cold war ghosts in shenkong

For those inquiring minds that wonder, what was Shenzhen before it was Shenzhen, the opening scene from the 1963 classic Tracking Threats (跟踪追) reveals a threatened border and enemies whose souls have been twisted through betrayal. After the credits, the film opens with a scene of soldiers guarding the border and the Luohu bridge opening to allow peasants (and a spy) enter the country. From the filming, it is difficult to see immediately who the heroes and villains are. Instead, we find ourselves faced with a narrative tradition that begins with a social situation which the narrative gradually analyzes.

At the border, the guard opens an old woman’s bag, in which he finds a carton of cigarettes and candies. Suspicious, he opens the carton and discovers gunpowder hidden inside. Similarly, the candies also turn out to be decoys. The old woman protests that she’s never seen these items before. Her story is confirmed when another guard discovers an unclaimed bag, which includes toy cars that have been used to smuggle gunpowder

The security officer, Li Minggang leads a team to discover what’s happening. They follow the clues to the toy factory, where old Lin Dexiang works loyally. It turns out his nephew, Lin Yonggui was the spy who replaced the goods in the old woman’s bag. Li Minggang turns Lin Yonggui, who is used as a double agent to uncover the net of spies. This network includes refugees who try to escape to Hong Kong, smugglers of commercial goods, and of course, the evil chief spy, Xu Ying.

Tracking Threats was one of a series of movies that reflected the militarization of the Sino-British border during the 1950s. Indeed, between 1956 through 1958, the Guangzhou Security Department cracked several cases of Taiwanese incursions into Guangdong, and also discovered weapon stockpiles. During the 1960s, the Pearl River Delta Studio produced a series of red spy movies. The earliest, Secret Map (秘密图纸,1960) also filmed at the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border, but did not actually name the border crossing.

In retrospect, the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border in Tracking Threats seems claustrophobic and artificially patriotic à la contemporary North Korea. There is heroic music. There are poor but honest peasants. The military is distinctly noble. However, we know that by the mid 60s, China had already suffered famine and that Hong Kong had begun its economic reconstruction. Thus, during production filmmakers were not allowed to film the Hong Kong side of the border. Moreover, several peasants tried to take advantage of the filming and cross the border. They were, however, caught.

And yet. In Tracking Threats, the ideal of patriotism as a source of ethical thinking appears as pure and noble and good and far, far away from where we find ourselves in the post Cold War world.

In 2009, the earliest of the 1960s spy films, Secret Map was remade into a 30 episode television series (秘密图纸). Unlike the original movie, the television series opens with the spy murdering his godfather, who is portrayed as a Japanified elderly gentleman. The historic link, of course, was the Japanese colonization of Taiwan. In this way, the television series Secret Maps recodes race betrayals of Tracking Threats  as a question of generational betrayals (the godfather raising his godson to hate the Communists). In scene two, the spy, now a sympathetic anti-hero, washes up on the Shenzhen coast, where he is immediately captured by a beautiful revolutionary, a gaggle of peasants, and a noble peasant-soldier.

And there’s the interesting neoliberal rub: in the transition from 1960s Guangdong to new millennium Shenzhen, the Mainland-Taiwan conflict has been recoded as a story of misplaced love, rather than misplaced patriotism, while the desire for forbidden consumer goods has been naturalized. Indeed, that naturalization is precisely what makes the anti-hero sympathetic; he may have loved wrongly, but he knew what the fight was about. However, as in any good neoliberal bromance, love conquers all just before the anti-hero dies.

Breaking the Ice

So, episode 2 of 沧海桑田 is 破冰. What was the ice and how was it broken? A few notes, below.

Episode 2 begins with shots of thick ice on the Huai river, the narrator metaphorically speaking about the frozen space between two shores. Not only an obvious (and simultaneous) reference to the Sino-British border (on either side of the Shenzhen river) and the Taiwan Straits, but also a description of how the planned economy made the lives of Anhui farmers difficult. A relevant reminder: the reforms initiated in Shenzhen began with Wan Li (万里)’s efforts to liberalize agrarian production in a part of the country where it does snow. Continue reading

渔农村: border lives

Connecting the Shenzhen Metro and the Hong Kong KCR, the recently opened Futian Checkpoint has provided incentive for building higher end real estate for those who live in, on and from the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border. The area teems with residential and leisure developments that target variations of Shen Kong lives.

Yunongcun (渔农村) is one of the closest urban villages to the checkpoint; simply exit, turn right, and walk 500 meters or so. The walk from the checkpoint to the village area reveals layers of history, both in the making and the discarding. One sees, for example, a soon to be razed 90s food street and mid 90’s housing, and then buildings from roughly ten years later, including a large spa and even newer shopping mall, as well as the Shenzhen river, which is guarded and sealed off from pedestrians.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What one does not see on this walk is Yunongcun’s important place in Shenzhen’s village renovation movement (旧村改新). Over five years ago on May 22, 2006, the Shenzhen government began the movement with a nod to Shekou’s “first explosion (circa 1979),” by detonating “the first explosion” of the village renovation movement and bringing down fifteen illegal buildings all at once. Villagers had put up these buildings as part of their negotiation for a better settlement package. A kind of holdout, but at a much larger scale than the individual family because the area only became prime real estate with the completion of the checkpoint. Continue reading