the yaopi float glass factory

The Yaopi float glass factory hovers at memory’s edge, abandoned to ideology and chance encounters.

In 1987, the Shekou factory represented the highest level of float glass technology production in China. Today, it evokes nostalgia for the heroic romance of early industrial manufacturing. And that’s the rub. Even before it was built, the technology and mode of production used at the factory had been downgraded in terms of added value. In terms of global competitive advantage, Yaopi had been outdated even before it was built. Perhaps more telling of the ideological structure that ranks advanced and backward nations with respect to production capacity, the Yaopi factory elicits comparison with the Terracotta soldiers in Xi’an. This unhappy comparison relegates Shenzhen’s modernization efforts to the ancient past, even as it confers uncanny modernity on the First Qin Emperor’s army, which of course was mass produced on low-tech, but large-scale assembly lines.

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bureaucratic nomenclature

bureaucracySeriously. There is a Shekou office called the Shekou Subdistrict Census Office for Information on the Handling of Illegal Buildings Leftover from  the History of Rural Urbanization. But the signage is well balanced. And think of the cocktail party conversations this business card could spark!

trees for sale

Three indications that trees in Banna are up for sale. What’s more, the terms of trade are transforming the landscape.

  1. Since the 1990s, local farmers have been actively razing rain forrest to plant rubber trees. According to a local friend, it takes about 400 trees to support one family in modern style. Also, rubber trees need a lot of water and this has already changed the water table. Less obviously, this evening at dinner, another friend explained that because families can now live off their rubber tree holdings, they’ve stopped traditional cultivation. Entrepreneurial farmers are claiming this fallow land by moving in and planting other crops.
  2. On the road from Jinghong to Mengla, I learned about mahogany — it’s a hard wood, Chinese literati have filled their homes with mahogany furniture for centuries, and there is so little left in Yunnan that Chinese entrepreneurs are harvesting mahogany in neighboring Laos.
  3. This afternoon, I visited the sky tree park, and walked one of the highest treetop rope corridors in the world. High end eco-tourism in a small bit of rain forrest that has been cut off from remaining bits of rain forrest. Indeed, one of my companions mentioned that these rain forrest islands are too small and so the Central and Local governments are investing in building connections between these islands so that the animals have enough room to roam and reproduce.

Impressions of a day in the trees, Mengla, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, just northwest of the Laotion border.

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architectural thinking — from the nanjing sun yat-sen memorial to luohu train station

One of the highlights of the XLarch Masterplanning the Future Conference was Wang Yun (王昀)’s keynote speech that periodized the development of Chinese style architecture, arguing for an internationalist approach to architecture, rather than an ideologically charged use of architectural symbols.

As an architectural style, Chinese classicism was invented by western trained architects who upon returning to Nationalist China received commissions to build “Chinese style (中华风格)” buildings during the decade of 1927-1937. These buildings had large, Chinese style roofs, windows and decorative details, and sometimes included stylized gardens. The Nationalist capital, Nanjing was the location of some of the most important examples of this style as well because commissions not only represented individual client preferences, but also the determination of government leaders to create a recognizable Chinese public architecture.

One of the most important examples of Chinese classicism is the Nanjing Sun Yat-sen Memorial, which was designed by one of China’s first starchitects, Lv Yanzhi (吕彦直). Lv also also designed the Guangzhou Sun Yat-Sen Memorial before his untimely death in 1929. The Nanjing Memorial reinterprets traditional themes through choice of material (reinforced concrete and mosaic tiles) and through the secularization of traditional symbols (animals become geometric shapes, for example). In addition, the Memorial layout abstracts and represents Nationalist China as the difficult realization of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s three principles of the people (三民主义) — nationalism, democracy, and public welfare. To reach the Memorial proper, for example, there are 392 steps going upward, each step representing one million Chinese, and together representing the population of nationalist China. These steps are broken by eight flat platforms, which represent the fragmentation of China by warlords and civil war. However, when one looks back on the stairs, all one sees is a flat surface, an optical illusion that promises national unification.

The Nanjing Sun Yat-Sen Memorial provides a lexicon for understanding Chinese Classicism during the Nationalist era, including the reference to the Lincoln Memorial (1920) by way of the seated figure of Dr. Sun (1926-29). Not unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Lincoln statue also dominates a neo-classical building, albeit through references to Greek architecture. Indeed, both the Sun Yat-sen and Lincoln Memorials use the respective classicism of their countries to assert timeless governance, even as they commemorate leaders who governed countries divided by civil war.  I show the following images of the Nanjing Memorial with the caveat that they are not architectural — an architectural photo has amazing resolution, geometric composition, and absolutely no people, unless, of course, the figure contributes to architectural exegesis. My snaps, however, aim to emphasize just how popular this site is and thus how it continues to shape the visceral experience of being in “China” through a particular architectural style.

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How does the Nanjing Memorial relate to Shenzhen?

This architectural lexicon has been picked up, tweaked and redeployed throughout Shenzhen, but as a private rather than public source of architectural symbols. The Luohu Train Station is the only exemplar of public Chinese Classicism that has been built in Shenzhen in the Reform Era. The other large example of post Reform classicism is the Hongfa Temple in Fairy Park, which is arguably political in its adamant denial of any political message. Certainly, in its assertion of the reintroduction of official religion to civic life, Fahong was as ideologically charged as the train station, which signaled China’s opening to capitalist countries. However, with the exception of these two buildings, Chinese Classicism in Shenzhen is limited to decoration in urban villages, where many handshakes have tiled roofs, restaurants, and the odd sculpture, such as Nvwa Holding up the Sky in Shekou, which is a socialist realist rendering of a mythic theme.

All this is interesting because given the explicit modernism of Shenzhen’s public architecture, the rediscovery or explicit use of Chinese tradition and roots are often used in neoliberal arguments for alternative forms of architecture and historic preservation. Chiwan comes to mind as do struggles for some form of preservation in urban villages. These efforts contextualize the design and construction of key civic architecture, including the Civic Center and central axis, which has the ideological expression of Reform and Opening (here, here, and here). Importantly, both the relentless modernization of Reform era public buildings and the alternative movement to construct a classical past for Shenzhen ignore Maoism, which nevertheless continues to inform the built environment.

tianmian celebrates 20 years of incorporation

Yesterday evening, Tianmian Industries Ltd (田面实业股份有限公司) celebrated 20 years of incorporation, simultaneously confirming the group’s new status as a corporation and the corporation’s status as the continuation of Tianmian Village. The celebration achieved this sense of historic continuity through the sequencing of socialist and traditional customs, including the presentation of and speeches by Tianmian, Fuhua Precinct, and Futian District leaders, which was followed by singing and dancing performances, a demonstration of Bruce Lee style kongfu by one of Bruce Lee’s students, and pencai, a local specialty that is only eaten at collective ceremonies. The speeches and performances took place on a stage in the vip area, while two large LED screens had been set up throughout the common area so that guests could watch the entertainment while eating.

Another important ceremonial function was to demarcate borders both within Tianmian and between Tianmian and outside communities. The 137-table event occupied  most of the main road into the village (directly off Shennan Road) as well as adjacent public areas, dividing Tianmian into two sections: the ceremony area and the rest of the neighborhood. Importantly, only Tianmian Ltd has the authority to cordon off public areas for private ceremonies. The ceremony area itself was subdivided into a vip area for leaders, their families and guests and a common area for Tianmian stockholders, their families and guests. Tianmian guards prevented non-guests from passing the red cordons.

Rituals such as these and the concomitant right to occupy public space are perhaps why we continue to speak of Tianmian Village as a village. In point of fact, we were celebrating the dissolution of Tianmian Village and its reconstitution as Tianmian Ltd. In ritual terms, however, the celebration clearly established Tianmian Village as the host and hegemonic subject of this territory and Tianmian Ltd as the contemporary manifestation of the village. What’s more, throughout the evening the gaze of outsiders — many of whom live in Tianmian housing stock — reinforced the sense of Tianmian as a vibrant and recognizable collectivity.

These rituals are particularly important in Tianmian because the corporation has not built traditional village buildings, such as an ancestral hall or a temple. In obvious contrast to Tianmian’s appropriation of public space, when larger village-corporations hold pencai ceremonies, they set their tables in designated village plazas that are surrounded by traditional buildings. In Xiasha, for example, the large village plaza includes an ancestral hall, a temple, a public theater, a traditional garden, and a path to the Xiasha Museum. Consequently, where Xiasha relies not only on ritual, but also on the built environment to reinforce communal solidarity, Tianmian’s village identity remains as such primarily through what is commonly called “non-material culture (非物质文化)”, or rituals.

It will be interesting to see, say in twenty or fifty years, how strong Tianmian’s sense of village solidarity remains and to compare that solidarity to that of a village like Xiasha, where the construction of village architecture sets the stage for village rituals. In other words, although Shenzhen has been seen as a laboratory for economic and social experimentation, we might specify further, and watch the ongoing reconstruction of traditional solidarities despite and within the maelstrom of modernization. Impressions from Tianmian’s 20th anniversary celebration, below.

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daoist china: weibaoshan

Another commercial center on the Tea and Horse Route, Weishan (巍山) is located about 75 minutes from Dali. Weishan was the first capital of the Nanzhao, but was soon replaced by Dali, which has a more temperate climate because located on the banks of Lake Erhai (洱海).

One of the main Weishan tourist sites is Weibaoshan (巍宝山), which literally means “Treasure Mountain Wei”. The mountain has been designated a national park and walking paths that thread from and between Daoist temples have been laid. Contemporary Daoists have occupied many of these temples and it is possible to stay the night there for a donation. However, the architectural treasure is the Long Spring Retreat (长春洞) which was constructed between 1779 and 1799 and is dedicated to the Jade Emperor, the Lord of the Underworld.

Sites like Weibaoshan vex me. I studied Chinese language and history in order to experience places like Long Spring Retreat, as if the poetry and philosophy of classical China still animated everyday life. However, 17 years in Shenzhen have taught me that even if the contemporary cultural mix includes Daoism, nevertheless capitalist forms and modern desires more obviously structure human relationships and desires in China.

And yet, if not for capitalist forms, I could not have visited Long Spring because I not only needed to purchase a ticket to enter the park, but also get myself from Shenzhen to Dali, Dali to Weishan, and then from Weishan to the mountain. Alas, none of those plane rides and car trips  manifest the Daoist virtue of regulating my life by according to natural rhythms. Instead, they more properly manifest the US American virtue of satisfying individual desires through post-industrial convenience.

The point seems to be remembering to take time to reflect on our place in the world, not only as individuals, but also as a species. What does it mean to be human? What does Long Spring Retreat teach that we cannot learn through Shenzhen’s rush to reproduce and exceed the material wealth of North America?

Impressions below.

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fengyu: at the periphery of the periphery

The two hour trip from Dali to Fengyu Market Town (凤羽镇) eases senses overstimulated by tourist crowds, let alone Shenzhen’s urban crush. Nestled within extensive rice paddies and surrounded by mountains, Fengyu stands in provocative contrast with Shenzhen’s industrial parks and reclaimed housing estates. The town’s crumbling architecture evokes past elegance and stately lifestyles, while elderly women dressed in traditional Bai costumes maintain local religious traditions, setting up small altars at the entrance to the town. Here, at the periphery of urban China’s periphery, I slip into forms of rural nostalgia — once upon a time, a stately, elegant society of noble warriors, rural scholars and happy peasants resisted both Tibetan and Han incursions.

And yet. Where Shenzhen streets bustle with young migrant workers, Fengyu’s main street and side alleys shimmer silently. Whatever remains of the Nanzhao and Dali Kingdoms, today, young Bai must choose between agricultural labor and life elsewhere, in Shenzhen, for example, where one of my favorite restaurants serves Yunnan delicacies that are flown in daily to tempted jaded palates. A walk through Fengyu, below:

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more confucian business ethics: collect the bags!

Roughly twenty years ago, he, his wife, and their son immigrated from China to Southern California. They came to Shenzhen last year to do business with successful college classmates and brought a daughter and a younger son. The older son remained in California. The man was 40 something years of age, and he told me that his wife and son met a friend and business associate at LAX. When the three went to pick up the visitor’s luggage, his wife went to collect the bags. However, because she is a woman, the visitor stopped her and collected the bags instead. The man didn’t say, but I’m assuming the wife and friend engaged in some who-can-hold-onto-the-bags shuffle, with the result that the visitor ended up carrying his own bags. The son waited for the ritual to end and then led his mother and his father’s friend to the car. The son drove them home.

The man told me this story because he wanted to know what I thought; how had the son behaved?

“Based on what I know of American or Chinese cultural norms?” I hedged, thinking that any young man who drove his mother to the airport to pickup a guest was an accommodating son, and that if his parents and their friends wanted to engage in who’s-the-most-polite shuffles, then that really was their business and why not wait for the storm to end. In fact, personally, I sympathized with the son’s position because I am frequently nonplussed when confronted by demonstrations of Chinese courtesy that are also not-so-sutble assertions of dominance.

He explained that afterward his friend had approached him to talk about the matter. The friend worried that the son did “did not understand things (不懂事),” an expression with meanings that range from ‘immature’ through ‘is insensible to the feelings of others’ to ‘has no concept of proper behavior’. The friend had acted out of concern because he worried for his friend’s son future prospects. To declare a college graduate “does not understand things” means that those in positions of power “cannot use him (不能用人)” and thus will not place him in positions of responsibility, thereby foreclosing opportunities for advancement.

At the time, the father had replied that he thought skill (能力) was the most important criteria for promotions. However, when he discussed the issue with another friend, this time the CEO of a small company, he realized that from the point of view of makers and shakers in China, his son in fact “could not be used”. The CEO explained that he had two employees, A and B, who went everywhere with him. The CEO did not have a driver and so A and B took turns driving. When A drove, he made sure to open the CEO’s door for him before getting into the car. When B drove, he immediately sat in the driver’s seat and A, again, opened the CEO’s door before settling himself in the car.

“Now, who should I promote?” the CEO rhetorically asked the man. “Obviously, A is more meticulous/ attentive (更细心) than B. Consequently, he can be trusted, whereas B doesn’t see the big picture.”

The big picture included hierarchy and etiquette, or understanding one’s relationship with another and each time A opened the CEO’s door, he demonstrated his understanding. In contrast, B did his job. On the CEO’s interpretation, it didn’t matter how talented B was. The real problem was that B couldn’t be trusted to treat guests and by extension business colleagues and clients, properly. A could.

I’m told there are serious differences between etiquette in state-owned industries, where bureaucratic privilege trumps skill and the private sector, where talented people are more valued than sycophants. Also, it seems that things “are different” in the IT sector, but again, people quickly remind me, that techies are young and often westernized. Westernized, perhaps, but as in Western business culture, Chinese business culture distinguishes between those who give good face and those who do their jobs well; rare is the individual who can both manage people and complete tasks.

Interestingly, although the characters for the Chinese words for CEO (董事长) and “understand things” are different, nevertheless they are homophones, which alerts us to the moral of today’s story. At an airport, there are several rules that apply when greeting Chinese guests:

1. If the guest is older than you — collect the luggage to show your respect;

2. If the guest has a higher rank than you — collect the luggage to show your respect;

3. If the guest is a friend — collect the luggage in order to demonstrate your good will.

There are three possible exceptions to the “collect the luggage” rule for greeting Chinese guests, gender, age, and White ethnicity. A friend would neither expect a friend’s wife to collect luggage, nor would that friend expect an elementary school child to collect luggage. Although if the child grabbed a bag, be sure to laugh happily, muss her hair, and exclaim, “Wow, she really understands things!” And yes, white Americans are forgiven for all sorts of social faux pas that Chinese-Americans are not so that when we go for the bags, we suddenly appear “Chinese”.

But to return to the father’s story. What do we say to a Chinese man, who clearly wants his American son to succeed, knowing that amongst globe-trotting Chinese he will be judged by ancestral values and not those of his hometown, Los Angeles?

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:

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reading the old man and the sea (in shenzhen)

I am currently reading The Old Man and the Sea with two 16 year old Chinese high school sophomores. They are cousins. One is a “good” student, strong and sly in the self-protective way of students who know how to work the system, but do not reach the upper echelon of test results. The other is delicate and shy, a “top” student, who is being groomed to test into Beijing University, producing results (出成绩) for her school and family. The good student knows that unless she goes abroad, she will no doubt end up at Shenzhen University, no matter how much harder she works at school; fortunately, her parents can afford to send her anywhere and so she is not too sly, and her eagerness to model good student answers quickly gives way to assertive self-confidence. The top student already struggles with contradictory desires and ambitions. She yearns to study abroad, but her homeroom teacher has already begun pressuring her to stop studying for the TOEFL and to use her extra time more productively — taking practice gaokao tests or studying the junior year high school curriculum. What’s more, the child of divorce she knows that her mother can’t afford Chinese tuitions, let alone foreign and thus she must secure a scholarship  wherever she attends university.

We sit around a square table, tracking the relationship between the old man and the marlin. Santiago believes that his fish is out there, and his quest begins when he sights the purposeful circling of a man-of-war bird. His faith is rewarded and the contest engaged. As the fish pulls the man further out to sea, away from from the lights of Havana and known landmarks, the old man endures, charts his progress against the stars and his suffering, and the fish becomes more than a fish — first a friend, then a brother, more noble, but less intelligent, a brother who must be convinced that he is less than he who came to kill. It is a grand battle that does not end in glory, but the realization of hubris, “I shouldn’t have gone out so far, fish,” the old man says to the marlin’s corpse, which has been strapped to the skiff and is being inexorably eaten by sharks. When the old man finally drifts ashore, all that remains is an 18 foot skeleton and the certainty of death.

I chose The Old Man and the Sea because, well misgivings about Hemingway notwithstanding, he knew his craft. His language is deceptively simple. Any sentence taken out of context seems ordinary, common even, but together his words sculpt moral landscapes that make exquisitely salient the brute masculinity and ultimately tragic consequences of lives lived against nature.

“Americans aren’t very peace-loving,” the good student concludes.

“Did the old man have faith in luck or faith in the sea?” the top student asks.

Thus, yesterday’s lesson transformed from a discussion about human limits into a conversation about how being human is culturally defined and experienced. The old man is not their old man, his fish is not their fish, and the sea that relentlessly pulls us out of our depth, that tests our forbearance and ultimately claims our soul, that sea does not figure their dreams. It may be a generational difference. But perhaps not. Certainly the new US passport is replete with pictures of men taking on nature — cowboys and seamen ruggedly occupying the western plains and Pacific waves, respectively. And that’s the point: the girls read with me because the good student’s mother is a friend and she has entrusted her daughter to me (and yes those words were used “交给你”) for old-fashioned Chinese purpose: edification rather than simple instruction. The goal of our bi-weekly meetings is not to improve English test scores or practice oral English, but rather close reading of novels, essays and poetry, to help the teenagers learn to navigate literary nuance elsewhere, which it turns out is also learning to simultaneously recognize oneself and one’s Other despite and across epic difference, which isn’t quite what Hemingway had in mind when he figured Man through his engagement with the Fish, but nevertheless where yesterday’s lesson ended.