go home, young cadre!

Neo-Confucianism continues to show up in unexpected places. Most recently, cadres are told that “going home for dinner is honorable.” Of note, with the window and the parked car outside the window, “home” suddenly seems uncannily US suburban. I know, inquiring minds continue to wonder: just how “American” is the Chinese Dream?

hubei: shenzhen identity comes of age

Those of you who have been following Shenzhen media are aware that Hubei Ancient Village (湖贝古村) has become a touchstone in debates about historic preservation, pubic participation in establishing urban planning values and goals, and the place of “life (生活)” in high-end rent districts.

Continue reading

paper cranes

The inspiration for Paper Crane Tea came from Wan Yan, an architecture student by way of the fine arts. Below, her statement on the current installation at Handshake 302:

We’ve probably all heard about paper cranes; if you fold 1,000 they will take flight and help you realize your aspirations. Children believe this story, but for adults it is. Nothing more than a pipe dream. And that transition–from hope to resignation and simultaneously from ignorance to understanding–is the journey of a human heart.

The repetitive task that is folding 1,000 paper cranes symbolizes an important truth about being human. We are constantly repeating some task to achieve some goal; in order to graduate, we memorize and review coursework; to earn a living, we go to work from 9 to 5; to master a new skill, we practice, practice, practice. Each of these repetitions is like folding 1,000 paper cranes–it embodies the hope and determination necessary to realize a particular goal.

In an urban village handshake building, renters come and go, but the spirit that haunts each cramped rental unit remains–the recurring struggle to realize a dream. Indeed, achieving a a goal by diligently repeating he same activities is like folding one’s life in order to realize the crane of freedom. And there is something exuberantly childlike in that image. However, there is no unambiguous desire. In an era of heterogeneous values, different desires and ambitions will create fierce conflicts and mental confusion. Hope can be simple and even pure, but to realize an ambition requires unavoidable complexity and sufficient flexibility.

The first time I came to Handshake 302, in addition to feeling how cramped and narrow it was, I also thought about the repetitive suffering and struggles that every inhabitant would have to undergo in order to move into a “respectable” home. I also thought about how difficult it would be to find oneself (as the expression has it) in that vexed space between desire and it’s realization. But ultimately, each of us must inhabit that mental crucible where relentless economic and social pressure smelt perseverance, inner voices, and anxiety into “me”.

Handshake 302 is our stage, where members of Urban Village Special Forces perform stories of and about Baishizhou and it’s 140,000 residents. For some people, however, Handshake 302 symbolizes he cage they are trying to escape, or the long ago first stop on thei Shenzhen sojourn. In this space, 1,000 folded paper cranes take on new meanings, not only drawing our attention to what it means to be human, but also reminding us that we strive to achieve our humanity in specific contexts.

And photos of the Paper Cranes Fly installation at Handshake 302.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

the right to depend on one’s son

In Xintang, Baishizhou, this 60-year old gentleman has been protesting for a month. His demand? He wants the right to depend on his son for his old age care.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In Shenzhen, parents can transfer their hukou from hometowns to the SEZ based on their children’s hukou status. Once they have this hukou, they can take advantage of subsidized medical care from their 65th birthday. The problem? This gentleman’s son does not have a Shenzhen hukou. In addition, he does not own a house and is facing eviction upon the completion of negotiations to raze Baishizhou (admittedly at least two or three years in the future). At such time, he will loose his shop, and without equity in the building, will not receive compensation. So he is facing a perilous retirement.

The wording of the protest is of interest. 投靠 (tóu kào) literally means “throw oneself to depend upon”. It can also be translated as “become a retainer of”. Within the rhetoric of this protest, this gentleman is demanding the right to become his son’s retainer.

The form of his demand is similarly coached in feudal language; indeed his banners function as petitions to leaders rather than as social demands. He asks Xi Jinping, for example, if the General Secretary realizes that although in Beijing old people have welfare, the old people in Shenzhen have a different situation. He then asks Xi Jinping to visit Shenzhen and see the situation. Likewise, he asks Shenzhen Secretary Wang Rong and Shenzhen Mayor Xu Qin where the Communist Party is.

The moral economy of noblesse oblige gives these questions their oppositional force. The question put to Xi Jinping implies that if the General Secretary understood the true situation in Shenzhen, he would rectify it. The question put to Wang Rong is even more pointed: has the Communist Party abandoned its responsibility to take care of the people?

In order to make this moral claim, the gentleman also demonstrates that he has upheld his end of the moral contract between government and the future. First, he followed the one child policy and only gave birth to a son. Second, he came to Shenzhen twenty-three years ago to make a better life for himself and his family. During that time, his son was back in his hometown to go to school. Third, he never broke any other laws.

Shenzhen has been at the forefront of reforming its pension system. In practice, this has been the commodification of services. For those with Shenzhen hukou, there are still some benefits. However, as this gentleman reminds us, in the present real security comes through family ties and home ownership.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

urban fetish / baishizhou


Fat Bird premieres another play!

This Saturday and Sunday afternoon at the Value Factory, Fat Bird will perform Urban Fetish / Baishizhou. After the performance, I will lead a discussion about “Life, Labor and Desire” in and around the Shenzhen Dream. The show and discussion begin at 2:30 and will end between 4:30 and 5:00, depending on how lively the discussion gets.

Here’s the curatorial statement from Yang Qian (urban fetish baishizhou curatorial statement english):

Discussion Theater
A Historic Interlude that did not, will not and cannot Exist

Sun up; work
Sundown; to rest
Dig well and drink of the water
Dig field; eat of the grain
Imperial power is? and to us what is it?

The fourth; the dimension of stillness.
And the power over wild beasts.

– Canto 47, Ezra Pound

The life that Ezra Pound described was once quite close, with memories only three generations away from the present.

However, today we live in a world where you are what you own. This is a material era, transforming fetishism into poetic theater.

At 2:30 p.m. on the fourth and fifth days of January 2014, during the Fifth Edition of the Shenzhen Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/ Architecture, in Venue A, Fat Bird Theatre invites each member of the audience to travel to a future Baishizhou. As one of the lucky property owners, you will experience unimaginable luxury from your seat in the theatre. Indeed, this surreal, poetic experience will make your neighbors – homeowners in Portofino, Shenzhen’s most expensive real estate development – envious because their future has already been built. But you are about to create a future that can only belong to you. Compared to them, you are successful.

In the theater, you will see a community buried, and on its ruins a dreamlike city emerge, and you and others like you will own this new world. You will see a place where 140,000 migrant workers once lived. Like you, they came to realize the Shenzhen Dream: wearing designer clothing, luxury housing, and lazy shopping mall days. But you are the lucky one; they have been pushed aside. Compared to them, you are successful.

You own a car, but sometimes you walk the streets of Shenzhen, and when you do, you see the posters that read, “When you arrive, you are a Shenzhener”. But in this theater you are sure of one truth: “Arriving you live in an urban village, when you get out, you are a Shenzhener”. So your experience in theater will tell you – the urban village is not Shenzhen. Urban village residents are not Shenzheners. Compared to them, you are successful.

If this theatrical experience confirms your belief in objects, your desires, and your optimism about the future then you should have no doubts about what you do and will obtain.

The discussion theater Urban Fetish / Baishizhou is a symbolic exploration of architecture and its objects, urban forms and what it means to create an environment. It is a meditation on the meaning of the urban village, a historically specific artifact. It is part of a search to discover the meaning and problems of urbanization.

After the performance, Dr. Mary Ann O’Donnell will lead a discussion with the audience on the topic, “Life, Labor, and Desire”.

the view from here…

On the face of it, this text message jokes about China’s cultural diversity:

To Beijing, the rest of the country is grassroots; to Shanghai, the rest of the country is countryside; to Guangdong, the rest of the country is poor; to Henan the rest of the country is inconsiderate; from Shandong, the rest of the country is unfair; to Jiangsu, the rest of the country is underdeveloped; to Zhejiang, the rest of the country is waiting to be developed; to Shaanxi, the rest of the country has no culture; to Xinjiang, the rest of the country is overcrowded; to Tibet, the rest of the country lacks belief.

1、北京看全国都是基层;2、上海看全国都是乡下;3、广东看全国都是穷人;4、河南看全国都缺心眼;5、山东看全国都不仗义;6、江苏看全国都欠发达;7、浙江看全国都待开发;8、陕西看全国都没文化;9、新疆看全国都太拥挤;10、西 藏看全国都没信仰。

The message, however, also suggests the geography of unequal value that structures migration to and opportunity in Shenzhen, where a migrant’s background (背景) increasingly determines opportunity. What happens, then, when instead of joking about the explicit other (grassroots, countryside, poor…), we make explicit the implied value hierarchy? Arguably, we feel the sting of a punchline:

Power is located in Beijing; sophistication is located in Shanghai; economic opportunity is located in Guangdong; traditional courtesy is located in Henan; a sense of fairness is located in Shandong; fast development is located in Jiangsu; fast development is located in Zhejiang; traditional culture is located in Shaanxi; low density population is located in Xinjiang; and belief (buddhism) is located in Tibet.

Indeed, as a straightforward list of values, the organization of the joke reproduces China’s territorial hierarchy: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou-Shenzhen (“Guangdong”), before turning to neidi (the rest of the country), where traditional values are located. In the context of the Beijing-Shanghai-Guangzhou-Shenzhen rivalry, what catches my attention is the mediating position of sophistication (“Shanghai”) between power and wealth (“Beijing” and “Guangdong”). It’s not enough to be rich, but one must also be sophisticated in order to gain a certain legitimacy. In contrast, naked power still works.

With respect to neidi, the ongoing marginalization of tradition, non-economic values, and religious belief within and against Beijing-Shanghai-Guangzhou-Shenzhen is obvious. Also of note — this marginalization is simultaneously a ruralization and a racialization of the country. We might also see these “lesser” neidi values as weapons of weak, which James C. Scott defined as those tactics available to peasants within and against urban States. The important Chinese supplement to that story is not the insight that strong States produce peasants. But rather that current patterns of modernization and development continuously reproduce “peasants” even when people no longer live agrarian lives.

Thought du jour: In Shenzhen, of course, migrants have different access to power, sophistication, and wealth. Not unexpectedly, relative access to these values determine scope and scale of a migrant’s success. However, the role of “sophistication” as mediating between “power” and “money” means that many of Shenzhen’s second generation (officials and wealthy) are pursuing educations and careers that will (in theory) position them to transcend Shenzhen’s fourth position and bootstrap into China’s higher eschalons.

So yes, the Shenzhen Dream remains remarkably “American”.