Sometimes, I walk through older sections of the city, and I try to remember what it felt like the first time I walked there. Or, if I can’t track my emotional memories, I try to remember what this place used to look like. Who was here? What were they doing? Did I take pictures or take notes and if not, where has it all gone?Continue reading
“Cut and Pastiche” has played with the logic of montage in order to tease out the experiences and logics that comprised the Special Zone. Montage helps us understand the process because “Shenzhen” comprises diverse elements–factories and work units, migrants and locals, tradition and IT, brackish water and containers–which were already in the world, but needed to be reorganized in order for China to achieve its goal to modernize. Quickly.
The Myriad Transformations comprises sixty-four images that I created using photographs taken between 2002 and 2010. These dates are arbitrary but not random, marking the purchase of my first digital camera (August 2002) and the decision to my rudimentary photoshop skills to create a project to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (during an artist residency at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, December 2008-January 2009). I finished the images in 2010. In the process of saving and transferring these files to smaller drives with larger storage capacity, many of the original photoshop files were lost. What remains as a complete set are the files I created to print photographs of the images in 2011 or 2012. I reopened one of these files in January 2019 and realized they were more interesting in retrospect than they had been when I made them precisely because over the past decade (2010-2020), Shenzhen has re-invented itself yet again, and suddenly, abruptly, we see the latent structure of today in images that once upon a time seemed definitive, eternal even. Continue reading
Here’s the thing about the retreat of manufacturing from the townships and villages of the Pearl River Delta; these areas have urbanized, migrants have settled in and are raising families, but as the low-end jobs and shops that once sustained local and migrant communities follow the factories elsewhere, these neighborhoods are withering. Consider, for example, the older section of Dongguan–莞城, which only twenty years ago was a vibrant community and today is an abandoned reminder of the area’s complicated history with Ming pirates and British opium, its deep relationships with the late Qing Chinese diaspora, and the Pearl River Delta’s urban village origins. Old Dongguan has become a focus of concern for urban planners and concerned citizens: how to revitalize an “old street” that is no longer viable, but sits on prime real estate, or more precisely, inquiring minds want to know: to raze or not to raze historic areas and landmark buildings? Continue reading
Its difficult when looking at a map of the proposed Belt and Road and not associate the maritime road with British colonialism, albeit in reverse and more than a century after the fact. But that’s what’s so distressing. When the British parliament dissolved the East India Company (EIC), it did not dismantle the systems of unjust and unjustifiable extraction that EIC had put in place over roughly four centuries of occupation, exploitation, and forced participation in the system. Instead, independence movements saw the rise of local elites who were determined to benefit from the system, justifying their profits with respect to local values and structures of oppression. In other words, it was never just the Brits, but also the Brits and their local running dogs (to use Mao Zedong’s felicitous phrase) and even after Independence, the dogs kept yapping, securing military support from the US and elsewhere (for the distressing tale of the fate of the Third World as a revolutionary ideal, check out The Darker Nations by Vijay Prashad).
The problem, of course, was that the profitability of the British system depended on opium; where would surplus profits (to fund industrialization, for example) come from without monopoly, forced labor, and addiction? Certainly, once India regained control of the Bihar plantations and China retook its ports, both countries were faced with the problem of “surpassing England and catching up with the United States” in the absence of captive markets and a drug monopoly to finance their industrial revolutions. And this may be why Europeans and US Americans fear the Belt and Road: if you’re not a running dog with Chinese characteristics, just what are your options in the new world dis/order (and yes, I’m looking at you, midwestern farmer)?
Friday afternoon, March 23, 2018, we walked Mehrauli. During our pre-walk briefing, Rohit Negi explained that Delhi’s urban villages were historic settlements engulfed by the expanding city; urban villages have allowed for migrants to take up residence in Delhi without receiving full municipal services. As in Shenzhen, the so-called urban village in Delhi is an artifact of legal loopholes—a space of exception that allows for flexible responses to the social problems endemic to global enclaves. Low-income housing is the most obvious fix, but Delhi urban villages also resolve such problems as food distribution, mom & pop entrepreneurialism, and medical care. As in Nantou and Shajing, Dongmen and Shenzhen’s middling enclaves on its outer district metro lines, in the urban villages of Delhi farmers have urbanized their settlements without explicit authorization by the state. In the contemporary Franken-city, the urban village exists at the whim of the government which can (in both Dehli and Shenzhen) use illegality as the excuse for expropriating land, evicting tenants, and masterplanning the city. Continue reading
Jonathan BACH opened our three-day workshop “Informal Plans, Planned Informality: Shenzhen as Model and Field” with the observation that our goal is not to map the borders between the proper city and its others, but rather to track the (slightly inflammatory, a bit delirious) algorithms that constantly produce those borders, which in turn keep re-producing the city. What does it mean, we ask, to document uncertainty?
“Shenzhen Speed” has become a catchphrase amongst urban planners and journalists, makers and ordinary citizens to describe the transformation of Bao’an County into Shenzhen Municipality. In less than forty years, highways have replaced lychee orchards, high-rises have replaced oyster fields, and wi-fi has become as common as coffee shops and fast fashion. Boom!
Here’s the thing: the speed of historical transformation may be blinding us to how quickly we’re forgetting how we got here. Continue reading
Folks interested in high density living in Shenzhen’s urban villages have been creating some great images about how space works across different scales. Below, a sampling from around the globe. Follow links to reports.
A five-part essay, “Laying Siege to the Villages” has been published online at Open Democracy. Here’s part two on the Nantou Peninsula.
2. Concentric Occupations: Nantou Peninsula
The built environment of Shenzhen urban villages references three historic moments – late Qing and Nationalist-era rural society, Maoist collectivization, and post Mao reforms. Spatially, this history has been expressed as concentric occupations, with the oldest sections being first appropriated and then surrounded by newer developments. In turn, older settlements have been downgraded and converted into low-income neighborhoods. Locally, this process has been called, “cities surround the countryside”, which not only resonates ironically in post Mao China, but also identifies poverty with rural status. Maoist theory and practice had identified cities with all that was foreign and reactionary, and villages with all that was truly national and revolutionary. In contrast, the elevation of Bao’an County to Shenzhen Municipality began the administrative transvaluation of the rural-urban relations, which was formalized in 1982 Chinese Constitution.
Over 1,000 years ago, salt fields were developed in the Shenzhen-Hong Kong area, and the yamen for the local salt intendant was located on the Nantou Peninsula. The area was also famous for its oyster and pearl production. The peninsula provided protected harbors and access to Guangzhou via the Pearl River. During the Ming dynasty, the Shenzhen-Hong Kong area was called Xin’an County and Nantou City was designated its County Seat. Located on the southeastern banks of the Pearl River, Xin’an was historically poorer than the counties on the eastern banks. Nevertheless, the harbors of the Pearl River’s eastern coastline were significantly deeper than those on the western coastline. Consequently, Chinese maritime access to the South China Sea traditionally went through Humen (in neighboring Dongguan) and Nantou. Indeed, Zheng He’s fleet stopped at the Tianhou Temple in Chiwan Harbor on their voyages of exploration (1405-1433), which took the Ming explorer as far as Africa. After the Ming ban on ocean travel made it possible for pirates to control the South China Sea, Guangzhou remained the southern gate to China and the ports on the eastern coast of the Pearl River became even more coveted by international traders (map 2).
Map 2: Xin’an County Seat in the Reign of the Kangxi Emperor (1661-1722)
By the late 18th Century, Guangzhou had not only become and important financial center, but also the center of opium trade. The first Opium War ignited when Lin Zexu dumped the opium stocks of British traders in the Pearl River. In turn, the traders successfully pressured the British government to use military means to secure compensation for their losses. China’s defeat in the Opium Wars resulted in British colonialization of southern Xin’an, including Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories. The Sino-British border was drawn along the Shenzhen River and passed just south of Shenzhen Market (map 3). The laying of the Kowloon-Canton Railway in 1913 further shifted the flow of goods and people toward Hong Kong and away from Nantou. Small-scale trade between settlements on the Pearl River continued, although Nantou no longer played a dominant role in the regional political-economy. Instead, Shenzhen Market, the first station on the Chinese side of the KCR became the political and economic center of Xin’an County, which was renamed Bao’an at the start of the Nationalist era.
Map 3: Riparian Trade Routes, Nantou City, and British Incursions
In fact, the establishment of Shenzhen explicitly invoked colonial history, making the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty one of the key political impulses behind economic liberalization. Maoist modernization of Nantou, for example, included a two-lane road (today known as New South Road), which was laid parallel to the ancient South Gate Road and connected the peninsula villages to the national railroad and highway system. In the post Mao-era, however, state investment has aimed to urbanize the area, rather than to integrate rural settlements into the state apparatus. Land reclamation of Pearl River coastline gives the clearest indication of the scale and ambition of these plans – replacing Hong Kong and possibly even Guangzhou in the global organization of South China trade.
The reform-era transformation of the Nantou Peninsula illustrates the broad contours and social contradictions that have characterized “cities surround the countryside”. During the Ming Dynasty, a pounded earth wall enclosed Nantou, but by the time of the first Opium War, the wall had crumbled into disuse and only the southern and eastern gates still stood. A road stretched from the decrepit Southern Gate and along the coast of the Pearl River to Nanshan Village, which was located at the foot of Nanshan Mountain. Between Nantou Old City and Nanshan Village six villages – Guankou, Yongxia, Tianxia, Xiangnan, Beitou, and Nanyuan – claimed land that included access to the Pearl River, a portion of South Gate Road that they identified as Village Main Street, and farmlands that extended inland. However, through land reclamation and the emplacement of a grid of four- and six-lane roads, such as Qianhai Thoroughfare, Shenzhen’s rural origins have been surrounded and isolated South Gate Street neighborhoods from the larger city (map 4).
Map 4: Cities Surround the Countryside: The Nantou Peninsula