is the era of shenzhen urban villages over?

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.

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Transformation of Shen Kong Borderlands online

It’s been a while, but I’m back online, thinking the world through Shenzhen. Most recently, Made in China published a forum–Transformation of Shen Kong Borderlands— about the Shen Kong border. Denise Ho, Jonathan Bach and I co-edited the forum, which introduces the border, its history, and new perspectives on how people have lived within and between opportunities it has afforded.

The intro to the forum reads:

In August 1980, the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ) was formally established, along with SEZs in Zhuhai, Shantou and Xiamen. China’s fifth SEZ, Hainan Island, was designated in 1988. Yet this year, the only SEZ to receive national attention on its fortieth anniversary was Shenzhen. Indeed, General Secretary Xi Jinping attended the celebration, reminding the city, the country, and the world not only of Shenzhen’s pioneering contributions to building socialism with Chinese characteristics, but also that “The construction of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area is a major national development strategy, and Shenzhen is an important engine for the construction of the Greater Bay Area (Xi 2020).” Against this larger background, many interpreted the General Secretary’s celebration of Shenzhen to have put Hong Kong in its place, so to speak; Hong Kong may have contributed to the SEZ’s development, but the region’s future is being shaped in and through Shenzhen.

This forum offers historical and ethnographic accounts of the Shenzhen-Hong Kong borderlands as sites where cross-border policies, situations, and aspirations continue to inform and transform everyday life. In political documents, newspaper articles, and the names of businesses Shenzhen-Hong Kong is shortened to 深港 or “Shen Kong,” suturing the cities together as specific, yet diverse socio-technical formations built on complex legacies of colonial occupations and Cold War flare-ups, checkpoints and boundaries, quasi-legal business opportunities and cross-border peregrinations. The following essays show how, set against its changing cultural meanings and sifting of social orders, the border is continuously redeployed and exported as a mobile imaginary while experienced as an everyday materiality. Taken together, the articles compel us to consider how borders and bordering protocols have been critical to Shenzhen’s success over these last forty years. Indeed, we would argue, Shenzhen succeeds to the extent that it remains a liminal space of passage and transformation. As the Greater Bay Area once again remakes the region’s cultural geography, the stories and voices herein provide food for speculative thought about today’s Pearl River Delta betwixt, between and within China’s domestic and international borders.

O’Donnell, Bach, and Ho. 2020. “Transformation of Shen Kong Borderlands.” Made in China Journal 3: 93.

from bamboo curtain to the silicon valley of hardware

For the 2019 edition of the Shenzhen Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture (UABB), Handshake 302 installed Electronic Lifestyles at the Futian Station Main Venue. To situate the installation with respect to Shenzhen’s cultural geography, I wrote From Bamboo Curtain to the Silicon Valley of Hardware, which was published at as part of e-flux architecture‘s Software as Infrastructure project.

From the essay:

Located on the “bamboo curtain” at the Sino-British border, Shenzhen’s spatial liminality facilitated national political and economic restructuring, which ultimately had international effects. In the ordinary order of things, liminal spaces have recognizable thresholds and boundaries; one crosses from one side to the next. Most liminal spaces are located at the edges of mainstream society. In contrast, the geopolitical logic of Shenzhen has been to place liminal spaces at the center of society, making perpetual transformation—of the self, the nation, and the world—a key feature of the model. The transformation of Luohu-Shangbu from a riparian society into the earliest iteration of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ) can give a sense of how liminality was deployed to as metaphor and strategy. Today, the Luohu area is known as Dongmen, a bustling cross-border shopping district, and Shangbu is known as Huaqiangbei, the world’s “Silicon Valley of Hardware.”

Curious? Please give it a read.

and yes, urban villages are now heritage sites in shenzhen

So, I wrote Heart of Shenzhen: The Movement to Preserve ‘Ancient’ Hubei Village. It was published in The New Companion to Urban Design, an (embarrassingly expensive) anthology, edited by Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris & Tridib Banerjee. The paper tracks the rise of public intellectuals in Shenzhen as well as growing identification with the city’s cultural geographies.

SZ8X80208//The Myriad Transformations//City on the Fill: Oyster Beds

By 2003, the oyster farmers who worked the coastline that would be reclaimed as Ocean City were removed so that more coastline could be reclaimed. At the cusp of that transformation, I walked the coast that was still littered with oyster shells, sanpans, and poles that had been used for fishing nets. An old border tower stood, unused for years until it would be occupied by squatters after the next phase of reclamation.

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urban flesh and bones: huaqiangbei

On Saturday April 27, Handshake 302 led fifteen curious guests on a full-day discovery of Huaqiangbei from perspective of the historic Shangbu Industrial Park. The organization of the tour emphasized the intimate stories behind the emergence of Huaqiangbei as a global landmark. After all, Huaqiangbei did not emerge as fully formed nexus in a global network of technological innovation, but rather formed in the ongoing evolution of Shenzhen’s cultural geography. Continue reading

guomao: how quickly we forget

The image that many have of Shenzhen is a collection of state-of-the-art buildings because for years, these towers have represented the city and its progress. These buildings, of course, not only represent important state-owned enterprises in the Shenzhen landscape (China Merchants and China Resources, for example), but also provide a particular map to the city: the downtown investment area, Huaqiangbei electronic markets, Overseas Chinese Town, the recently opened Hi-Tech area along Shenzhen Bay, and the Dameisha beach. The latest skyline montage includes architecture from all over the city (labeled to the best of my ability):

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SZ8X80102//The_Myriad_Transformations//Cut and Pastiche: Of Global Bullies and Their Girlfriends

In 2006, I visited Dafen Oil Painting Village for the first time. This was several years before Dafen became an important landmark–both in and outside China–in the Shenzhen imaginary. This was also over a decade before the metro system connected Dafen to downtown. In fact, even the road signs reflected the segregation between “Shenzhen” and the rest of the city. Consequently, the first time I visited Dafen I experienced it as a typical urban village that produced an atypical product.

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In 2006, this road sign outside the main entrance to Dafen Oil Painting Village still gave directions to four market towns–Bantian, Longhua, Shiyan, and Longgang–as well as to “Shenzhen,” which referred to the Luohu “Downtown” area.

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hubei ancient village update

Images of the recently demolished area of New Hubei Village, including Luohu Culture Park, which used to be one of my favorite downtown sites. For those who have following the resistance to the demolition of “Ancient Hubei Village,” the demolitions have incited architects, urban planners, and public intellectuals to submit detailed counterproposals and cultural events to protect the area. These demolitions have risked destroying the older settlement. In the pictures you can see the section of Hubei New Village that is still standing, the blue steel roofs of Hubei ancient village, and and the surrounding skyscrapers of Luohu.

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baishizhou: the city’s history through seven micro-environments

On October 14, 2018, Handshake 302 welcome a group of Chevening scholars to Baishizhou. We brought the Chevening scholars to seven of Baishizhou’s micro-environments. Each micro-environment not only illustrates the urban life of Shenzhen, but also represents an important moment in the city’s history. Continue reading