a bully’s honor

As I watch the US president scream and shout and justify his socio-pathologies, as I  engage low-ranking officials who change their minds and force their subordinates to work unnecessary overtime everyday, and as I argue with parents who think that their children are not “strong enough (不够厉害)” to take what they want in life, I’ve been thinking a lot about bullies and institutional forms of bullying that are misrecognized as education or leadership or honor and virtue. Like many in the United States, a significant number of Chinese people accept social Darwinism as an accurate description of “the real world,” rather than recognizing social Darwinism for the self-serving misreading of evolutionary theory that it is.

Then, after a grumble about the normalization of bullying in everyday life, I continue reading E. J. Eitel’s Europe in China: the History of Hongkong from the beginning to the Year 1882, which compounds my frustration with righteous bullies and their inability to empathize with anyone’s pain, including their own. I manage three sentences before the arrogance, misogyny and general smugness of Eitel’s text force me to consider if I really want to read over 600 pages of what must have been considered “edifying” reading material. The text does make clear is the extent to which imperial bureaucracies, colonialism and some misplaced yearning for civilization continue to overdetermine the hierarchies and injustices that characterize contemporary societies. Continue reading

a special zone avant la lettre: old shajing

If you’ve had the privilege of walking Old Shajing with anthropologist Cheng Jian (程建), you know that the Chens settled the area during the Southern Song (960-1127). You also know that the Chen family network stretched throughout Dongguan and Xin’an Counties and that when most of Xin’an was abandoned during the Qing Dynasty relocation order (迁海令1644—1661), significant sections of Shajing remained settled despite the fact that it fell squarely within an area controlled and/or influenced by Koxinga (an honorific from 國姓爺; pinyin: Guóxìngyé; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Kok-sèng-iâ, his name was 郑成功). Clan members also received special dispensation that allowed them to travel into the coastal no-man’s land to harvest sea salt. That’s right: administrative borders, cross border exceptions, and concomitant territorial reorganization have a deep history in the area.

Koxinga_territory

Map of coastal areas either occupied by (red) or under the influence of (orange) Koxinga.

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what’s up with “10,000 villages”?

The latest Vanke endeavor is called 万村 or “10,000 Villages,” which is a pun on the first character for Vanke (万科). Basically, Vanke has been busy demolishing and upgrading villages around China. According to Vanke founder and former CEO, “10,000 Villages” is a work of the heart. And yet. Now that 10,000 Villages has come to Shenzhen, there has been an outcry against upgrading urban villages because the effect is to eliminate the cheapest accommodations, forcing those who live there to leave the village and find housing elsewhere. Of course, there aren’t many housing options for someone who can only afford the cheapest housing in a unrennovated urban village.

One of the more interesting developments in this ongoing outrage has been the “Open Letter to Foxconn Staff,” which petitions by Foxconn for raises because employees can no longer afford to live in the upgraded villages. In fact, even monthly raise of 100-300 yuan can have serious consequences for workers’ wellbeing. For many, the increase in rent is a significant portion of the money they have been saving or sending home. In a nutshell, despite Wang Shi’s confidence game that the 10,000 Villages project is making China a warmer, better housed place, in Shenzhen the facts suggest otherwise.

莞城: a visit to old dongguan city

If you’re like me, you probably didn’t realize the loveliness that awaits you in “Guan Cheng,” the old section of Dongguan City. And yes, the surprise adds to the pleasure of strolling its meandering streets and riverside boulevards. Ke Yuan (可园), which comes from the expression “lovely garden” is open to visitors. It is an example of Lingnan sensibility and was a key site for the development of Lingnan style painting. Impressions, below.

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remembered origins

For those who haven’t visited the Shekou Museum of Reform and Opening, it’s worth a trip if only to check out where the story begins. All stories of the Special Economic Zone begin with Deng Xiaoping, however, the historical problems that Deng Xiaoping is said to have solve differ from museum to museum. At the Shenzhen Museum of History, for example, Deng Xiaoping solves the historic problem of colonialism. In contrast, at the Shekou Museum of Reform and Opening, he solves the social problems that were caused by political mistakes–famine during the Great Leap Forward and relative poverty during the Cultural Revolution.

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eccentric skylines

I visit urban villages because they allow space for eccentricity, for unexpected juxtapositions that suggest the contours of history. And yes, these spaces are not simple agrarian settlements, but sites where wealth has accumulated for several hundred years, where ideas about what that history might mean have taken alternative forms. Continue reading

a state beyond the state

Just finished reading Ting Chen’s A State beyond the State: Shenzhen and the Transformation of Urban China, which maps how land was assigned and developed over the course of 35 years of development in Shenzhen. One of my favorite sections in the book tracks the transformation of Shahe State Farm, pre-1979 Bao’an County’s only danwei into Baishizhou, the city’s most iconic urban village. Indeed, Chen’s meticulous maps suggest how the area has mediated rural-urban conditions since 1959, when the farm was established. Continue reading