SZ8X80204//The Myriad Transformations//City on the Fill: The Cost of a View

So romancing the ocean, or is it oceans of romance? At any rate, once we’ve cordoned off and sold the coastline, it seems that all we’re left with romantic sunsets, looking toward the horizon that we’ll never reach. Poetic. Deliciously melancholy, even. And I do like looking off into the sunset. It’s just that the reduction of the coastline to commodified views distresses me. I keep wondering, what about the other senses? In Shenzhen it is incredibly difficult to smell fishing nets, feel of water rippling over our toes, listen to seabirds diving for crabs, and taste a gritty ocean breeze because we have been reduced to a pair of eyes in bodies that do not move beyond high rise window sills. Continue reading

SZ8X80106//The_Myriad_Transformations//Cut and Pastiche: That was then…

I know, you’re asking yourself: how is it already 2019? The date pounds like a migraine because once again we’re in the middle of a China-history countdown: 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, 60th anniversary of the start of the great leap forward famine, 50th anniversary of the Sino-Soviet border conflict, 40th anniversary of the “First Blast” of Reform and Opening chez Shekou, 30th anniversary of the Tian’anmen democracy movement, 20th anniversary of the crackdown against Falungong, and the 10th anniversary of Shenzhen’s decision to upgrade its “dirty, chaotic, and substandard (脏乱差)” urban villages. Continue reading

piecework: replacing urban villages with chimerican dreams

So this week is going by in a raze of urban village sections (片区). It seems that given the flat out difficulty of achieving 100% sign-off on property transfer and compensation packages, government planners and their developer agents are targeting sections of urban village for urban renewal (instead of entire villages). These sections (a) border major traffic arteries and (b) have relatively simple property relations. I also heard yesterday that in Gangxia, for example, the village was subdivided into six sections and once there was 100% sign-off in a section, it went. This would in part explain the protracted raze-scape that characterized Gangxia for several years. Continue reading

as if it never happened…

So, after a long silence, I return to The Great Transformation (沧海桑田:深圳村庄30年) and the ongoing composition of an official history for Shenzhen’s villages.

This official history begins with poetry. Located on Shenzhen Bay coastline, Shazui Village was established over 900 years ago. Villagers were surnamed Ou and their ancestors immigrated from Pingyang, Shaanxi via Shaoguan in northern Guangdong. At first, Shazui specialized in harvesting sea salt. However, over time the water became sweeter and it was no longer possible to making a living harvesting sea salt. According to Shazui oral history, village ancestors then started fishing and expanded village holdings inland, planting lychee orchards and rice paddies. The village’s history was recorded in poetry and couplets that villagers transmitted orally. For example, a seven-line poem that traced the history of the migration guaranteed hospitality between communities that shared the Ou surname.

金陵被乱始南辕    Chaos during the Jinling era forced the southern migration

唯有祯昌百代传    Only luck has been inherited by a hundred generations

一举汀州二细滘    The first stop was Dingzhou, the second Xijiao

三子石壁四陈村    The third stop was Shibi, the forth Chen Village

自从棉圃而交广    Leaving northern cotton fields, they entered Guangdong

世起堂梁厉宗元    The ancestor re-established the family

支派不拘分欠别    And new branches were established

明溪桥内祖根源    The ancestral well is by the Ming Creek bridge

In 1943, over 40 of Shazui’s less than 400 villagers died during a drought. This history was recorded in the following verse, “Thousands remember, ten thousands remember that in the 33rd year of the Nationalist era, a dollar bought 10 grams of rice (千记万记,记得民国三十三,一元买米三钱二).”

Subsequently, the official history of the transformation from socialist to capitalist collective begins with creative appropriation of the household responsibility system. In 1978, Shazui took advantage of easing policies to introduce a hybrid form of collective production, selling surplus vegetables and fish both in Shenzhen and in Hong Kong. One person from each family could join a voluntary association of 10 people. Each group gave 100,000 rmb to the collective, and then divided the profits amongst association members. Leaders were not permitted to join an association, however, any laborer could join an association. Within five years, many Shazui villagers had become rich and by 1983, Shazui villagers had put up new homes on their 30 m2 Mao-era plats. The villagers then decided to plan Shazui New Village, putting up handshakes as well as collective property, including factories.

Building the factories further transformed village organization, as the village secretly formed a limited stock-holding company. In 1984, Shazui leaders asked each villager to invest 10,000 into the factory zone. At first, villagers refused and leaders hoped to borrow 5 million from a bank. However, at the time, banking restrictions were strict and villages did not have an opportunity to secure finance capital. Instead, village leaders went back to the village with the following proposal: each villager would invest 10,000. Over the next three years, the village could use this capital to grow its industry. Beginning in the 4th year, the village organization and village investors would split profits 40-60. In the eleventh year of operation, the percentage would reverse, with the collective receiving 60% of the profits and villagers sharing 40%. At the end of this second decade, all profits from the collective enterprise would go to the village.

As of 1985, the new village occupied an area of 6.3 km2 and had earned commendations from Shenzhen Party Secretary and Mayor, Liang Xiang. Many villagers secured plats (宅基地) of 300 m2, three times larger than the area that would be formally recognized by the Shenzhen Government in later years. Moreover, the village also had to put in roads that would be wide enough to connect the village factories to cross-border shipping points at Wenjingdu. Indeed, although Shazui was only five kilometers from the Luohu border, until the new roads were laid, it took one hour to travel from Shazui to the Luohu. And this is where the official story ends until it jumps twenty years to a village cleanup and environmental upgrade.

What happened during the twenty years that the official story skips? In the years between 1985 well into the new millennium, Shazui went from being an enterprising village to Shenzhen’s most infamous second wife village. Village investment in planning and construction meant that relative to the surrounding area, Shazui New Village was a cheap, convenient, and comfortable place to live. Investors and visitors took up residence in Shazui and villagers opened restaurants, discos and bars. By the early 1990s, the collective was itself promoting the shift to a sex-based economy building hotels, restaurants, rental properties, and spas. This history cumulated with the infamous public shaming of Shazui prostitutes in 2008.

And there’s the rub: if we are to talk about the transformation of Shenzhen’s villages from poor rural settlements into neighborhoods for the working poor, we aren’t actually talking about what the villagers alone were up to. We’re actually writing the history of global capitalism and its rebranding by ambitious governments. Suddenly, Shenzhen’s villages become the quintessential rags to riches story. Or to quote Mark Ravenhill’s observation in Shopping and Fucking: Making money is barbarous, but having money is civilization.

double bind urbanization

At dinner last night a friend asked me, “If you had to choose between living in a 50 story building or an urban village walk-up, where would you live?”

This question illustrates the kind of double bind thinking that current debates about urban villages generate. As posed, the question compels us to choose between either high end futurism or unsanitary crowded settlements. But all too often the question itself becomes rhetorical justification for ignoring other examples of more successful urbanization. What’s more, the question also blinds us to what we can learn from the  tight organization and convenience of the villages, while using high tech knowledge and skills to imagine low-rise, more environmentally friendly settlements. Continue reading


Gregory Bateson helped me learn to think about how human beings engage in (ultimately) self-destructive forms of competitive growth; Wendall Berry continues to inspire how I think about rural urbanization under capitalism.

Bateson provided a theory of schismogenesis or “vicious circle,” in which our behavior provokes a reaction in another, whose reaction, in turn, stimulates us to intensify our response. According to Bateson, schismogenesis comes in two flavors: symmetrical and complementary. Symmetrical relationships are those in which the two parties are equals, competitors, such as in sports. Complementary relationships feature an unequal balance, such as dominance-submission (parent-child), or exhibitionism-spectatorship (performer-audience). The point, of course, is that unless there is an agreed upon limit to the development of provocation and response, the relationship just keeps going until it hits a natural limit – collapse of the relationship because neither side can continue to meet and exceed the other’s call.

Berry teaches that one of the more deadly tendencies in capitalist urbanization in the United States is to turn all of us, eventually, into Native Americans. On Berry’s reading, the basic structure of American life was to eradicate the people and lifeways of Native Americans and then to replace those people and lifeways with settler capitalism. Importantly, this model of a settled community being replaced by the next, more intensive form of capitalist production both established the rhythm of American development and has become a powerful symbol of how generations of Americans have justified our destruction of people and lifeways in favor of more efficient and valuable forms of life. Importantly, efficient and valuable are defined in terms of profit. Thus, industrial, mass agriculture replace the settlers that had replaced the Native Americans; smart technologies and production are offered as the solution to problems of rustbelt withering.

How have Bateson and Berry shaped my understanding of Shenzhen?

Shenzhen all too clearly grows through an amazing range and diverse levels of complementary schismogenesis. Within Shenzhen, villages, neighborhoods, districts, and municipal ministries all engage in compete for competitive advantage; at the same time, Shenzhen as a city competes with all other cities in the PRD as well as internationally.  In this system, the function of urban planning is contradictory. On the one hand, the Municipal government needs to stimulate competition so that the city can respond to development in Guangdong, China, and the world. On the other hand, the Municipal government also needs to set limits – usually in the form of social goods, such as parks, schools, and hospitals – on how far development can encroach on the people’s quality of life.

Moreover, as Berry noted, the pattern of the first razing and replacement sets the rhythm and symbolic lexicon for understanding capitalist schismogenesis. The problem in Shenzhen is that eventually, we all become locals, our homes and lifeways replaced by more capitalist intensive forms of consumption (increasingly high maintenance housing) and production (higher value added production).

The result has been the ongoing production of rubble. Villages go. 80s housing goes. 90s residences are going. And as in the United States, postmodern nostalgia has become one of the forms that middle class resignation to this fate takes. The poor occupy the rubble until they are moved elsewhere. Images below.

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the view from my window

stunning play of light. every morning, i wake to beauty, despite. and yes, hard to believe that this is the eastern edge of the houhai land reclamation area, viewed yesterday at sunrise, mid-day, and early evening.

i’m also experimenting with photobucket as a way of getting images onto blog. i can but hope…

unexpected encounters with tradition…

Entry gate to Shazui

Shenzhen villages are places of unexpected encounters with tradition, living and reworked. Indeed, these encounters are reason enough to meander through the villages. Just to the left of the entry gate to Shazui, for example, is a temple to Hongsheng (沙嘴洪圣宫), which is kept by an older Shazui couple. I asked about Hongsheng and they invited me to sit and chat.

Historically, Shazui villagers made their living fishing in the northern section of the South China Sea, beyond the mouth of the Pearl River Delta. Hongsheng, as his name “Flood Victory” suggests is a god who protects fishermen of the South Seas. Hongsheng is also sometimes thought to be 祝融 (Zhurong the god of fire) and THE god of the South Seas, suggesting that Hongsheng is either a local manifestation of a more general god, or was a specific god that was absorbed into a larger tradition.

From a decidely brief net surf, I have gathered that Hongsheng is very local. Most of the temples I came across were located in Hong Kong and this temple is the only one that I (thus far) know about in Shenzhen. Indeed, the Ou Family Association from Hong Kong (沙嘴[香港]欧氏宗亲会) had provided the computor printout with information about Hongsheng, which again suggests how local this god is. I’m wondering if this is because Hongsheng protects ocean fishermen? That said, throughout Nantou, most temples are dedicated to Tianhou (天后) with the largest temple at Chiwan.

So a post that begs more questions than it answers. Why Hongsheng and not Tianhou? Why only in Shazui? How important is the Hong Kong connection to the temple’s maintenance?  And why is the temple located at the gate? Questions, questions. More to follow as I stumble across answers…


this afternoon, i walked through shazui, the village below my 31st floor windows and was struck by the odors and and the shadows. even though the streets are relatively wide, the cement is old and dank, the slabs of meat intimidating, and the people weary. shazui is an older industrial zone and where there is still work, chemical smells permeate the rows of factories. another section of the village has been upgraded and sells handicrafts and rocks, for half a million rmb. these pictures of the street. will add pictures of the cultural turn later.