feedback (houhai discovery)

The other day I asked a friend to critique my photos. He didn’t like the “Found Objects” series because he understands photography to be a process of discovering what is there, rather than imposing myself onto the landscape. My husband countered that he liked “Found Objects” precisely because they constituted a moral evaluation of the landscape; for him, the point of photography was to insert the artist’s perspective into the work (rather than perspective as reflected through “discovery”).

Another friend has asked why my photographs of Shenzhen are primarily in black and white, and cold. She wondered how adding color to the images would change the feeling of Shenzhen. Her questions echo those of another friend who wondered why my pictures of Shenzhen weren’t pretty, while my photos of Berlin were.

On Saturday, September 17, 2005 I will be showing some of my work as part of “Language Materializes,” a workshop organized by Fat Bird Theatre and hosted by Raw Studio, a collective of architects interested in new ways of conceptualizing and building urban space(s). “Language Materializes” is the name of a series of writings by Yang Qian. The project, however, brings together independent works by Yang Qian, dancer Liu Hongming, architect Ma Yuan, composer Yang Jie, and myself. None of these works have been developed together. The point, in bringing them together, is to see the connections that juxtaposition inevitably brings, and stimulate discussion on how meaning is made through art and everyday life.

So I’ve been listening to all this feedback with a different ear. Sometime this week, I have to go print some photos and get them ready to hang. And I’m not sure of the kind of presentation I want. Do I go with discovery? Or judgment? Or perhaps color? I’ve been thinking of doing something highly anthropological and presenting a photo essay on the Houhai land reclamation project, which is visible from the Raw Studio windows. We could all look at the pictures, look out the window, and talk about what we remember of the older coastline…

In the meantime, I am posting some colorful discoveries of Houhai, which I took yesterday morning:

on greenspace

Yesterday, I took my camera for a walk. Although I had a new object to photograph—a well-used pot for brewing Chinese medicine—I didn’t want to carry it. Instead, I walked around the Baihua area, which is bordered by Huaqiangbei in the south and the Shenzhen Stadium in the north. East and West, I meandered between Baihua Road numbers 4 and 2, respectively. This is primarily a residential area, with housing from the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Shenzhen School of the Arts is located here, as is a Wallmart.

Greenspace constitutes one of the pleasures of older developments. Unlike newer developments, which have enclosed park-like areas for their exclusive residents, older areas sometimes have large strips of greenspace that stretch between the development wall and the sidewalk. Lovely banyan trees and lush bamboo clumps shade passage through these strips, which were planned when land was plentiful and funding for elaborate and imported topiary not easily had. Then, planners planted native species and left them to their own devices. Today, grass and palm trees, cultivated flowerbeds and exotic bushes define both public and privatized greenspaces.

One might measure the historical distance between new and old greenspaces in terms of an all-too-visceral ethics of efficiency. As factories, developments, and streets have colonized most of Shenzhen’s land, the older greenspaces, with their cool shade, unkempt paths, and rustling leaves seem vaguely decadent, indeed wasteful. In contrast, the newer greenspaces fit within the lines of an efficient urban planning. They boast denser vegetation and more varieties of plants per square meter, as well as park benches, concrete paths, and small pavillions.

The relative decadence of the older greenspaces is a strange phenomenon. It’s clearly not a question of ecological efficiency. The older greenspaces require no care, except for the occasional sweeping of leaves and picking up trash that accumulates in the network of banyan tree roots. The new greenspaces demand constant attention. Accordingly, teams of gardeners cultivate them from about 6 a.m. until 5 a.m. (with a lunch break and nap time). The decadence of the older greenspaces isn’t even a question of occupied space; the legislated proportion of greenspace to built space hasn’t changed over the past two decades. Instead, I think this relative decadence might arise from the plants themselves, or rather, the growing.

Plants thrive in semi-tropical Shenzhen. Grasses and vines quickly overtake any bit of untended land, climbing walls and bridges, weaving themselves into mesh wire fences. The vitality of Shenzhen’s weeds is particularly evident at abandoned-soon-to-be-razed sites, which support thick walls of shimmering vines and purple flowers. Hence, the city must hire so many gardeners in the newer greenspaces, which like botanical gardens have precise borders between different species; no room for creeping vines, even less for natives. In the older spaces, however, the banyan trees’ roots hold back the onslaught of vines, which cling to the development walls, their lush often translucent green setting off the mottled brown roots. Patterned, yes, but not clipped back, and therein, I think, is the difference that makes a difference.

The sharp lines of the newer greenspaces materialize an efficiency made possible by shearing back growth. I can imagine the gardeners’ irritation at their charges yearning to grow outside the plan. One comes, in the newer greenspaces, to know one’s place and how to occupy it. In contrast, the decadence of the older greenspaces feels like a deep, satisfying stretch, creating one’s place through the process of occupation. This might be one definition of freedom—having the space to grow according to one’s nature, even as we respect the conditions that allow others to flourish, co-evolving. That said, the efficiency with which vines overtake an abandoned factory or deserted village reminds us that others will thrive on our graves; we too are an environment.

A post-script. After I began writing this entry, I took a walk in the northern section of the city’s Central Park. This is older greenspace, older even then the so-called “older greenspaces” described above. Those spaces came into being with the city, 20-odd years ago. Instead, the land on which Central Park was zoned was formerly a leechee orchard. In the northern section, far off the main strip, the park remains a leechee orchard. Indeed, the city still harvests leechees here every June and July. Here, the clipping and weeding and cultivation feel like homecoming. Native, if you will. At any rate, I was reminded that there are gardens and there are gardens. Simply outgrowing the plan isn’t necessarily the point either, it’s just a tickle, a whisper: there are other ecologies possible.

To view some of Shenzhen’s greenspace—old and new, inadvertent and leftover from socialist agriculture—please visit: I have also photographed the found objects in central park. Those pictures are at:

a day in the park

After a week of rain, this morning began with tentative rays of sun and by 10 a.m., the sky was bright, the temperature had climbed to about 90 F (32 C), and the humidity had stabilized around 80%. I decided to take the objects out for a day in the park because, while housebound during the storms, I realized I had few group portraits. So, after stuffing my backpack, I went to the park.

I began posing the objects on benches or among flowers. Folks on their way to work would stop and watch, and even those rushing past would pause in their conversations to glance my way. Usually, all this attention makes me self-conscious and defensive. (“Yes, I’m taking pictures of garbage, but it’s art!”) However, today all this fresh sunshine bubbled up and I started talking about the project. Better yet, I stumbled onto a blurb that folks understood.

“Shenzhen is a very modern and beautiful city. However, to get through the day, we depend upon these ordinary and often ratty objects. I want to make a comparison between the beautiful city and the worn-out objects.”

Now, why the joy at being understood? One would think that an anthropologist with theoretical ambitions would be inured to being misunderstood. In January this year, I went home, carrying several pieces of digital art. I was stopped at the border, the tubes were opened, and the pictures were examined. One of the guards sniffed, “Abstract art.” The other guard grunted agreement and then waved me through. I later understood that they were making sure I wasn’t trying to smuggle products through without paying tax. Clearly, they understood the limited market for art. But I’m not doing abstract art. Folks actually get it!

The other reason today brought such pleasure was that this explanation actually encouraged a few people to pose with the objects. Also, tomorrow I have been invited to photograph a yangge (a dance made popular at Yan’an) club, practicing their steps. Who knows, the objects may actually get to make house calls.

To see the park, please go to:

click, click, click of high heels

A woman’s shoe. It has a pointed toe and sharp heel, and after much rain it curves upward, giving a sense of instability, a designed inability to walk with both feet on the ground. Women, I am told, live more emotional lives than do men. That is why Chinese women are capable of such great personal sacrifice. Click, click, click across concrete sidewalks and tiled floors; click, click, click through shopping malls and crowded buses. Women, someone says angrily, are more materialistic than are men. That fact alone explains why there are so many second wives in Shenzhen.

I watch women walk past in high heels and don’t only feel inelegant, but also uncomfortable; my legs tire, my toes cramp, and my ankles wobble. But you don’t have to wear heels, a friend reassures me, you’re already tall. So I learn that height, in Shenzhen, is considered a sign of innate, physiological quality. Superiority, actually. That’s why factory workers and waitresses wear high heels, my friend continues. Of course it’s not convenient, but otherwise they’ll have low self-esteem.

What do women in Shenzhen achieve by wearing high heels? The above examples suggest possible answers: despite physical discomfort, wearing high heels lets women live out their dreams, become more attractive, and feel good about their bodies. On the face of it, high heels seem to transform ordinary women into people in control of their own lives (even if we stumble when a heel gets lodged in a crack in the sidewalk). Yet such a formulation provokes interesting questions about the valuation of women in Shenzhen:

What is it about women that makes us ordinary, and consequently in needs of transformation before we are recognized as active, rather than passive social agents? (And given the amount of work that goes into becoming a woman, the question of having one’s agency socially recognized and justified seems particularly acute. A Zen expression has it that “Buddha eyes see Buddha, shit eyes see shit”. Yet what might it mean for understanding women’s agency if “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”? Does our agency ultimately reside in how we are and refused to be seen?)

What kinds of women are eligible for transformation? (In Shenzhen, not every woman wears high heels and these women are not universally “tall enough” to feel good about themselves in flats. Indeed, many of the un-heeled, so to speak, wear plastic flip-flops. Although even flip-flops now come with translucent heels. At any rate, women who don’t wear high heels, include: street cleaners, vegetable hawkers, beggars, bus ticket collectors, retirees, tennis players…So provisionally the question of eligibility is tied to class and task. But we knew that. Every woman who has gone shoe shopping knows this. What about social science isn’t self-evident? Or is the point to keep repeating the obvious until the situation improves?)

What are the limits to and direction of that transformation? (I’m struck by proliferation of two classes of high heel shoe—the professional, low heel for work, and the sexy, high heel for pleasure. Of course, there are attempts to blend the two, and there are some sexy low heels and, inexplicably, rather bland high heels. So, on a crude reading of high heel types the horizons of recognition for women’s agency seem to be office work and sexualized forms of pleasure, with a few minor variations. That is, even if wearing high heels doesn’t seem to get one recognition for intellectual agency might it help one in the pursuit of a banking career? If so, how and how far?)

And why, for that matter, especially given what seem to be the limited returns for wearing high heels, do the terms of transformation physically hurt? (It seems important that the shoes, which folks have pointed out to me as being “sexy” and “beautiful” are all quite high. Somehow a tolerance for lower back pain gets reworked into forms of social recognition. I could argue that social recognition is the reward for living with what is otherwise unnecessary pain. High-heeled women are recognized for having put on the shoe and that act itself is where the transformation from ordinary to active agent takes place. That is, women trade the willing subordination to social codes for a social recognition. But again, I get here and get stuck—why does it have to hurt? Or are we trading in forms of pain? Is it less painful to wear high heels than it is to be considered unattractive? To what extent are we defining being a woman in terms of acceptable pain? And at this moment, the discussion opens to a more general question—is the difference between men and women based on the social distribution of how much and what kind of pain a body might be recognized for enduring?)

I have photographed this shoe in sites where one could not wear it. That is point: putting on the shoe situates one, socially yes, but with reference to a material world. Without high heels (and the concomitant dependence on smooth surfaces to click across), where else might we go? How might we get there?

To see the shoe, please visit:

about umbrellas

In Shenzhen, umbrellas are one of the most common accessories, and every household has several, are lent to friends whenever the rain catches us unawares. Businesses have different strategies for holding wet umbrellas. A bucket at the door is the most common, while upscale hotels offer storage in racks designed specifically for umbrellas. In Hong Kong, wet umbrellas are sealed in long, thin plastic bags and then carried through malls. Of course, umbrellas only keep you dry during soft, vertical rains. When a typhoon blows, the rain seems suddenly freed from natural constraints, rushing parallel to the street or even surging up from the ground, soaking a pedestrian in less than a minute. During those storms, folks take shelter and wait. All too often, arriving wet leads to catching cold in over air-conditioned public spaces.

Umbrellas also protect skin from the sun’s poisons. During hot, summer months, women use umbrellas as parasols, to protect their skin from tanning. For most, dark skin signals manual labor, and the booming beauty industry thrives by selling whiter, softer, smoother skin. Indeed, friends have chided my carelessness in going out without an umbrella; there are also creams to help reduce unsightly freckles. However, reversing the rule reveals most clearly the class of skin color. Among the most modern youth, who have adopted the X-treme sports look if not the lifestyle, a tan radiates health, leisure, and disposable incomes.

Like all of the found objects, Shenzhen’s umbrellas point to the symbolic materiality of inhabitation. Whether through cooking, or going to work, or sharing a pot of tea, the semiotics of caring (or not) for one’s and others’ bodies constitutes daily life. Anthropology, at least as I am coming to understand it, seems defined by a curiosity about how those standards are realized, debated, and changed across time and place.

Unlike the teapot or bike tire, however, the umbrella clearly evokes the lived intersection of gender and class. It is not simply that there are manly and ladylike umbrellas, but also that among urban women wet, dry, white, tanned, and freckled bodies have all sorts of potential meanings—I forgot my umbrella; I’m a migrant worker; I’m a demure young secretary; I’m a sophisticated older woman, who knows how to care for herself; I’m an edgy-sexy college student. In fact, most people I’ve spoken with assume that all women are naturally concerned about how they look and healthy skin is the prerequisite to looking good. Only those who can’t afford skin products or are too busy working neglect their skin. Women in Shenzhen exfoliate, moisturize, and protect their skin because it announces who they are, establishing how interlocutors are to treat them.

Importantly, the relative unimportance of male skin in establishing social identity leaves rural men particularly vulnerable to the sun. Throughout Shenzhen, sanitation workers, who are mostly women, collect trash, wearing wide-brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts, and gloves. However, construction workers, who are primarily men, labor wearing only pants and flip-flops. Their backs, chests, arms, and feet turn dark brown, “black” according to my friends. This exposed skin is considered ugly and coarse, dirty. All too quickly these evaluations become identified with the workers; they are low quality, as anyone can see. Of course, managers and engineers work onsite wearing shirts, pants, gloves, and boots.

These pictures ( give a sense of the intensity of the sun in Shenzhen, reminding us that in addition to these external meanings, umbrellas also point to the fact that heat burns, destroying skin and dehydrating bodies. Quite obviously, leaving workers to labor under a semi-tropical sun, 12-hours a day to collect garbage or build air-conditioned buildings actualizes the neglect of some bodies so that other bodies might thrive. At this moment, the anthropological project changes from mere curiosity to an invitation to re-think how we do and do not care for our own and others’ bodies.

和谐深圳:building a harmonious society

Yesterday, I was walking in one of the new sections of Houhai. On my left, behind the walls of an elite gated community, children frolicked in a recently completed swimming pool. On my right, migrant workers hung out at a corner kiosk of a construction site shantytown. The juxtaposition of these two spaces, common throughout Shenzhen, symbolizes the class structure that has enabled the construction of the city. On the one hand, urban residents (whether from other cities or long term Shenzhen residents) occupy the new buildings and spaces—upscale housing, high-rise offices, and shopping malls bulging with designer goods. On the other hand, rural migrants build these spaces, inhabiting temporary structures that vanish at the end of a project. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see children playing or women cooking in front of a row of construction site shanties. Unlike the enclosed lives of the gated community, shantytown lives spill into the street, disrupting the flow of traffic. Then, they vanish and the street takes on the “normal (正常)” appearence of a residential neighborhood.

When I first came to Shenzhen, well-meaning urbanites repeatedly warned me that life in Shenzhen was “disorderly (好乱)” and “complex (复杂)”. Moreover, they explicitly attributed urban crime to outsiders (外来人), who were ineligible for household residence in Shenzhen and therefore thought to lack “emotion (感情)” for the city. In fact, one of the more interesting themes running through conversations about Shenzhen has been whether or not a person can feel attached to a place that isn’t their hometown. Much is at stake in this question: how and when do residents self-identify as “Shenzheners” rather than as sojourners from other places? But back to questions about disorderly and complex living conditions. Ten years after my arrival, urbanites continue to issue warnings about walking in Shenzhen. And although I have never been robbed (I have “lost” several bicycles, but that’s another matter), my friends continue to worry for my safety. They are convinced that foreigners present a ready target to unscrupulous outsiders. When I ask if they feel safe in the city, they usually reply, “yes”, but then add, “you can’t be too careful”. And I wonder if this “you” means me-in-particular or one-in-general…

Signs of an underlying anxiety also permeate the built environment. In addition to taking precautions before going out, Shenzhen residents build gated communities, enforce community walls with barbed wire, and hire security guards. Security walls are also built around construction sites. Recently, I have noticed advertisements for private eyes (私人侦探) throughout the city. These advertisements are spray painted on walls throughout the city, as well as onto sidewalks and telephone booths. I’ve posed my found objects with these signs of anxiety–a first attempt at a dialogue with the built environment Shenzhen about terms of inhabitation. Some of these signs of anxiety are now online.

Officially, Shenzhen has not commented on the question of public safety. However, there have been indirect references to the matter; Shenzhen’s leaders are vigorously promoting the idea of “harmonious society (和谐社会)”. This slogan also links up with national concerns. Under Jiang Zemin, the Party emphasized a policy of “using morality to govern the country (以德治国)”. Hu Jintao’s administration has continued to deploy revamped Confucianism to exhort citizens to participate in capitalist reforms, offering the slogan “harmonious society (和谐社会)” as a collective goal. Given the class differences and concomitant social tensions that characterize even walking down the street in Shenzhen, “you” feel the importance and desirability of such a society.

in lieu of a methods section–thoughts prompted by found objects

We are in the midst of an unseasonable rainy season, which has pleasantly cooled the city, but also taught me the desirability of an indoor studio. Yesterday, I played with my found objects on the balcony, deliberately arranging them instead of posing them in different parts of the city. I’m not pleased with the images and (in a moment of irrepresible personification) suspect that the objects themselves felt awkward.

To date, I have gleaned the following objects from rubbish heaps (in chronological order): Teapot, Claypot, Bicycle Tire, Umbrella, and The Gloves. I was given Bench. I found Teapot while wandering around the Houhai land reclamation area. Claypot had been left behind an old (and soon to be razed) village. I found Bicycle Tire next to a bridge and Umbrella had been stuffed into an advertising billboard in Dongmen. The Gloves had been abandoned on granite rocks at the subway construction site, just next to Diwang. Bench came from Zhuhai, the Special Economic Zone on the western banks of the Pearl River Delta, just north of Macau.

Until I began collecting discarded objects and photographing them throughout the city, I had contented myself with photographing the city. Photographing the city was both a moral-aesthetic and documentary practice. On the one hand, I have enjoyed reframing the city; Shenzhen is not a conventionally beautiful city (no elegantly classic ruins, no early modern architecture, and a penchant for razing mountains and filling in coastline). Consequently, it has taken me time to learn how to see it, without immediately turning from its more obvious problems. This aesthetic repugnance embodied (and continues to embody) a moral position; my refusal to look, to recognize how the city materializes the daily lives of its inhabitants has constituted a refusal to witness those lives. A refusal, in other words, to acknowledge the value of those lives simply because I don’t like the way the city looks.

(It would be fascinating to track forms of disdain for Shenzhen to specify how refusing to witness Shenzhen enables folks—anthropologists, businessmen, migrant workers—to variously use but not inhabit the city, increasing the levels of alienation that most seem to feel here. The most common refusals to acknowledge Shenzhen that I have heard are “Shenzhen isn’t China” or “Shenzhen doesn’t have any history/culture”. However, it also takes the form of apologetics for “the cost of progress”, or a reduction of this history to theoretical abstractions. I am fluent in all of these dialects, but in my scholarly work have demonstrated a preference to use theoretical abstractions to obscure unacknowledged disdain.)

On the other hand, the speed of transformation has eluded my attempts to write this history and photography has provided a form of documentary shorthand. There is a saying in Shenzhen, “Plans don’t keep up with change (计划跟不上变化)”. Various interpretations of this phrase are possible. Things got built here before the city plan was approved (so plans come into being already obsolete); positioning for short-term economic advantage, rather than consideration for long-term growth have fueled these changes (so ad-hoc improvisation, rather than deliberate follow-through tends to characterize decision-making); intensifying production (low pay, long working days, and keeping things running 24-hours a day by maintaining multiple shifts) has continuously increased the speed of economic growth (so the city has to handle increasing amounts of objects); migration to the city has exceeded efforts to build the city (so there is constant adaptation of places and things for unplanned uses).

The phrase “plans don’t keep up with change” points to Shenzhen’s ephemeral nature; this really isn’t the same city it was twenty years ago, or ten years ago, or even six months ago, for that matter. As Marx warned us, all that is solid melts into air. After ten years of attempting to write an ethnography about Shenzhen, I have instead started to examine the process of my own intellectual obsolescence. Photographs provide a means of grappling with these changes; I return to a site, retrace my steps, and click. (This is not the same as saying that photographs resolve the problem of representing change. I’m grappling, remember.)

The process of photographing these Found Objects (and scanning an area for interesting rubbish) has rearticulated my moral-aesthetic and documentary concerns. Suddenly, I have been able to engage simultaneously both fragments of everyday life and the changing landscape. Moreover, these common objects have helped me to witness Shenzhen, and I am often surprised by how beautiful the city can look, if only momentarily. Placing an object requires me to engage what I have learned to overlook. I have also found that placing an object makes details more apparent. When photographing the city, I have tended to look at representative architecture and the organization of space. In contrast, the Found Objects set off details, activating the spaces between as much as the elements of the built environment. In future posts, I will take up each of the objects in turn. I’m still wondering if I should highlight the object (a series of photographs of Teapot, for example, throughout the city), or the place (a series of different objects photographed at one place, like the Houhai land reclamation area).

Perhaps skies will clear in the afternoon and I will be able to take The Gloves out on a shoot. The Gloves suit both ethical and methodological considerations. In addition to directly representing those who have built and maintained the city as inhabitable spaces, the gloves don’t weigh all that much. This characteristic opens all sorts of possibilities; I can take out The Gloves with any other object without considering getting on and off the bus (no added bulk), organizing my backpack (no danger of cracking a porcelain object), or putting them safely away after each shoot (can be stuffed into jeans pockets).

The Gloves’ charms become apparent in comparison to Bench. This past week, when not dodging raindrops, I have been telling myself that Bench really isn’t heavy, and that carrying him on a two-hour walk under a brutal sun will result in satisfying images. I expect I shall succumb to these exhortations sometime after I return from England, where I will be leading a two-week study trip. In the meantime, however, I have enjoyed whipping Gloves out of my packback and not fearing that I shall harm them in any irreparable way. Teapot fell off a pedestrian overpass about ten days ago, and I still miss her.

Found Object portraits online.

the overlooked ubiquity of bicycles in shenzhen

I have been collecting discarded objects and then photographing them in different sections of Shenzhen, the oldest and largest of China’s special economic zones. This process has (as yet) denied me photo-ops with a Guanyin statue, but helped me see things so common that they hadn’t previously registered as “Shenzhenese”. This bike tire examplifies how what gets overlooked is often the all-too-common (even by folks who define themselves through acts of documentation).

In the early eighties, just after the PRC had opened to the capitalist West, bicycles symbolized the differences between urban China and urban “us”. I remember magazine articles on Beijing and Shanghai that featured images of hundreds of Chinese citizens biking to (or from) work, school, the market. At the time, Shenzhen had just been established and rarely featured in these articles, except as an example of the extent to which China was changing. From its establishment, however, Shenzhen pursued modernization with an eye to non-Chinese cities. Accordingly, the Shenzhen urban plan deliberately excluded bicycle lanes; Shenzhen’s modernity would be defined by car ownership. I’ve heard that by the mid-1990s, per capita car ownership in Shenzhen had surpassed that of Hong Kong. Certainly, the total number of vehicles cruising Shenzhen streets has surpassed the number in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, bicycles remain a common mode of transportation in the city. Many workers still bike and many business depend upon bicycle delivery. Indeed, throughout the city, usually nestled under an overpass, individuals set up bicycle repair shops. For one or two renminbi, a tire puncture can be repaired, breaks tightened, or chains oiled.

Given their exclusion from the urban plan, bikers often compete with pedestrians for passageways through the city. I have often bumped into bikes or been bumped as bikers rush to their next destination. Nevertheless, I didn’t associate bikes with the city. If I’m any example of how folks have come to inhabit Shenzhen, then the municipality’s urban planners have successfully banished bikes and bikers from mental maps of the city. Or rather, bikes and bikers crash into our consciousness only to the extent that they interrupt normal traffic. All this to say that I have been in Shenzhen for ten years, and am just starting to realize how vast the overlooked landscape might be and how misleading these pictures probably are. Consider them evidence of an emerging awarenss of, rather than reliable data about Shenzhen. Pictures, here.