layered densities

Came across Christopher Dewolf’s photos of the area around Diwang (or Shun Hing Square as it is officially known, mostly outside Shenzhen). Worth a look.


Gregory Bateson helped me learn to think about how human beings engage in (ultimately) self-destructive forms of competitive growth; Wendall Berry continues to inspire how I think about rural urbanization under capitalism.

Bateson provided a theory of schismogenesis or “vicious circle,” in which our behavior provokes a reaction in another, whose reaction, in turn, stimulates us to intensify our response. According to Bateson, schismogenesis comes in two flavors: symmetrical and complementary. Symmetrical relationships are those in which the two parties are equals, competitors, such as in sports. Complementary relationships feature an unequal balance, such as dominance-submission (parent-child), or exhibitionism-spectatorship (performer-audience). The point, of course, is that unless there is an agreed upon limit to the development of provocation and response, the relationship just keeps going until it hits a natural limit – collapse of the relationship because neither side can continue to meet and exceed the other’s call.

Berry teaches that one of the more deadly tendencies in capitalist urbanization in the United States is to turn all of us, eventually, into Native Americans. On Berry’s reading, the basic structure of American life was to eradicate the people and lifeways of Native Americans and then to replace those people and lifeways with settler capitalism. Importantly, this model of a settled community being replaced by the next, more intensive form of capitalist production both established the rhythm of American development and has become a powerful symbol of how generations of Americans have justified our destruction of people and lifeways in favor of more efficient and valuable forms of life. Importantly, efficient and valuable are defined in terms of profit. Thus, industrial, mass agriculture replace the settlers that had replaced the Native Americans; smart technologies and production are offered as the solution to problems of rustbelt withering.

How have Bateson and Berry shaped my understanding of Shenzhen?

Shenzhen all too clearly grows through an amazing range and diverse levels of complementary schismogenesis. Within Shenzhen, villages, neighborhoods, districts, and municipal ministries all engage in compete for competitive advantage; at the same time, Shenzhen as a city competes with all other cities in the PRD as well as internationally.  In this system, the function of urban planning is contradictory. On the one hand, the Municipal government needs to stimulate competition so that the city can respond to development in Guangdong, China, and the world. On the other hand, the Municipal government also needs to set limits – usually in the form of social goods, such as parks, schools, and hospitals – on how far development can encroach on the people’s quality of life.

Moreover, as Berry noted, the pattern of the first razing and replacement sets the rhythm and symbolic lexicon for understanding capitalist schismogenesis. The problem in Shenzhen is that eventually, we all become locals, our homes and lifeways replaced by more capitalist intensive forms of consumption (increasingly high maintenance housing) and production (higher value added production).

The result has been the ongoing production of rubble. Villages go. 80s housing goes. 90s residences are going. And as in the United States, postmodern nostalgia has become one of the forms that middle class resignation to this fate takes. The poor occupy the rubble until they are moved elsewhere. Images below.

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the view from my window

stunning play of light. every morning, i wake to beauty, despite. and yes, hard to believe that this is the eastern edge of the houhai land reclamation area, viewed yesterday at sunrise, mid-day, and early evening.

i’m also experimenting with photobucket as a way of getting images onto blog. i can but hope…

what exactly is an urban village anyway?

Shenzhen’s urban villages confound easy categorization precisely because they are sites where Mainland Chinese distinctions between “farmers (农民)” and “city people (市民)” have been constantly negotiated and renegotiated for over thirty years.

In the 80s and early 90s, the question facing the Shenzhen government was: how to transfer collective land to urban work units (to establish urban patterns of property ownership) while providing villagers with a livelihood. The resolution to that problem took the form of “handshake buildings (握手楼)” and village level manufacturing and commerce. These villages were called “new villages (新村)” – as in “Guimiao New Village and Xiangnan New Village, for example. However, the economic success of both the new villages and the pace of Shenzhen’s growth has meant that new villages have constantly bumped up against more intensive forms of urban expansion. Consequently, since the mid-90s, the question facing Shenzhen’s government has been: how to integrate the new villages into the city. Suddenly, the government was pursuing a policy of “[urban] village renovation (旧村改新)”. Of course, the so-called “old villages” were in fact the “new villages” of the past decade. More tellingly, the “new villages” were now called “urban villages (城中村)”, an expression which might conjure images of a massive city surrounding and absorbing a small yet resistant village.

The project to renovate Gangxia [New] Village began in 1998 with a plan to construct the Shenzhen central axis along and through Gangxia. However, it was not until 2008 that the government began negotiating with residents of Gangxia Heyuan (岗厦河园片) to transfer land from villagers to city developers. By that time, Gangxia Heyuan had 580 buildings (mostly handshake buildings) and an estimated population of 70,000 people. Obviously, most of the 70,000 inhabitants were migrant workers and not Gangxia Villagers with landrights and property holdings. Nevertheless, the government had to begin a complicated process of negotiated the terms under which Gangxia Heyuan would be transferred from Gangxia [New Village / Juweihui – and there’s a whole ‘nother story told in another post] to Shenzhen City by way of Futian District.

The crux of the matter was, of course, how to define an equitable transfer because once Gangxia Heyuan became a part of the Central Axis it would cease being an “urban village” and become an “urban center”, with all the symbolic and economic capital implied. Consequently, city reps, the development company, and the Gangxia Heyuan villagers needed to work out the amount of ratio of replacement housing to actual housing and the compensation per meter of housing to which each villager was entitled. In the end, the ratio was established at 1:082 for first floor holdings and 1:088 for second story and above. Compensation was fixed at 12,800 per meter of housing space and 23,800 per meter of commercial space.

Inquiring minds want to know: just how much richer did some villagers become anyway? Well, it depended on how much housing one owned and where it was. A villager who owned one of the 580 buildings, which might have 6-800 square meters would be entitled to anywhere from 475-600 square meters of new housing and 7.5 million to 10.2 million rmb if they only owned residential space and much, much more if commercial. In total, there are figures as high as 9 billion rmb in compensation flying through the rumor mill.

Here’s the rub. All this money seems like a lot until we go back and start factoring in the 70,000 migrant workers and several thousand Gangxia villagers who had unequal access to handshake buildings less than 20 years ago. Thus, because Gangxia New Village included unequal redistributions of handshake buildings and landuse rights, some villagers are now much much richer than others. Rumor has it that one such villager had 6,000 square meters of space, while several others had 3,000 square meters. All told (in hushed voices, of course) Gangxia is rumored to have over 20 billionaires and at least 10 residents with over 10 million in property holdings.

And it doesn’t stop there. None of this takes into account how much the real estate developers are going to earn off the wheeling and dealing that re-building Gangxia into Central Axis luxury condos, high-end commercial areas, and business centers. There are a few non-villagers who will become even richer than the few Gangxia billionaires.

So yes, urban village renovation is not only creating new landscapes, but also accelerating the pace of economic polarization in Shenzhen.

If we include Maoist attempts to ameliorate differences between rural and urban settlements, we’re looking at over sixty years of concerted negotiation of Chinese identity as a debate about rural (tradition) versus urban (modernity). Such that its possible to think of the past 100-odd years of Chinese modernization as a process of rural urbanization and concomitant forms of inequality, legislated, negotiated, and otherwise.

For the curious, the Chinese web has facts, figures, and rumors: here, here, and here.

unexpected encounters with tradition…

Entry gate to Shazui

Shenzhen villages are places of unexpected encounters with tradition, living and reworked. Indeed, these encounters are reason enough to meander through the villages. Just to the left of the entry gate to Shazui, for example, is a temple to Hongsheng (沙嘴洪圣宫), which is kept by an older Shazui couple. I asked about Hongsheng and they invited me to sit and chat.

Historically, Shazui villagers made their living fishing in the northern section of the South China Sea, beyond the mouth of the Pearl River Delta. Hongsheng, as his name “Flood Victory” suggests is a god who protects fishermen of the South Seas. Hongsheng is also sometimes thought to be 祝融 (Zhurong the god of fire) and THE god of the South Seas, suggesting that Hongsheng is either a local manifestation of a more general god, or was a specific god that was absorbed into a larger tradition.

From a decidely brief net surf, I have gathered that Hongsheng is very local. Most of the temples I came across were located in Hong Kong and this temple is the only one that I (thus far) know about in Shenzhen. Indeed, the Ou Family Association from Hong Kong (沙嘴[香港]欧氏宗亲会) had provided the computor printout with information about Hongsheng, which again suggests how local this god is. I’m wondering if this is because Hongsheng protects ocean fishermen? That said, throughout Nantou, most temples are dedicated to Tianhou (天后) with the largest temple at Chiwan.

So a post that begs more questions than it answers. Why Hongsheng and not Tianhou? Why only in Shazui? How important is the Hong Kong connection to the temple’s maintenance?  And why is the temple located at the gate? Questions, questions. More to follow as I stumble across answers…

translated space

lately, i’ve noticed a flagrent translation violation on the 362 busline, where bus stops for urban villages (城中村) such as 新洲村 or 水围村  are announced in chinese as “villages” but in english as xinzhou estates and shuiwei estates, respectively. i’m not sure why the village vanishing act in english, when the 村 are clearly present in mandarin. perhaps the more interesting question is how those villages got to keep their designation, when others did not. (list of 362 bus stops, including the undesignated, like 石厦, which is a village but goes by “shixia” full stop, and the villages old (村) and new (新村).  i’ll keep my ears tuned to the translations of 村 and 新村 on other bilingual lines.  if anyone has noticed similar cross-language happenings in shenzhen or other chinese cities, i’d be interested to hear both what’s been translated (or not) as well as explanations as to why the (bait and) switch…

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.

bienniale graffiti

graffiti in shenzhen: high-end, high-concept, art

today walking around the biennale grounds, i noticed a graffiti exhibition. so again, as at tianmian (and it seems that some of the same graffiti artists have been commissioned here as a there), high quality graffiti gets shown in shenzhen as art, but does not exist throughout the city, which favors overpainting everything. this version of high-concept high-art urbanism is increasingly reshaping older industrial areas in the sez (关内). it is a version of shenzhen that grows out of and confirms the priority of architecture to the city’s self-representation. it also reiterates the importance of commercial art to the kind of culture that the city sponsors at the annual china (shenzhen) international cultural industry fair . it also fits that many of the folks at the bienniale are young and hip and artistic. i’m not sure if they represent a new kind of global elite, or it’s simply the case that the young hip and artistic global elite has finally landed in shenshen. graffiti pics here

urban form and memory

joshua kauffman and gwendolyn floyd

the bienniale opens tonight. well, bienniale the third. but it’s my first. i missed the previous two. i’ve been hanging out at oct loft with fat bird and silo, and these past few weeks, with gwendolyn floyd and joshua kauffman, co-founders of regional, which they define as “an interdisciplinary design and research network that performs and applies original analysis of global society, culture and commerce, uncovering and developing opportunities for profitable innovation and meaningful cultural intervention.”

their installation is called “foreground”, which was built out of bamboo. the design is derived from GIS data of a recently removed shenzhen mountain ridge. over the past twenty years, shenzhen has aggressively reclaimed land from both its eastern and western coasts. in everyday conversation this process is called “moving mountains in order to fill the ocean (移山填海).” with foreground, floyd and kauffman have respond to this transformation by using bamboo to re-construct a mountain that no longer exists. the contrast between the structure and the ground actualizes the difference between shenzhen’s pre- and post-urban topographies, creating a visible and material history for the area. more importantly, the installation enables bienniale visitors to imagine the lay of shenzhen’s land before urbanization and, in doing so, re-imagine how the city might reproduce itself in the future.

at least i hope so. one of the illusions of land reclamation and disappeared mountains is how quickly they vanish from consciousness. when i go to houhai and look out at the new landscape i have to think, and think hard, to recall something about what was once there. most of the time, however, i end up taking another round of photos and then doing a little side by side comparison. that was then, this is now.

its hard work to keep the city’s past and present simultaneously in mind. usually, i depend on the material world to do that for me. the old buildings, certain parks, particular roads–these hold my memories, which i enter by way of an evening walk. to the extent that it remains in place, shenzhen keeps my memory intact. but the city keeps getting razed. or rebuilt. or refashioned. and as the buildings collapse and new edifices rise, or factories get a facelift and industrial areas are upgraded, i forget. or rather, i loose access to memory. all that stuff are also doors to memory, and when a building gets razed, i am locked out of my past.

click for images of gwen and joshua’s work in progress.

that was then

i have written earlier about the central axis. today i went walking, two years later, along the portion south of shennan road. i will update the ongoing creation of shenzhen as a city of sustainable development (unquote recent official exhortions) in another entry. the new park space is stunning and has left me searching, again, for words to describe the disconnect between the beauty of trees, blue sky, and radiant buildings and the monotony of low-paid jobs to maintain such places. for them moment, however, i’m thinking more about the unseen, unheard leap toward new states of being that occur in shenzhen. if a building or seven go up and noone notices, did the landscape change or was it always like this?

august 2005

june 2007