In order to talk about the ways in which urban villages are both the form and content of the emergence of Shenzhen, the mind searches for a narrative arc in the earnest hyperbole of a Sci-Fi universe where the good is still mostly good and the bad drags its slimy tale through fetid waste streams. However recycled and repurposed, we’re still talking about the contradictions that made Fritz Lang’s Metropolis so compelling. Above ground, the Metropolis boasts spires and towers for scientifically enhanced bodies that play in an Olympian stadium and pleasure gardens. These beautiful bodies can only be achieved through exploitation and guided mutation; evil is attractive. Underground, human workers endlessly labor. Unappealing and gaunt, shriveled and inert, these low-end bodies are fashioned through usefulness to the machine and dreary tenement lives.
My recent turn to Sci-Fi is (as were Mary Shelley’s and Fritz Lang’s respective turns) informed not so much by a fear of mad science, but by distress over how technology is produced, distributed and used in neoliberal cities. Technology has been central to the form and content of social polarization in Shenzhen. Urban villages are not substandard living spaces. In fact, when compared to low-income neighborhoods in other Chinese cities and abroad, Shenzhen’s villages are almost middle middle class quality. But here’s the rub. Shenzhen’s urban villages are substandard with respect to the city’s gated communities, shopping malls, and office towers–and the gap is growing.