horton hears a migrant worker

In order to grasp the moralities and consequences of social non-existence, and incidentally to demonstrate that non-existence partially registered in American understandings of its Cold War conundrums, especially our self-envisioned role in Asia, one could do worse than a close reading of Horton Hears a Who, which was published in 1954, roughly a decade after Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel had transitioned from drawing editorial cartoons to writing politically charged children’s books. Continue reading

cold war guangming

Today, I am trying to figure how to think about a series of historically discrete events that in retrospect clearly aligned the landscapes of Hanoi, Houston, and Shenzhen. Continue reading

cold war ghosts in shenkong

For those inquiring minds that wonder, what was Shenzhen before it was Shenzhen, the opening scene from the 1963 classic Tracking Threats (跟踪追) reveals a threatened border and enemies whose souls have been twisted through betrayal. After the credits, the film opens with a scene of soldiers guarding the border and the Luohu bridge opening to allow peasants (and a spy) enter the country. From the filming, it is difficult to see immediately who the heroes and villains are. Instead, we find ourselves faced with a narrative tradition that begins with a social situation which the narrative gradually analyzes.

At the border, the guard opens an old woman’s bag, in which he finds a carton of cigarettes and candies. Suspicious, he opens the carton and discovers gunpowder hidden inside. Similarly, the candies also turn out to be decoys. The old woman protests that she’s never seen these items before. Her story is confirmed when another guard discovers an unclaimed bag, which includes toy cars that have been used to smuggle gunpowder

The security officer, Li Minggang leads a team to discover what’s happening. They follow the clues to the toy factory, where old Lin Dexiang works loyally. It turns out his nephew, Lin Yonggui was the spy who replaced the goods in the old woman’s bag. Li Minggang turns Lin Yonggui, who is used as a double agent to uncover the net of spies. This network includes refugees who try to escape to Hong Kong, smugglers of commercial goods, and of course, the evil chief spy, Xu Ying.

Tracking Threats was one of a series of movies that reflected the militarization of the Sino-British border during the 1950s. Indeed, between 1956 through 1958, the Guangzhou Security Department cracked several cases of Taiwanese incursions into Guangdong, and also discovered weapon stockpiles. During the 1960s, the Pearl River Delta Studio produced a series of red spy movies. The earliest, Secret Map (秘密图纸,1960) also filmed at the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border, but did not actually name the border crossing.

In retrospect, the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border in Tracking Threats seems claustrophobic and artificially patriotic à la contemporary North Korea. There is heroic music. There are poor but honest peasants. The military is distinctly noble. However, we know that by the mid 60s, China had already suffered famine and that Hong Kong had begun its economic reconstruction. Thus, during production filmmakers were not allowed to film the Hong Kong side of the border. Moreover, several peasants tried to take advantage of the filming and cross the border. They were, however, caught.

And yet. In Tracking Threats, the ideal of patriotism as a source of ethical thinking appears as pure and noble and good and far, far away from where we find ourselves in the post Cold War world.

In 2009, the earliest of the 1960s spy films, Secret Map was remade into a 30 episode television series (秘密图纸). Unlike the original movie, the television series opens with the spy murdering his godfather, who is portrayed as a Japanified elderly gentleman. The historic link, of course, was the Japanese colonization of Taiwan. In this way, the television series Secret Maps recodes race betrayals of Tracking Threats  as a question of generational betrayals (the godfather raising his godson to hate the Communists). In scene two, the spy, now a sympathetic anti-hero, washes up on the Shenzhen coast, where he is immediately captured by a beautiful revolutionary, a gaggle of peasants, and a noble peasant-soldier.

And there’s the interesting neoliberal rub: in the transition from 1960s Guangdong to new millennium Shenzhen, the Mainland-Taiwan conflict has been recoded as a story of misplaced love, rather than misplaced patriotism, while the desire for forbidden consumer goods has been naturalized. Indeed, that naturalization is precisely what makes the anti-hero sympathetic; he may have loved wrongly, but he knew what the fight was about. However, as in any good neoliberal bromance, love conquers all just before the anti-hero dies.

luohu bridge: the bamboo curtain, literally

For many years, but especially during the Cold War, the Luohu Bridge was the narrow connection between China and the world — the bamboo curtain, literally. It is important to underscore the border’s Cold War status because during the colonial era, the Sino-British border was an open border. Indeed, it’s open status had made it an important refuge for Chinese intellectuals during the War against Japan. In fact, the border was not closed until 1950,when Great Britain agreed with US concerns that an influx of Chinese refugees and possible strikes threatened Hong Kong security. Not surprisingly, the border hardened as a result of the onset of the Korean War in June that same year.

In 1955, the Father of China’s space program, Qian Xuesen (钱学森) crossed the Luohu Bridge when he returned to China. Other important Overseas Chinese who returned to China by way of Luohu included mathematician Hua Luogeng (华罗庚), geologist Li Siguang (李四光), nuclear physicist Qian Sanqiang (钱三强), nuclear physicist Deng Jiaxian (邓稼先), and aerodynamics specialist Guo Yonghuai (郭永怀). Qian Xuesen’s life symbolizes how the US and China collaborated to militarize the border as the world shifted from British colonial to US hegemony. In 1935, Qian received a Boxer Rebellion Indemnity Scholarship to study mechanical engineering at MIT. He completed his doctoral studies at Caltech. In 1943, Qian and two others in the Caltech rocketry group drafted the first document to use the name Jet Propulsion Laboratory and included a proposal to develop missiles in response to Germany’s V-2 rocket. After WWII, the US Army commissioned Qian, giving him the rank of colonel. However, during his application for naturalization in 1949, he was accused of being a communist and he lost his security clearance in 1950. For the next five years, he lived under constant surveillance, until he was released to repatriate to China, where he helped China develop nuclear weapons, in addition to the country’s space program.

I mention all this history because episode 12 of The Great Transformation (沧海桑田深圳农村三十年) treats 30 years of development at the Luohu Bridge and Luohu Village (1980-2010) without mentioning the Cold War. Nevertheless, the military symbolism of the border is explicit. Images of Qian Xuesen observing the detonation of China’s first nuclear bomb open the episode. Then the episode cuts to “nine years earlier” when Qian crossed from Hong Kong into China by way of the Luohu Bridge. Then we see images of soldiers firing bayonets, and are told that the Sino-British border was established as a result of the 2nd Opium War, 1898. And then, in keeping with this military theme, we jump to images of the 1979 First Detonation, when China Merchants began construction on the Shekou Industrial Zone. All these guns going off and no mention of the Cold War. No explosions in Korea. Or Vietnam. Or ongoing war games in the Taiwan Straits. Instead, after the Shekou detonation, we cut directly to images of bulldozers flattening Luohu Mountain in order to put in the new railway station and infrastructure for the new Special Economic Zone.

Now, I understand the leap from the Opium War to Shekou is through China Merchants. I also understand the the one country two systems debate was rhetorically framed in terms of the end of colonialism. However, none of this explains why the Cold War was not mentioned in the brief introduction to the border. After all, Qian Xuesen and all the other Chinese scientists who returned from overseas did so in the context of the Cold War. To my knowledge, the history of that era, especially the pre- Lushan Conference history, is not sensitive, so there’s no reason not to mention it because the border was militarized during the Cold War and not during the colonial era.

Question du jour: does the general dampening of interest in Maoist history also mean that the Cold War is ignored? Or are we to understand Shenzhen history only in the context of the end to colonialism? And if so, does this mean that the Cold War will only end when Taiwan has been returned through another version of One Country, Two Systems?

mapping ignorance

Was conversing friends about political succession since Mao and how to interpret reports coming out of Beijing and Guangzhou with respect to Shenzhen’s political status and symbolic valence within the national imaginary. Their 15 year old daughter was at the table, politely ignoring us, when someone mentioned Hua Guofeng (华国锋). She lifted her eyes and asked, “Who?”

Her father explained Mao’s appointed heir had been at the center of a political struggle with Deng Xiaoping to decide if China would continue Maoist policies or pursue reform. This struggle ended with a coup d’etat and the Sino-Vietnamese War as Deng Xiaoping gained political control by securing support of military leaders and high-ranking Party commissars. We then mused about the relationship between violence and political succession, even if indirectly, because Jiang Zemin (江泽民) only became Deng’s appointed successor in the aftermath of Tian’anmen and Zhao Ziyang‘s (赵紫阳) fall.


All this to say, that dinner I experienced a We Didn’t Start the Fire moment with post Cold War Chinese characteristics — recent history actually is this easily forgotten. Or more to the point, I realized (again!) the extent that what we know of recent history comes only as events disrupt our daily lives.  Continue reading

沧海桑田:The transformation of Shenzhen Villages

For those wondering, is there a documentary on Shenzhen villages out there? The answer is yes and its 15 hours long! CCTV and SZTV produced 沧海桑田:深圳村庄30年,  a 30-episode television documentary to commemorate the SEZ’s 30th anniversary.

Not unexpectedly, the documentary’s ultimate happy end is urbane Shenzhen. Nevertheless, each of the 30 episodes does raise issues worth talking about and also gives current Party takes on these issues, which is always useful information. In fact, that take may be the point; the commemoration of the SEZ’s 30th Anniversary included a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of pre-reform Baoan society and history, reminding us that the villages no longer exist as such. What remains are ideological and economic struggles over the properties held by [former village] stock-holding corporations that have not yet been fully integrated into the Municipality’s urban apparatus.

That said, however, there is also the question of what a truly integrated Shenzhen society might look like. And consequently it is interesting and hopeful to think that the economic questions may also force re-evalution of who belongs in the city.

So, how are those ideological battles being waged in the contemporary SEZ?

Continue reading

Woody Watson’s forty years on the other side of the border

I’ve just finished reading James Watson’s piece “Forty Years on the Border: Hong Kong / China” and am struck by the ongoing creation of national culture throughout the area, even before the establishment of the SEZ and concomitant migration deepened this trend. Consider Watson’s description of the Lok Ma Chau Lookout:

Stretched out in front of us is a meandering, muddy creek that constitutes the border, or what the British called “the Frontier.” On the south side, in the British zone, is a set of three, steel-link fences, topped with barbed wire. One hundred yards back from the fence are gun emplacements for Gurkha troops. Land Rovers filled with Scots Guards and the Black Watch drive by, along single-lane roads. British regiments are in full battle garb; weapons are on loaded and ready. Continue reading