The experience of walking Shenzhen is significantly different from visiting, Beijing or Shanghai, Xi’an or Guangzhou, where the meaning of the past has already been codified, renovated, and can be consumed on a nostalgic tour. In school we learn that Beijing’s history is Ming-Qing imperial, Shanghai’s history is East-West colonial hybrid, Xi’an’s history is ancient, while Guangzhou’s history is South China sea commerce and migration. We then go to the respective tourist destination to have our knowledge confirmed and perhaps enriched by and through an appropriate activity. We walk Beijing’s hutong and the Forbidden City, drink coffee or cocktails in a stylish restaurant in Shanghai’s shikumen and the Bund, admire Xi’an’s beilin and terracotta soldiers, and wander the small shops of Guangzhou’s West Gate. Indeed, each of these tourist destinations succeeds as such precisely because the site metonymically represents the respective city’s place in China’s “5,000 years” of civilization. We leave thinking we have a deeper understanding of where we have been. Maybe we do. Most likely we don’t. But there is something reassuring in having our stereotypes confirmed, and those stereotypes are what I mean by capital h history.
Now, there are historically significant sites in Shenzhen — Old Nantou, Dapeng Fortress, the Chiwan Tianhou Temple, Dongmen, and Yumin Village. However, municipal efforts to promote Old Nantou and Dongmen, notwithstanding, none of these historical sites has captured the imagination of either residents or visitors. I suspect this is in part because each of these places represents a portion of Chinese history that is already preserved elsewhere. Old Nantou and the Chiwan Tianhou Temple, for example, represent ancient efforts to develop the Chinese salt trade and settle the Pearl River Delta, but there are finer examples of that era to be imagined and seen in Guangzhou, while ancient Chinese history is more elegantly preserved in Xi’an and Jiangnan. Even the Tianhou sea cult is more closely identified with Tianjin and Xiamen than it is with South China temples and shrines. Likewise, Dapeng Fortress is an outpost of Ming-Qing military imperialism, but of a failed variety, rather than successful garrisons to be explored throughout the north.
Dongmen and Yumin Village are perhaps more representative of Shenzhen’s importance as the epicenter of early reform. However, both are historically compromised. Although Dongmin is identified with so-called Shen Kong commerce, for example, there really are more upscale malls throughout both Shenzhen and Hong Kong where one might purchase global products. And what about Yumin Village? Deng Xiaoping visited Yumin Village in 1984, inspecting one of the three-story private homes that local villagers had just built. He declared that Shenzhen speed was a good thing and that the rest of the country should follow. The 1995 exhibition to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen SEZ included an installation that reproduced the interior of one of those homes, which at the time, was more luxurious than the homes of urban cadres in Beijing and Shanghai. Here’s the rub: although Yumin Village has been integrated into the Shenzhen municipal apparatus as a Luohu neighborhood, nevertheless the actual buildings that Deng saw and even the home he inspected were razed over ten years ago. There is a history board there, but nothing from 1984 remains and Yumin Village continues to function as a border urban village, with low rents for migrants who work nearby, spas and massage parlors for visiting Hong Kong people, and places where villagers play mah jong and gather to drink tea and gossip.
The absence of an agreed upon master narrative means that walking Shenzhen allows individuals to judge what does and does not represent capital h history in the SEZ. Now Shenzhen does boast upscale skyscrapers that represent achievements within this process — Guomao, Diwang, and the Civic Center all come to mind and are worth a visit. Those wanting to see the “real” capital h historic Shenzhen, I suggest visiting either an industrial park or an urban village. Early 80s work unit housing in Luohu and Shekou are also great examples of how industrial urbanization transformed the area. Personally, however, I believe that if Shenzhen has a place in China’s 5,000 years narrative it is as an epicenter of rural urbanization, including transformation of the local environment, proletarianization of rural migrants to SEZ factories, and the forms of urbanization that returned workers have promoted or their remittances enabled. However, even after over 30 years of reforming and opening Baoan villages, the city is only just starting to come to terms with this legacy and most villages, even the most famous such as Baishizhou are scheduled to be razed. All this to say that as yet, the meaning of Shenzhen’s cultural and historical inheritance is still up for grabs because we are only just starting to come to terms with the urban legacy of Reform and Opening. This means that as yet the city has no capital h history and no corresponding historical sites that one can visit and say, “Yes, I’ve been to Shenzhen and I know where I’ve been.”
Walk anyway. The Shenzhen you experience will be only loosely tethered to stereotypes about China and you might make something else of it. Below, impressions of a recent walk in Fuyong.
This morning while wandering in China Town, I stumbled upon the “Dapeng Hometown Association” or the hometown association for Dapeng villagers. The Association was established in 1982.
Curious, I went in and ended up speaking briefly with an elderly woman, whose life trajectory speaks to the twisting connections that constitute possible Shenzhen identities. Or outlying identities, as the case may be. Mrs. C explained that she was born in Indonesia, but in 1960 returned to her father’s hometown, Dapeng to escape anti-Chinese policies. In 1964, she swam to Hong Kong, finally settling in NYC in 1985. Mrs. C said she had joined the association because Dapeng was her father’s hometown, although her mother was Indonesian.
I mentioned Xichong and Dapeng Suocheng. She agreed that there was great seafood to be had. We smiled at each other. Mrs. C then took a phone call pausing long enough to suggest that I return to talk with the man in charge of the Association.
Uncanny moment that has me thinking all sorts of thoughts about fated encounters and entwined destinies…
Yesterday, Wenzi and I visited her classmate, Zhao Jiachun who works at the Guanlan Woodblock Print Base (中国观澜版画基地). Jiachun generously showed us the Base and briefly introduced its history.
Guanlan interests me for three reasons (in addition to the beautiful setting, pictures here):
Guanlan is, at the moment, a purely municipal government funded project. This points to the growing ideological importance of culture in Shenzhen’s identity – both domestic and international.
Guanlan is part of the movement to recuperate elements of Shenzhen’s pre-reform history as a cultural resource. What’s interesting is that this recuperation is happening village by village. Consequently, what emerges is a loose network of sites, rather than an overall “history” of the city. In this case, Guanlan is the third Hakka site incorporated into the municipal cultural apparatus. The first was Dapeng Suocheng (大鹏所城), a military installation in the eastern part of the city. The second was Crane Lake Compound, which is now the Hakka Folk Custom Museum (深圳客家民俗博物馆鹤湖新居) in Luoruihe Village, Longgang (罗瑞合村).
Guanlan is an example of using pre-modern architecture to incorporate international art production into local identity. More specifically, the experience of architectural difference (such as living in a Hakka compound) bridges even as it creates cultural difference. Thus, the Base invites foreign and Chinese artists for residencies. These residencies allow foreign artists to “understand” China / Shenzhen and incorporate these new experiences into their art. At the same time, these exchanges also refigure a local art form (woodblock printmaking) as international cultural heritage. Importantly, this kind of “experience” of the local past as a cultural bridge seems a global trend. In Switzerland, we visited Romainmotier, which also offers artist residencies in a beautiful, restored, pre-modern setting.
This has me wondering about the ideological relationship between past and present urban settlements: Is “history” now the location of “culture”, while the “present” is all about one’s location on a scale of relative modernity? In other words, do Shenzhen and NYC participate in the same “culture”, their real differences explained away as “levels of modernity”? While their cultural “difference” must be found by excavating the past?
Once or twice a decade, I want material proof–as opposed to theoretical reconstruction and anthropological speculation–that Shenzhen has more than 30 years of culture. Usually, I go about asserting long term cultural occupation of the area as if it were a self-evident truth. Even if the landscape isn’t what it was or the buildings are less than ten years old, I say, there are deep histories histories here: listen. However, as I just mentioned, once or twice a decade, my resolve falters and I wonder: is it possible that what my informants and friends say is true? That Shenzhen doesn’t have any culture?
Now 文化 (wenhua) seems to me tricky to translate because its tied up in understandings about history and accomplishment in ways different from the english word, culture. For example, a maid explains that she hasn’t culture (我没有文化) because she didn’t go to high school. Or when I say I like hakka food, a friend agrees that Hakka culture is rich (客家文化很丰富). Or again, when someone asserts that unlike Beijing, Shenzhen doesn’t have any culture (深圳没有文化) because it is a young city. In hese three examples, the meaning of culture ranges from education through culinary traditions to imperial history.
Located in Longgang District on Daya bay,大鹏所城 or Dapeng Garrison is an anomaly in the Shenzhen landscape–by all counts it is culture of the highest kind. The garrison, which gives Shenzhen its nickname “roc city (鹏城)” is one of only 2,351 national important cultural relics (全国重点文物保护单位). Throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties, soldiers stationed at Dapeng protected the area from pirates and colonial forces. Architecturally, was a walled garrison city, including housing for roughly 1,000 people, at least five temples, a school, and several large family compounds, which belonged to the resident general. Socially, it represented one of the military innovations of the ming. the soldiers stationed at dapeng were also farmers; the garrison was economically self-sufficient.
So yes, Shenzhen has culture. Why, then does it go unrecognized? And not only unrecognized, unvisited. Many of my acquaintances have never heard of Dapeng and most have never visited the garrison (even as part of their patriotic education). Unsurprisingly, all the parts and tourist attractions within the garrison are closed for want of visitors.
In part, I suspect that Shenzhen’s so-called lack of culture is a product of the city’s unfettered drive to modernize; no one actually notices historic relics as such. In part, I also think that Shenzhen’s lack of culture has been a rhetorical devise to produce the area as a tabula rasa; if there was nothing here, then the space is clear for all kinds of development. I’d also argue that by claiming that Shenzhen lacks of culture, urban immigrants assert their superiority to local rural residents. But in the end, I sometimes think the answer to the question, why doesn’t Shenzhen have culture is simply practical — most inhabitants lack of the time to be curious about where we are and how we got here. Most in Shenzhen are too busy making ends meet to think beyond their immediate concerns. So we’re stuck here in a present that keeps repeating itself–build, raze, build taller, faster, bigger, raze.
Culture, it seems to me, like education, good food, and history, grows in, through, and over good time, and that is precisely what Shenzhen lacks.
Pictures of Dapeng Garrison.