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new traditions: nan’ao mazu

Yesterday, I visited the newly renovated Mazu Temple of Nanyu (南渔), which is located in Nan’ao, Dapeng (大鹏新区南澳). The temple is interesting for (at least) three reasons and the questions they beg.

 

  1. The temple is a local renovation of a previous existing temple. The icons from the previous temple have been moved into a nearby exhibition of the history of the village;
  2. Although the temple and the exhibition were built on land that Nanyu has claim to, the project was promoted and funded by donations from a successful Chaozhou businessman, and therefore;
  3. He contacted artisans in Chaozhou to design and build the temple according to “proper” requirements.

Questions that the temple raises include:

  1. How is “tradition” being remade at the popular level, now that long-term residents are contributing to the reconstruction?
  2. What has been the role of Chaozhou people in this reconstruction?

Chaozhou people have been involved in the reconstruction of Shenzhen tradition at two levels. First, Shenzhen is known for the shift from the planned to a market economy, but many of the people who built the literal markets (the Hubei fish market, wet markets in many villages, and the dried fish market at Nan’ao, for example) have been from Chaozhou. Secondly, many of the traditional crafts that appear in Shenzhen ancestral halls and temples have been contracted from Chaozhou, which is considered more “traditional” and therefore “authentic.”

The next post will talk about the relationship between the temple and the village. Impressions of the newly constructed Mazu Temple and the exhibition.

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will 2016 be the year of culture?

December in Shenzhen is known as “Creative December”. The city has been officially promoting culture and creative industries since 2005, moving manufacturing to the outer districts, incubating start-ups, and funding creative spaces and so forth. Many of the large-scale, government promoted events during Creative December 2015 focused on history and memory and the scale of these imaginary formations. For those who often what to do on a weekend afternoon, this past December offered an embarrassment of choices in addition to the city sponsored Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale of Urbanism/ architecture and the Shenzhen Public Sculpture Exhibition, every single level of government and private art spaces sponsored large-scale cultural events that ranged from the first Kylin Dance Festival (in Longhua) to the Indie Animation Festival in Overseas Chinese Town. In addition, every weekend has been filled with lectures, workshops and salons. For those of us who work in culture—we paint or run galleries or act or produce plays or think about society and take critical photographs of changes in the land—December is the month when we present a year’s worth (or not) of endeavor to the public.

In January, before Shenzhen turns its gaze back to the problem of making an industry of culture—Culture, Inc, we begin rounds of New Year’s dining privately with friends and family, as well as formally with colleagues. During these meals, culture and Culture, Inc are discussed in tandem; there is a potentially large market for culture because everyone is vaguely dissatisfied and looking for spiritual forms of satisfaction that are also economically viable.   Continue reading

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a day of culture

Today, there was an exhibition opening in the afternoon and a performance of The Hairy Ape this evening. Suddenly, culture all over Shenzhen. Impressions, below.

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spizzwinks in shenzhen

Just spent the past 2 and a half days tagging along with the Spizzwinks. They are all that. Energetic, generous with their smiles and attention, respectful, and talented. And yes, the Spizzwinks charmed and amazed three very different audiences at the Mass Arts Theater (群众艺术馆), Green Oasis School, and at the Dalang Culture Center (大浪文化馆), hopefully inspiring more people to sing and join choirs.

The hospitality of the Shenzhen hosts completed the exchange. In Shenzhen, friends arranged a large dumpling making banquet for the group, in addition to a delecious dim sum brunch before the GOS concert. In Dalang, we were taken to see a factory showroom, libraries that have been set up for workers and their families, as well as to meet the unicorn dance troupe. I was especially moved by the talent and passion of the Dalang Workers Youth Choir, whose members work during the day and practice two hours once a week. One of the troupe members works in a watch factory and handmade 17 watches, one for each Spizzwink.

This trip reminded me that successful cultural exchanges are everywhere the same: when we give all that we are, we all share in the joy.

Incomplete impressions, below.

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what is the party’s benevolence?

In news broadcasts and interviews, old peasents frequently evoke “the Party’s benevolence (党恩)” to explain their lives. Young and hip urbanites hear these interviews as more evidence that old peasents are the dupes of corrupt officials. However, when I take the time to listen to an old peasent’s life history, it’s clear that more often than not, these peasents did benefit from the establishment of the People’s Republic.

Yesterday afternoon at the Dalang Culture Center, for example, I helped conducted interviews with Uncle Chen and Aunt Zhang for an oral history project. Both Uncle Chen and Aunt Zhang were both born into peasant families in 1930 and 1940, respectively. Auntie’s family owned three single-story houses, while Uncle had left home early because his family did not have room for him. Auntie mentioned that at the turn of the last century, her grandparents went to Singapore to work. Her mother was “brought home” as a child bride for her father. In contrast, Uncle did not mention his family except when asked about how poor his family had been, he remarked that two of his sisters had been sold to strangers, but where they ended up was unclear.

As a poor man, Uncle could not afford to marry. Instead, he went to find work in Hong Kong. In 1951, Uncle became sick and returned to his hometown, where he could recieve care. In 1952, although he had a sporadic education, Uncle was able to secure the documents necessary to join the first test for admission to the Bao’an Normal School. He passed the test and was admitted to an elementary school teachers program, which was located in the Nantou High School building. Teacher Chen emphasized the extent to which his current wellbeing was a result of the Party’s benevolence. He was assigned to teach at Langkou Elementary School, where he met Auntie.

As a young girl, Auntie stayed at home and helped her parents. However, when she was 10 years old, Auntie began attending Langkou elementary school because her father asked the school principal to allow her to bring her brother. 10 year-old Auntie strapped her brother to her back and attended classes. At lunch time she fed her brother a bottle of condensed milk that had been thinned with water. Several years later, she carried her sister to school. Altogether, Auntie carried her siblings for six years. At the end of elementary school, Auntie tested into middle school, where she studied elementary education. Auntie emphasized that her teachers like her because she was a good student. Moreover, her younger siblings were well-behaved and didn’t cry during classtime.

After Auntie graduated from middle school, she married Uncle, who was still teaching at the village school. Auntie’s mother exhorted her to marrie Uncle because he “could do anything”. Uncle could not give Auntie any presents for the marriage. However, he did have housing at the elementary school, where Auntie was also hired to teach first and third grade. The school was located near Auntie’s parents’ house. Auntie did not attribute any of her life history to the Party’s benevolence, but rather emphasized her family background and her mother’s words.

Implicit in Uncle and Auntie’s simple story were the gendered contours of rural poverty in South China, where one of the most important events of a lifetime was to continue family lines through marriage and children. Uncle and Aunt were born into South Chinese villages, where bringing in wives or selling out daughters was a common practice before 1949. However, they married 10 years after the establishment of the People’s Republic, when some policies had already restructured traditional social structures. Auntie married because her family could afford to give her an education, but not to keep her at home. In contrast, Uncle had delayed marriage until he could afford a family, which was a direct result of attending teaching school. He described that opportunity — and all that followed, a job, a house, and eventually a wife and children — as an expression of the Party’s benevolence.

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the shape of space: buji village #1

In the urban villages around the Old Buji Market (布吉墟), alleys and narrow roads wind upward, accomodating dense settlement and inadvertant public spaces. The most notable feature of the space is the proliferation of walls and determined privatization of small plots, or homesteads (宅基地). The isolating spatial organization of Buji reflects what urban planners disparagingly call “small farmer mentality (小农民意识)”. In practice, this means only investing in one’s own home, and minimal investment in public spaces and programs. Obviously, not only farmers have this mentality.  The Shenzhen Dream entails homeownership, while Tea Party populism represents one version of the US American  urge to privatize land and resources. However, the term “small farmer mentality” is usually a pretext for urban renewal programs that involve razing neighborhoods where the working poor live and replacing them with mall-burban settlements, where only the upper middle class can buy into the dream. Spaces like a Buji urban village  illustrate one of the key conundrums facing not only Shenzhen, but cities everywhere — creating livable neighborhoods for the working poor, rather than leaving urbanization in the hands of privatizing opportunists, whether they be individual farmers or employees of an urban planning board.

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tea time stories

Old Sui makes starkly whimsical woodblock prints the old fashioned modernist way — by hand, alone, and in a studio that is open to friends who drop by for tea and chats. He has collected over 1,000 teapots that when individually shelved and arranged seem oddly menacing. Not a first mind. At first, one sees artistry in the smooth lines and soft glow of each pot. However, as Old Sui opens a drawer to show part of the collection, and then another, and then says that the majority of the collection is elsewhere, the care and time necessary to make and care for a teapot gives way to numbers games and ranking; here are 50+ teapots, here are several dozens, the top  twenty or so have been displayed on a shelf that stretches around the room.

And the rest?

In a room at home.

I know the feeling of insatiable desire. I also enjoy aesthetic displays of objects. But. I am not a collector. Learning that Old Sui has set aside a room for private delectation? The intimacy of this knowledge startles me and my eye settles on a teapot crafted in black clay with flecks of golden sand. Continue reading