local historian, liao honglei

How we evaluate the meaning of Shenzhen’s emergence and increasing prominence, both nationally and internationally, often hinges on when we entered the SEZ maelstrom of frenzied development and nouveau riche ambition.

Local historian Liao Honglei (廖虹雷) concludes a post on the thirtieth anniversary of Shenzhen’s founding with the following words:

It’s been thirty years. I remember what thirty years in Shenzhen have given me, I also can’t forget what the thirty years before Reform and Opening left me. What has been the greatest gift of these sixty years? “Life” — two completely different lives. The first thirty years constituted a difficult, pure, honest, and bitter but not painful life; the second thirty years constituted a nervous, struggling, deep pocket, wealthy, and sweet but not optimistic life. (30年了,我记得深圳30年给我什么,也不忘改革开放前30年给我留下什么。60年给我最大的礼物是什么?“就是生活”,两种截然不同的生活。前30年是一种艰苦、清纯、扑实,苦而不痛的生活;后30年是一种紧张、拚搏、殷实、宽裕,甜而不乐观的生活。)

As a local historian, Liao Honglei is sensitive to the disparagement in phrases such as “Shenzhen was just a small fishing village” because he knows that before the SEZ, Baoan Shenzhen was not simply a “one college graduate town” or “border town with only 300,000 residents”. He remembers the first experiments with cross border culture — in the 1980s, Shenzhen made famous al fresco dining (大排档) and night markets (灯光夜市), which were local graftings of Hong Kong’s Temple Street and Western Vegetable Streets (庙街 and 西洋菜街). As well as when and how Shenzhen adopted Hong Kong protocols for the institution of joint ventures, stock issuances, and futures trading. And, of course, the language that came with this change — illegal booth owners (走鬼), settle a matter (搞掂), did you get it wrong (有没有搞错呀), bye bye (拜拜), and bury (pay for) the check (埋(买)单).

Liao Honglei’s blog, 廖虹雷博客 is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Shenzhen’s history. On the one hand, the gritty details of lived experience permeate each post, taking into account how profoundly the establishment of Shenzhen transformed Baoan lives. On the other hand, he calls for the active inclusion of pre-1980 Baoan culture and material history as the basis of any kind of Shenzhen identity. Liao Honglei is a rare Shenzhener: an organic intellectual who advocates the recognition of Baoan as one of the SEZ’s true and necessary roots. Moreover, he actually knows this history, rather than has generalized a Lingnan type past onto the territory. Thus, on his reading, Shenzhen is not just an immigrant town, but also and more importantly, a hybrid mix that has a responsibility to acknowledge and to nurture its diverse origins.

30th Birthday Party Countdown

The countdown for Shenzhen’s official 3oth Birthday (26 August, 2010) has begun. All sorts of events are planned at every level of government, including a three-day weekend for white collar workers (27 Aug will be a municipal holiday). My favorite event is the mass give away of phone cards (15 million!) so that every Shenzhen inhabitant can reconnect with loved ones back home and “introduce them to 30 years of success in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (quote unquote from the front page of 深圳特区报:“发放专门制造的纪念电话充值卡,可以让市民打电话向亲朋好友介绍深圳经济特区30年的建设成果”)”

It’s true, the story of cell phones and Shenzhen identity needs to be written. Not just in terms of individual identity (keeping connected, texting all sorts of jokes, and unofficial rumors, letting a child play games while parents chat at morning tea), but also in terms of the way that the City has used cell phones in soft propaganda campaigns. What’s more, phone statistics seem to be the most accurate way of estimating Shenzhen’s population and demographics.

Also of note is the celebratory language. Other than the obvious resurgence of earlier reform phrasing (特区 this and 特区 that has returned with a vengeance, and 闯 is once again the verb of choice to describe the act of immigrating to and inhabiting Shenzhen), City officials and public intellectuals are appropriating Confucian understandings of proper aging.  Shenzhen is celebrating: 三十而立 成就深圳 (at thirty one establishes herself; successful Shenzhen). Likewise, the next ten years are being discussed as a movement from 三十而立 to 四十而不惑 (at forty one has no doubts / hesitations).

And finally, just a note on polysemy and how the mind wanders. One of the front page articles for the celebration kick-off was: 发挥党代表作用,增强党的活力. At first glance, the phrase means what it says: make full use of Party representatives, strengthen Party vitality. However, in colloquial slang, when one man joins a group of women, that lone man is called 党代表 or Party Representative. So, instead of thinking good thoughts about how the Party is still striving to improve itself, I’m thinking that those Party representatives do need to keep their strength up!