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.

Mulberry Child released!

Based on her eponymous memoir, friend Jennifer Kwong’s independent film, “Mulberry Child” is now complete! Jennifer tells how growing up during the Cultural Revolution shaped her relationship with her American daughter. Check out the trailer and be inspired.

memory work

yesterday on the bus, a large and friendly man approached me, asking, ¨do you remember me?¨

after i replied, ¨no,¨ he began to tell me all sorts of facts about me. he knew where i had gone to graduate school, he knew my previous research topics, he knew my husband´s name, and yes, he had seen that long ago sztv documentary about the two of us.

¨don´t you remember me?¨ he asked again.

i tried, ¨i´m old and tired,¨ but he was not assuaged. so i assured him that i believed we had met.

¨you lived in chaoxi lou,¨ he said confidently.

over fifteen years ago, i lived in chaoxi lou for less than two months. and we met then?!

¨yes,¨ he continued happily. ¨i was a student and you were fatter and older looking. in fact, you´ve changed so much i wasn´t sure it was you. i wanted to hear your opinions about taiwan because you had lived there.¨

humbling, this unexpected encounter because suddenly i´m thinking about all those i have forgotten. how much of my life is being carried around in the hearts of others?

uncanny, this encounter because i´m also wondering how many of the defining moments of my life only live in me?

all those fragments of encounter that i have enshrined in my heart were enshrined as dialogues and exchanges, but maybe they´re only bits and pieces of my selective unconscious at work. maybe nothing occurred as i recall. indeed, i have no way of confirming the reliability of my memories and by extension, the person i claim to have been and therefore have become, today.

additional upside to this encounter? i won´t forget him again…

shenzhener identity, reconsidered

This post about razed Shenzhen childhoods is inspired by an ongoing conversations with Melissa and several other post-80 young women (80后女性).

Melissa came to Shekou in the early 80s, attending elementary and middle school before going abroad. As I have indicated in other posts, Old Shekou and Old Shenzheners were different. Melissa was part of the Old Shekou group, those who came with China Merchants to establish the Shekou Industrial Zone between the years 1978 to 1988 (the year of the Shekou Tempest). In contrast, “Old Shenzheners” were those who came to build Shenzhen in the early 80s, when “Shenzhen” referred to the area from the Dongmen commercial area to the Shanghai hotel (at the western border of Huaqiangbei).

To paraphrase Gregory Bateson, the differences between an Old Shekou family and an Old Shenzhen were differences that have made for different lives. Melissa’s story is that of growing up with the Shekou spirit, which was progressive and liberal. I have written much about Shekou because Old Shekou people hoped to build a new society and it was, if anywhere in was in Shenzhen, Utopian. In contrast, Old Shenzhen (especially through Liang Xiang) has been more explicitly associated with the rise of the city’s explicitly materialist cultural.

Nevertheless, despite the opposing ideological significance of 80s Shekou and Shenzhen, I’ve spoken to several young post 80s women with similar life histories – came with parents to Shenzhen / Shekou in the 1980s, read books in parks, went for walks along the beach, enjoyed the city’s clean environment and small population, and did a lot of studying in high school before leaving for college (either abroad or Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou).

Interestingly, all speak of the same 近乡情怯 experience, which seems to have started as an inarticulate feeling toward the end of the 1990s and has grown into an expressed and discussed sentiment in the new millennium. The Shekou / Shenzhen that they remember are very different from the contemporary city. Shekou in particular has become a vexed symbol of past dreams. Today, Shekou is relatively backward, but more importantly has been absorbed into the surging mass of urban Shenzhen. At the same time, the city’s parks are smaller and more exotic (how many imported palm trees does one city need?), the skies are grayer, and the streets are now considered unruly enough that families don’t feel comfortable allowing middle school daughters to wander off by themselves. In other words, these post 80s women, whether they still live in Shenzhen or elsewhere, speak of a growing alienation from the city.

Ironically, their’s is precisely the generation that many once predicted as who would be true “Shenzheners” – people who identified with the city, rather than with their hometowns. People who would have an unproblematic relationship to Shenzhen as their “hometown”. This was in fact the generation for whom the city was built. Continue reading

mirror, mirror – thoughts for the new year

I have been a curious lightening rod for Sino-American perceptions of each other, especially with respect to the meaning and importance of Shenzhen in all this global restructuring. I have confounded gendered stereotypes because my body signifies an elite position within global hierarchies. As a white, upper middle class American woman, I have been expected to enjoy and choose from the best that the world offers, which is apparently not to be found in Shenzhen. Or if in Shenzhen, I have been expected to stay only for the time it would take to complete a project and then return to where I belong. This past trip to the US, I discovered that my life choices had become mainstream in profound and (often) distressing ways.

The first time I went to China (1995), I stayed three years before I returned to the US. My ability to speak Chinese and decision to study cultural transformation in Shenzhen (rather than Beijing or perhaps Shanghai) shocked most inhabitants. Indeed, they consistently urged me to head north to conduct valuable research. More tellingly, when I went shopping or stopped at a telephone kiosk, venders and recent migrants (even from Beijing and Shanghai) frequently mistook me for either (a) English by way of Hong Kong or (b) Russian by way Window of the World. Once they realized that I was actually American, the same vendors immediately proposed that Yang Qian was (in order of plausibility): Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Singaporean, and Hong Kongese. Only with great reluctance (and then disturbingly cheerful surprise), they said, “You’re Mainland Chinese!!!” At which point, they asked where we had met in America. 

Once I started making annual trips back to the US, however, I realized that my decisions to live and study in Shenzhen were equally shocking to mainstream Americans, who had not heard of the SEZ, its importance in reforming Chinese society, or the scale of what was happening just north of Hong Kong. When I was in West Lafayette, IN, pursuing a Master’s at Purdue (circa 1990), an undergraduate student asked me what the point of studying Chinese was if I couldn’t use it to find a job. Indeed, as late as Spring 2000, members of a job selection committee at a liberal arts college asked me, “What’s so international about Shenzhen?” and then hired someone who studied urban life in Beijing.

The past five years, I have noted how more and more young international professionals are coming to Shenzhen – to work, to invest, to conduct research, and to create art. In Shenzhen, I am no longer strange, but an expected feature of the urban fabric: the foreign investor / English teacher, and also the foreign intellectual, who now appears regularly in Shenzhen’s many international events. Only in conversation, do I still manage to surprise Chinese interlocutors. Likewise, this trip, several incidents suggest how deeply aware not only of China, but also Shenzhen my U.S. family and friends have become. In Seattle, Natasha’s five-year old daughter, Roman is studying Chinese in an immersion program and could speak and write some Chinese. Meanwhile, Natasha and I brainstormed possible collaborations in Shenzhen. On the plane from Seattle to Houston, we met a young college graduate, who chatted in Beijing accented Mandarin and was constructing a multi-national life.  In Southern Pines, NC, my two-year old nephew, Emanuelle watches Nihao Kailan and enjoys saying xiexie

And yet. All this mainstreaming seems to be quickly congealing into stereotypes that perpetuate the kinds of ignorance that shaped early perceptions of my presence in Shenzhen. Most Chinese and Americans continue to believe that (a) the US offers a better life than China and that (b) the only reason one would go to and remain in Shenzhen is to become rich. The most glaring example of this kind of thinking is that those in positions to deny visas (to me in Shenzhen) and entry into the US (YQ when we come back) continue to suspect that there is something not quite right about a mixed couple, who have chosen to live in Shenzhen (rather than, for example, West Lafayette, IN). And yes, they act on these impressions. I am still not eligible for a Chinese green card because eligibility is based on investment or Chinese blood, rather than marriage. Immigration officers still bully YQ when we enter the US because we have chosen to create a life in Shenzhen.

All this to say that China and Shenzhen seem to have been mainstreamed in ways that conform low expectations – get in, make a buck, get out, rather than in ways that might encourage new ways of being global citizens. Moreover, all these bucks continue to sustain illusions of American supremacy, not only because more and more of China’s young elites bring their dreams, talents, and money to the US, but also because many who go to Shenzhen do so looking (and therefore) only finding economic opportunity. Thus, both US and Chinese officials continue to read YS and my lack of visible economic progress as suspicious activity.

I’m happy my nephew can say xiexie. I wish he was also being taught that the appropriate form of courtesy is to jiaoren – to call older people ayi and shushu, or nainai and yeye and that too many xiexies often seem overly formal (at best) or sarcastic in Mandarin contexts. Such are my thoughts as we enter the Year of the Tiger.

Hear me roar.

深大南区:the map is not the territory


the map

Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

Once upon a time, this territory was ocean. There were oyster farms and fishing boats. And the people who lived here had single story homes that came to represent the poverty that these maps and plans would end.

The effort it takes to force territories into maps pulses through each inch of the houhai land reclamation area. Lines imagined elsewhere are being bulldozed, pounded, and moulded into six-lane highways and ten-lane expressways. Beside these roads climb glass buildings and residential developments with exotic gardens – palm trees, English grass, a goldfish pond, which is drained and cleaned once a month.

This is the territory – unmapped, but not unsung: Beneath the grey sky and rising walls of a high-tech research compound, a woman washes vinyl advertizing sheets for indigent tenting, paths veer in hidden enclaves that serve as public toilets, and a child plays on a piece of flatboard that has been placed protectively on top the mud.

Shenzhen’s poor are poorer than they were 15 years ago, when squatters had enough space and privacy to build small shelters beneath the lychee orchards that have also been imaginatively disappeared.

May the new year bring new possibilities.

of memories and the public sphere

This is a longer version of a response to Elliong Ng’s post on Sensitive Anniversary, Edited Memories, which takes up the Peking Duck’s lament:

I find it heartbreaking that here, in what 20 years ago was the vortex where it all took place, there remains in the minds of the young no image of the men and women who died in the crackdown, no stories of the bravery or even of the daily turn of events, the “Goddess of Democracy,” the sort-of hunger strikes, the meeting of Wu’er Kaixi wearing his pajamas with Li Peng, etc. Instead, it’s basically a void, interrupted with a few government talking points and state-issued photos, like those of pre-”Liberation” Tibetan serfs with their limbs hacked off by evil landowners. And I say, What can I do? And I answer, Write it down, and do your tiny, microscopic bit to keep the memory alive.

I think the question of what older people want the next generation to know and how we want them to know are interesting questions because there are important differences between establishing and nourishing a vital public sphere and sharing memories with our children and their friends. Most of us reminice with people our own age, rather than with those of us younger than ourselves. In contrast, we rely on social institutions to teach some version of history – schools, the news media, paperback novels, and hope that our children and their friends will come to some understanding of events. Continue reading