how do shenzheners map covid elsewhere?

A friend from northern China once said (and I’m paraphrasing a long ago memory of Shenzhen, circa 1995), “If you want to see Chinese culture, go to Beijing, Xi’an or Shanghai. Even Tibet has more culture than Shenzhen.”

Her pointed point was: if you’re doing cultural anthropology (and I was!), go to a Chinese city with actual culture. Even the ethnic minorities have culture. Shenzhen, not so much. In fact, she also explained that Taiwan felt more ‘Chinese’ than Shenzhen did. When asked to elaborate, she explained that in Taipei, she had been able to speak Mandarin. In contrast, in Guangdong it was difficult to find people who willingly spoke Mandarin, let alone fluently.

Of course, nearly thirty years (!!!) later, Shenzhen has come to represent China in ways that Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai do not. Moreover, Shenzhen is often held up as the most open of the first-tier four (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen). Shenzhen isn’t China’s past, my friends assure me, but its future, which is why, Shenzhen’s response to Covid-elsewhere is worth noting. How are Shenzheners positioning themselves and their city vis-a-vis perceived failures of Covid management in Shanghai?

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half-urban guangzhou

These past two days, I have been in Leming, a mountain village located in the northern reaches of Guangzhou. It’s a site where one confronts the unevenness of development, where artists and environmentalists are trying to do something meaningful with what remains after the most of the village’s young people have left for factories in “Guangzhou” proper. Continue reading

nanting village, guangzhou

On Friday September 9, 2016, I had the privilege of visiting Nanting Village, Guangzhou with Professor Chen Xiaoyang, from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. The occasion for the visit was a screening of Zhong Shifang’s film, “From Border to Border,” a documentary on the Chinese community in Tangra Calcutta. I will discuss the film in my next post. Today, I would like to contextualize the screening of the film with a brief introduction to Nanting Village. Continue reading

2012 guangzhou triennial

Yesterday, I visited The Unseen, the GZ Triennial exhibition and spent a pleasant 1/2 day engaging the works of 61 artists from China and the world, including Korea, Russia, India, and Indonesia, a diversity of representation much larger than the usual “global” expositions.

Curators JIANG Jiehong and Jonathan WATKINS have selected works in which what is seen directs the viewer’s attention to what is not. Sometimes the unseen referent is concrete, like the crank that twists a rope in XIAO Yu’s piece of twisting rope, Popularity 1. Sometimes the absent referent is more ephemeral, like the possible corpses buried beneath KAN Xuan’s Millet Mounds (大谷子堆). Sometimes, the unseen is a clever joke – Tim Johnson’s never seen flying saucers, for example. Nevertheless, as a viewer engages more works, the accumulation of unseen referents blurs the artificial division between concrete and ephemeral references, directing the viewer’s imagination instead to the illusive yet invisible worlds in which objects can come to signify relentless social pressure, cultural continuity, and comic book fantasy. So yes, it’s worth making the trip to the Guangdong Museum of Art (广州市二沙岛烟雨路38号广东美术馆) to see what else is there.

The Unseen will run until December 16. Impressions, below.

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two walks in guangzhou

Just spent three lovely days in Guangzhou, enjoying conversation at Sun Yat Sen University and visiting tourist spots, including a walk along the river and a ride on the bubble train atop the Guangzhou Tower. Very Tale of Two Cities simply because looking down is so different from looking through even though vertigo set in when I tried to walk out onto a glass bottom viewing deck. No, I didn’t leave the opaque floor and yes, strangely did not feel as afraid when I walk outside onto the viewing tower and into the bubble train. Images below:

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What’s the difference between Shenzhen and a 直辖市?

直辖市 means “directly governed city”. There are four directly governed cities in China — Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing. The difference between a directly governed city and a special zone (特区) like Shenzhen is political ranking. Directly governed cities have the same political rank as a province. This means that directly governed cities have access to resources and policies that other cities do not.

Shenzhen is a sub-provincial city, which means it is subordinate to Guangdong Province. As a Special Zone, Shenzhen has some economic exceptions, however, in terms of political planning and any kind of social innovation, Shenzhen must operate within the purview of Guangzhou. Consequently, the SEZ has repeatedly chosen to frame any kind of social transformation in terms of “economic” reform.

From the outside looking in, Shenzhen seems different, certainly the most neoliberal of China’s large cities. But from the inside, Shenzhen just seems nouveau riche, a better version of the country’s second tier cities, but not a first tier city like Beijing or Shanghai. Or even Guangzhou. Continue reading

2 days in guangzhou – impressions

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lecture notes – SCUT

Yesterday, I participated in a Biennale event at 华南理工大学 (South China University of Technology campus slideshow, below).  The event was organized into three sections: SZHK Biennale 2011 Main Venue; SCUT professors who had participated in SZHK Biennale 2009; and a SZHK Biennale 2011 sub venue event, the Enning Road Transformation Study Group (恩宁路改造学术关注组), an alliance of students and residents to voice concerns about Guangzhou’s plans to raze this historically important part of the city.

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Now, visiting Guangzhou, especially with Guangzhou people is pleasurable because they love their city. They also love to compare their city to Shenzhen, which is interesting for what it tells us about the different ways we create a sense of belonging to “our” cities. The conversations I had highlighted important differences between the creation of urban identities in Guangdong Province’s two most important cities. Continue reading

此身此行:fat bird in guangzhou

this body
Originally uploaded by mary ann odonnell.

over the may day long holiday, fat bird went to guangzhou to participate in the guangdong modern dance festival. the festival was divided into roughly three events: performances by established troupes, performances by young chinese artists, and workshops with established dancers. the performances by young chinese artists were short, roughly 5 to 10 minutes in length. fat bird performed “此身此行 (this body, these movements)”, which was developed over the course of the winter workshops. at the festival, this piece unexpectedly won a gold medal. unexpected because only one fat bird member was trained as a dancer. however, it seems that a willingness to put amateurs onstage was one of the defining features of experimentation at this year’s festival, where the technical quality of the dancers often overwhelmed the dance itself.

to the right is a copy of the poster for the performance that i designed. it is a reinterpretation of the photos that dominate official funerals. during the performance a larger version of this image (without writing) hung onstage. fat bird members yang qian, yang qie, and hou junmou walked across stage and bowed to this photo, while dancer liu hongming performed a series of intentionally discordant movements. yang jie created the music mash “此地此时 (this place, this time)” for the piece. as promised, “此身此行 (this body, these movements)” is now online.

Visiting the Nanyue King Mausoleum

The other day I went to the American Consulate in Guangzhou and, before returning to Shenzhen, I visited the Western Han Nanyue King Museum. Like my visit to Xi’an, this visit helped clarified some of the contradictions that animate the construction of Shenzhen by indexing both national trends and regional specificity.

Located on Jiefang Bei Road in Guangzhou, the Museum of Zhao Mei, second king of the Nanyue State of the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-24 A.D.) is the oldest and largest Han mausoleum in Lingnan. The simple act of walking through the museum suggests the way architecture not only sutures one era to another, but does so by highlighting the radical differences between eras.

The site was discovered in 1983 when developers began leveling Elephant Mountain in order to build needed housing. At the time, Guangzhou and the other 13 coastal cities were still a year away from reforming and opening the local political-economy. This is important because the housing built at the time, housing which now surrounds the museum was built under the Maoist work unit system. Consequently, Stalin inspired apartment buildings surround the museum’s modernist silhouette.

The museum complex consists of two main buildings—the exhibition hall and Zhao Mei’s mausoleum. Architect, Lu Yanzhi won the Liang Sicheng prize for its striking modernism. Green grass and sculpted topiary set off the buildings’ red stone base and glass pyramids. Walking from the exhibition hall toward the mausoleum chamber, however, my eyes kept moving from the set scene toward the spill of Stalinesque housing and Maoist factories. Two kinds of cognitive dissonance kept my eyes darting from the museum complex to the surrounding environment. First was the obvious difference in upkeep between the museum’s well-tended garden and the neighborhood, which seemed to be crumbling. Second was the City’s glorification of ancient history and the implicit denial of the importance of both Mao and Stalin to Guangzhou. After all, in order to build the museum, a building project was put on hold. Yet the surrounding neighborhoods will be razed as soon as it is economically feasible to do so.

I suspect several factors contribute to the social production of these differences. One might be historical age. 25 years really isn’t all that much in comparison to 2,200. Another might be rarity. There is only one mausoleum and many, many crumbling monuments to Stalin. There’s also a hint of elitism—tourists and political leaders agree that dead kings continue to matter more than living commoners, even as the museum implicitly sutures contemporary Chinese society to past empires without actually acknowledging the Cultural Revolution.

All these contradictory impulses animate Shenzhen, of course, but they seem so much more obvious in Guangzhou, where a longer urban history makes it both easier and harder to erase the recent past in favor of imperial glory. On the one hand, there actually are significant archeaological sites in Guangzhou which make imperial claims seem viable. There are several interesting sites in Shenzhen, but they’re either far away from the beaten path so unvisited except by foreigners or rennovated beyond recognition; Shenzhen’s imperial claims (except for Diwang and that’s imperialist of a different kind) feel contrived. On the other hand, Shenzhen has more or less successfully razed traces of the Maoist past. A few Mao heads remain on older village walls, but Mao-era buildings, especially of the industrial urban kind didn’t fit into Baoan County’s plan, so there wasn’t much past to deny, unlike in Guangzhou. But again, precisely because Guangzhou has this deep history and the odd archaeological site, the city might gets tied up in debates that Shenzhen easily sidesteps with the claim, “There was no history here,” moving right along with the task of building a modern international city. All this to say, that even if erasing history seems pretty straight-forward–raze a building here, don’t mention the factory that used to be over there–it doesn’t follow that its easy to rewrite the past simply because garbage accumulates despite our best intentions. The stubborn fact of unwanted (or once-wanted-now-denied) buildings and highways and stores now vexes Shenzhen leaders intent on handling the municipality’s urban villages, ironic remnants of Shenzhen’s earlier boom, which doesn’t count as “history” and so, by definition, needs to go.

The social differences staged by the museum and its immediate environ are lived on the steps to the museum entrance, where recent migrants sell artifacts to tourists. The day I visited, three young men from Gansu tried to tempt me into purchasing animal skins. (I’m not sure if they were real or not, but suspect the latter simply because in Shenzhen all the folks who traffic in wild animals have gone underground and one needs a personal introduction to eat alligator and badger.) When I asked who bought their skins in this heat, they laughed and said, “People like you.” They helpfully offered to take my picture for the memories; I took theirs’ for the same reason. Come tour theWestern Han Nanyue King Mausoleum