as yet shenzhen has no capital h history…

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 NantouDapeng Fortress, the Chiwan Tianhou TempleDongmen, 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.

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hubei old village, dusk

Thursday last, I walked Old Hubei Village with Chen Ting, an architectural graduate student with an interest in the landscape of Shenzhen’s state-owned industries. A walk around the train station and then through the Dongmen pedestrian street brought us across the Dongmen pedestrian overpass to the complex neighborhood where Hubei Villages Old and New abut the Luohu Culture Park, crumbling 80s factories, and 90s high-rises and one of the oldest Shenzhen food-streets eased into dusk. Impressions below:

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storm clouds


tianmian clouds

these past two weeks, it has rained in shenzhen and the rest of the delta. on friday the 13th (!), the rains flooded baoan district, killed six, and delayed airflights. songgang was the worst hit. that night, storm water also pooled throughout the city and public transportation stopped, causing hundreds to wade home.

in between the downpours, however, the cloud formations have been stunning. pictures from tianmian, dongmen (hubei new village), huaqiangbei, and houhai.

dongmen fading


street market, hubei village

yesterday, i walked through hubei old village (湖贝旧村) and luoling (螺岭), both of which are under the administration of dongmen administrative neighborhood (东门街道办事处). hubei and luoling are located on the eastern, not yet renovated part of dongmen. the western side, of course, boasts china’s first macdonald’s and one of shenzhen’s first attempts at historic preservation for re-use, transforming old commercial buildings into modern commercial buildings. back on the eastern side, where property values far out pace the quality of the buildings, baoan ruins abut old shenzhen dreams, circa early 1980. like the neighborhoods in western shenzhen, hubei and luoling suffer from neglect. one of the more telling signs of change in the area: workers can no longer afford to rent housing. instead they are renting bedspace.

bright spots amidst gray concrete: religious items and plastic goods. as friends remind me, only waitresses wear qipao; only the ignorant believe in traditional gods. nor are there high quality goods for sale, instead household items–ranging from stools to buckets and mops–are all made of the same flimsy plastic, which comes in neon shades of green and pink, sometimes easter egg blue. such are the aesthetics of class formation. dongmen’s bright spots don’t really shine in the same in the rest of the city, where glass and imported plants suggest homeowners’ well-cultivated taste. moreover, in comparison to nearby highrises, the village buildings appear stunted at best, but more likely defective, somehow lacking. certainly, these buildings lack the WOW factor that has put the shenzhen skyline on lists that rank such things.

once upon a time, dongmen was the center of thriving cross border commerce. indeed, when deng xiaoping first came in 1984, he went to the top of shenzhen’s trade center, which overlooked dongmen. in that flourishing hub, he saw china’s post-mao future. today, dongmen seems abandoned, and even the renovated parts of the area seem tacky. for those looking to see fifty years of history condensed into a thirty minute radius, you could do worse than visit dongmen, where in addition to old village remnants and early 80s leftovers, some of shenzhen’s glitziest buildings are located.

人的城市: dongmen (2)

the first fat bird collaboration took place in the summer of 2003, when yang qian, wen rongbing, liu hongming, zhang yuelong and i occuppied famous shenzhen landmarks. at the time, we were experiementing with using the landscape as stage. more often then not, we performed short pieces and then were either sent away (by local security) or ran away (because the police had been notified). think of these pieces as fat bird’s first engagement with shenzhen.

located at the shenzhen-hong kong border, dongmen is the largest commercial center in shenzhen. indeed, it has its own neighborhood government and websiste.

人的城市: dongmen (1)

the first fat bird collaboration took place in the summer of 2003, when yang qian, wen rongbing, liu hongming, zhang yuelong and i occuppied famous shenzhen landmarks. at the time, we were experiementing with using the landscape as stage. more often then not, we performed short pieces and then were either sent away (by local security) or ran away (because the police had been notified). think of these pieces as fat bird’s first engagement with shenzhen.

located at the shenzhen-hong kong border, dongmen is the largest commercial center in shenzhen. indeed, it has its own neighborhood government and websiste.

Dongmen zoo


t.rex, dongmen
Originally uploaded by mary ann odonnell.

Walking through Dongmen the other day, I suddenly noticed T.Rex was not alone. A giraffe, horse, and Thai elephant also roamed Shenzhen’s most famous shopping area. Check out the menagerie.
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