the “village” thing

This past week, I toured Shangling Old Village (上岭村) in Dalang. Decaying villages like Shangling contextualize the “what came after” success story that is SHENZHEN! And yet. This contextualization depends upon one, standardized (and quite frankly boring) narrative of rags to riches, sudden wealth, boom boom boom, etcetera etcetera and so forth.  Continue reading

paper cranes

The inspiration for Paper Crane Tea came from Wan Yan, an architecture student by way of the fine arts. Below, her statement on the current installation at Handshake 302:

We’ve probably all heard about paper cranes; if you fold 1,000 they will take flight and help you realize your aspirations. Children believe this story, but for adults it is. Nothing more than a pipe dream. And that transition–from hope to resignation and simultaneously from ignorance to understanding–is the journey of a human heart.

The repetitive task that is folding 1,000 paper cranes symbolizes an important truth about being human. We are constantly repeating some task to achieve some goal; in order to graduate, we memorize and review coursework; to earn a living, we go to work from 9 to 5; to master a new skill, we practice, practice, practice. Each of these repetitions is like folding 1,000 paper cranes–it embodies the hope and determination necessary to realize a particular goal.

In an urban village handshake building, renters come and go, but the spirit that haunts each cramped rental unit remains–the recurring struggle to realize a dream. Indeed, achieving a a goal by diligently repeating he same activities is like folding one’s life in order to realize the crane of freedom. And there is something exuberantly childlike in that image. However, there is no unambiguous desire. In an era of heterogeneous values, different desires and ambitions will create fierce conflicts and mental confusion. Hope can be simple and even pure, but to realize an ambition requires unavoidable complexity and sufficient flexibility.

The first time I came to Handshake 302, in addition to feeling how cramped and narrow it was, I also thought about the repetitive suffering and struggles that every inhabitant would have to undergo in order to move into a “respectable” home. I also thought about how difficult it would be to find oneself (as the expression has it) in that vexed space between desire and it’s realization. But ultimately, each of us must inhabit that mental crucible where relentless economic and social pressure smelt perseverance, inner voices, and anxiety into “me”.

Handshake 302 is our stage, where members of Urban Village Special Forces perform stories of and about Baishizhou and it’s 140,000 residents. For some people, however, Handshake 302 symbolizes he cage they are trying to escape, or the long ago first stop on thei Shenzhen sojourn. In this space, 1,000 folded paper cranes take on new meanings, not only drawing our attention to what it means to be human, but also reminding us that we strive to achieve our humanity in specific contexts.

And photos of the Paper Cranes Fly installation at Handshake 302.

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opening at handshake 302!!

Handshake 302 is a 12 sq meter effeciency apartment, which is transformed through changing site-specific installations. We are open Wednsdays from 19:00 to 21:00, and Saturday and Sunday, 15:00 to 17:00. Our first show opens October 20 with two installations, “Accounting (算数)” and “Exchange Corner (交换角)”. “Accounting” is a room-size installation, collaboratively conceptualized, designed, and installed by Lei Sheng, Liu He, Mary Ann O’Donnell, Wu Dan and Zhang Kaiqin. “Exchange Corner” by performance artist Fang Fang is installed in the tiny kitchen space of the efficiency appartment. Here’s the poster:

The poster for “more music” with Peter Moser is also ready for the October 20 19:00 performance at the Baishizhou Cultural Plaza. Here’s that poster:

Very much a “yeah us!” moment chez CZC特工队.

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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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.