what kind of public space is the city of shenzhen?

I think about this question, a lot. Because there are two ways of being public: providing public services and allowing for critical public spaces. Sometimes, when my mind drifts into thoughts about chimerica, I wonder if the US has critical public spaces because it refuses basic public services to many of its people, while China lacks robust critical spaces because its so busy trying to secure public services for its residents, urban and rural. Priorities, right? Anyway, thoughts below (full citation: The Emerging Public Realm of the Greater Bay Area, Miodrag Mitrašinović and Timothy Jachna, eds., Routledge, 2021, chapter 7.):

the village hack residency

Long ago, when Handshake 302 was in Baishizhou and Baishizhou was the city’s most icon urban village, we ran a residency program. The first iteration of the residency was “Village Hack.” Several years ago, I reflected on the program and what it taught us about how Shenzheners were formed (paper can be downloaded, below).

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the urban planning imaginary: lessons from shenzhen

Many years ago (and it was a different world), I interviewed HUANG Weiwen about Shenzhen’s urban planning imaginary. The year was 2016, and there was a general hope that urban villages might come of age and transform the city for the better. Anyway, here’s the article.

Chinese translation of “Learning from Shenzhen” is out!

The launch for the Chinese translation of “Learning from Shenzhen” was held at the Central Book City public area. There were several hundred in attendance and young children came up to meet the author and get an autograph. It was an exciting–and let’s be frank–unexpected reception for the translation of an academic book.

more on urban villages from the V&A

Just recently, I stumbled upon me, Fu Na and Huang Weiwen talking about urban villages. The video was part of Unidentified Acts of Design, an exhibition and series of eight films. The films are worth checking out again, if only because the city has already changed. To find out more about the V&A’s work in China vam.ac.uk/shekou

more on handshake 302

An essay that looks back at the past five years at Handshake 302, “Figuring Post-worker Shenzhen” has been published in Made in China (vol. 3, issue 1, Jan-Mar 2018). In happy coincidence, one of the contributors to Learning from Shenzhen, Eric Florence also discusses representations of migrant labor in this volume (“Rural Migrant Workers in Independent Films: Representations of Everyday Agency,” pp 96-103). The journal is hosted at the website, Chinoiresie.info.

Focus on China: Fat Bird on experimental performance

Mary Mazzilli interviews Yang Qian and me about work with Fat Bird. Focus on China: Fat Bird on experimental performance (1/2).

Boom! Press

Links to sites with images of Boom (and copy from the Biennale website). I also appear in a picture or two. 深圳新闻网, 文化大视野 晶报网雕塑中国

public intellectual moi

Last night had a pleasant if strange experience as a guest on a live talk show on Shenzhen’s traffic radio station. The station usually plays music and gives traffic updates. They also collaborate with the Municipality to organize discussions relevant to folks stuck in traffic. Indeed, as one of the other guests said, “If Beijing is 首堵 (都) [“the first in congestion” (puns “the capitol”)], then Shenzhen is deeply, deeply congested [深深堵].” Last night’s topic was “宜居城市 (Livable City),” but focused on how to ameliorate Shenzhen’s traffic jams as if the problem wasn’t our addiction to oil, but organizing highways. My favorite comment – Shenzhen needs to initiate “vehicle family planning (汽车计划生育)”.

I was invited to give a foreign perspective on Shenzhen’s worsening traffic problems. Uncanny moment this invitation. I was born in L.A., Mother of all Traffic Jams and once out of the Jersey ‘burbs, I have tried to live in cities where I don’t need to drive. My advise to Chinese urban planners? See what L.A. and Houston have done and do the opposite. If you’re looking for a positive urban role model – Amsterdam and Copenhagen have much to teach the world about healthy, sustainable traffic planning. But the US? We dismantled our nascent public transportation system, use 1/4 of the world’s energy resources, and won’t consider even gutted treaties to limit greenhouse gas emissions. No no and no.

The 1.5 hour event was held at the Central Book City, South Building Bleachers, where many of the City’s public culture events are held. The Bleachers are used for reading, resting, and hanging out. In fact, the Bleachers are one of the few spaces in the Central Book City Mall where people can sit and rest without purchasing a refreshment. The Book City Bleachers has become an interesting space in Shenzhen’s public sphere because it is (literally) situated between the City [government] and high culture consumption [Book City]. Consequently, events held there have a certain public intellectual cache, linking official approval to intellectual life and cultural performance. However, lest we forget the importance of [positive] audience reception, last night, the Bleachers are cordoned off and access regulated by strategically placed organizers. We performed for about thirty, red vested members of Shenzhen Volunteers and invited guests, including the parents of first or second graders who read a pledge to be more traffic conscious.

Inquiring minds want to know, “Who was there?” and “What does this tell us about how Shenzheners represent themselves to themselves?” In other words, “Who do Shenzheners think they are?”


Of the six guests, I was the only woman. I’m not sure if this means that my foreign status compensates for ovaries or if they couldn’t find a suitable female urban planner (although off hand, I can think of several women who would have added interesting commentary). Gender aside, guests included: a public intellectual, the head of an urban planning think tank, a member of the Livable City subcommittee of the SPPCC (Shenzhen People’s Political Consultative Committee), an editor from an online community of home owners, the radio station commentator, and a foreigner. Importantly, guests shared “representative” status. In other words, organized selected a guest because he (and moi) represented a constituency of Shenzheners. Moreover, this representative status meant that the guests could “speak for” (all) Shenzheners.”

Thus described, the right to speak in Shenzhen’s public sphere is dominated by intellectuals, officials, homeowners, and what white America thinks.

Now, it’s possible we knew this. It’s also possible some of us said something slightly beyond the script and inspired a new thought somewhere – because yes, there was a script. Before the talk, we were contacted and asked what we wanted to say about making the city livable. Our comments were then edited into a basic outline of how the discussion would go. Moreover, the moderators kept us more or less on task, talking about how to ameliorate traffic jams (better urban planning and more driving civility). And maybe it’s possible that modeling public discussion in this way (town meetings with Chinese characteristics) will prompt the creation of alternative and equally influential public spaces. For example, yesterday afternoon, The Southern Daily held it’s first Neighborhood Heroes Finals (家园英雄) in Meilin. Clearly, a source of other perspectives on traffic jams.

But I think it’s also possible that we’re missing something more fundamental – foundational, if you will: how we organize our events may be why problems deepen, our good intentions notwithstanding.

“Years of Sadness”

coastline 2003

Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

Wang Lingzhen and I collaborated to translate three pieces of autobiographical writing by Wang Anyi, one of contemporary China’s more important writers. The collection is called “Years of Sadness” and published by Cornell University.


Am posting from flickr again. Sigh. I hope this is just a glitch and not a return wordpress being blocked. We had a brief period of relief…