seaworld: reclaimed coastline

I walked the park area and new residential area behind the Nuwa statue in Seaworld. This entire area has been reclaimed. It is startling how the loss of physical landmarks makes it difficult to remember where I’ve been because this isn’t that place.

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a new year, a renovated seaworld

January 1, 2014. Shekou is preparing for the 30th anniversary of Deng’s 1984 visit to Shenzhen and Zhuhai, January 24-29. At the time, the tour was also an explicit celebration of Shekou, a different model of reforming and opening the Maoist apparatus. Images below are of renovations as of December 31, 2013. Yes, there is a light show. Yes, the transformers flash and when you ride the stationary bikes they blast a Beyond song that was popular in the mid-1980s. And yes, the Ming Wah is now in the water even as the coastline extends beyond Nuwa. Impressions of the upgrade, below:

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WoWorldly desires

Window of the World opened in 1984, on the auspicious day of 6.18 (June 18). Yesterday, I visited WoW with Constant Dullaart, one of the residents in this years OCT Art Residency. The featured image for this post is a snap of us in front of Niagara Falls.

This is the first time I’ve visited WoW since 1997, and was impressed by two of the new installations — a plane ride trip through the United States (installed 2004) and a toy train ride through mountainous Europe (June this year). The plane ride uses IMAX technology and moving seats to give the impression of flying coast to coast on a double wing plane. At each landmark, white Americans wave to visitors, yelling, “Welcome to the United States”; in watery areas, visitors are lightly spritzed with water. The toy train is less high-tech, but more popular with young children. According to one of the friendly staff members, these rides are part of plans to shift WoW entertainment from viewing miniature landscapes to interactive rides and activities; I’m thinking WoW goes Epcott.

I was struck not only by the yearning for elsewhere manifest in the WoW installations, but also by the continuing nostalgia for a particular kind of elite life. Tourism as an activity of early 20th century elites continues to shape built forms of this yearning. (Or perhaps we experience nostalgia in search of an object?) This neo-liberal appropriation of colonial forms of pleasure was also been reproduced at Shekou’s Seaworld, circa 1984, where the plaza houses western consumption in quaint buildings and the landlocked Shining Pearl.

Seaworld was one of the first efforts to materialize Chinese yearnings for the better (relentlessly global) life. Nevertheless, by the early 1990s, when WoW was built and developers put up European style estates (with appropriate tributes to Versailles excess), Shenzhen grappled to implement neo-liberal economic policies without neo-liberal political changes. The political-economy of both early Shekou and 1990s Shenzhen were reminiscent of early 20th century capitalism, when all sorts of material wealth began to appear, but only a few people were positioned to enjoy it. Or more to the point, perhaps, only a few elites had both the leisure and resources to enjoy it, including romantic alpine train rides and virtual plane rides on double wing planes a la the Wright brothers.

The fantasy life infusing representations of the early 20th century high life — the fashionable world — were a fixture of 1990s Shenzhen architecture. Seaworld and WoW, for example, were conceived and built in the post Tian’anmen era, when “European-style” housing estates were also popular, including OCTs upscale Portofino. In fact, throughout Shenzhen, but especially along Shennan Center Road, the mini-fascades that wrap WoW and Seaworld dreams have been enlarged in themed real estate developments, where many of Shenzhen’s solidly middling middle class still live and to which many migrants aspire.

Yesterday morning while waiting for Constant, I stood at the subway exit that is located beneath the Jiang Zemin inscribed glass pyramid and watched ticket scalpers approach tourists. The tourists spoke accented Mandarin, and had organized themselves into small groups of carefully dressed visitors. They examined the pamphlets, considered their options, and then opened their umbrellas to embark a rainy day of exploration. Those I later saw again within the park seemed to be enjoying themselves; I certainly enjoyed the toy train and virtual plane rides.

In recent years, of course, Shenzhen’s vision of the world has gone SciFi glassy — steeled if you will — against the imaginary onslaught of encounters with alien lives. However, that kind of elite consumption does not resonate with the same visceral pleasure of early 20th century elites enjoying both their traditional privileges and the mass produced delights of a new era. I’m trying to figure out why. Guess du jour: we want elite agency, but we want it as pleasure,in the play of tourism and leisurely meals, for example, rather than as the high stress, overwhelmed and overwhelming agency that seems to characterize elite life on the ninety-first story of a 21st century glass tower.

Postcards from my Alpine excursion, below:

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maillen hotel and apartments

The Architectural Review has published my review of the Maillen Hotel and Apartments by Urbanus. In the published review, I look at China Merchants’ recent push to gentrify Shekou in terms of gated communities for Shenzhen’s expatriate community. As designed by Urbanus, the Maillen Hotel and Apartments suggest the role of traditional Chinese gardens in the ideological transformation of Maoism into neoliberalism. A synopsis of the review, below; full article, here (with pictures by Sarah Cain).

Urbanus’ stated intention was to design the Maillen Hotel and Apartment with respect to both extant geographic conditions and the traditional Chinese ideas about landscape and garden design, incorporating Nan Shan Mountain into its design with an eye to realizing the aesthetic ideal of “bu yi jing yi”, a four-character expression which literally translates as “step moves landscape moves” and refers to the experience of enjoying new garden scenes with each step taken.

By incorporating the hill into its design, Urbanus took advantage of the section of Nan Shan that remains standing. Historically mountains and hills defined the South China landscape, and Shekou was no exception. However, during the first two decades of development in Shenzhen, urban planning and design prioritized speed and price over any other value, including environmental impact. The Chinese expression for land reclamation, “yi shan tian hai” or “move mountains and fill the sea” literally describes the step-by-step transformation of the Shenzhen Bay coastline. First, raze a mountain – and many Shenzhen hills no longer exist except as place names – and, second, reclaim coastal land, creating flat, relatively inexpensive building sites. The point, of course, is that as the city has prospered and natural features such as Nan Shan have been restructured, their market value has increased exponentially.

The Maillen design also invokes traditional garden design through landscape. Elegant courtyards, perennial bamboo clusters, and delicate plum blossoms evoke literati lives in Suzhou, which during the Song dynasty codified the defining features of a traditional garden. In a classical Chinese garden, stylized elements – ponds, a rock garden, trees and flowers, as well as built structures, for example – symbolized the larger world. The key point, of course, is that the garden allowed members of the Emperor’s court, classical scholars and wealthy merchants to experience themselves as being one with nature without actually having to go into a forest or sail on the ocean.

It is at the moment of exclusivity, or rather the potential to market and sell privatized pleasure that we see the appeal of classical Chinese gardens to contemporary real estate developers. Classical gardens were restricted spaces of elite pleasure, where scholarly achievement and social rank determined who was or was not permited to enjoy the elegant topiary and tranquil spaces. Today, money and status rather than scholarly achievement or social rank might determine who crosses the threshhold, but the effect is the same, the creation of a fashionable space for a select minority. With the Maillen Hotel and Apartment, Urbanus has designed a witty, elegant, and self-enclosed space of privileged consumption.

Indeed, when we architecturally cite China’s classical past, it is important to remember that we are also invoking the feudal hierarchy that the Revolution aimed to overcome.

shekou upgrades continue

Walking Shekou today, I remembered that not only are urban villages subject to Shenzhen’s cultural industry inspired renovations. Older areas of Shenzhen, especially factories and housing estates are also being razed and/or remodeled to conform to different aesthetics and economic plans. Views on the process near Seaworld and the e-cool area, which used to be Sanyo factories (pictures of area, 2008).

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universiade facelifts

All the universiade mandated upgrades have us walking through and between construction sites. Today’s pictures from Coastal City and Seaworld.

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seaworld trashed

Went to Seaworld today. The transformation of Shekou continues – open metro, raze everything in the sunken mall in front of De Galle’s ship, insert newer, taller, bigger, more expensive stuff. Images of wreckage du jour below.

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the world i want


the world i want

Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

Hung out around Seaworld for the first time in several months and yes, encountered new world order. The path from the Ming Hua to Nvwa now winds under an elevated road, which in turn winds around the new coastline toward the Peninsula housing estates. All this change is being promoted under the slogan “the world I want”, not that moi was asked. The planned changes are extensive, involving park space, high end consumption, and more mega-rises. I suspect all will be quite beautiful, albeit increasing exclusive, for the Universiade.

In vaguely related news (or, how ongoing property speculation might impact my life should we ever get around to buying a condo), I realized that given what we pay in rent, it would take us one year to buy one square meter of our current apartment. Given the size of my apartment, it would take over 90 years for us to buy it at current prices. However, property use rights in Shenzhen are for 70 years from when a building first went on the market. All this means that we would be dead and/or loose property rights before we ever got around to paying off our mortgage.

And we are not alone.

Housing in older parts of Shekou remains relatively cheap (under 20,000 per square meter) because it is inconveniently distant from the city. However, I also rode the new subway line from Yuehai station to Coastal City, which means faster, more reliable access to Shekou and ongoing land speculation. Moreover, housing within the Yucai school cache is as expensive as housing near Shenzhen Experimental and Shenzhen School, and for the same reason: only four schools in the city consistently get students into top high schools and then top universities.

Yes, yes, yes, Shenzhen is going to have to deal with the visceral disconnect between housing costs and salaries. So, here and here for speculation about why prices will continue to rise in 2011 despite the real call to control the housing market. Here for an English walk down memory lane when five years ago Zou Tao organized an internet boycott of Shenzhen’s then (already) too expensive housing. To get a sense of prices for new and second hand homes, today, visit aifang. Note that the “cheaper” homes are located in Baoan, Longgang, Dongguan and even Huizhou! And yes, subway construction continues apace.

Shekou 30th anniversary

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the China Merchants (招商局) Shekou Industrial Zone (possibly park). Shekou was established one year before Shenzhen, which celebrates the city’s thirtieth next year or the following year, depending on whether one counts from the year Guangdong approved the decision to establish Shenzhen (1979), or the Central government (1980). The SEZ border with the rest of the country wasn’t fully in place until 1986… Anyway, all sorts of commemorative events have already begun, including randomly posted pictures of Old Shenzhen, here, here and here, which are worth checking out to get a sense of the scale of change.

(Although the first set are actually from the 25th anniversary. I really do have to write about the ongoing and seemingly compulsive revisions of Shenzhen history. In a city that is constantly referred to as having no history, the historic compulsion is not only alive and well, it also shows up in advertising as “11 years of experience” as if 11 years was a long time, and of course, it is, but only in the context of thirty years, which are considered nothing in the history of 5,000 years of civilization… contradictions, contradictions…)

One of the more famous pictures from the early years is of Deng Xiaoping writing the characters for Seaworld (海上世界), here. His daughter stands to his right and, looking over his shoulder is Yuan Geng, the man who initiated many of the reforms that are today considered central to reform and opening, including: the first industrial park open to foreign investment, directly hiring and firing employees (rather than using centralized work assignments), and introducing market driven management principles (time is money, efficiency is life.

This picture is interesting for what it tells us about the political culture in which Shekou came into being as well as the kind of political and social change that Shekou once symbolized.

1. 1984 was the first time that Deng Xiaoping came to Shenzhen. He visited many places, but the two symbolically most important were Guomao (in Luohu, near the train station) and the Minghua cruise ship in Shekou. He inscribed characters for both the Shenzhen and Shekou governments. Shenzhen received the famous lines: 深圳的发展和经验证明,我们建立经济特区的政策是正确的 (the development and experience of shenzhen proves that the policy to establish an economic special zone was correct, picture of Deng Xiaoping writing inscription.) In contrast, Shekou received four characters: 海上世界 (seaworld).

2. The actual content of the inscriptions points to the differences between the early eighties Shenzhen and Shekou models of reform. Shenzhen was explicitly linked with politics. This is confirmed by the importance of Guomao, which was built as both a shopping center and an office building to house representatives from Chinese provinces, cities, and ministries. In contrast, Shekou was explicitly linked re-orienting everyday life from models of third world mutual support and mass production to capitalist trade and individualized consumption as a brief history of the Minghua and the four characters “Seaworld” shows.

The Minghua was a French cruise ship christened by DeGalle (1962). The Chinese bought it to transport engineering support to Tanzania in 1973 to build railroad in support of villigization—a form of African socialism based on the Chinese model. In 1979, then used as part of relinking Sino-Japanese relations. In 1983, the Minghua was moved to Shekou and refurnished as a floating restaurant and nightclub, where it anchored a westernized club scene.

3. When Deng Xiaoping inscribed the characters for Seaworld, he not only signaled his support of the Shekou model, he made the kinds of reforms that were taking place in Shekou a model for national development. Chinese leaders inscribe (题词) calligraphy to support organizations and policies. As of 1984, reform and opening did not only refer to administrative reorganization (as signaled by the Shenzhen inscription), but also to social and cultural reform. This is important because before 6.4 individual desires and political reform had not yet been brutally separated, so that in pursuing their dreams, young people in Shenzhen also represented a new kind of Chinese future.

4. The fascinating and ongoing politics of the smiling face. Smiling continues to be, like inscribing phrases and words, a way that Chinese leaders publicly express political support. This picture of happy leaders was a metonym for reform society: following this path will lead to a happy future. It ties into traditional paternalism, in which strict fathers only smiled when their children truly did something well.

shekou upgrades


demolished building, taizi street, shekou

went for lunch at a favorite italian restaurant and what did we see? the rage for renovation continues to transform the city. along taizi road, the main strip in front of seaworld, three areas are under re-construction: the cluster of sanyo factories from the early eighties is being turned into a creative industries center. they have just begun removing walls, but it may in fact turn into another area of glass and black walls. across the street from seaworld is times plaza, where the old sushi restaurant has been torn down. architecturally it was relatively recent and boasted a waterwall; the building was glass and water fell down the sides filling a pool (moat?) that surrounded the building. further east, one of the old office buildings has been torn down, and with it the shops that used to sell cantonese-sized faux couture– in u.s. sizes i wear an 8 or medium, in the world of cantonese-sized faux couture i am an extra, extra-large. also, another building that has not yet been demolished has nevertheless been repainted bright yellow. for the interested, pictures, here.

neon update: it occurs to me that the neon lights are a good way of upgrading without demolishing buildings or painting them bright yellow. although i kind of like the bright buildings that are starting to show up. the shekou china communications building is a late eighties early nineties examplar of state-of-the-art. just recently it has been caged. at night, and from a distance, the building tower is now a relatively clear television that broadcasts commercials and public service announcements… there’s another downtown television is strictly advertising, lately l’oreal for men and cars…


shekou china communications building and moon

also, a graffiti update: someone is still at work re-covering walls.


shekou graffiti