is considered inevitable that bars, which traffic in sex came to mediate the relationships between relatively wealthy white businessmen and relatively poor Chinese women. After all, as a popular expression has it, “men go bad once they have money, while women are only bad when they’re poor (男人有钱就坏,女人没有钱才坏)”. In Shenzhen, not just white men, but men in general—men from the Mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korean, Japan, and Singapore—have taken advantage of relative privilege to indulge in relationships that they might not have been able to pursue at home. On the other hand, the white man-Chinese woman relationship often stands for the feminization of China with respect to the West. Suddenly the problem seems not one of gender inequality, but racial/national inequality in which local women’s issues get subordinated to national goals.

Speakers who invoke the white man-Chinese woman metaphor to illustrate what’s wrong with globalization rarely question the fact that throughout Shenzhen women work in jobs that pay less and carry fewer benefits than do “masculine” jobs. Instead, what is lamented is the imperiled status of China’s masculinity. China’s men, it seems, aren’t manly enough. If they were, the argument proceeds, then Chinese women wouldn’t have to work in Bitao Alley bars. The corollary—that a wealthy Chinese man could import or go abroad to use white sex workers—remains unmentioned. Nevertheless, a desire for China to fuck the world seems to hum beneath the surface of such conversations. At the level of popular culture, this desire takes the form of scantily clothed Russian dancers performing in Las Vegas-style numbers at Shenzhen’s popular resort, Window to the World, while some Chinese men do go to Thailand on less than savory tours. This topic has received both popular and scholarly attention. In China Pop, Jianying Zha reports on this phenomenon, while Xueping Zhong provides a more theoretical version of this story in Masculinity Besieged? In the spirit of fair disclosure, I should also mention that I provided my husband with the material to write an award-winning skit about what it means to be a white woman in China. The translation of “Neither Type Nor Category” was published in TheatreForum, Issue 27, Summer/Fall 2005.

For a sense of the gendered despair that radical inequality between nations produces, you could do worse than visit Bitao Alley.