local historian, liao honglei

How we evaluate the meaning of Shenzhen’s emergence and increasing prominence, both nationally and internationally, often hinges on when we entered the SEZ maelstrom of frenzied development and nouveau riche ambition.

Local historian Liao Honglei (廖虹雷) concludes a post on the thirtieth anniversary of Shenzhen’s founding with the following words:

It’s been thirty years. I remember what thirty years in Shenzhen have given me, I also can’t forget what the thirty years before Reform and Opening left me. What has been the greatest gift of these sixty years? “Life” — two completely different lives. The first thirty years constituted a difficult, pure, honest, and bitter but not painful life; the second thirty years constituted a nervous, struggling, deep pocket, wealthy, and sweet but not optimistic life. (30年了,我记得深圳30年给我什么,也不忘改革开放前30年给我留下什么。60年给我最大的礼物是什么?“就是生活”,两种截然不同的生活。前30年是一种艰苦、清纯、扑实,苦而不痛的生活;后30年是一种紧张、拚搏、殷实、宽裕,甜而不乐观的生活。)

As a local historian, Liao Honglei is sensitive to the disparagement in phrases such as “Shenzhen was just a small fishing village” because he knows that before the SEZ, Baoan Shenzhen was not simply a “one college graduate town” or “border town with only 300,000 residents”. He remembers the first experiments with cross border culture — in the 1980s, Shenzhen made famous al fresco dining (大排档) and night markets (灯光夜市), which were local graftings of Hong Kong’s Temple Street and Western Vegetable Streets (庙街 and 西洋菜街). As well as when and how Shenzhen adopted Hong Kong protocols for the institution of joint ventures, stock issuances, and futures trading. And, of course, the language that came with this change — illegal booth owners (走鬼), settle a matter (搞掂), did you get it wrong (有没有搞错呀), bye bye (拜拜), and bury (pay for) the check (埋(买)单).

Liao Honglei’s blog, 廖虹雷博客 is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Shenzhen’s history. On the one hand, the gritty details of lived experience permeate each post, taking into account how profoundly the establishment of Shenzhen transformed Baoan lives. On the other hand, he calls for the active inclusion of pre-1980 Baoan culture and material history as the basis of any kind of Shenzhen identity. Liao Honglei is a rare Shenzhener: an organic intellectual who advocates the recognition of Baoan as one of the SEZ’s true and necessary roots. Moreover, he actually knows this history, rather than has generalized a Lingnan type past onto the territory. Thus, on his reading, Shenzhen is not just an immigrant town, but also and more importantly, a hybrid mix that has a responsibility to acknowledge and to nurture its diverse origins.