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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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