so why are there so many abandoned villages?

The movie is 《封门诡影》 and it starts of with the fear of abandoned villages as if the reason was for villages being emptied out was supernaturally evil. Fengmen (literally closed door) Village was inexplicably abandoned. I’ve never never seen Blair Witch, but this movie seems kind of like, but with ghosts and dodgy fengshui. Our intrepid hero teaches psychology and has issues because unable to understand evil within his cognitive framework. It’s all in your mind. But not really. Cut to evil cackle.

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free associations, or, what does baishizhou mean to you?

Yesterday, I visited the two-day exhibition that Xu Lan (徐岚) put up in a one-bedroom apartment (2,400 / month) in Tangtou Block 6, Baishizhou. The exhibition took place over two days (Jan 8 and 9, 2017) and comprised mountain and water sketches / illustrations from a week-long stay (previous) in Baishizhou. The series itself is part of an ongoing project of travelling and documenting those travels. The inspiration for the exhibition (as narrated by Xu Lan) was random (偶然). He was thinking of the painter Qi Baishi (齐白石) and painted his own “Baishizhou” and then decided to show the works in Baishizhou, Shenzhen because he remembered having been here once.

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drone-fare

When I first saw the above advertisement for DJI, one of the world’s leading producers of drones, I balked. It seemed to me to be a picture that celebrated spying on the private and unaccessible mansions of the all-too-rich. So, given the unreliability of my American gut reactions in China, I asked the young women standing next to me, “What do you see in that advertisement?” She responded, “a pretty landscape.” I was like, “What about the dock? The big mansion? The coastline that resembles Newport’s?” She looked at the advert again, nodded, and then tentatively added, “We see things differently because of cultural difference.” Continue reading

“this time, this place”: these concerns

The balmy days of installation gave way to cold winter rain for the opening of “This Time, This Place” in Shenzhen’s Central Park. Our brief as participants was to respond to the site, and in this sense the weather reminded us just how different indoor and outdoor exhibitions can be. But that’s not what I want to talk about. Today, I’m wondering: is there art that ameliorates rather than is predicated on class privilege? Continue reading

harmonized

While in Tianjin a friend said to me that she wanted to forward one of my posts about the Hong Kong protests to her WeChat circles, but was afraid of being “harmonized” (被和谐掉) — a euphemism meaning “to be arrested for political activism”, or as Orwell might have said, the crime of speaking one’s position. The expression ironically activates Xi Jinping’s relentless calls for social harmony through a return to Chinese values, that might be otherwise expressed as “shut up and do what you’re told” much as Lee Kwan Yew deployed Neo-Confucianism in his pursuit of a well ordered managed Singapore. Continue reading

theorizing shenzhen speed

If it takes twelve hours for one person to lay so much concrete, for example, there are several options for speeding up the result. One person can work 1.5 eight hour days or one person can work one twelve-hour day and work has “sped up”. If cooperation is introduced, then two people could complete the task in 6 hours or three people could each work .5 days. Anyway, the Marxian point is clear: “speed” is a result of changing work conditions, increasing either individual hours of labor or increasing the number of laborers.

The ongoing question, of course, is: what makes exploitation acceptable? Why did early Shenzheners (and the rest of the country) celebrate Shenzhen Speed as a good thing especially when it meant exponentially increasing exploitation in terms of both individual work hours and numbers of workers?

Consider, for example, that it to a country to build Guomao (忆改革:曾经中国第一高楼. The Hunan Provincial Geological Survey Company was responsible for surveying the site. Hubei Provincial Industrial Architecture Design Institute Designed the building. And the Corps of Engineers worked “day and night (日夜不停)” for two months to put in the foundation. The Number 2 Guangdong Construction Company built the frame. The Chinese National Number 3 Construction and Engineering Bureau constructed the actual building.

Shenzhen speed was defined as building one story of a building in three days, and maintaining that pace for 53 stories (Guomao building). The the KK 100 the broke that record. But the pace of what an individual can do hasn’t actually increased. What’s increased is the speed at which results happen, which in turn, usually leads to increased exploitation.

At the time, this collaboration to achieve nationally symbolic goals was not new. Nor was the fact that Municipal Secretary and Mayor Liang Xiang approved Municipal land for the project. What was new was that the justification for this speed was to demonstrate the SEZ’s internationalism (read — willingness to do capitalist style business).

So Shenzhen speed was generated for national goals. At the time it started, this exploitation was a sign of patriotism and national commitment. Today, however, Shenzhen speed has come to refer to the speed at which people burn out, a taken for granted law of the market.

Sigh.

cold war ghosts in shenkong

For those inquiring minds that wonder, what was Shenzhen before it was Shenzhen, the opening scene from the 1963 classic Tracking Threats (跟踪追) reveals a threatened border and enemies whose souls have been twisted through betrayal. After the credits, the film opens with a scene of soldiers guarding the border and the Luohu bridge opening to allow peasants (and a spy) enter the country. From the filming, it is difficult to see immediately who the heroes and villains are. Instead, we find ourselves faced with a narrative tradition that begins with a social situation which the narrative gradually analyzes.

At the border, the guard opens an old woman’s bag, in which he finds a carton of cigarettes and candies. Suspicious, he opens the carton and discovers gunpowder hidden inside. Similarly, the candies also turn out to be decoys. The old woman protests that she’s never seen these items before. Her story is confirmed when another guard discovers an unclaimed bag, which includes toy cars that have been used to smuggle gunpowder

The security officer, Li Minggang leads a team to discover what’s happening. They follow the clues to the toy factory, where old Lin Dexiang works loyally. It turns out his nephew, Lin Yonggui was the spy who replaced the goods in the old woman’s bag. Li Minggang turns Lin Yonggui, who is used as a double agent to uncover the net of spies. This network includes refugees who try to escape to Hong Kong, smugglers of commercial goods, and of course, the evil chief spy, Xu Ying.

Tracking Threats was one of a series of movies that reflected the militarization of the Sino-British border during the 1950s. Indeed, between 1956 through 1958, the Guangzhou Security Department cracked several cases of Taiwanese incursions into Guangdong, and also discovered weapon stockpiles. During the 1960s, the Pearl River Delta Studio produced a series of red spy movies. The earliest, Secret Map (秘密图纸,1960) also filmed at the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border, but did not actually name the border crossing.

In retrospect, the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border in Tracking Threats seems claustrophobic and artificially patriotic à la contemporary North Korea. There is heroic music. There are poor but honest peasants. The military is distinctly noble. However, we know that by the mid 60s, China had already suffered famine and that Hong Kong had begun its economic reconstruction. Thus, during production filmmakers were not allowed to film the Hong Kong side of the border. Moreover, several peasants tried to take advantage of the filming and cross the border. They were, however, caught.

And yet. In Tracking Threats, the ideal of patriotism as a source of ethical thinking appears as pure and noble and good and far, far away from where we find ourselves in the post Cold War world.

In 2009, the earliest of the 1960s spy films, Secret Map was remade into a 30 episode television series (秘密图纸). Unlike the original movie, the television series opens with the spy murdering his godfather, who is portrayed as a Japanified elderly gentleman. The historic link, of course, was the Japanese colonization of Taiwan. In this way, the television series Secret Maps recodes race betrayals of Tracking Threats  as a question of generational betrayals (the godfather raising his godson to hate the Communists). In scene two, the spy, now a sympathetic anti-hero, washes up on the Shenzhen coast, where he is immediately captured by a beautiful revolutionary, a gaggle of peasants, and a noble peasant-soldier.

And there’s the interesting neoliberal rub: in the transition from 1960s Guangdong to new millennium Shenzhen, the Mainland-Taiwan conflict has been recoded as a story of misplaced love, rather than misplaced patriotism, while the desire for forbidden consumer goods has been naturalized. Indeed, that naturalization is precisely what makes the anti-hero sympathetic; he may have loved wrongly, but he knew what the fight was about. However, as in any good neoliberal bromance, love conquers all just before the anti-hero dies.

the view from the top, circa 1997

The 69th floor observatory of the Diwang Building remains an important tourist destination, albeit something of a time capsule.

The Diwang building was completed in time to celebrate the Return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. The 69th floor observatory includes a museum that commemorates Shenzhen’s history from 1980 through 1997, a kitchy “Lan Kwai Fang” bar street, and observation maps that date from 1997. The key exhibit is a wax figure installation of Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher’s iconic 1984 meeting. The installation symbolizes the ideological function of Shenzhen circa 1997 — the buffer zone between Beijing and Hong Kong, which enabled the PRC to push forward its “one country, two systems” policy.

The juxtaposition of Shenzhen then and now resonates precisely because the interior design of the museum hasn’t changed since 1997. In fact, all one has to do is look at one of the maps and compare it to the view from the observation platform to remember that in 1997 Diwang precipitated the city’s glass and steel makeover. Notably absent from the 1997 maps — the civic center, the kk 100 building, and the Binhai Expressway and Northern Loop. Obviously present in the 1997 maps — the extent to which the construction of border town urban villages such as Caiwuwei, Dengba, and Hubei had shaped urban possibility in Shenzhen . Moreover, in the 1997 images, Buji and the second line seem distant, far far away from the booming border region. Nevertheless, villages still show up in the images below — the relatively dark patches are urban villages, including the remains of Caiwuwei after the construction of the KK 100.

Visiting the museum and observatory costs 80 rmb a ticket and if memory serves (because sometimes it doesn’t), fifteen years ago the price of admission was 80 rmb.

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the yaopi float glass factory

The Yaopi float glass factory hovers at memory’s edge, abandoned to ideology and chance encounters.

In 1987, the Shekou factory represented the highest level of float glass technology production in China. Today, it evokes nostalgia for the heroic romance of early industrial manufacturing. And that’s the rub. Even before it was built, the technology and mode of production used at the factory had been downgraded in terms of added value. In terms of global competitive advantage, Yaopi had been outdated even before it was built. Perhaps more telling of the ideological structure that ranks advanced and backward nations with respect to production capacity, the Yaopi factory elicits comparison with the Terracotta soldiers in Xi’an. This unhappy comparison relegates Shenzhen’s modernization efforts to the ancient past, even as it confers uncanny modernity on the First Qin Emperor’s army, which of course was mass produced on low-tech, but large-scale assembly lines.

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architectural thinking — from the nanjing sun yat-sen memorial to luohu train station

One of the highlights of the XLarch Masterplanning the Future Conference was Wang Yun (王昀)’s keynote speech that periodized the development of Chinese style architecture, arguing for an internationalist approach to architecture, rather than an ideologically charged use of architectural symbols.

As an architectural style, Chinese classicism was invented by western trained architects who upon returning to Nationalist China received commissions to build “Chinese style (中华风格)” buildings during the decade of 1927-1937. These buildings had large, Chinese style roofs, windows and decorative details, and sometimes included stylized gardens. The Nationalist capital, Nanjing was the location of some of the most important examples of this style as well because commissions not only represented individual client preferences, but also the determination of government leaders to create a recognizable Chinese public architecture.

One of the most important examples of Chinese classicism is the Nanjing Sun Yat-sen Memorial, which was designed by one of China’s first starchitects, Lv Yanzhi (吕彦直). Lv also also designed the Guangzhou Sun Yat-Sen Memorial before his untimely death in 1929. The Nanjing Memorial reinterprets traditional themes through choice of material (reinforced concrete and mosaic tiles) and through the secularization of traditional symbols (animals become geometric shapes, for example). In addition, the Memorial layout abstracts and represents Nationalist China as the difficult realization of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s three principles of the people (三民主义) — nationalism, democracy, and public welfare. To reach the Memorial proper, for example, there are 392 steps going upward, each step representing one million Chinese, and together representing the population of nationalist China. These steps are broken by eight flat platforms, which represent the fragmentation of China by warlords and civil war. However, when one looks back on the stairs, all one sees is a flat surface, an optical illusion that promises national unification.

The Nanjing Sun Yat-Sen Memorial provides a lexicon for understanding Chinese Classicism during the Nationalist era, including the reference to the Lincoln Memorial (1920) by way of the seated figure of Dr. Sun (1926-29). Not unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Lincoln statue also dominates a neo-classical building, albeit through references to Greek architecture. Indeed, both the Sun Yat-sen and Lincoln Memorials use the respective classicism of their countries to assert timeless governance, even as they commemorate leaders who governed countries divided by civil war.  I show the following images of the Nanjing Memorial with the caveat that they are not architectural — an architectural photo has amazing resolution, geometric composition, and absolutely no people, unless, of course, the figure contributes to architectural exegesis. My snaps, however, aim to emphasize just how popular this site is and thus how it continues to shape the visceral experience of being in “China” through a particular architectural style.

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How does the Nanjing Memorial relate to Shenzhen?

This architectural lexicon has been picked up, tweaked and redeployed throughout Shenzhen, but as a private rather than public source of architectural symbols. The Luohu Train Station is the only exemplar of public Chinese Classicism that has been built in Shenzhen in the Reform Era. The other large example of post Reform classicism is the Hongfa Temple in Fairy Park, which is arguably political in its adamant denial of any political message. Certainly, in its assertion of the reintroduction of official religion to civic life, Fahong was as ideologically charged as the train station, which signaled China’s opening to capitalist countries. However, with the exception of these two buildings, Chinese Classicism in Shenzhen is limited to decoration in urban villages, where many handshakes have tiled roofs, restaurants, and the odd sculpture, such as Nvwa Holding up the Sky in Shekou, which is a socialist realist rendering of a mythic theme.

All this is interesting because given the explicit modernism of Shenzhen’s public architecture, the rediscovery or explicit use of Chinese tradition and roots are often used in neoliberal arguments for alternative forms of architecture and historic preservation. Chiwan comes to mind as do struggles for some form of preservation in urban villages. These efforts contextualize the design and construction of key civic architecture, including the Civic Center and central axis, which has the ideological expression of Reform and Opening (here, here, and here). Importantly, both the relentless modernization of Reform era public buildings and the alternative movement to construct a classical past for Shenzhen ignore Maoism, which nevertheless continues to inform the built environment.