is shenzhen history a good investment?


On December 28, 2013 Da Ken Art Center (大乾艺术中心) opened an exhibition on the Devout and Chaste Girls School (虔贞女校), which was built as part of the Basel Mission. The opening brought together a strange but uncannily representative demographic — young Shenzhen gallerists (Da Ken specializes in early photography), Dalang officials, Hakka Christians, aging villagers who went or taught at the school, activists in Shenzhen’s literacy movement, and representatives from the Basel Mission in Hong Kong. There were also a good number of public intellectuals who came out to show support ongoing efforts to re-member Shenzhen history, Christian, nationalist, and pedagogical.

After the opening, Yang Qian and I had coffee with Zhang Yibin (张一兵) and Li Jinkui (李津逵), two of Shenzhen’s more active public intellectuals. Their interventions, however, take very different, albeit supplementary forms. Zhang Yibin is interested in objects — blunt and silent, stubborn bits of matter and how they become meaningful through archaeological speculation and what might be glossed as “cultural capitalism”. Zhang Yibin was responsible for rediscovering the school, which had been closed in 1986 and making its historic importance known to the Dalang government. He has been involved in the reconstruction and preservation movement for over six years.

In contrast, Li Jinkui is relentlessly and charmingly verbal. An economist by training, Li Jinkui came of intellectual age in the 1980s, when “economic reform” was a code for “social liberalization”. For several years now, he has organized a salon at Yinhu, where intellectuals gather to debate issues that range from urbanization through phenomenology and economics to the historic meaning of Shenzhen and include pedagogy in all its permutations — the social role of education, the importance of raising the level of education throughout Shenzhen specifically and the country more generally, the history of education, and the need to reform the Chinese system of education. In fact, Li Jinkui gently moderated our after opening coffee talk, which focused on the historic production of cultural ecologies.

Zhang Yibin’s analysis of the current Shenzhen preservation movement hinged on a two-pronged analysis of (1) non-material culture and (2) 闲钱, which can be translated as spare money, disposable money, or leasured money. Zhang Yibin noted that most cultural history is non-material, composed of stories and impressions and feelings and suppositions, while less than 1% of the archaeological record is actually material. He then reminded us that although the shapes, textures and sizes of objects vary, there is no meaningful difference between them in terms of historic preservation. Instead, we distinguish between relics and garbage, because of the stories we tell and how much “disposable money” is at hand; the more disposable money, he emphasized forcefully, the more we invest in objects and their social transformation into relics. The way disposable money mediates the social transformation of objects into relics clearly frustrated Zhang Yibin, who has failed more often than he has succeeded to bring Shenzhen’s archaeological record into the public sphere. Instead of an intellectual pursuit that helped to enrich a society’s cultural ecology, he suggested, historic preservation has become yet another instance of collecting relics. As such, it hinges on the whims of leaders rather than on a consensus over what constitutes history and archaeological research.

The background for his frustration is the robust Shenzhen antiquities market and concomitant disinterest in the area’s history. In Shenzhen, there are two primary agents accumulating relics — individuals and state cultural institutions, such as the Dalang Street Office. As elsewhere in the world, wealthy Shenzhen individuals collect for personal reasons that range from desire and taste to economic investment. At the same time, municipal cultural institutions have shown little interest in the area’s past, preferring to showcase the Municipality’s role in modernizing Post Mao China. Moreover, attempts at historic preservation at Nantou Old Street, Dapeng Fortress and the Hakka compounds, for example, have not been embraced by the general public, which remains largely ignorant of Shenzhen’s modern and imperial history. Indeed, even the call to preserve old Hubei Village, an example of a wealthy late imperial and republican architecture (located immediately east of Dongmen) has slipped well under public radar.

This background also explains Li Jinkui’s support for the collaboration between the cultural bureau of Dalang Street Office, the Lankou Christian community, literacy activists and Da Ken. Li Jinkui advocates a broader and more ethical understanding of public culture. To achieve this, he sees an important place for non-material cultural — not simply story-telling, but rather and fundamentally, education. For Li Jinkui, one of the roles of government is to use its disposable money in order to curate the City’s historical understanding. Although he agreed that only stories and money allow humans to differentiate between relics and garbage, it did not follow that all garbage ought to be transformed into a relic because not all stories were worth telling; we define ourselves, he suggested, through these stories. Moreover, the choice of how to dispose of one’s money, especially at the level of government, is for Li Jinkui and like-minded intellectuals a question of public ethics and the concomitant creation of social value. In this sense, the Dalang Street Office decision to preserve a school as well as the history of extending education to girls was a story that should be commemorated with objects and disseminated in public forums, such as Da Ken. In turn, Christians and literacy advocates can use this history and its objects to shape an ethical and heterogeneuos public sphere.

The exhibit itself integrates photography, examples of Republican textbooks, blue shutters from the school, and a virtual model of the planned reconstruction. The curatorial statement comes from a Christian apology for girls’ education:

China favors boys over girls. It is a custom with a long history. Many say that a lack of education is a virtue in a woman. But they do not realize that God made men and women as one body. God did not only give souls to men, but also to women. There were men, and then women were created. However, there were women, and then boys and girls could be born. In front of God, men and women are equal. Men strongly love education. But women love education even more because they are the nation’s mothers and they carry a heavy responsibility for the country. The country is made of customs. The people can have high or low character. Their words can be true or false. Their morality can be complete or lacking. All of this is created by the country’s mothers. The responsibility that women carry is therefore extremely heavy. It is an important moral obligation, which must be at the front of all future efforts to create the best model of moral words and deeds. We must work until we succeed.

For the curious, Tengxun has uploaded 22 photographs from the exhibition, which documents the cultural geography of fin-de-siecle South China. There are young Hakka girls, Western missionaries and their families, as well as impressions of the already globalized rural landscape — traditional row houses, fields, and the new school, shimmering white beneath elegant hills. The show itself is up at Da Ken Art Center, located in the northern section of Ecological Park, OCT (just above the AUBE offices and row coffee shops and restaurants). Hours, 10:00-6:00. Unlike the online exhibit, the actual exhibition includes objects and a model of the restored school and church.

the difficulty of representing shenzhen’s urban “villages”

Talking about Shenzhen’s urban villages is difficult because legally they are not villages, but “communities (社区)” that have been integrated into the urban state apparatus. Moreover, depending on their location, these neighborhoods have different social functions — slums, gateway communities, and affordable housing for both the working poor and recent college graduates.

Mark Leung‘s photo essay,  Welcome to Wuwucun, a Village in the City offers a detailed and sympathetic look at life in Wuwucun, a Shenzhen urban village and is well worth checking out. However, the images beg contextualization, illustrating the difficulty of interpreting images  in the absence of historical knowledge. Is Wuwucun poor? Are these villagers? Is manufacturing a good thing?  On the one hand, a shorter version of the same essay, for example, explained that these images showed how manufacturing in Shenzhen was providing small steps forward to improve the lives of China’s rural millions. On the other hand, these images depict one of the more peripheral villages in Shenzhen, where the level of poverty depicted justifies ongoing campaigns to raze working class neighborhoods in other parts of the city. In other words, these images can be used either to show that industrial manufacturing in Shenzhen has been good for the country or to justify the Municipality’s ongoing program of razing urban villages in the inner districts. Continue reading

gaoling: shenzhen’s eastern periphery

Episode 13 of The Great Transformation, takes us to Gaoling Village (高岭村), which is located on Qiniang Mountain at Shenzhen’s eastern most edge on the Dapeng Peninsula.

The story of Overseas Chinese Chen Jiageng (陈嘉庚) opens the episode, connecting the history of Shenzhen’s eastern periphery to early modern Chinese nationalism. An ethnic Hakka, Chen Jiageng raised funds among to construct the Jimei School in his hometown Jimei Xiamen. For his nationalist efforts, Mao Zedong referred to Chen Jiageng as being “the banner of Overseas Chinese, the glory of the race (华侨旗帜,民族光辉)”.

Settled over 400 years ago by Hakka migrants, the layout of Gaoling reflected the founders need for safety and arable land. The village houses were located deep in the mountains, while village fields were located at the foot of the mountain. Every morning, villagers went down the mountain to work their fields and every evening, they returned to the relative safety of their homes.

The architecture of Gaoling reflected the agonistic relations between Hakka and local (本地 boon day [H], bendi [M], pundi [C]) peoples during the 19th Century. In fact, between 1855 and 1867, relations disintegrated into open conflict during the Punti-Hakka Clan Wars. During the early 20th Century, the village housed anti-Japanese troops, who were led by Hong Kong born Liu Peidai.

As in Xiamen, Gaoling villagers who lived overseas donated funds to build a school in their hometown. Over the course of the village’s history, Gaoling villagers immigrated to Singapore, Holland, the United States, and Canada, and many more lived in Hong Kong. Importantly, the Overseas Chinese funded improvements to their hometown, including modernizing the water system. The Euro-Chinese style of the school architecturally reflected these migrations and returns.

The White Lady of Shiyan

Last week, I met Ye Enling, a 70-something Shiyan native. Mr. Ye worked in Overseas Chinese affairs for over twenty years, and his current interests include calligraphy, linguistics, architectural design, and social philosophy. Of note, Mr. Ye is a Hakka and has devoted much time and energy to promoting Hakka culture by collecting Shiyan mountain songs (石岩山歌), compiling vocabulary lists, recording Shiyan history, and composing essays on diverse topics. In fact, he has published three collections and a book of calligraphy.

Below, I have translated Mr. Ye’s retelling of The White Lady’s Temple on Yangtai Mountain (叶恩麟者《闲雅集》111-2页. Online Chinese versions, here and here). I find the story interesting because it places singing within the sentimental context of gendered yearnings, which continue to shape family life and personal desire. The fact that the story continues to circulate suggests that even if most Chinese professors have opted into modern academics and concomitant specialization, traditional intellectual life and knowledge production may be fading, but are nonetheless still kicking.

I also find the story interesting because when contrasted with Shenzhen’s contemporary arts or traditional culture fairs, the White Lady of Shiyan reveals the extent to which expressive creativity has been alienated from everyday life, an ongoing lament in modernist art. The living presence of this tradition dovetails with the Municipality’s ongoing promotion of Neo-Confucian mores as a strategy of governance. I had tended to think of Neo-Confucianism’s appeal in terms of an invented nostalgia for “good old days” sans hunger, warlords or opium. However, my meeting with Mr. Ye has me thinking that there may actually be a popular basis for Shenzhen’s decision to disseminate Confucian sayings at bus stops and other public places, cultural revolutions notwithstanding.

The actual content of the White Lady story is far more disturbing and has me thinking about structural analogies between the 1920s and contemporary Shenzhen. In Diary of a Madmen, which was published a mere ten years before the white lady’s story is said to have taken place,  Lu Xun gives a chilling representation of human desperation in which the only way to survive is to eat other people; the clearest Lu Xun overlap is, of course, Medicine. Similarly, today, we keep hearing stories of illegal transplants and the shady sourcing of human organs. Less than a hundred years separate workers of the south China diaspora from the neidi migration of workers to Shenzhen. And it seems that rumors of cannibalistic medical treatments continue to emerge out of the experience. Families are fractured, bodies broken, and loved ones vanish.

The White Lady’s Temple on Yangtai Mountain

All Shiyan elders remember that there was once a small temple on Yangtai Mountain and have passed on the following story about it.

In 1928, a Ye family lived in Shiyan Market. The man had gone to Indonesia and not returned. At the time, parents arranged marriages and in his absence he was married to another Ye. A year after their parents had organized the marriage, the wife prepared to go to Indonesia to be united with the husband she had never even seen. But the sea voyage was rough and the road long, and being afraid to travel alone, she looked for a companion. The Ye woman discovered that in another Shiyan village Liguang there was a white woman whose husband was also in Sanbaolong, Indonesia. The white woman was also preparing to join her husband. This white woman had skin the color of kneaded dough, with a hint of pink. No one knew if she had Caucasian blood or a skin disease. After so many years, we no longer know what her surname was or who her people were.

The white woman didn’t have a son and her husband had been overseas for many years. She decided to build a temple on Yangtai Mountain in order to pray for her husband’s safety abroad. While building the temple, she could also stand on the mountaintop and gaze toward Indonesia. It’s obvious how much she yearned for her husband! She said she would do it and she did. The white woman bought a load of bricks. Everyday, she shouldered four bundles of bricks on a carrying pole, and made the difficult trek from Liguang Village up Yangtai Mountain.

Whenever she paused to rest, she sang a mountain song in her beautiful, high-pitched voice, “Older Brother has drifted away on the sea, and hasn’t returned the years; I know the years of time and swallow them whole, no one understands how to open my heart. Standing beneath the mountaintop pines, tears, only tears. I have only one question of Heaven: When will my man return home? (阿哥出洋漂大海,三年五载不回来,线纱打结吞落肚,无人解得崖心开,崖在高山松树下,眼泪汗水落泪花,崖向苍天问句话,崖郎几时转屋家。)

When she reached the peak, she sang in a loud voice, “No one smokes these cigarettes, no seedlings growing in these fields. Younger sister dares climb these roads, younger sister dares view these skies” (无瘾唔食这支烟,无秧唔莳这块田,阿妹敢登这条路,阿妹敢看这重天。)

When the sun set in the west of the mountain, the hope of another day was extinguished. The white lady was deeply saddened and she cried while singing, “From dusk to dawn, I think of you, and my tears endlessly role down my cheeks, they water the mountain grass and drown the people below (黄昏想郎到明天,眼泪滴滴流不停,流到山上草变绿,流到山下浸死人).”

Her melancholy songs reverberated in the mountain valleys, startling birds and causing those who heard to cry. The white lady used her songs to relieve her yearning for her husband, and in this way, day after day, without any help she forced herself to shoulder the burden of bricks, ceramic tiles, lime, sand, and beams and carry them up the mountain. Only after bringing all the necessary materials did she hire a a builder. The temple was finally completed and although it was only several meters big, it brimmed with the white lady’s hard work, blood, sweat, and tears. The white lady also placed a censor and an idol in the temple. The first and fifteenth of every month, she climbed the mountain, undeterred by inclement weather, to pray to the gods and bow to Buddha, saying, “Every 15th or 16th the moon is full, I hope my heart is the same as my husband’s. I pray that the Lord of Heaven protects my husband, insuring that Older Brother makes a fortune (十五十六月光圆,崖同情郎心相连,崖求天公来保佑,保佑阿哥赚大钱).”

The white lady’s story spread throughout Shiyan, her spirit and will-power moving villagers, and many began climbing the mountain to see and burn incense. After many years, this place became rich with incense.

Later, the Ye woman received a letter from her husband saying that she should not go to Indonesia because he was returning to Tang Mountain. Accordingly, the Ye woman changed her plans and the white lady left alone for Indonesia. The white lady’s husband waited for months on the coast, but his wife had vanished without a trace and his heart was aflame with worry. He searched for her and finally got word that his wife suffered from motion sickness on the trip. As she thrashed unconscious, an evil person took advantage of the situation to kill her for her gallbladder because he had heard that white people’s gallbladders could be used for medicine. After removing her organ, he threw her body into the ocean. On hearing what had befallen his wife, the husband was overcome with grief.

To commemorate the white lady, the named the temple she had built “The White Lady’s Temple”. Unfortunately, during the Cultural Revolution, the temple was razed. Nevertheless, the moving love story of a devoted wife continues to be told.

hakka borderlands: xiawei and shiyan

On Thursday, I joined a group of architects and students from the Future Cities Laboratory on a rainy guanwai trek along Bulong Road, which parallels the second line. This particular trek interests because it hints at generations of ongoing cultural transformation both as industrial manufacturing has spread and as Cantonese and Hakka urban villages have renegotiated collectives identities over the past 150 years.

We departed from Huaqiangbei and crossed at the former Buji Checkpoint, which today has been partially cleared to make room for the Buji subway station (Longgang Line) although cars still lined up to pass through check booths. Directly north of the erxian boundary, Xiawei Village (吓围村) handshakes huddle tightly, giving the impression of an ordinary new South China village. However, the entry gate and main hall of Xiawei’s ancestral hall remain, suggesting that at some point the village had enough collective funds to erect a substantial building. According to an old worker who was organizing collected paper products in the compound plaza, villagers continue to burn incense for ancestors during the Spring Festival.

We then headed west to the precinct headquarters of Shiyan. During the Mao-era, this area also served as the headquarters of Shiyan Commune. Located between the Kowloon-Canton railroad and Guangzhou Shenzhen corridors, Shiyan has remained relatively poor when compared to precinct headquarters at Buji or Shajing, for example. Nevertheless, it has Mao-era flat housing, Reform era factories, and two generations of single-family homes and handshakes. More to today’s point about Hakka borderlands, Shiyan is also interesting because it is located along Baoan County’s traditional border between Cantonese and Hakka cultural regions. Thus, although the Ye Ancestral Hall boasts Hakka exhortations of Confucian morality, the structure itself, like many of the areas older flat buildings are Cantonese style.


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三洲田村:Narrating the Shen Kong border

So, review of Thirty Years of Shenzhen Villages continues from Episode 7 because for some yet-to-be-ascertained reason, episodes 5 and 6 aren’t available on youku net.

In 2005, construction workers unearthed a 10 kilometer section of the ancient tea route (茶马古道). This road once linked eastern Shenzhen to the new territories, more importantly (for the sake of narrating the Shen Kong border), this road connected to Sanzhoutian Village (三洲田村, literally “Peninsula Paddy Village”), where Sun Yat Sen (孙中山) lead the Sanzhoutian First Uprising (三洲田首义). In retrospect, Sanzhoutian became known as the first explosion of the Gengzi Incident (庚子事件), protesting the Boxer Indemnity that the eight colonial powers imposed on the Qing Dynasty.

Sanzhoutian is a rich symbol in Shenzhen history because it provides deep historic links between the SEZ and Hong Kong at multiple levels. Continue reading

cultural homogenization in shenzhen. and not.

Most discussions of Shenzhen emphasize that as an immigrant city, Shenzhen is a Mandarin speaking outpost of national culture in the midst of Guangdong Province. However, this description glosses over the historical division of Baoan County into Cantonese and Hakka cultural areas, and how urban development focused on the SEZ (rather than the entire Municipality).

The establishment of Baoan and Longgang Districts in 1992 institutionalized these historic divisions, with a Cantonese cultural-linguistic area (Baoan District) and a Hakka cultural-linguistic area (Longgang District). At the same time, the traditional SEZ (bounded by the second line) formed the core of Mandarin national culture in the city.

Thinking about Shenzhen as a tri-cultural city enables understanding of how cultural homogenization does and does not take place. Today, I’m thinking specifically about the creation of a recognizably “rural” local identity versus an “urbane” Shenzhen identity. In the area surrounding the Universiade Village, for example, these various trends are most visible in ongoing construction and demolition projects.

Construction wise, the planned Universiade Village boasts beautiful, glass stadiums and swimming areas, which reflect urbane aesthetics. Indeed, the nearby 5-star hotels and upscale residential areas lump Shenzheners (the Mandarin nationals) with cutting edge international taste and consumption. This aesthetics contradicts that of the mid-90s generation of handshake buildings that constitute much of the Longcheng Street residential area. Architecturally, it all seems a straight-forward contradiction between rural and urbane Shenzhen, which in turn is often misread as a contradiction between Cantonese and Mandarin spheres.

In fact, walking through a small Hakka Village, like Dawei indicates how recent handshake buildings as an architectural sign of the rural are in Shenzhen. In Dawei, the handshake buildings have been built into and on top of a traditional, small Hakka compound (similar to the one in Sungang). In other words, handshake buildings create a common “rural” or “Baoan local” identity for (once culturally and linguistically distinct) Cantonese and Hakka villages only in contradistinction to a Mandarin identity.

Visual evidence in slideshow, below.

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my hope for the new year


Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

I have been thinking about the contradictions that shape human lives and how, in turn, those lives are the environment for others – human, animal, vegetable, and mineral.

SZCAT, a part of China’s Animal Lovers Net dedicated to saving feral urban cats announced that on December 26, 2010, a group of animal protectors (as they call themselves) discovered an illegal slaughterhouse and reported it to the Yanshi police as part of a rescue mission in a Hakka area where yes, I ate stewed cat and dog (separate dishes) several years ago.

The Nanfang Daily report on the rescue called it “Stealing Dogs Movement”, emphasizing the human cost of taking the animals. The animal protectors went in to rescue the animals and the local police destroyed several of the shanties that made up the slaughter house. However, as the volunteers were trying to get the animals to safety, many of the residents in the area stopped them because these animals were their livelihood. As a result, the police ended up negotiating a compromise – the volunteers could leave with the animals they already saved, and the rest would be left with their owners, who no longer had a way of processing them.

The results of this negotiation pleased no one. For their part, the migrant workers who make their precarious living by slaughtering and preparing traditional cat and dog dishes took a huge economic hit at the time of the year when they most need to save money for the upcoming Spring Festival. On the other hand, the volunteers felt that inhuman misuse of cats and dogs would continue without any intervention or “respect for law”.

I’m not sure how to think about this situation because I’m sad for all involved. Clearly, migrant workers in Shenzhen resort to all sorts of grayish means to earn a living not only for themselves, but also to support family back in neidi. At the same time, the raising and slaughtering of animals for human consumption is itself the cause of much, unnecessary suffering and inequality; not only do stock animals suffer, but raising cows and pigs and fish and chickens on industrialized ranches and farms damages the environment for other creatures (including humans).

My hope for the New Year is that we find ways of resolving these contradictions in inclusive ways. As long as we frame the debate as a choice between “save the pets” and “save the migrant workers,” we fail to see how all lives – not just the ones we like or agree with or are proud of or believe to be right, but all lives matter and matter beautifully.

Happy, happy 2011. Prosper.

fun links

busy weekend that brought me to three folks doing interesting work in shenzhen. descriptions and links below.

Liang Xiaoling (梁小铃) has collected artifacts stored and hidden away in Hakka homes. These items are now on display at the Dawan Hakka Compound in Pingshan. Built in 1791, the Dawan compound, like others throughout Shenzhen´s Hakka areas is square, rather than round as in Meixian and into Fujian.

Huang Yu (黄宇) has opened 荒野, a fun bookstore located just outside the Shenzhen U gate into Guimiao. The space is part of the renovation of Guimiao´s factories into shops and cultural spaces.

Yao Xu (姚旭) a Shenzhen based filmmaker, who (in addition to his work with Courier Media makes documentaries about Shenzhen´s forgotten – beggars and street people. His most recent film is ¨Master Xia´s Funeral (夏爷的葬礼),¨ a biography of Guo Zhicheng, who ended up living under one of Shenzhen´s bridges after living through the Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War, jail time for political dissent and then again after a cultural revolution struggle session, and opening a restaurant that failed.

中国观澜版画基地: What is a cultural resource?

Yesterday, Wenzi and I visited her classmate, Zhao Jiachun who works at the Guanlan Woodblock Print Base (中国观澜版画基地). Jiachun generously showed us the Base and briefly introduced its history.

Guanlan interests me for three reasons (in addition to the beautiful setting, pictures here):

Guanlan is, at the moment, a purely municipal government funded project. This points to the growing ideological importance of culture in Shenzhen’s identity – both domestic and international.

Guanlan is part of the movement to recuperate elements of Shenzhen’s pre-reform history as a cultural resource. What’s interesting is that this recuperation is happening village by village. Consequently, what emerges is a loose network of sites, rather than an overall “history” of the city. In this case, Guanlan is the third Hakka site incorporated into the municipal cultural apparatus. The first was Dapeng Suocheng (大鹏所城), a military installation in the eastern part of the city. The second was Crane Lake Compound, which is now the Hakka Folk Custom Museum (深圳客家民俗博物馆鹤湖新居) in Luoruihe Village, Longgang (罗瑞合村).

Guanlan is an example of using pre-modern architecture to incorporate international art production into local identity. More specifically, the experience of architectural difference (such as living in a Hakka compound) bridges even as it creates cultural difference. Thus, the Base invites foreign and Chinese artists for residencies. These residencies allow foreign artists to “understand” China / Shenzhen and incorporate these new experiences into their art. At the same time, these exchanges also refigure a local art form (woodblock printmaking) as international cultural heritage. Importantly, this kind of “experience” of the local past as a cultural bridge seems a global trend. In Switzerland, we visited Romainmotier, which also offers artist residencies in a beautiful, restored, pre-modern setting.

This has me wondering about the ideological relationship between past and present urban settlements: Is “history” now the location of “culture”, while the “present” is all about one’s location on a scale of relative modernity? In other words, do Shenzhen and NYC participate in the same “culture”, their real differences explained away as “levels of modernity”? While their cultural “difference” must be found by excavating the past?

Continue reading