the left behind

Here’s the thing about the retreat of manufacturing from the townships and villages of the Pearl River Delta; these areas have urbanized, migrants have settled in and are raising families, but as the low-end jobs and shops that once sustained local and migrant communities follow the factories elsewhere, these neighborhoods are withering. Consider, for example, the older section of Dongguan–莞城, which only twenty years ago was a vibrant community and today is an abandoned reminder of the area’s complicated history with Ming pirates and British opium, its deep relationships with the late Qing Chinese diaspora, and the Pearl River Delta’s urban village origins. Old Dongguan has become a focus of concern for urban planners and concerned citizens: how to revitalize an “old street” that is no longer viable, but sits on prime real estate, or more precisely, inquiring minds want to know: to raze or not to raze historic areas and landmark buildings? Continue reading

莞城: a visit to old dongguan city

If you’re like me, you probably didn’t realize the loveliness that awaits you in “Guan Cheng,” the old section of Dongguan City. And yes, the surprise adds to the pleasure of strolling its meandering streets and riverside boulevards. Ke Yuan (可园), which comes from the expression “lovely garden” is open to visitors. It is an example of Lingnan sensibility and was a key site for the development of Lingnan style painting. Impressions, below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

playgrounds for consumption

In 2009, Sam Green and Carrie Lozano made the short documentary Utopia, Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall about the South China Mall in Wanjiang, Dongguan. On November 1 and 2, 2013, I visited said mall. This post serves as a partial update. It also a brief response to the ideas of “too big to fail” and “acceptable capitalism” that haunt so many apologies for contemporary neoliberalism.  Continue reading

neon romance, new south china mall

Visited the New South China Mall in Dongguan, which is undergoing a family makeover (more next post). Today, impressions of my neon romance with the semi-abandoned re-occupied playground. Continue reading

policy, policy, policy: real estate with chinese characteristics

For those of you who wonder, what’s great in Dongguan–and you know you’re out there because Dongguan has gotten really bad press–I’ld like to suggest Guanyin Mountain National Forest in Tangxia, Zhangmutou Township (东莞市樟木头镇塘厦观音山). The forest occupies 18 sq kilometers, of which most is beautiful forest and hiking trails. This may come as a surprise because Zhangmutou was one of the industrial centers that sprung up along the Kowloon-Guangzhou Railway in the late 80s and 90s. In fact, the area was once known as “Little Hong Kong” because many Hong Kongers vacationed and bought homes there.

From the mountain viewing stations one can see the village and township industrial parks of early reform, as well as the recreational facilities (including golf courses and upscale hotels) where Hong Kongers went for the weekend indulgence and the late 1990s housing that truck drivers and the SAR’s mobile poor bought. One can also see more recent upper middle class developments by Vanke and China Resources which aim to attract buyers from neighboring Shenzhen. In fact, Tangxia is closer to downtown Shenzhen than is Longgang District. In addition to beautiful trails and fresh if muggy semi-tropical air, the park also offers views of how industrial urbanization with South Chinese characteristics reshapes the land, reminding us that we are not talking of “location, location, location”, but more precisely, “policy, policy, policy”.

Each of these areas exists because of a change to or promulgation of Chinese policy. The village and township industrial parks came about as a result of the responsibility system, while the resorts and entertainment industry that catered to a Hong Kong clientele depended upon laws that made it illegal for mainland truckers to cross the border and deliver containers from local factories to Hong Kong logistics companies. The present shift to upscale housing developments for Shenzhen and neighboring elites is also a manifestation of policy: crackdowns on the sex industry and push toward higher value added production in the area.

Of course, the construction in Tangxia has also depended upon the establishment of a bourgeoisie in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, where first houses have been paid off and costs of education met. However, more importantly, Vanke and China Resources have taken up the call to build in Tangxia because the Shenzhen metro will soon connect the area to the SEZ. They hope that the relative low cost of housing will attract young Shenzhen families to move to Dongguan and commute to Shenzhen. In the meantime, however, the people I spoke with in Tangxia were not buying a primary home, but rather a home for their retired parents. After all, they like nearby developers are waiting for Dongguan Municipality to build schools and hospitals, integrating Tangxia into the urban grid because the geographic effects of policy are as visible in their absence as they are in their presence.

inscribed dongguan

Unlike Shenzhen, which has managed to disassociate itself from its rural past, Dongguan continues to be considered a market town, population and exports, notwithstanding — provincial in all condescending senses of the word. Unfortunately for folks in Dongguan, urbanizing strategies to overcome the stigma of cultural boorishness are often the problem. The Lamwa (联华国际) development, 星河传说 (Milky Way Legend), for example, is located in Dongcheng District, Dongguan Municipality’s aspiring middle class district, where English inscriptions, including a Cambridge education kindergarten are all part of local efforts to rebrand the city. It feels, however, like 1990s Shenzhen, before millennial skyscrapers and creative industries replaced industrial parks, creating Shenzhen urbanity and the concomitant nostalgia for urban villages. Impressions of Milky Way Legend’s high culture pretensions, below:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

of dreams and consumption…

another couplet from real estate advertising, this one noted because it suggests the poetic contours of consumption: 梦想的产品,现实的冲动 (a dreamy product, a practical impulse) as if impulse buying were about satisfying dreams, rather than putting ourselves in debt. after all, the cheapest 30 sq meter condo started at 380,000 rmb, well over the minimum wage. what’s more this relatively cheap development is located in dongguan, a long ride from downtown shenzhen. so to buy into the dream one needs an upper management salary and a car. sigh.

中国观澜版画基地: What is a cultural resource?

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?

Continue reading


detail, incense burner, julong village

addresses in chinese read from the largest to the smallest unit. last week, for example, i went to guangdong province, dongguan city, wangniudun township, julong village (广东省东莞市望牛顿镇聚龙村). in terms of the use and organization of the built environment, this administrative hierarchy takes clear form. my trip began at the shenzhen city, luohu bus station, transvessed guangdong’s elaborate (and still expanding) highway network, passed through dongguan city center, and stoped on niuwangdun’s main street, which is narrower and less built up than downtown dongguan, which in turn, is less densely built than is downtown shenzhen, where the journey began. this pattern of narrower streets, shorter buildings, and fewer cars continued with each stage of the journey. from main street, niuwangdun toward julong village, for example, i walked on a main street of four lanes, turned onto a two lane street, stepped onto the one lane street that bordered the julong river, and then turned into a gated alley wide enough to accomodate motorbikes and pedestrians.

in addition to reiterating administrave ranking (provinces administer cities, which administer townships, which administer villages), chinese addresses also tell you whether or not an administrative unit is urban or rural. thus, dongguan (shi) is an urban administrative unit, while wangniudun (zhen) and and julong (cun) are rural levels. in contrast, i live in shenzhen city, futian district, huafu street office, tianmian neighborhood (深圳市福田区华富街道办事处田面居委会). district (qu), street office (jiedao banshichu), and neighborhood (juweihui) are urban designations. not unexpectedly, rural and urban designations also take clear form in the built environment. significantly, rural forms tend to be more traditional and urban forms tend to be more modern or western. thus, for example, the buildings in dongguan city, especially the new city plaza, reflect contemporary architectural trends, while in julong village traditional housing abuts updated one-story homes (平房 literally means flat house and refers to traditional village homes throughout china).

in the prc, rural and urban designations do not simply refer to landuse and population, but also to how the land is used. urban areas are directly under the state, where enterprises, corporations, and individuals can obtain landuse rights (in a process modelled after hong kong’s), but the land ultimately belongs to the state. in contrast, in rural areas, farmers have legal rights to land both for livelihood (growing crops) and housing. there are two main consequences of this situation. first, urban areas have been designated for industrialization, while rural areas have been designated for agricultural production. legally, one can only build a factory in an urban area (although in practice, this has been erroding since deng xiaoping’s southern tour in 1992). second, in terms of property, the traditional, one-stories in the villages are situated on land that belongs to the farmer. in contrast, an urban residents purchase a condo in a highrise, but they do not have eternal rights to it because the land on which the building stands still belongs to the state.

for the past few years, then, dongguan city has been a poster child of sorts for guangdong’s ongoing economic boom. if online statistics are to be believed, from 1999 to 2003, dongguan’s economy grew at a rate of 18.4% a year, enough to make the city the fourth fastest growing in guangdong and 10.3% higher than the national average. now before i went to julong village, i didn’t really think that much about dongguan and when i did it was in terms of boomtown evils: exploitation, prostitution, and pollution. i frequently passed by dongguan on my way to guangzhou and, like supernaut, was both distressed and fascinated by dongguan’s industrial landscape.

now, what’s important about townships like wangniudun is that much of the guangdong boom is actually located in rural townships and villages. administratively, townships are hybrids; they are rural cities. this means that in niuwangdun, julong villagers can invest in industrial production (because it is a city), but that the landuse rights return to villagers, both collectively and individually, because they hold eternal land rights. this loophole has provided guangdong townships and villages with the incentive and flexibility to industrialize in different ways from cities. on the one hand, it has also enabled villagers to become wealthy independent of the state. in shenzhen, this loophole inspired the rural urbanization movement, which changed the administrative status of shenzhen’s farmers from rural to urban, with the result that their children no longer have traditional rights to the land. on the other hand, it has produced a distinctive landscape of tiled multi-story housing, factories, and traditional remnants. for a sense of the emplacements that rural urbanization produces, please visit wangniudun township, julong village.