qingming ramblings

It’s grave sweeping day, and the streets were empty. So my friend and I headed out to the Fenghuang Mountain Fenyan Ancient Temple. Neither of us have been and we were curious. However, it turns out that we couldn’t get into the temple because there were too many people burning incense and all traffic was being redirected. In the middle of the only traffic jam we encountered all day (including on Guangdong 107), I jumped out of the car and took a picture of the old pagoda at the Wen Tianxiang memorial; handshakes, many, many, many migrant workers, and a touch of something ancient. My friend mentioned that during the Cultural Revolution, they were only allowed to sweep the graves of revolutionary martyrs; no sweeping family graves. Today, however, although workers had the day off, most could not go home and so they had gone to the temple or to walk the mountain paths. Then, because we couldn’t find a parking spot from which to visit either the completely restored ancient village or the temple, we headed back to guannei. On our way to Shekou, we passed the former site of the Nanyou Building; once upon a time was an important landmark but is now a building site. We reminisced about how narrow and small Nanshan and Shekou used to be, as we approached the recently erected sign for the Shekou and Qianhai Free Trade Zone at the border between Shekou and Nanshan. Reading the sign, I realized that Shekou-Qianhai is not precisely a free trade zone, but rather a pilot free trade zone, which sounds ominously unstable, with the possibility of expanding or retracting at any moment. Ramble. Ramble. Ramble.

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al fresco and imported greens

al fresco

Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

last night, we returned to a very old haunt–the nanyou food street, which used to be a thriving world of al fresco seafood, sichuan hot pot, and the odd miao restaurants. today, the street still bustles, but in a crumbling, obviously down-graded kind of way. it’s interesting to note that chains have moved in where independent restaurants used to be, while several spaces have been consolidated into larger restaurants, and rennovations were under way for another mega-restaurant.

for years, shenzhen has been actively upgrading its image by removing al fresco restaurants and other small, independent stores that used to spill onto the uneven sidewalks. all this grooming has resulted in neat, straight, clean streets that cut through beautifully tend and imported topiary–we are overwelmed by palm trees, where the restaurants and stores and kiosks used to be. the restaurants, of course, have (been) moved indoors, where air-conditioning, private rooms, and stylish chairs allow people to not only dine in comfort, but also eat in environments where open-toed high heals and business suits can be kept clean. after all, one of the downsides to al fresco dining is the grime that accumulates under the grill, between the tables, and in street gutters.

so, clear stratification under way in terms of unique dining experiences for those with money and increasingly mass produced for those with less. indeed, it is noticible that the al fresco restaurants continue to thrive in working class and older neighborhoods, while in more middle class neighborhoods (and those that have been subjected to beautification projects), the restaurants are all tucked away behind glass doors. unfortunately, for small restaurants, this layout is not comfortable. given the noise and proximity of fellow dinners in a successful chinese restaurant, big is better if you don’t have the sidewalk. thus, more fallout from the street-cleaning: larger, high capital restaurants do better in middle-class areas because they can provide a better dinning environment, while opportunities for low capital food entrepreneurs diminish.

yes, i am waxing nostalgic for old shenzhen, the shenzhen that friends once derided as “nothing more than a small town,” the shenzhen where al fresco dining was the norm, where workers and employees both jostled for tables under magnolia trees along uneven streets, and where cargo trucks rushed past, spewing carbon monoxide into our drinks.

南油文化广场:urban facelife, rural fairs

nanyou cultural plaza

the nanyou cultural plaza, like most shenzhen cultural centers was built to promote high culture. however nanyou, like most shenzhen governments doesn’t actually budget all that much money for cultural production, instead requiring that center or plaza administrators capitalize on the space to keep it running. most cultural centers have achieved this by showing movies and renting space for cultural consumption (weiqi clubs, dance lessons, and martial arts instruction, for example).

the success of a cultural center depends on access–in all senses of the word–to the center. many village level cultural centers are in fact quite active because they not only target their cultural production to villagers and migrant workers, who (as rural people) share similar cultural tastes, but also are located within walking distance of most of their patrons. in contrast, street level centers, like nanyou, have to mediate between rural and urban tastes, which don’t really overlap, making it difficult to build a cultural community. consequently, these centers depend upon public transportation and private cars to bring their patrons to them.

the construction of the western corridor bridge has compounded nanyou’s economic difficulties because the street in front of the plaza has been under construction for over two years now. although the nanyou cultural plaza continues to screen movies, the entire space has been rented out to mom and pop vendors, who have transformed the space into a market for the many migrant workers who live nearby.

about five years ago, the area around nanyou was a thriving restaurant district that catered to urban white-collar workers. most of those restaurants (including macdonald’s) have moved out, replaced by small eateries and street level grills. five years ago, there were also villas and upscale residential complexes in this area. these are now being rebuilt, in anticipation of the opening of the western corridor bridge, when nanyou will again and perhaps as suddenly change character, becoming prime real estate for those commuting from western shenzhen to hong kong.

for a sense of how migrant workers occupy shenzhen spaces, please visit nanyou.

improvements, again

temporary roadblock, nanyou

just when i thought it was safe to wear sandals, shenzhen embarked on a project to upgrade city sidewalks, ripping up roads that had been set only a few years previously. so once again, as the city improves its image, we pick our way through rubble and bricks, dust and exposed sewage pipes. a few photo-gripes here.