is shenzhen history a good investment?


On December 28, 2013 Da Ken Art Center (大乾艺术中心) opened an exhibition on the Devout and Chaste Girls School (虔贞女校), which was built as part of the Basel Mission. The opening brought together a strange but uncannily representative demographic — young Shenzhen gallerists (Da Ken specializes in early photography), Dalang officials, Hakka Christians, aging villagers who went or taught at the school, activists in Shenzhen’s literacy movement, and representatives from the Basel Mission in Hong Kong. There were also a good number of public intellectuals who came out to show support ongoing efforts to re-member Shenzhen history, Christian, nationalist, and pedagogical.

After the opening, Yang Qian and I had coffee with Zhang Yibin (张一兵) and Li Jinkui (李津逵), two of Shenzhen’s more active public intellectuals. Their interventions, however, take very different, albeit supplementary forms. Zhang Yibin is interested in objects — blunt and silent, stubborn bits of matter and how they become meaningful through archaeological speculation and what might be glossed as “cultural capitalism”. Zhang Yibin was responsible for rediscovering the school, which had been closed in 1986 and making its historic importance known to the Dalang government. He has been involved in the reconstruction and preservation movement for over six years.

In contrast, Li Jinkui is relentlessly and charmingly verbal. An economist by training, Li Jinkui came of intellectual age in the 1980s, when “economic reform” was a code for “social liberalization”. For several years now, he has organized a salon at Yinhu, where intellectuals gather to debate issues that range from urbanization through phenomenology and economics to the historic meaning of Shenzhen and include pedagogy in all its permutations — the social role of education, the importance of raising the level of education throughout Shenzhen specifically and the country more generally, the history of education, and the need to reform the Chinese system of education. In fact, Li Jinkui gently moderated our after opening coffee talk, which focused on the historic production of cultural ecologies.

Zhang Yibin’s analysis of the current Shenzhen preservation movement hinged on a two-pronged analysis of (1) non-material culture and (2) 闲钱, which can be translated as spare money, disposable money, or leasured money. Zhang Yibin noted that most cultural history is non-material, composed of stories and impressions and feelings and suppositions, while less than 1% of the archaeological record is actually material. He then reminded us that although the shapes, textures and sizes of objects vary, there is no meaningful difference between them in terms of historic preservation. Instead, we distinguish between relics and garbage, because of the stories we tell and how much “disposable money” is at hand; the more disposable money, he emphasized forcefully, the more we invest in objects and their social transformation into relics. The way disposable money mediates the social transformation of objects into relics clearly frustrated Zhang Yibin, who has failed more often than he has succeeded to bring Shenzhen’s archaeological record into the public sphere. Instead of an intellectual pursuit that helped to enrich a society’s cultural ecology, he suggested, historic preservation has become yet another instance of collecting relics. As such, it hinges on the whims of leaders rather than on a consensus over what constitutes history and archaeological research.

The background for his frustration is the robust Shenzhen antiquities market and concomitant disinterest in the area’s history. In Shenzhen, there are two primary agents accumulating relics — individuals and state cultural institutions, such as the Dalang Street Office. As elsewhere in the world, wealthy Shenzhen individuals collect for personal reasons that range from desire and taste to economic investment. At the same time, municipal cultural institutions have shown little interest in the area’s past, preferring to showcase the Municipality’s role in modernizing Post Mao China. Moreover, attempts at historic preservation at Nantou Old Street, Dapeng Fortress and the Hakka compounds, for example, have not been embraced by the general public, which remains largely ignorant of Shenzhen’s modern and imperial history. Indeed, even the call to preserve old Hubei Village, an example of a wealthy late imperial and republican architecture (located immediately east of Dongmen) has slipped well under public radar.

This background also explains Li Jinkui’s support for the collaboration between the cultural bureau of Dalang Street Office, the Lankou Christian community, literacy activists and Da Ken. Li Jinkui advocates a broader and more ethical understanding of public culture. To achieve this, he sees an important place for non-material cultural — not simply story-telling, but rather and fundamentally, education. For Li Jinkui, one of the roles of government is to use its disposable money in order to curate the City’s historical understanding. Although he agreed that only stories and money allow humans to differentiate between relics and garbage, it did not follow that all garbage ought to be transformed into a relic because not all stories were worth telling; we define ourselves, he suggested, through these stories. Moreover, the choice of how to dispose of one’s money, especially at the level of government, is for Li Jinkui and like-minded intellectuals a question of public ethics and the concomitant creation of social value. In this sense, the Dalang Street Office decision to preserve a school as well as the history of extending education to girls was a story that should be commemorated with objects and disseminated in public forums, such as Da Ken. In turn, Christians and literacy advocates can use this history and its objects to shape an ethical and heterogeneuos public sphere.

The exhibit itself integrates photography, examples of Republican textbooks, blue shutters from the school, and a virtual model of the planned reconstruction. The curatorial statement comes from a Christian apology for girls’ education:

China favors boys over girls. It is a custom with a long history. Many say that a lack of education is a virtue in a woman. But they do not realize that God made men and women as one body. God did not only give souls to men, but also to women. There were men, and then women were created. However, there were women, and then boys and girls could be born. In front of God, men and women are equal. Men strongly love education. But women love education even more because they are the nation’s mothers and they carry a heavy responsibility for the country. The country is made of customs. The people can have high or low character. Their words can be true or false. Their morality can be complete or lacking. All of this is created by the country’s mothers. The responsibility that women carry is therefore extremely heavy. It is an important moral obligation, which must be at the front of all future efforts to create the best model of moral words and deeds. We must work until we succeed.

For the curious, Tengxun has uploaded 22 photographs from the exhibition, which documents the cultural geography of fin-de-siecle South China. There are young Hakka girls, Western missionaries and their families, as well as impressions of the already globalized rural landscape — traditional row houses, fields, and the new school, shimmering white beneath elegant hills. The show itself is up at Da Ken Art Center, located in the northern section of Ecological Park, OCT (just above the AUBE offices and row coffee shops and restaurants). Hours, 10:00-6:00. Unlike the online exhibit, the actual exhibition includes objects and a model of the restored school and church.

what is the party’s benevolence?

In news broadcasts and interviews, old peasents frequently evoke “the Party’s benevolence (党恩)” to explain their lives. Young and hip urbanites hear these interviews as more evidence that old peasents are the dupes of corrupt officials. However, when I take the time to listen to an old peasent’s life history, it’s clear that more often than not, these peasents did benefit from the establishment of the People’s Republic.

Yesterday afternoon at the Dalang Culture Center, for example, I helped conducted interviews with Uncle Chen and Aunt Zhang for an oral history project. Both Uncle Chen and Aunt Zhang were both born into peasant families in 1930 and 1940, respectively. Auntie’s family owned three single-story houses, while Uncle had left home early because his family did not have room for him. Auntie mentioned that at the turn of the last century, her grandparents went to Singapore to work. Her mother was “brought home” as a child bride for her father. In contrast, Uncle did not mention his family except when asked about how poor his family had been, he remarked that two of his sisters had been sold to strangers, but where they ended up was unclear.

As a poor man, Uncle could not afford to marry. Instead, he went to find work in Hong Kong. In 1951, Uncle became sick and returned to his hometown, where he could recieve care. In 1952, although he had a sporadic education, Uncle was able to secure the documents necessary to join the first test for admission to the Bao’an Normal School. He passed the test and was admitted to an elementary school teachers program, which was located in the Nantou High School building. Teacher Chen emphasized the extent to which his current wellbeing was a result of the Party’s benevolence. He was assigned to teach at Langkou Elementary School, where he met Auntie.

As a young girl, Auntie stayed at home and helped her parents. However, when she was 10 years old, Auntie began attending Langkou elementary school because her father asked the school principal to allow her to bring her brother. 10 year-old Auntie strapped her brother to her back and attended classes. At lunch time she fed her brother a bottle of condensed milk that had been thinned with water. Several years later, she carried her sister to school. Altogether, Auntie carried her siblings for six years. At the end of elementary school, Auntie tested into middle school, where she studied elementary education. Auntie emphasized that her teachers like her because she was a good student. Moreover, her younger siblings were well-behaved and didn’t cry during classtime.

After Auntie graduated from middle school, she married Uncle, who was still teaching at the village school. Auntie’s mother exhorted her to marrie Uncle because he “could do anything”. Uncle could not give Auntie any presents for the marriage. However, he did have housing at the elementary school, where Auntie was also hired to teach first and third grade. The school was located near Auntie’s parents’ house. Auntie did not attribute any of her life history to the Party’s benevolence, but rather emphasized her family background and her mother’s words.

Implicit in Uncle and Auntie’s simple story were the gendered contours of rural poverty in South China, where one of the most important events of a lifetime was to continue family lines through marriage and children. Uncle and Aunt were born into South Chinese villages, where bringing in wives or selling out daughters was a common practice before 1949. However, they married 10 years after the establishment of the People’s Republic, when some policies had already restructured traditional social structures. Auntie married because her family could afford to give her an education, but not to keep her at home. In contrast, Uncle had delayed marriage until he could afford a family, which was a direct result of attending teaching school. He described that opportunity — and all that followed, a job, a house, and eventually a wife and children — as an expression of the Party’s benevolence.

impressions of floating color

飘色 (literally floating color; piaose) is a wonderful South China tradition. This past month, I’ve had the privilege of helping organize an updated and modernized version of piaose, working with artist Momo Leung (梁美萍), Tan Yuanxing (谭源兴),  and Tracy Lee of CultaMap (香港文化意图). Today, we tried on the costumes and put the girls up on the float. The story is fairytale happy — a flower princess and her froggy prince.

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hakka borderlands: xiawei and shiyan

On Thursday, I joined a group of architects and students from the Future Cities Laboratory on a rainy guanwai trek along Bulong Road, which parallels the second line. This particular trek interests because it hints at generations of ongoing cultural transformation both as industrial manufacturing has spread and as Cantonese and Hakka urban villages have renegotiated collectives identities over the past 150 years.

We departed from Huaqiangbei and crossed at the former Buji Checkpoint, which today has been partially cleared to make room for the Buji subway station (Longgang Line) although cars still lined up to pass through check booths. Directly north of the erxian boundary, Xiawei Village (吓围村) handshakes huddle tightly, giving the impression of an ordinary new South China village. However, the entry gate and main hall of Xiawei’s ancestral hall remain, suggesting that at some point the village had enough collective funds to erect a substantial building. According to an old worker who was organizing collected paper products in the compound plaza, villagers continue to burn incense for ancestors during the Spring Festival.

We then headed west to the precinct headquarters of Shiyan. During the Mao-era, this area also served as the headquarters of Shiyan Commune. Located between the Kowloon-Canton railroad and Guangzhou Shenzhen corridors, Shiyan has remained relatively poor when compared to precinct headquarters at Buji or Shajing, for example. Nevertheless, it has Mao-era flat housing, Reform era factories, and two generations of single-family homes and handshakes. More to today’s point about Hakka borderlands, Shiyan is also interesting because it is located along Baoan County’s traditional border between Cantonese and Hakka cultural regions. Thus, although the Ye Ancestral Hall boasts Hakka exhortations of Confucian morality, the structure itself, like many of the areas older flat buildings are Cantonese style.


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