old haunts

In the mid-1990s, when Nanshan District launched “Cultural Nanshan” most events were held in or around the Nanshan Cultural-Sports Center (南山文体中心), which included a sculpture museum and the Red Earth Cafe and Bar, where Zero Sun Moon, an early incarnation of Fat Bird first performed. The design and scale of the Cultural-Sports Center reflected early Shenzhen values; it was three stories high, had an outdoor stage for Everybody Happy (大家乐video) events, and small, cultural entrepreneurs rented rooms. I remember walking two-lane boulevards to use the computers at one of those shops, as well as playing go at the weiqi and western chess club.

Located diagonally across the street from the Cultural-Sports Center, the Nanshan Library was finished in time for the Handover and signaled the area’s future designs. Beijing sculptor, Bao Pao collected discarded metal and sutured it together to make the Library’s fence, which still stands. However, the Cultural Center crumbled where it stood until 2009, when Nanshan District approved an 800 million (8亿) budget to build a landmark building on the site. By this time, of course, the Coastal City mall was already open and the abutting Tianli and Poly Center Malls were nearing completion in anticipation of the Universiade. The point is that this area of upscale consumption is now called “the Nanshan Cultural Center” and the Nanshan Cultural Sports Center has been demoted to a bus station even though that’s where all the cultural infrastructure was / is being built.

Below, pictures from a walk around the Nanshan Cultural Sports Center block. Of note, Nanshan District’s neo-Confucian propaganda, the remnants of Old Nanshan, and the neoliberalization of the cityscape, including a high-concept Marriage Registration Bureau Hall and shopping plaza. Also, there will be a diamond market just around the corner.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Impressions of the differences between Nantou and neighboring villages

Guankou and Yijia Villages are located just outside the Nantou Old Town Arch and revamped walking museumon by way othe Shennan Road – Nanxin Road pedestrian overpass. The villages abut each other along the old, narrow road, which used to run parallel to Yuehai Bay and connected Nantou to Shekou. Guankou and Yijia are slated for renovation at some point in the future. In the meantime, they are “just places where poor people live” as someone said to me, indicating disapproval of my photo-walk through the two neighborhoods.

Guankou and Yijia interest me because the village architecture is actually older than much found in the Nantou Old Town walking museum. Many Nantou residents built handshake buildings before the area was designated for historic preservation. Consequently, what remains in Nantou are handshake and factory buildings from the early 1990s, as well as particular buildings that had been designated historic landmarks. In contrast, the old centers of Guankou and Yijia were untouched during the 1990s village building spree and littered (and I use the word deliberately) with all sorts of old and interesting buildings.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Now, inquiring minds may wonder: why is Nantou, the imperial capital of the area with a 1,000 year history gutted of historical architecture (except in the renovating) and Guankou and Yijia not? Continue reading

imported greenspace, clear skies, and sun

clear skies have returned and shenzhen shimmers, entices actually. when the horizon opens, walking settles the heart and has me thinking that we need sustainable worlds for no other reason than the joy they bring; smog discourages in all senses of the word.

yesterday, i wandered through some of the universiade greenspace/ coverage to prevent visitors from seeing nearby construction sites and noticed, once again, the extent to which the city and developers have taken to importing foliage to create beautiful spaces. the (malaysian, i believe – if you know please tell me) trees grow here. and yet. bringing this foliage requires uprooting other landscapes, burning fossil fuels, and (in houhai) filling in coastal waters with imported soil. moreover, these high end landscapes do not flourish without extensive care, so that this beauty remains entangled not only in unnecessary, but also unsustainable inequalities.

shenzhen is not the only city importing foliage in order to make a more perfect world. certainly los angeles and las vegas have set the global standard for transplanting eden. and perhaps that’s the point. in our rush to build a perfect world, we fail to realize we’re already there.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

coastline developments

Walked several of the new Houhai Land Reclamation Area (map – the big red area) developments this morning — each more luxurious than the last, each laying claim to the shifting coastline:  Golden Sea, Morning Sunlight, Shenzhen Bay #1. Nanshan District aims to build a new Central (中环), modeled on its Hong Kong namesake in the fill. I found a conch shell, two oyster shells, broken glass and a riverwalk that extended the Shahe River through the central area of reclaimed land, but never reached the sea. It’s all become marketable views. . .

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Sunday afternoon in Baishizhou – sunlight, children playing, and fresh markets.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

shenzhen administrative structure

I’ve been making charts to organize my thinking. Below is an organizational chart of Shenzhen, circa 2010.

Also, a simplified version of the organizational relationship between the Central government and local governments. Guangdong is the provincial local; Shenzhen is a sub-provincial city, however, as an SEZ, Shenzhen has all sorts of legal privileges that provinces and direct cities do not.

educational experimentation in shenzhen

For many years, I have noted the extent to which education has been closed off from the forms of social experimentation that characterize other aspects of Shenzhen society. Shenzhen was first to reform the danwei system, housing allocation, and even hukou laws. However, education has rigidly conformed to national standards — curriculum, methods, and goals, all have reflected national values and goals. When there has been experimentation, it has taken the form of international education — importing extant curriculums, such as the A-levels or American programs, rather than re-inventing Chinese schools. Even University Town (深圳大学城), which provides graduate education and research facilities has developed within a more standard academic model.

Yesterday, the opening ceremony of Southern Institute of Technology (南方科技大学) indicated a willingness on the part of both the national and municipal governments to invest in the search for new pedagogies. Differences with traditional colleges include: (1) size: SIT will offer small scale undergraduate education. The first class has only 45 students; next year, SIT will take in a class of 150, building until a cap of 400 students per class year. (2) recruitment: SIT recruits students through individual application rather than through the gaokao. (3) evaluation and graduation requirements: SIT has hired top academics to design classes and determine what course content should be. Moreover, at the level of specialization, students will be given the opportunity to design their own major. This is significantly different from the national standard, where undergraduate programs still reflect national standards. Moreover, there is little opportunity for students to study outside their major, let alone design their own. (4) residential dorms with house parents / teachers. SIT hopes to encourage a more familial atmosphere in its dorms and to provide life counseling for students as they adapt to academic life. Indeed, to my American eyes, SIT seems more like a liberal arts college than it does a university — Harvey Mudd, rather than a tradition technological institute like Qinghua or Cal Tech.

Four years to see what happens, at which point, presumably more cities and colleges will be given the opportunity to reform Chinese higher education.


Gregory Bateson helped me learn to think about how human beings engage in (ultimately) self-destructive forms of competitive growth; Wendall Berry continues to inspire how I think about rural urbanization under capitalism.

Bateson provided a theory of schismogenesis or “vicious circle,” in which our behavior provokes a reaction in another, whose reaction, in turn, stimulates us to intensify our response. According to Bateson, schismogenesis comes in two flavors: symmetrical and complementary. Symmetrical relationships are those in which the two parties are equals, competitors, such as in sports. Complementary relationships feature an unequal balance, such as dominance-submission (parent-child), or exhibitionism-spectatorship (performer-audience). The point, of course, is that unless there is an agreed upon limit to the development of provocation and response, the relationship just keeps going until it hits a natural limit – collapse of the relationship because neither side can continue to meet and exceed the other’s call.

Berry teaches that one of the more deadly tendencies in capitalist urbanization in the United States is to turn all of us, eventually, into Native Americans. On Berry’s reading, the basic structure of American life was to eradicate the people and lifeways of Native Americans and then to replace those people and lifeways with settler capitalism. Importantly, this model of a settled community being replaced by the next, more intensive form of capitalist production both established the rhythm of American development and has become a powerful symbol of how generations of Americans have justified our destruction of people and lifeways in favor of more efficient and valuable forms of life. Importantly, efficient and valuable are defined in terms of profit. Thus, industrial, mass agriculture replace the settlers that had replaced the Native Americans; smart technologies and production are offered as the solution to problems of rustbelt withering.

How have Bateson and Berry shaped my understanding of Shenzhen?

Shenzhen all too clearly grows through an amazing range and diverse levels of complementary schismogenesis. Within Shenzhen, villages, neighborhoods, districts, and municipal ministries all engage in compete for competitive advantage; at the same time, Shenzhen as a city competes with all other cities in the PRD as well as internationally.  In this system, the function of urban planning is contradictory. On the one hand, the Municipal government needs to stimulate competition so that the city can respond to development in Guangdong, China, and the world. On the other hand, the Municipal government also needs to set limits – usually in the form of social goods, such as parks, schools, and hospitals – on how far development can encroach on the people’s quality of life.

Moreover, as Berry noted, the pattern of the first razing and replacement sets the rhythm and symbolic lexicon for understanding capitalist schismogenesis. The problem in Shenzhen is that eventually, we all become locals, our homes and lifeways replaced by more capitalist intensive forms of consumption (increasingly high maintenance housing) and production (higher value added production).

The result has been the ongoing production of rubble. Villages go. 80s housing goes. 90s residences are going. And as in the United States, postmodern nostalgia has become one of the forms that middle class resignation to this fate takes. The poor occupy the rubble until they are moved elsewhere. Images below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

thoughts on the culture of commerce

information about the shenzhen bay fringe festival is now online. the dates are december 4-12, 2010. there will be events everyday at the nanshan culture center, which is in fact the string of malls that run from baoli in the east through coastal city over houhai road to nanshan book city. and yes, the conflation of “culture” with “commerce” is both strategic and unfortunate. strategic because commerce is the way shenzhen artists step around politically sensitive questions. unfortunate because most shenzhen residents do not see interesting frissions between commerce and culture.

the hopeful aspect of commerce as culture is that what starts out as a strategy to introduce shenzhen residents to a wider variety of cultural forms may pry open an alternative space within the relentless commercialism of the area. the more distressing aspect, of course, is that the commercialism is relentless and, for many, an unquestioned good precisely because of its alliance with culture, especially, education. after all, commercialized shenzhen art remains primarily a means of earning additional gaokao points, even when a student actually enjoys music or painting or the ballet. for adults, art is a hobby.

the shenzhen conflation of commerce and culture is not unlike the american confusion of freedom to purchase with human emancipation. we buy sniper dolls for our daughters and do not question the principles organizing our toy stores (why dolls? why plastic bullets? why do we differentiate between children based on what their parents can and cannot afford?) and yes, this confusion annoys me; on bad days, i end up snapping at mothers who have done nothing more than ask if their daughters can earn alot of money if they go to the right colleges. (i haven’t recently taken out my frustration on americans because i left the country. next trip home i’m sure i’ll be snapping with the best of the turtles. sigh.)

come anyway. be the fissure that cracks open our hearts.