as yet shenzhen has no capital h history…

The experience of walking Shenzhen is significantly different from visiting, Beijing or Shanghai, Xi’an or Guangzhou, where the meaning of the past has already been codified, renovated, and can be consumed on a nostalgic tour. In school we learn that Beijing’s history is Ming-Qing imperial, Shanghai’s history is East-West colonial hybrid, Xi’an’s history is ancient, while Guangzhou’s history is South China sea commerce and migration. We then go to the respective tourist destination to have our knowledge confirmed and perhaps enriched by and through an appropriate activity. We walk Beijing’s hutong and the Forbidden City, drink coffee or cocktails in a stylish restaurant in Shanghai’s shikumen and the Bund, admire Xi’an’s beilin and terracotta soldiers, and wander the small shops of Guangzhou’s West Gate. Indeed, each of these tourist destinations succeeds as such precisely because the site metonymically represents the respective city’s place in China’s “5,000 years” of civilization. We leave thinking we have a deeper understanding of where we have been. Maybe we do. Most likely we don’t. But there is something reassuring in having our stereotypes confirmed, and those stereotypes are what I mean by capital h history.

Now, there are historically significant sites in Shenzhen — Old NantouDapeng Fortress, the Chiwan Tianhou TempleDongmen, and Yumin Village. However, municipal efforts to promote Old Nantou and Dongmen, notwithstanding, none of these historical sites has captured the imagination of either residents or visitors. I suspect this is in part because each of these places represents a portion of Chinese history that is already preserved elsewhere. Old Nantou and the Chiwan Tianhou Temple, for example, represent ancient efforts to develop the Chinese salt trade and settle the Pearl River Delta, but there are finer examples of that era to be imagined and seen in Guangzhou, while ancient Chinese history is more elegantly preserved in Xi’an and Jiangnan. Even the Tianhou sea cult is more closely identified with Tianjin and Xiamen than it is with South China temples and shrines. Likewise, Dapeng Fortress is an outpost of Ming-Qing military imperialism, but of a failed variety, rather than successful garrisons to be explored throughout the north.

Dongmen and Yumin Village are perhaps more representative of Shenzhen’s importance as the epicenter of early reform. However, both are historically compromised. Although Dongmin is identified with so-called Shen Kong commerce, for example, there really are more upscale malls throughout both Shenzhen and Hong Kong where one might purchase global products. And what about Yumin Village? Deng Xiaoping visited Yumin Village in 1984, inspecting one of the three-story private homes that local villagers had just built. He declared that Shenzhen speed was a good thing and that the rest of the country should follow. The 1995 exhibition to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen SEZ included an installation that reproduced the interior of one of those homes, which at the time, was more luxurious than the homes of urban cadres in Beijing and Shanghai. Here’s the rub: although Yumin Village has been integrated into the Shenzhen municipal apparatus as a Luohu neighborhood, nevertheless the actual buildings that Deng saw and even the home he inspected were razed over ten years ago. There is a history board there, but nothing from 1984 remains and Yumin Village continues to function as a border urban village, with low rents for migrants who work nearby, spas and massage parlors for visiting Hong Kong people, and places where villagers play mah jong and gather to drink tea and gossip.

The absence of an agreed upon master narrative means that walking Shenzhen allows individuals to judge what does and does not represent capital h history in the SEZ. Now Shenzhen does boast upscale skyscrapers that represent achievements within this process — Guomao, Diwang, and the Civic Center all come to mind and are worth a visit. Those wanting to see the “real” capital h historic Shenzhen, I suggest visiting either an industrial park or an urban village. Early 80s work unit housing in Luohu and Shekou are also great examples of how industrial urbanization transformed the area. Personally, however, I believe that if Shenzhen has a place in China’s 5,000 years narrative it is as an epicenter of rural urbanization, including transformation of the local environment, proletarianization of rural migrants to SEZ factories, and the forms of urbanization that returned workers have promoted or their remittances enabled. However, even after over 30 years of reforming and opening Baoan villages, the city is only just starting to come to terms with this legacy and most villages, even the most famous such as Baishizhou are scheduled to be razed. All this to say that as yet, the meaning of Shenzhen’s cultural and historical inheritance is still up for grabs because we are only just starting to come to terms with the urban legacy of Reform and Opening. This means that as yet the city has no capital h history and no corresponding historical sites that one can visit and say, “Yes, I’ve been to Shenzhen and I know where I’ve been.”

Walk anyway. The Shenzhen you experience will be only loosely tethered to stereotypes about China and you might make something else of it. Below, impressions of a recent walk in Fuyong.

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Jiujie / Nantou / Xin’an Old Town

Years ago, I published becoming hong kong, razing baoan, preserving xin’an, an academic paper on urbanization as the ideology informing the construction of the Shenzhen SEZ. Part of that paper included an analysis of Nanshan District’s decision to create a walking museum at Nantou, the County Seat of Xin’an from the Ming Dynasty until the CCP moved it to Caiwuwei, in Shenzhen Market. The museum didn’t survive into 1998 and Nantou settled back into urban village life – migrant workers renting space in handshake buildings, small scale manufacturing taking place both at home and in low tech factories, and bustling streets of vendors, shops, and open air markets.

Yesterday, I walked Nantou and discovered Universiade traces. The roads that connected the buildings in the walking museum had been paved with grey bricks and the buildings abutting those streets (well all two of them) had been given “traditional” facelifts – a faux grey brick facade and eves. Moreover, the museum buildings have been reopened to the public! So the universiade upgrade of Nantou included Shenzhen’s ongoing push to open small museums in the urban villages.

Here’s the rub: Houses and streets beyond the scope of the museum remain as they were. Also, the gate god, which used to inhabit the old Ming gate to the city has been removed. All that remains of that living tradition are two holes on either side of the gate, where incense has been stuffed in. And yes, that’s an upgraded pedestrian overpass at the entrance to what remains of the walled city. Impressions of revamped and still unvamped Nantou, below.

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settled in?

Am now moved into new home in Shekou. Yesterday, rode the Shekou line to Window of the World, changed for OCT East and arrived for coffee at OCT Creative Park all in about 30 minutes. Very convenient. Nevertheless, half an hour was more than enough time to notice and set me wondering about one or two, well three actually, discordant notes.

Do: The Shekou line advertising is playing to the cultural Nantou theme. Those who know a bit about Shenzhen’s history, know that Nantou is the oldest city in the area, having been a salt yamen 1,000 years or so ago.Know that there was (and still is) a small temple to those Gods that bless Cantonese Opera singers. Moreover, Reform began in Shekou and the first Chinese themeparks (strictly speaking) were built in OCT, Nanshan; Shenzhen University is also here. So, the Shenzhen Subway company has illustrated these themes from Nantou’s cultural history. Wanxia, for example, is morning tea and Dongjiaotou has a Cantonese singer. An image of Nvwa illustrates Shekou’s importance in Reform and Opening; Windows of the World is the Eiffel Tower.

Alas, those who know this history also realize that this historical trail ran along “old street” from the west gate of Jiujie to Shekou. They also know that know that there was no direct path (except a mountain trail over Nanshan Mountain or on a boat around the peninsula tip) from Shekou to Chiwan. However, the Shekou Subway rewriting of this cultural history is on the order of land reclamation and, in fact, the subway does not connect Shekou to Nantou, but instead at Houhai (and more about Houhai below) turns east, heading through Science and Technology Park South though Mangrove Park to Windows of the World. Thus, the Subway Station History of Nantou appropriates and displaces the cultural ecology of the area. Wanxia, for example, is a local village and yes, you can have morning tea there, but Dongjiaotou was a riparian port, where trade goods from Zhongshan and other parts of the Delta were shipped to and from Nantou. Today, Dongjiaotou is the site of The Peninsula Estates, high end real estate development that winds around a genuinely old and decaying, already being “reclaimed” part of Shekou.

Re: Within this postmodern rewriting of Nantou’s history, Houhai is now a subway station and no longer a sheltered backwater. I have commented upon the Shenzhen tendency to raze mountains and lychee orchards and then name malls and housing estates after the no longer extant land formation. Land reclamation naming practices follow apace. Not only only has Nantou’s cultural history been rewritten as a series of Subway Stations through what used to be Houhai Bay, but also that Bay is now just another subway stop.

More importantly, Nantou’s cultural history was a history of backwater fishing, oyster cultivation, and riparian trade between small, village owned docks. A two-step sequence of appropriation is at play. First, the actual socio-economic base of local history has been destroyed. The last oyster fishing folk were relocated in 2006. Thus, in order to live here, one needs to be part of the new economy, which includes real estate development and working in more abstract cultural industries such as academia and tourism. Second, local history is now being deployed to add “flavor” or “local interest” to rich outsiders who are inhabiting Shenzhen. And real estate promoters can get away with this because most of those moving into Nantou don’t know the history of the area.

Mi: I also noticed that on the “local street map” which hangs in our station, our housing estate is conspicuously absent. There still remains much construction behind us, although I suspect that come Universiade, our own Europe [Shopping Mall for those living in Dubai style condos] will open. Here’s the point: with the opening of the Shekou Subway our housing estate is now part of the historic backwater. And as those of us who have watched the development of Nantou know, the purpose of backwater has been to reclaim it for ever-higher end development. Once all the reclaimed land has been filled in, our short walk to the Subway makes our housing development a prime target for upgrading and us for resettlement. Upside to looming displacement: we aren’t the only affordable housing development not on the map and maybe someone else will be targeted first. More upside: negotiations to raze a development usually take longer than the actual razing an old development and building a new development. We probably have several happy years ahead of us.

So yes, we are as settled as anyone in Shekou, where the landscape has been reshaped, cultural history is being rewritten, and the sands of prime real estate shift beneath our feet.