how do shenzheners map covid elsewhere?

A friend from northern China once said (and I’m paraphrasing a long ago memory of Shenzhen, circa 1995), “If you want to see Chinese culture, go to Beijing, Xi’an or Shanghai. Even Tibet has more culture than Shenzhen.”

Her pointed point was: if you’re doing cultural anthropology (and I was!), go to a Chinese city with actual culture. Even the ethnic minorities have culture. Shenzhen, not so much. In fact, she also explained that Taiwan felt more ‘Chinese’ than Shenzhen did. When asked to elaborate, she explained that in Taipei, she had been able to speak Mandarin. In contrast, in Guangdong it was difficult to find people who willingly spoke Mandarin, let alone fluently.

Of course, nearly thirty years (!!!) later, Shenzhen has come to represent China in ways that Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai do not. Moreover, Shenzhen is often held up as the most open of the first-tier four (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen). Shenzhen isn’t China’s past, my friends assure me, but its future, which is why, Shenzhen’s response to Covid-elsewhere is worth noting. How are Shenzheners positioning themselves and their city vis-a-vis perceived failures of Covid management in Shanghai?

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there are places like this in ohio, too

The contrasts between the inner and outer districts are not immediately apparent because they are not juxtaposed in space, but rather through time; you need to travel (at least an hour, more by public transportation) from center city to its outskirts in order to viscerally experience the lived differences between here and there. Indeed, most people don’t make the trip (unless they live in one of the new gated communities along the subway lines that transport young managers and clerks and secretary types to their offices, most likely in Futian, because close examination reveals all subway lines–especially the high-speed and direct lines–converge in the city’s center) and even then, most don’t venture beyond the lines and malls because, well, there’s no time (true) and less interest (all too true).

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making noodles, deskilling labor

When I was young, I heard Johnny Cash singing about John Henry–the American version of man versus machine. However, an informercial about the Shandong style noodle-bot (below) reminds us that we’re talking about the social organization and reproduction of skilled labor.  Continue reading

my white wall compulsions: paint it black (I)

On Friday, October 3 at Handshake 302, we held the first salon for My White Wall Compulsions (墙迫症), “Paint It Black”.

The artist team for the first wall comprises Liu He (刘赫) and Wu Dan (吴丹), both under 25 and both curious about art and its possible articulations with and through society. Liu He is a second generation Shenzhener, whose parents came to build the SEZ before he was born. Wu Dan came to Shenzhen last year, a first generation migrant just out of college. During their first salon, Liu He talked about his anti-inspiration for “Paint It Black”.

This past summer, Liu He took time off from work to travel to some of the less travelled neidi cities. In one of the cities, he decided to take a job at a karaoke bar in order to see what it would be like to do day work (打工). He got a job as a procurer of Karaoke Bar princesses (and at the bar where he worked, hostesses who worked private rooms were so-called). The job included a three-day training session, in which the trainer was as enthusiastic and self-determined as a multi-level marketer. And in fact it turns out that procuring worked a lot like multi-level marketing–the more young, pretty women the procurers brought in, the more money they made.

Liu He left after a few days without recruiting any young women because “he couldn’t get past the moral issue”. Of the 30+ young men who had joined him for training, 12 decided to stay and work the job. Of that twelve, three were 16 years old. According to Liu He, the trainer insisted that once he stopped worrying about ethics, he could talk to pretty women and get rich. In fact, that seems to have been the point of the training: to overcome the young men’s repugnance to pimping and replace it with self-justifying desire for money and everything it buys.

The story ignited debate about what it means to leave one’s hometown and make one’s way in the world. There were two main positions, both pulsing with anger, sadness, and faintly, despair. The younger participants wanted a more honorable way of making a living, to live in such a way that they wouldn’t have to make the kind of choice that Liu He walked away from. The older participants, especially those who had worked their way out of a rural area, expressed that young people didn’t understand what was necessary in order to secure a better life for one’s children.

These two positions took a different relationship to the young pimps. The young people saw themselves and their choices in the decision to procure princesses. The older people saw the choices they had made so that their children would be protected from making those choices. No one saw themselves as a princess, a blind spot that not only hints at how gendered inequality shapes job opportunities in China, but also how difficult it is to truly see the most oppressed. After all, the young men’s decision to pimp or not to pimp still implied some kind of agency. It would have been more difficult to focus on the conditions that make young, rural women the cheapest and most convenient labor in manufacturing and service throughout the economy, even as women are markedly absent from positions of social influence and power.

Friday, October 10 at 19:00 the conversation continues when Liu He and Wu Dan present their finished wall.

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constructing the countryside: kaihua, zhejiang

On Sept 17, I joined members of the Shenzhen based NGO, 观筑 (ATU Architectural Development Communication Center) on a one-day five village tour of Kaihua County (开化县) in Zhejiang. Kaihua is relatively underdeveloped with respect to the economic powerhouses, Hangzhou, Wenzhou, and Ningbo, which are all located in Zhejiang. With respect to Shenzhen, Kaihua like much of rural Zhejiang has been a source of migrant labor. In addition, the Shenzhen Zhejiang Merchants Association is active, and Zhejiang people to be found across the class and professional spectrum of immigrants.

The purpose of the trip was to deepen a conversation between the Kaihua Government and ATU about how to better pursue what is know as 乡村建设 (construction of the countryside). Kaihua is developing leisure tourism for families and yuppies from nearby Shanghai and Hangzhou. ATU has offered to provide a sustainable and relatively low-capital investment plan for the County.

A few notes about the trip.

1. The connection between Kaihua and Shenzhen happens at two levels. First, one of the ATU members is from Kaihua and was elementary school classmates with the current Party Secretary of Kaihua. However, the actual project will be institutionally mediated.

2. The conversation about constructing the countryside is a huge issue in Shenzhen, and taking shape in diverse forms that range from documentary film-making to the ATU project.

3. A Hong Kong professor and students provided a basic design principle for one of the villages, and it seemed the most ready for tourists seeking a leisurely rural excursion.

4. The villages aren’t obviously materially deprived because 30 years of remittances have paid for the construction of new homes. In turn, the villages seem, at first uncontextualized glance, to resemble US American Mac-mansions in an underpopulated suburb.

5. In point of fact, one of the impulses behind the leisure tourism plan is ongoing outmigration. The majority of Kaihua residents are grandparents and young children who have not yet or cannot (for whatever reasons) join their parents in one of the coastal cities.

6. One of the attractions of leisure tourism is 农家乐 (happy at the farmer’s home), where farmers provide guests with fresh, often organic meals. Kind of B&B with Chinese characteristics. As with American B&Bs, the point is a rural excursion without actual agriculture. Successful farmers now farm for themselves and their guests. Indeed, the point is to wash one’s feet and leave the paddy (洗脚上田), further marginalizing agricultural work and those who cultivate the rice, produce, and meat that we eat.

7. The villages are connected by a river and stretches of national forest, which may in time be connected through walking trails. But in the meantime, Kaihua might prove an interesting destination for folks with a motorcycle and curiosity about how the Chinese countryside is changing.

Below is a meander through five villages. The tour begins at a newly built resort in the national forest.

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the view from here…

On the face of it, this text message jokes about China’s cultural diversity:

To Beijing, the rest of the country is grassroots; to Shanghai, the rest of the country is countryside; to Guangdong, the rest of the country is poor; to Henan the rest of the country is inconsiderate; from Shandong, the rest of the country is unfair; to Jiangsu, the rest of the country is underdeveloped; to Zhejiang, the rest of the country is waiting to be developed; to Shaanxi, the rest of the country has no culture; to Xinjiang, the rest of the country is overcrowded; to Tibet, the rest of the country lacks belief.

1、北京看全国都是基层;2、上海看全国都是乡下;3、广东看全国都是穷人;4、河南看全国都缺心眼;5、山东看全国都不仗义;6、江苏看全国都欠发达;7、浙江看全国都待开发;8、陕西看全国都没文化;9、新疆看全国都太拥挤;10、西 藏看全国都没信仰。

The message, however, also suggests the geography of unequal value that structures migration to and opportunity in Shenzhen, where a migrant’s background (背景) increasingly determines opportunity. What happens, then, when instead of joking about the explicit other (grassroots, countryside, poor…), we make explicit the implied value hierarchy? Arguably, we feel the sting of a punchline:

Power is located in Beijing; sophistication is located in Shanghai; economic opportunity is located in Guangdong; traditional courtesy is located in Henan; a sense of fairness is located in Shandong; fast development is located in Jiangsu; fast development is located in Zhejiang; traditional culture is located in Shaanxi; low density population is located in Xinjiang; and belief (buddhism) is located in Tibet.

Indeed, as a straightforward list of values, the organization of the joke reproduces China’s territorial hierarchy: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou-Shenzhen (“Guangdong”), before turning to neidi (the rest of the country), where traditional values are located. In the context of the Beijing-Shanghai-Guangzhou-Shenzhen rivalry, what catches my attention is the mediating position of sophistication (“Shanghai”) between power and wealth (“Beijing” and “Guangdong”). It’s not enough to be rich, but one must also be sophisticated in order to gain a certain legitimacy. In contrast, naked power still works.

With respect to neidi, the ongoing marginalization of tradition, non-economic values, and religious belief within and against Beijing-Shanghai-Guangzhou-Shenzhen is obvious. Also of note — this marginalization is simultaneously a ruralization and a racialization of the country. We might also see these “lesser” neidi values as weapons of weak, which James C. Scott defined as those tactics available to peasants within and against urban States. The important Chinese supplement to that story is not the insight that strong States produce peasants. But rather that current patterns of modernization and development continuously reproduce “peasants” even when people no longer live agrarian lives.

Thought du jour: In Shenzhen, of course, migrants have different access to power, sophistication, and wealth. Not unexpectedly, relative access to these values determine scope and scale of a migrant’s success. However, the role of “sophistication” as mediating between “power” and “money” means that many of Shenzhen’s second generation (officials and wealthy) are pursuing educations and careers that will (in theory) position them to transcend Shenzhen’s fourth position and bootstrap into China’s higher eschalons.

So yes, the Shenzhen Dream remains remarkably “American”.

globalized footsteps, deteritorialized lives

We speak glibly of Shenzhen as a “global city” and of the importance of “globalization”, drawing attention to “economic forces” and “Chinese politics”. Indeed, these simple phrases help us manage the alienating and dissonant fallout of truly thinking about what it means that our everyday lives stretch out across networks we do not fully see and dependent upon processes we cannot predict, let alone control.

Yesterday, for example, I walked from the Shenzhen Bay Checkpoint to my house on Shekou Industry #8 Street. I passed several hundred cross-border pre-schoolers and elementary students on their way home, another Shenzhen Bay development project (north on Dongbin Road), and a clean collection plastic container to collect clothing donations for poor and/or destitute areas of the interior (neidi). Globalized footsteps indeed. Each of these events represented individual and/or collective attempts to navigate and use international and domestic borders. We can speculate on why parents might send their young children on hour-long treks from Shenzhen to Hong Kong. We can provide Marxist analysis for land reclamation and real estate development in Shenzhen Bay. We can note the rise of philanthropy as Shenzhen’s middle class solidifies its self-identity as caring for neidi communities. But at every twist of thought, the totality of what the city might or might not be, slips away and we resort to chasing the next idea that bumps awareness.

The earth feels solid. The concrete reflects south Chinese heat. The tacky red heart symbolizes an actual desire to improve the world. There is a here and now that seems reliable, until we start thinking. And then, once again, a massive, unwieldy mess of global cogitation distorts the all too ordinary edges of everyday life and we suddenly suspect that life really might be elsewhere.

Impressions, below:

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shenzhen beggars

Several days ago on the subway, a man approached me. His speech was slow, his eyes empty, and he showed me a ripped pocket where he claimed his money had been stolen. I asked him his story and he said he had been robbed and that he didn’t want to bother his parents. He said he had a job tomorrow and all he wanted to do was eat. After I gave him some money, he shuffled off the car at the next stop. My friend said that the beggar had targeted us, that he had watched me for several minutes, heard me speaking Mandarin and then decided to approach me. The implication, of course, was that I had been cheated, tricked into giving money to someone undeserving of that handout.

Here’s the rub: I don’t know what made him undeserving — the fact that he [may have] tricked me or the fact that he was working as a beggar, rather than at a “real” job, like part time journal editor, such as myself. I do know that I had a visceral response to my friend’s comment — I wanted to prove that I could tell the difference between those deserving and those undeserving of charity.

Financially, it wasn’t as if the money I gave him could actually buy all that much. As I pointed out to my friend, if I were to forego one 500 rmb meal a month, I could give 2 rmb to every beggar I encounter and still save money each month. What’s more, when I take the time to prepare a pocketful of 1 rmb coins and bills, giving to beggars is a straightforward opportunity to practice generosity in my daily life. So why the resistance to giving?

At the time my friend pointed out that I had probably been targeted, I felt ashamed and tried to defend myself. I argued that I would rather risk being tricked by 99 rather than missing the chance to help the one in need. But, I didn’t give enough to actually change the beggar’s life — only he could do that. In retrospect, I’m wondering about my responses –first to the beggar (I wanted to give) and then to my friend (I didn’t want to appear a dupe). I have realized that I made the encounter all about me, rather than trying to figure out what might be an appropriate response.

Almost twenty years now, I have watched the Shenzhen poor grow both relatively and absolutely poorer. On the one hand, most people in Shenzhen have access to jobs and living conditions that they would not have in neidi cities and rural areas. On the other hand, economic polarization grows as quickly as the city. And many businessmen complain that monthly factory wages have risen to “as much” as 2,500 rmb (approximately $US 400.00), which is less than the price of most high-end electronics. And this change has left moral confusion and self-doubt in its wake: what if there isn’t an appropriate response to poverty that is a result of the change? What if all that remains is witnessing the fallout, both socially and in one’s heart?

aging in tangtou, baishizhou

This past week I have been listening to stories from the residents of the Tangtou row houses. Here is one:

Old Xu was born on November 12, 1945. In neidi, he was an accountant on a production team and then for the village enterprise.  After the redistribution of land during the household responsibility system, he and his wife did not receive enough land to farm cotton profitably. Consequently, his three children left to work elsewhere and the land has gone fallow except for a small vegetable plot.

Two years ago, Old Xu came to Shenzhen at the age of 65 because he did not want to burden his children with the cost of his retirement. His wife continues to live back home, taking care of their grandchild.His pension is only 30 or 40 rmb a month. Together, he and his wife need 20,000 rmb annually, or about 1,700 a month to meet their expenses. In Baishizhou, he makes a living collecting and reselling cardboard boxes and other garbage. He says he can save money this way because although there’s no real profit, he makes enough to support himself and to bring a little home for Chinese New Year.

At present Old Xu lives with two other old men in one of the 25+ square meter houses. This house is one of the cheaper in the settlement, with a rent of about 600 rmb a month plus water and electricity. His share is 200 rmb a month, or roughly 5 times his retirement pension back home. A bathroom has been added to the outside of the building. Inside, the space has been divided for sleeping and simple cooking.

When I asked him how the environment could be improved, Old Xu said that old people have no place to exercise. Instead, they just sit around talking, but that was the fastest way to an unhealthy old age! Old Xu also admitted that he was lonely because except for his roommates, he didn’t know anyone in the area. He then shrugged and asked rhetorically, “What can be done? If I go home, I can only become a burden for my children.”

The White Lady of Shiyan

Last week, I met Ye Enling, a 70-something Shiyan native. Mr. Ye worked in Overseas Chinese affairs for over twenty years, and his current interests include calligraphy, linguistics, architectural design, and social philosophy. Of note, Mr. Ye is a Hakka and has devoted much time and energy to promoting Hakka culture by collecting Shiyan mountain songs (石岩山歌), compiling vocabulary lists, recording Shiyan history, and composing essays on diverse topics. In fact, he has published three collections and a book of calligraphy.

Below, I have translated Mr. Ye’s retelling of The White Lady’s Temple on Yangtai Mountain (叶恩麟者《闲雅集》111-2页. Online Chinese versions, here and here). I find the story interesting because it places singing within the sentimental context of gendered yearnings, which continue to shape family life and personal desire. The fact that the story continues to circulate suggests that even if most Chinese professors have opted into modern academics and concomitant specialization, traditional intellectual life and knowledge production may be fading, but are nonetheless still kicking.

I also find the story interesting because when contrasted with Shenzhen’s contemporary arts or traditional culture fairs, the White Lady of Shiyan reveals the extent to which expressive creativity has been alienated from everyday life, an ongoing lament in modernist art. The living presence of this tradition dovetails with the Municipality’s ongoing promotion of Neo-Confucian mores as a strategy of governance. I had tended to think of Neo-Confucianism’s appeal in terms of an invented nostalgia for “good old days” sans hunger, warlords or opium. However, my meeting with Mr. Ye has me thinking that there may actually be a popular basis for Shenzhen’s decision to disseminate Confucian sayings at bus stops and other public places, cultural revolutions notwithstanding.

The actual content of the White Lady story is far more disturbing and has me thinking about structural analogies between the 1920s and contemporary Shenzhen. In Diary of a Madmen, which was published a mere ten years before the white lady’s story is said to have taken place,  Lu Xun gives a chilling representation of human desperation in which the only way to survive is to eat other people; the clearest Lu Xun overlap is, of course, Medicine. Similarly, today, we keep hearing stories of illegal transplants and the shady sourcing of human organs. Less than a hundred years separate workers of the south China diaspora from the neidi migration of workers to Shenzhen. And it seems that rumors of cannibalistic medical treatments continue to emerge out of the experience. Families are fractured, bodies broken, and loved ones vanish.

The White Lady’s Temple on Yangtai Mountain

All Shiyan elders remember that there was once a small temple on Yangtai Mountain and have passed on the following story about it.

In 1928, a Ye family lived in Shiyan Market. The man had gone to Indonesia and not returned. At the time, parents arranged marriages and in his absence he was married to another Ye. A year after their parents had organized the marriage, the wife prepared to go to Indonesia to be united with the husband she had never even seen. But the sea voyage was rough and the road long, and being afraid to travel alone, she looked for a companion. The Ye woman discovered that in another Shiyan village Liguang there was a white woman whose husband was also in Sanbaolong, Indonesia. The white woman was also preparing to join her husband. This white woman had skin the color of kneaded dough, with a hint of pink. No one knew if she had Caucasian blood or a skin disease. After so many years, we no longer know what her surname was or who her people were.

The white woman didn’t have a son and her husband had been overseas for many years. She decided to build a temple on Yangtai Mountain in order to pray for her husband’s safety abroad. While building the temple, she could also stand on the mountaintop and gaze toward Indonesia. It’s obvious how much she yearned for her husband! She said she would do it and she did. The white woman bought a load of bricks. Everyday, she shouldered four bundles of bricks on a carrying pole, and made the difficult trek from Liguang Village up Yangtai Mountain.

Whenever she paused to rest, she sang a mountain song in her beautiful, high-pitched voice, “Older Brother has drifted away on the sea, and hasn’t returned the years; I know the years of time and swallow them whole, no one understands how to open my heart. Standing beneath the mountaintop pines, tears, only tears. I have only one question of Heaven: When will my man return home? (阿哥出洋漂大海,三年五载不回来,线纱打结吞落肚,无人解得崖心开,崖在高山松树下,眼泪汗水落泪花,崖向苍天问句话,崖郎几时转屋家。)

When she reached the peak, she sang in a loud voice, “No one smokes these cigarettes, no seedlings growing in these fields. Younger sister dares climb these roads, younger sister dares view these skies” (无瘾唔食这支烟,无秧唔莳这块田,阿妹敢登这条路,阿妹敢看这重天。)

When the sun set in the west of the mountain, the hope of another day was extinguished. The white lady was deeply saddened and she cried while singing, “From dusk to dawn, I think of you, and my tears endlessly role down my cheeks, they water the mountain grass and drown the people below (黄昏想郎到明天,眼泪滴滴流不停,流到山上草变绿,流到山下浸死人).”

Her melancholy songs reverberated in the mountain valleys, startling birds and causing those who heard to cry. The white lady used her songs to relieve her yearning for her husband, and in this way, day after day, without any help she forced herself to shoulder the burden of bricks, ceramic tiles, lime, sand, and beams and carry them up the mountain. Only after bringing all the necessary materials did she hire a a builder. The temple was finally completed and although it was only several meters big, it brimmed with the white lady’s hard work, blood, sweat, and tears. The white lady also placed a censor and an idol in the temple. The first and fifteenth of every month, she climbed the mountain, undeterred by inclement weather, to pray to the gods and bow to Buddha, saying, “Every 15th or 16th the moon is full, I hope my heart is the same as my husband’s. I pray that the Lord of Heaven protects my husband, insuring that Older Brother makes a fortune (十五十六月光圆,崖同情郎心相连,崖求天公来保佑,保佑阿哥赚大钱).”

The white lady’s story spread throughout Shiyan, her spirit and will-power moving villagers, and many began climbing the mountain to see and burn incense. After many years, this place became rich with incense.

Later, the Ye woman received a letter from her husband saying that she should not go to Indonesia because he was returning to Tang Mountain. Accordingly, the Ye woman changed her plans and the white lady left alone for Indonesia. The white lady’s husband waited for months on the coast, but his wife had vanished without a trace and his heart was aflame with worry. He searched for her and finally got word that his wife suffered from motion sickness on the trip. As she thrashed unconscious, an evil person took advantage of the situation to kill her for her gallbladder because he had heard that white people’s gallbladders could be used for medicine. After removing her organ, he threw her body into the ocean. On hearing what had befallen his wife, the husband was overcome with grief.

To commemorate the white lady, the named the temple she had built “The White Lady’s Temple”. Unfortunately, during the Cultural Revolution, the temple was razed. Nevertheless, the moving love story of a devoted wife continues to be told.