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

和平县阳明镇新塘村: field-tripping

新塘村:new tang village, sunrise

the attitudes of young shenzhers, especially the children of the city’s upper classes, confound their elders, who really don’t know what to do about a generation that hasn’t experienced material poverty. almost thirty years into the shenzhen experiment, a certain material standard of living has become the norm among these children. they expect to have new clothes, pocket money for snacks, and the latest technological gadgets. indeed, if newspaper reports are to be believed, they are a wasteful and lazy group, who take long showers, play online games, and shirk homework responsibilities; in the language of american pop sociology, shenzhen’s young people think they’re entitled not only to what they have, but also to whatever they want.

to counteract their children’s sense of entitlement, wealthy shenzheners tell stories about impoverished childhoods and hungry farmers. these stories are as unsuccessful as those my parents told me: when i was a child, we walked four miles to school; eat all your food because there are starving children in africa. on the one hand, i think these stories fail because children don’t have the experience to imagine beyond their immediate lives. on the other hand, i think these stories fail because children know (even as i knew) that our parents aren’t going to radically restructure their lives to help either starving africans or farmers. instead, these stories aim to change the behavior of children, not to ameliorate social inequality.

nevertheless, adults still try and children still play along. on the 26th and 27th of october, our middle school went on a field trip to greater tang village, yangming township in heping county, in heyuan city (河源市和平县阳明镇大塘村) which is considered an impoverished area (贫困区). according to the heping township officials who hosted us, the official definition of “impoverished” earns less than the national average income but still has enough to eat. usually, families can afford school fees up through middle school, but often have difficulty meeting high school costs, let alone university expenses. according to a people’s daily report the 1,000 odd villagers that make up greater tang village (an administrative territory which is composed of 15 “natural” villages) demonstrate the fact that even if the richest villages are in guangdong province, their are villages that haven’t started getting rich, let alone keep up with the coastal villages. in chinese the expression for these poor cousins is “后无追兵” or “no following soldiers”.

the purpose of the trip was two-fold. our school wanted to give our students a new perspective on the privileges they enjoy as wealthy shenzheners as compared to impoverished students. our yangming middle school hosts wanted their students to be inspired to study even harder to break out of the cycle of poverty. as we discovered during the two-day fieldtrip, many of the yangming students had older brothers and sisters who had dropped out of middle school or not gone to high school in order to begin laboring in places like shenzhen. indeed, a fifteen year-old ninth grader told me she wouldn’t bother taking the high school entrance exam and go right to work after graduation from middle school next june.

the yangming high schools arranged host families for our students and teachers. two of us were assigned to a home, where we ate, slept and were shown the village. yang ming eigth grader, huang shanshan hosted me and my student nicole. shanshan and her family live in new tang village (新塘村), one of the 15 natural villages in the greater tang administrative village nestled between rocky slopes, rice paddies, chicken coops, and family gardens. xin tang village is a hakka (客家) settlement, where paths and shared walls connect the homes to each other, creating a densely populated space. there is a clear spacial division between the village and cultivated areas. indeed, the relative care given to the rice paddies and gardens was striking in comparison to the village proper, where it seemed people took care of inside their homes, but did not care for common areas, which were given over to garbage and scavanging chickens. people seemed to spend a great deal of time outside on paths, working and chatting.

nicole and i shared the only bed in the house; shanshan and her parents slept upstairs on mats. the house was made from local bricks covered by cement, wooden beams supported the ceiling. the first floor consisted of a main room and a kitchen. the main room was divided into two sections, a sleeping section, where the bed was and a social section, with a table, television, and several chairs, some plastic, two made of bamboo. the wash room was a concrete room built next to their pump. for our evening wash, shanshan heated water in the kitchen and then added pump water to adjust the temperature. the outhouse was a separate brick building with a trench dug into the earth. above the trench was a bamboo plank, where i squatted several times a day to relieve myself.

shanshan and her parents moved me with their generousity. they killed a chicken for us and prepared fresh vegetables, eggs, and homegrown rice. when we left, they gave us fresh eggs, homegrown peanuts, and special deep-fried potato cakes for the trip. yangming township gave us a box of kiwi fruits that were locally grown. indeed, their generousity eased the relationship, enabled it to move beyond a tour of poverty. i had feared that the trip would turn the villagers, especially our hosts, into exhibits in living museum and would turn us into tourists. the school had instructed students to give money to their host families as a token of their appreciation, and much thought had been given to what would be the correct amount: not too much so that the families were embarrassed but not so little that they lost materially by hosting us. although the act of hosting didn’t unmake our material inequality, it nevertheless did ameliorate some of the awkwardness of the visit. it certainly reminded me that each of us has something to give and that all of us have a responsibility to accept what is given graciously.

a native of longgang, shenzhen, nicole is also hakka. she enjoyed the trip because it brought back memories of her childhood before her family moved to downtown shenzhen. she grew up in a village like shanshan’s and used to sleep on the same kind of bed. more importangly, she remembered the beauty of the countryside and wondered about why modernization meant the destruction of beautiful places. specifically, as part of shenzhen’s ongoing expansion, her natal village will soon be razed and an upscale housing development built in its place. also, nicole said that she only understood about 70% of what shanshan and her parents said and preferred to speak with them in mandarin, reminding me again of how many variants of local languages (方言) there actually are. after all, heyuan is only a 3 hour drive away from shenzhen.

the belief that youth can be motivated by direct experience inspires this project. more specifically, adults in both places expressed that more communication (交流) between students from both areas would be beneficial. on the one hand, shenzhen youth might learn humility and social responsibility, while yangming youth might learn their are higher goals than working in a factory or restaurant. consequently, our schools hope to establish a hand-in-hand (手拉手) relationship with the yangming first and second middle schools, enabling students and teachers to visit each other.

i hope that this kind of experience might accomplish what exhortations rarely do–inspire us adults to help our children change the world. i know that this experience manifests one, more traditional (in the socialist sense of the word) meaning of the shenzhen experiment, which not only aimed to open china to the world, but also to improve the material wellbeing of all chinese people. in fact, at 63 our school principal is a child of the revolution and she still approaches education with an eye to socialist goals. as a friend of mine said, if china can improve the living standard of all chinese people, bringing stability to its internal affairs, it will have contributed to world peace. one could say the same for the united states and that we start one friendship at a time. i have posted some fieldtrip memories in my galleries.