occupy central: confessional moment

Many of the English language news reports coming out of Hong Kong highlight the antagonism that the SAR’s Mainland residents feel about the protests. The articles draw attention to vapid consumers (usually women) distraught because barricades have made it inconvenient to go shopping and/or self-righteous colonizers (usually men) who are angry that by making students are making China look bad. The rhetorical point is straightforwardly simplistic; brainwashed Mainlanders don’t understand what everyone else in the world gets — oppressive Communist Party acts again, this time against unarmed students.

It’s easy to get hooked by this way of thinking because there are no false statements. There are Mainlanders upset because they can’t go shopping in Central. There are Mainlanders who think that Hong Kong students specifically and Hong Kong people in general should accept Mainland authority. And yes, the CCP is up to familiar tricks of the anti-democratic trade.

And yet.

The only one of these statements I would believe without asking for contextualization is that the CCP is up to its nasty, manipulative authoritarian ways and once again working with triads to achieve its ends. But even that idea eventually breaks down if examined too closely because there are factions within the Party and divisions within the government. (Unfortunately in Shenzhen I have seen that more often than not the nasty and manipulative overcome the resistance of their more progressive colleagues and steamroll society.)

I begin my thoughts on these stereotypes of discord with a confession; until the students’ protests and Occupy Central with Peace and Love’s demonstrated commitment to non-violence I didn’t like Hong Kong. I am a member of the Kwan Um School of Zen which has a temple and retreat center there. I have friends who live in Hong Kong, and some of them are from Hong Kong, and I have participated in academic art events there. But.

Over my twenty year sojourn in Shenzhen, I have repeatedly and consistently had to deal with Hong Kong contempt for Mainlanders in general and Shenzhen people in particular. This has ranged from academics asking me how I could possibly feel safe in Shenzhen to watching Hong Kong waitstaff and others in the service industry treat me (white American woman) very differently from how they treat one of my dearest friends (Beijing woman). I was once at an award ceremony for public service and one of the Hong Kong awardees took the time to lecture me (in precise UK inflected Engish) on why I should find another place to work and not waste my time and talents in Shenzhen. This ongoing prejudice coupled with the fact that Hong Kong men have set up second wives in Shenzhen, come over to pay for sex, and have often been the managers of sweat shops hasn’t made me love Hong Kong.

I offer this confession to highlight how my experience predisposed me not to take a Hong Kong protest seriously. When Mainland friends complain that Hong Kong people treat them with disdain, I believe them. When Mainland friends doubt that the SAR’s Tiananmen commemorative protests have become self-serving means of discrediting China, I don’t totally agree, but I do see their point. And when Mainland friends express concern that Beijing is influencing or will manipulate the Hong Kong students because they don’t understand the Mainland, I am sympathetic because I have engaged in similar arguments.

Here’s the point: the students’ non-violent, collective action has helped me reflect on my lazy habits of thinking about Hong Kong.

I was predisposed not to take the protests seriously because people in Shenzhen and throughout the Mainland have treated me with kindness. In contrast, although Hong Kong people have also treated me well, they have not always shown the same courtesy to my husband and friends. I took sides even before I knew anything about the situation. This point returns me to media insinuations of Mainlanders being brain-washed, and the rest of “us” seeing the situation clearly: we all participate in and collude with inaccurate and hurtful stereotyping because of conditions and experiences in our everyday lives. I suspect that many Mainlanders who might otherwise be predisposed to support the students made up their minds years ago in other situations, just as the Western reporters who continue to exacerbate Mainland-Hong Kong misunderstanding and resentment also made up their minds once upon a time in a faraway place.

It is my hope that the students’ courage not only touches the hearts of Westerners who have benefitted from Hong Kong people’s prejudices, but also softens the minds of Mainlanders who have been hurt and shamed by those prejudices. May we all see what is actually happening and not fall into mind traps and misunderstanding.

Occupy Hong Kong: A View from Shenzhen

This is a tale of two occupations–in Tin Sau Bazaar and Central, the former artistic and the later political, but both explicit calls for social justice.

On Saturday night, friends and I crossed the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border at Shenzhen Bay and took a local bus to the Tin Shui Wai (天水围) metro, where we jumped on the light rail to Tin Sau (天秀) and it’s underused bazaar.

The bazaar itself presented the symptoms of hyper planning. Isolated near the Chinese border, Tin Sau is home to low-income and chronically under employed Hong Kong residents. It is also inconveniently located with respect to the Tin Shui Wai town center. In short, visiting the market for anyone but local residents is a problem. Tin Sau hawkers and residents had set up an open and low-capital flee market in any empty lot. The flee market catered to the needs of its immediate community. However,the government decided to improve the situation by installing small stalls and kiosks that were too expensive for vendors to rent because the location only serves a low volume of local residents. Not unexpectedly the local response to hyper planning has been resentment and a lingering despair over the government’s failure not only to help the people of Tin Sau, but instead to have actively hurt them through ill considered policies.

This particular Saturday night culminated several months of community interventions with an Autumn Night’s Fair (天水秋凉祭) which had been organized by the Make a Difference program of the Hong Kong Institute of Contemporary Culture. MaD brings together young Hong Kongers aged 16-35 in order to provide fresh solutions to social problems. The Fair itself aimed to generate public interest in and support of local vendors. The Chinese name of the fair conveys the idea of autumn coolness, and indeed gentle breezes felt clean and fresh on bare arms and exposed faces. The tour of the bazaar, the art events, and karaoke area animated the area, bringing a sense of festivity to the area.

And yet. Although many people participated in the art events, fewer seemed to be shopping, which was the point of the Fair. It was clear that keeping the bazaar and this small community vibrant would require future interventions. Nevertheless, my Shenzhen friends were impressed by the social impulse behind the Fair, commenting that this was the work artists should be doing. They also expressed hope that such public benefit programs (公益) could be brought to Shenzhen in order to ameliorate injustice in the city.

Meanwhile in Central, tensions between unarmed student protestors and the police were escalating. The Occupy Central movement has embodied the social justice issue of Tin Sau–crudely, too much government high-handedness, not enough democracy–at a larger and more specifically political level. As I understand the protests, the justified complaint is that Beijing supervision of Hong Kong education and society will lead first to more restrictions on thought and action, and subsequently to a more complacent, less democratic populace.

Discussions I have seen on WeChat and Facebook indicate that Shenzheners who are talking about the issue sympathize with the students. They see a need for more openness and expressive freedom in Shenzhen. However, there have been no calls for support protests as in Taipei. Instead, the debate has reanimated questions from Tiananmen, namely: just how much opposition will the government allow before it takes punitive action? The terms of the conversation–allow, punitive action–chillingly illustrate how successful the Chinese state has been in creating fear and compliance even among people who do advocate artistic interventions like those in Tin Sau.

Indeed, my gut sense is that the vendors of Tin Sau share much in common with the Shenzhen middle class. These are people who have learned through visceral experiences that the government is no friend of ordinary citizens. I suspect this also partially explains why MaD’s efforts so moved my friends. This was hopeful action in the face of resignation to accumulated and embodied wrongs.

In contrast, the students’ actions seem more “international”, more distant from the Chinese juggernaut. These are the actions of people who do not yet act primarily out of fear, people who act in the belief that government officials will hear and respond to righteous calls. Moreover, the students’ actions remind contemporary Chinese of what was lost in 1989. These regrets permeate the Shenzhen voices I have heard. Here, there is anger that students haven’t left well enough alone and embarrassment that the students’ actions have revealed the violence of the Chinese state’s “One Government, Two Systems” policy. Clearly, if the Hong Kong police continue to harass and arrest unarmed, peaceful protestors, it is difficult to contend that the CCP can be trusted with democratic institutions and (future) protests in Taiwan. Importantly, I have also heard support for the students. The occasional voice that says, Yes! This what it means to be fully, ethically human!

All hope for the safe return of students to their families.

Below, pictures from the Tin Sau Autumn Night Fair.

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thinking density, shenzhen population of, 2013

The day before yesterday I participated in a Biennale forum on high density living. I thought high density living referred to number of people living in so much space. Rumor has it, for example, that there are roughly 19.5 million people living in Shenzhen — a mere 4 million over the official unofficial population count (read generally accepted and quoted). Shenzhen has an official area of 1,952 square kilometers, which would make the SEZ’s estimated actual population density to be around 10,000 people per square kilometer. The population density of people with hukou would be significantly less dense, around 1,300 people per square kilometer, but no one believes that figure. On the recently updated Chinese Wikipedia the population density is given as being 5,201 per square kilometer.

Population density can be appropriated to give us a sense of forms of social inequality. Baishizhou, for example, is located in Shahe Street Office, which has an area of approximately 25 square kilometers. The estimated population is around 260,000, giving us an average population density of 10,400 people per square kilometer, which is close to the guesstimated municipal average above. However, when we account for Baishizhou, we see an interesting realignment.

Baishizhou occupies an area of .6 square kilometers (the rest of the area’s original holdings has already been annexed by the state). It has a guesstimated population of 140,000 people. This means that Baishizhou has a population density of 23,333 people per square kilometer, while the rest of Shahe, which includes Overseas Chinese Town and Mangrove Bay estates has a population density of 4,898 people per square kilometer. So Baishizhou has a population density which is over twice the municipal average and OCT and Mangrove Bay areas have a population density that is less than half the city average.

I was wrong in thinking that population density is the only way to operationalize unequal access to space. In archi-parlance (that’s a personal neologism for “how architects and urban planners talk about the world and stuff they’re building), there are two more definitions of density that they’re interested in measuring– floor area ratio (FAR) and dwelling unit density (DU). And if you’re wondering do they further abstract these descriptions of the built environment by using acronyms, the answer is a resounding yes! The density atlas provides an illustrated explanation of terms. Below, I try to work through what these terms might tell us about the spatialization of unequal access to space through and within Shenzhen’s urbanized villages.

FAR density refers to how much building occupies the space. And it’s three-dimensional. So floor area ratio means the total area on all floors of all buildings on a certain plot. Thus, a FAR of 2 would indicate that the total floor area of a building is two times the gross area of the plot on which it is constructed, as in a multi-story building. So, a FAR of 10 would be ten stories, if the base was consistent (as in a box). (And yes, I’m grappling to get my mind around this kind of abstraction so I think in simple terms, or word problems if you will.)

In order to calculate DU density, you posit so many square meters per person. A 100 square meter building with a FAR of 6 would have 600 square meters. If we then posit 20 square meters per person, our 600 square meter building could shelter 30 people. In other words, if we were to take standard person to space ratio used by many Shenzhen urban planners, then 30 people could comfortably live in one handshake building.

But clearly that’s a calculation for one, single purpose building. Once we start allocating space for functions, we need to make value judgments. How much space for business? For women’s restrooms in public spaces? For sleeping? In other words, to allocate spaces within the built environment we need to make decisions that will reveal and confirm our sense of what is the good life and how we will share that life and it’s material components. To return to our hypothetical 6-story handshake building, if we give the first floor to business and then build subdivide a floor into (3.5 X 6) 21 sq meter efficiencies (still above the magic 20), three on one side of the hallway and one on the other, we would get four rooms. However, if we further subdivide those rooms, we could get eight even smaller rooms (leaving space for hallway and stairs).

In practice, design is not that simple. But the numbers do begin to operationalize inequality in terms that resonate the ethical discourse modern education has equipped us with. For example, the layout of Handshake 302 shows a living space of (4.335 X 3.06) = 13.2651 square meters. There is a small cooking space and toilet which also allows for standing baths. Our neighbors live in similar sized rooms, and share the space and rent among two or three roommates. This suggests that the actual DU in a Baishizhou handshake efficiency can be as low as 4.4 square meters per person. At 850 per month, wear talking a rental cost of 64.1 yuan per meter.

In contrast, it costs 18,600 to rent a condo at neighboring Zhongxin Mangrove Bay, for example. The flat has four bedrooms, two living rooms, and three bathrooms that take up a total of 265 square meters, or slightly less than half a handshake building. It is a family home, so let’s guesstimate a pair of grandparents, a set of parents and one kid, totaling five people. Each of them enjoys 53 square meters of living space. Each square meter has a rental cost of approximately 70 yuan, which is not that much higher than Baishizhou.

Admittedly, one can tell many stories with statistics, but the square meter story of Baishizhou and its neighbors is one of gross inequality. Mangrove Bay residents can occupy anywhere from 15 to roughly 18 times the space of Baishizhou renters, and pay about 22 times the cost for that privilege. At this scale, one can begin to imagine what razing Baishizhou means in terms of affordable housing on the one hand and potential profit on the other. Point du jour, however, is that there is no “standard” square meter per person ratio, just expanding levels of inequality.

So, some stats du jour that should give us pause to reflect on the values we are constructing into the built environment.