This is a speculative post about something that has been niggling at the back of my mind this past year. Or at least since I started walking around Shenzhen after COVID restrictions lifted circa April 2020; I think the era of urban villages in Shenzhen has ended.Continue reading
Yesterday evening, Tianmian Industries Ltd (田面实业股份有限公司) celebrated 20 years of incorporation, simultaneously confirming the group’s new status as a corporation and the corporation’s status as the continuation of Tianmian Village. The celebration achieved this sense of historic continuity through the sequencing of socialist and traditional customs, including the presentation of and speeches by Tianmian, Fuhua Precinct, and Futian District leaders, which was followed by singing and dancing performances, a demonstration of Bruce Lee style kongfu by one of Bruce Lee’s students, and pencai, a local specialty that is only eaten at collective ceremonies. The speeches and performances took place on a stage in the vip area, while two large LED screens had been set up throughout the common area so that guests could watch the entertainment while eating.
Another important ceremonial function was to demarcate borders both within Tianmian and between Tianmian and outside communities. The 137-table event occupied most of the main road into the village (directly off Shennan Road) as well as adjacent public areas, dividing Tianmian into two sections: the ceremony area and the rest of the neighborhood. Importantly, only Tianmian Ltd has the authority to cordon off public areas for private ceremonies. The ceremony area itself was subdivided into a vip area for leaders, their families and guests and a common area for Tianmian stockholders, their families and guests. Tianmian guards prevented non-guests from passing the red cordons.
Rituals such as these and the concomitant right to occupy public space are perhaps why we continue to speak of Tianmian Village as a village. In point of fact, we were celebrating the dissolution of Tianmian Village and its reconstitution as Tianmian Ltd. In ritual terms, however, the celebration clearly established Tianmian Village as the host and hegemonic subject of this territory and Tianmian Ltd as the contemporary manifestation of the village. What’s more, throughout the evening the gaze of outsiders — many of whom live in Tianmian housing stock — reinforced the sense of Tianmian as a vibrant and recognizable collectivity.
These rituals are particularly important in Tianmian because the corporation has not built traditional village buildings, such as an ancestral hall or a temple. In obvious contrast to Tianmian’s appropriation of public space, when larger village-corporations hold pencai ceremonies, they set their tables in designated village plazas that are surrounded by traditional buildings. In Xiasha, for example, the large village plaza includes an ancestral hall, a temple, a public theater, a traditional garden, and a path to the Xiasha Museum. Consequently, where Xiasha relies not only on ritual, but also on the built environment to reinforce communal solidarity, Tianmian’s village identity remains as such primarily through what is commonly called “non-material culture (非物质文化)”, or rituals.
It will be interesting to see, say in twenty or fifty years, how strong Tianmian’s sense of village solidarity remains and to compare that solidarity to that of a village like Xiasha, where the construction of village architecture sets the stage for village rituals. In other words, although Shenzhen has been seen as a laboratory for economic and social experimentation, we might specify further, and watch the ongoing reconstruction of traditional solidarities despite and within the maelstrom of modernization. Impressions from Tianmian’s 20th anniversary celebration, below.
At first glance, Shenzhen’s 2010-2020 Comprehensive Plan seems a writhing mass of blue snakes and bright hotspots.
However, by simplifying the Comprehensive Plan in terms of the historical relationship between political boundaries and and early infrastructure in Shenzhen development, I came up with the following grid of borders and corridors, which explains the Plan’s horizontal flows, the connections to Hong Kong, and investment initiatives in New District hubs:
Three borders have enabled urbanization in Shenzhen: the border with Hong Kong, the second line, and the city limits, which abut Dongguan in the northwest and Huizhou in the northeast. Two economic corridors have facilitated Shenzhen’s growth: the Guangshen highway corridor and the Kowloon-Canton Railway. The Guangshen highway corridor parallels the area’s riparian trade routes, which were the means of Han expansion from Guangzhou southwardly on the Pearl River and its tributaries. The KCR, of course, was the British attempt to preempt and redirect the PRD’s extensive trade network.
This grid enters everyday conversation through place name protocols. For example, no one today refers to the “second line”, which evokes the yesteryears of early reform. In contrast, ever since the boundaries of the SEZ have been made coterminous with city limits, we now speak of guannei and guanwai, or “inside the gate” and “outside the gate”, respectively. Interestingly, however, I rarely hear people speak of the guanwai area well east of the railroad as “guanwai”, instead, it is more common to refer to that part of Shenzhen as “the east”.
In fact, the SEZ’s historically most important hubs are all located on this grid. Luohu/ Dongmen is the first stop on the Chinese side of the railroad, while Buji was the first stop on the guanwai side of the second line. Likewise, Shekou was the end of the old riparian trade network, activating Delta resources. Bao’an District government is found just over the guanwai side of the Guangshen highway corridor and Shajing Wanfeng Village, once called “the first village in the south” occupies the area just south of Dongguan on the Guangshen Highway corridor. Given the importance of political territorializations and infrastructure to development, it is unsurprising that the poorest areas in Shenzhen are either in (a) the guanwai area between the railroad and highway corridors (Shiyan and Guangming) or (b) the East. With the exception of Guangming, all of Shenzhen’s other three new districts — Pingshan, Longhua, and Dapeng — are located in the east, far from easy access to the railroad, let alone the Pearl River and riparian access to Guangzhou.
In the new Comprehensive Plan the old hubs appear renamed, but their functions unchanged. The Guangshen corridor has been resutured to the Pearl River through the Qianhai Center. The Luohu/ Dongmen railroad corridor has been interestingly diverted into two streams, one that enters guannei at Huanggang/ Lok Ma Chau and leaves guanwai through Guangming and a second that enters guannei at Luohu and then exits guanwai through Longgang. Meanwhile, Hong Kong has been absorbed/ extended into the Shenzhen administrative apparatus at both the Lok Ma Chau Loop and Qianhai Cooperation Zone, begging the question: will the next Comprehensive adjustment will be political integration of the two cities and the re-establishment of a first or second line at Shenzhen city limits? Indeed, the question doesn’t seem too far-fetched when we recall that for 5 months in 1997, the transition government for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Zone met in Shenzhen.
Walked with Emma Ma and her father, Mike along Shenzhen’s northern loop expressway (北环大道) from the Nantou Checkpoint to the northern entrance of Zhongshan Park. Our path followed the remains of the second line (二线), the boundary that once divided Shenzhen into the SEZ and New Bao’an County. Cobbled together out of debris and plastic poster banners, a makeshift tent settlement hovers atop the obsolescent wall and a border guard platform falls apart. A section of the former border zone has been converted to a logistics depot for the Nanshan Oil company. Ironic, of course. Across the street in Zhongshan Park, the Ming Dynasty remains of the Nantou City wall have been designated cultural heritage. Impressions of the second line, below.
A few days ago, I went to the Buji crossing, one of seven border crossings internal to the Shenzhen municipality. This border is called the 2nd line (二线), and divides Shenzhen into the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and Baoan and Longgang Districts. Buji is one of Shenzhen’s major manufacturing areas. It is also a center of migrant laborers, who either work in Buji, or enter the SEZ at Buji. So it is an area filled with semis and buses, as goods and people are hauled from one place to another.
Buji is one of those places where I viscerally feel the contradiction between vague research commitments to, if not the truth, then at least some version of the whole story and my bodily aesthetics. Here, goods and people clog the area, pressing into my skin and I inhale carbon monoxide and sweat. I walk quickly past numerous terminals where thin, sun-darkened men load and unload semis, while rural migrants get off long-distance buses carrying bulging plastic bags and dragging wheeled suitcases. Some stare back at me and my camera remains dormant; I am embarrassed to be seen observing what many would rather hide, or failing that, disavow. Along these streets, women hawk fruit, prepared foods, and bottled drinks. Venders and homeless migrants have variously occupied the areas under pedestrian overpasses; these spaces stink of rotting foods and urine and I find myself wondering if there are any public bathrooms nearby. Is it possible to bathe or defecate in private? I notice children working beside adults and am reminded that many of my students are in summer school, already preparing for next semester’s tests. I have come to take photos, but find it difficult to stop and pose my objects because I want to be already beyond the crowded heat and stench. Instead, I snap a photo here and there, refusing to meet anyone’s gaze, moving determinedly forward. I am reduced from methodological exposition to shamed confession. Such are the lessons of the Buji crossing. Continue reading