razing homelands (in meizhou), claiming history (in shenzhen)

We hear stories of forced evictions and demolitions from Meizhou. These simple and brutal stories of State violence in order to dispossess peasants of their traditional landholdings sound all too familiar. The enemy is fast, omnipresent, and faceless, found in whispered rumors and chronic anxiety. The peasants’ furious screams and disjointed protests do not clarify the situation, but instead seem to work against them, further alienating them from urbane cool and ironic discourse.

Consider, for example, the tale of a 70+ grandma who had refused to sign over her land rights and sell her home. She occupied her home to protect her home. However, one day she needed to go shopping for a few everyday necessities because there was no one at home to help her. Less than an hour later when she returned home, “they” had already demolished her house. She had nowhere to go and nothing to bring with her. One can only imagine what she feels watching bulldozers raze the material conditions of her life. Suddenly, she is stripped to existential despair and helplessness in the face of relentless progress.

Yesterday I attended a screening of ongoing documentation of the situation in Meizhou. The salon was hosted by Shi Jie (in photo), a young documentary filmmaker currently based in Shenzhen. He has been documenting naratives of ongoing dispossession, bearing witness to the injustice of rural urbanization and concomitant suffering. First story online (in Hakka with Chinese subtitles). Shi Jie held the salon to discuss strategies to create solidarity between Shenzhen youth–especially young Hakka migrants–and the Meizhou peasants.

The conversation brought up three issues: (1) the need for peasants to articulate their demands in a more “urban” language, such as historic preservation or environmental conservation because the story of forced evictions and land dispossession was too common to become a media focus; (2) the need for the film makers to map the competing interests, including government dependence on land sales to meet their budget, the leading developers and the scale of investment;and (3) the need for the film makers to state their aims clearly, who was their intended audience and to what end?

Shijie’s savvy use of social media notwithstanding it is apparent that the heart of his effort is small, local and face-to-face interactions where he raises a fourth issue: how might those of us in Shenzhen is how to ameliorate an untenable situation?

coming home to the liberal arts

This past week my friend’s daughter has been visiting liberal arts colleges and I have been tagging along, surprised by my sense of homecoming; these are my people.

I have lived and worked in Shenzhen close to twenty years. I continue to engage in anthropological research about the city and participate as a public intellectual both in Shenzhen and outside, in conversations about Shenzhen and what it teaches us about rural urbanization in the post Cold War era. I work with Fat Bird to produce theater and have recently joined friends to form CZC Special Forces, a group working to make art and performance in and around Shenzhen’s urban villages. Over the years, I have taught English, served as an acting principal, and done the odd bit of college counseling in Shenzhen schools. In short, the city and its residents have been good to me, helping me to craft an interesting and meaningful life.

Indeed, I feel at home in Shenzhen. I live in a late 1980s Shekou housing development, where child play and aunties and grandmas dance the yang ge’er. I know the bus and subway systems intimately. I have favorite restaurants and parks and walks. I appreciate the vast diversity of the city’s migrants and have learned to recognize (some of) the distinctions that matter to Shenzheners — accents, flavoring, and personality, for example. I navigate cross-border encounters, and have friends in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. In all practical senses, Shenzhen is home.

And yet.

Just a week of wandering a few liberal arts campuses and I am reminded of those stateside who also enabled me to live this life. Parents who believed that education was for life rather than strictly the first line on a resume; Chinese teachers who gave me the skills, understanding, and confidence to persist despite linguistic and cultural obstacles; anthropology professors and authors who not only helped me learn to think and consider what it means to be human, but also to value this very human impulse to reflect on our shared condition and its causes, possibilities, and challenges. All this to say that this trip I am realizing just how deeply my values and goals were shaped and nourished by the liberal arts tradition. Yes! the heart sings. This tradition is worth cherishing, and growing, and exporting.

Yet, again.

I also know what it takes for a Shenzhen family to be able to afford this education. I know the decisions and savings and evasions — moral, intellectual, and social — that make it possible to leap from Shenzhen to a liberal arts college campus. So this college visiting has been unremittingly bittersweet. I keep saying to my friend, “See, it is possible to create this kind of learning environment and raise outstanding human beings.” And she rightly reminds me, “Shenzhen people are still worried about securing their children’s economic future.” I pause because she is not wrong. Not only Shenzhen parents find $US 50,000 a year to be a daunting obstacle. American parents. Moroccan parents. Indian parents. Parents everywhere do because we are exporting liberal arts educations. And they cost. A lot. And even more when your family doesn’t earn petro-dollars, but instead earns real estate yuan.

Thought du jour: We need to find ways to realize these values in other, more accessible forms. I continue to believe that our liberal arts colleges and pedagogical values constitute an important contribution to humanity. I am haunted, however, by their obvious and subtle complicities with globalized inequalities. I live this contradiction everyday in Shenzhen, where the liberal arts — or another form of morally tolerant pedagogy and values — are needed, but where as an American, I often find myself so firmly placed on the “haves” side of the line that dialogue is difficult. Indeed, in the end, I end up listening more than speaking because I’m still searching for common ground. And this ground must take into account economic inequality and political aspirations if we are to move forward, together.


Today, I’m wondering about how the prejudices that contemporary China exports overlap with historical prejudices in the West, especially when we talk about “Chinatowns” or “traditional” and “rural” China.  In other words, what to make of the fact that Westerners continue to like Chinatowns (and urban villages), while China’s rising elite does not?

Yesterday, I ate lunch with Shenzhen friends at Hakkasan, a hip international Chinese-inspired chain (with amazing desserts) and then walked Chinatown, San Francisco. Before we separated, my northern Mainland friends (who had enjoyed the food) warned me that Chinatown was “just like Chaozhou in the 1960s”. The implication was not only that Chinatown was backward, but also that there wasn’t anything there to see or enjoy. Instead, they were interested in buying a home in Mission Bay, which was new and modern and, in many ways, just like Shenzhen albeit, “not as convenient”.

The historic link between Chinatown, San Francisco and other Guangdong settlements is explicit. The Kaiping watchtowers, for example, were not only built with monetary remittances from Overseas Chinese in San Francisco, but also with materials, techniques, and blueprints that were sent back home. In fact, there is a Kaiping Hometown Association on Washingtown St (开平侨网). I enjoyed my walk. But then again, I also like Shenzhen urban villages. I also appreciate informal forms of urbanization across Guangzhou, which nourishes dense settlements and lively commerce.

The fact that my friends drew attention to the “backwardness” of Chinatown, SF echoed similar warnings about urban villages, Shenzhen. In fact, explicit contrast either to neidi or locally to the urban villages predicates the celebration of modern Shenzhen. The difference hinges on the glorification of the wealthy and their tasteful lifestyles in contradistinction to the working poor and their traditional lifestyles. Of course, in practice, “tradition” glosses low-tech practices that enable the working poor to “make do” with less than their share of the goods their labor produced.

These past few years, Shenzhen has also become increasingly well known in the foreign media. It is no longer just a symbol of the government’s decision to reform and open the Maoist system, but also an example of the success of that decision. Today, Chinese no longer disparage Shenzhen as being backward, nor do they exhort me to go elsewhere to see the real China. Instead, new immigrants say how wonderful Shenzhen is and second generation residents are proud to say they come from Shenzhen. Indeed, they now claim it is the “best city” in China, and note that it is more livable than Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou.

On the one hand, my friends’ determination to distinguish themselves from the residents of Chinatown, San Francisco as well as the fact that they did so via Chaozhou should give pause. After all, within Guangdong, Chaozhou is considered one of the largest homelands for Overseas Chinese as well as one of the most “traditional”. On the other hand, Western racism enabled colonialism abroad and ghettoization at home. Guangdong immigrants appropriated elements of these twinned processes to create neighborhoods in their hometowns, new and old. Similarly, migrant workers to Shenzhen take advantage of reform and opening policies to create lives in adverse conditions.

Inspirations from Chinatown, San Francisco and culinary delights, below:

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