generations, again

The other day over lunch, a good friend expounded on the characteristics that distinguish children born in the 80s, 90s, and 00s based on what she understood of their parents, who were born in the 50s, 60s, and 70s respectively. Continue reading

handshake with the future: shenzhen’s maker plus culture

The world has glommed on to Shenzhen’s Maker culture, but what is often left undetected is just how Maker Plus the city actually is. Yesterday afternoon at Handshake 302, we held the opening for projects by interior design students from the Guangdong Xin’an Polytechnic College. During the opening, the conversation about their work focused on bridging the distance between design and implementation. A key thought came from Lei Sheng, Handshake 302’s master craftsman (seriously, he can make anything): in an information age, information isn’t the most important element for creativity. Instead, the knowledge of making things with our hands–craftsmanship–is the key to a successful design career.

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Hair Washer Number 5

Her last name is Xu, but she insisted that I call her by her number, 5, Hair Washer Number 5. She called me Pretty Lady, or 美女 (meinv), a common form of address for women between the ages of 17 to mid 30s, but nothing I’ve ever been called. After I laughed and asked if I was truly a meinv, Xu explained that women like to be called pretty, and even when they were as old I was, to call them Auntie (阿姨 ayi) or Older Sister (大姐 dajie) might make them unhappy. I acknowledged how difficult it was to know how to address strangers, especially without an introduction.

Xu came to Shenzhen 3 years ago, when she was 15. She has been working in the beauty industry for two years now and took a job at this salon, which markets Korean style service and products because “For people without education, or money, or status,” she explained, “the only thing we can do is learn a skill and make our future ourselves.” She hopes to learn enough to someday open her own shop. She works 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, but says that once her trial period is up she will have one rest day a week.

As she kneaded my arm, Xu shyly asked, “What do you do when you’re upset?”

“I meditate and go for walks.”

She nodded slowly and then, eyes intently fixed on the skin of my inner arm, she told me that this afternoon at lunch she cried from weary exhaustion. Then her manager and several co-workers urged her to stop crying and toughen up, after all, if she didn’t learn to eat bitterness when she was so young, it would only get harder as she aged.

I asked if the crying helped.

“No, nothing’s changed.”

I fumbled to clarify, “I didn’t mean the question rhetorically. I just wanted to know if you felt better after you cried.”

She nodded her head once.

“Then cry,” I said, “and when you feel better, analyze your situation and figure out what to do next. You’ll make worse decisions when you’re tight and unhappy than you will after a good cry.”

She looked at me and then resumed kneading my other arm, adding softly when she finished, “Next time you come, ask for Number 5 and we can talk again.”

Humbled, I left the salon, hoping for the courage to return, ask for Number 5, and listen to her story.

life seasonings…

Yesterday had lunch with friend and his son, a member of generation 90. The conversation turned to memories of life as an early 80’s college student in Beijing, while son politely played games on his phone.

Me: What interests me about your generation is that although today y’all are friends with your classmates, your children might not necessarily be friends because they are from different classes.

Old Zhang: That’s true. The country (国家) paid for us to go to college so once we were in, everybody was the same [economic] class. Now these young people have a hard time of it. I really feel sorry for them. [laughs] For example, falling in love. When we were in college we were all the same, so all you had to do was find someone you liked and then figure out how to open your mouth. But kids today [son looks up from cell phone], they have to match up everything – the right car and clothes and job and house. Love is just like salt, it’s the seasoning you add for flavor, not the dish itself.

[Old Zhang notices son looking up and continues in another vein]

This is why I’m encouraging him to get religious belief. It doesn’t really matter what. The point is that all our beliefs – in a better society, in the four modernizations, we achieved. There’s nothing left to do. Or, we don’t know what to do. That’s why belief is important.

Me: Or salt?

Old Zhang laughs, son goes back to game.

Who’s in charge?

As the biennale approaches, many documents have to be translated and I’ve found myself doing on the spot translations by text message. I mentioned to a friend that I had finally figured out that if I gave two possible translations – one more or less literal, the other more or less poetic, my interlocutor was usually satisfied with the translation. However, if I only gave one possible translation, then my interlocutor inevitably came back with questions and challenges to my understanding.

My friend nodded and asked, “Haven’t you heard the popular saying, ‘Leaders love multiple choice questions’ (领导最喜欢选择题)?”

I noted that this strategy also works with recalcitrant eaters as in, “You can eat your cornflakes with milk or without milk” because the child thinks she’s in charge even as she eats the cornflakes.

If possible, my friend’s smirk deepened.


Lately I have been writing about Generations 80 and 90 because much of what they do and think mark interesting sites of departure from older generations. Today, a brief comment about my experience watching Beijing Opera with an 80 year-old friend.

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population updates (of a sort)

third day back in shenzhen and i chanced upon one of my favorite conversations: speculation about shenzhen’s actual population and how these figures are generated.

based on conversations with real estate developers and housing agents, as well as published reports and blog postings, i’ve been guestimating shenzhen’s population at around 14 million. recent articles also place shenzhen’s population at 14 million, with 2 million residents with hukou and 12 million without.

according to yesterday’s cabbie, he heard a china mobile advertisement that claimed they had an audience of 16 million. to his way of thinking, this meant that shenzhen had a population of at least 16 million. he then mused that it was likely that shenzhen had “more” than 16 million. he figured: (a) anyone without hukou registration wouldn’t come to the door to respond to the census; (b) only people working at tax-paing work units can be properly counted; (c) many people have more than one child, and the extra (超生) children may be registered in other cities; (d) censors can’t actually make it to every single residence in shenzhen, so they have to depend on what people say, which means there’s error built into the system even before they begin counting; and thus (e) for the sake of a more reliable estimate, they should pad their figures by “several (几)” million.

two points: first, we don’t know how many people live in shenzhen and the rate at which people are coming to live in the city. should urban planners be aiming for 30 million by 2020 (based on the idea that the population has been doubling every decade)? second, where can we go for reliable information? is estimated audience size more or less reliable than published accounts?

reliable population data matters because it is thet basis for decisions about how many roads to build, how much water and electricity to supply, where to build schools and hospitals. in other words, a working definition of urban quality of life is at stake in this data. perhaps more importantly, there seems to be little consensus on how one might usefully guestimate all the people living outside tax-paying channels. this is an acute problem in shenzhen (and much of guangdong, more generally), where a significant majority of the population is self-employed. consequently, even as it is difficult to make informed decisions about the scale of public services in shenzhen, urban planning is made even more difficult by the fact that there has been little accounting of / for those outside the system, which leads to questions about public policy and welfare.

all this to say, urban planning questions are questions about who has rights to the city and the level of responsibility a city government has to provide a minimum quality of life for all residents; questions, that is, of what it means to be a citizen. so yes, the production of reliable population data is a question of citizenship and urban justice because equitable planning is the political expression of our commitment to each other.

go figure.

p.s. for a sense of how shenzhen’s population is represented on the english language web, i popped over to wikipedia. shenzhen was not listed in the article on chinese population and demographics. this information was based on the 2005 census, which estimated shanghai’s population at a mere 10 million! in the list of most populous cities worldwide (2009 data), shanghai had burgeoned to almost 14 million, while beijing came in at slightly over 10 million. shenzhen was again conspicuously absent from the list. nevertheless, in the article about shenzhen (once again in wikipedia), according to shenzhen’s official population (including people without hukou, but apparently not including the homeless and squatters, who have occupied shenzhen’s edges, including the areas under bridges) is listed at 14 million.