SZ8X80105//The_Myriad_Transformations//Cut and Pastiche: Landfilled

When I first moved to Shenzhen in 1995, I lived at Shenzhen University, which at the time was located on the northern banks of Shenzhen Bay and boasted oyster farming on just beyond its campus border. In fact, for the first decade that I was in Shenzhen (1995-2005), land reclamation and the reconstruction of the coastline was one of the major ongoing infrastructure projects, even as the city shifted its economic emphasis from manufacturing to innovation. So for over a decade, I walked reclaimed land. As the landfill settled, grass grew, squatters came and went, and the city itself “washed its feet and stepped on land,” an expression that was used in the 1990s to describe the transformation of farmers into urban residents. Locally, the expression referred to how local villagers left their paddies and fish ponds to become landlords, while in terms of migrants, it referred to migrant workers who left their home villages to work in factories.  Continue reading

even maoist spaces crumble and fade…

Only eleven houses remain occupied in Baishizhou’s Tangtou row houses.

Nanshan District tacitly condemned these houses several years ago, but did not become serious about evictions until the Universidade (Summer 2011). As inhabitants were evicted, the District padlocked the doors, so that the buildings could not be reoccupied. However, as the saying goes, “Those on top have policies, those on the bottom have countermeasures (上有政策,下有对策)”. When houses weren’t immediately padlocked, another family or worker or group of friends moved in. The owners continued to collect rent. When enforcers from the Urban Management Bureau (城管) came by either the inhabitants moved, or made friends with them and stayed, waiting for the final eviction.

This wait and see attitude has been much more successful for inhabitants of houses where the landlord is either in Hong Kong or further abroad. As a 4-year resident said, “Property managers don’t care what we do because the absent landlords are legally responsible. All they have to do is collect rents and their paychecks. I’m polite to urban management and they leave me alone. We’re all human, and when it’s time to move, they’ll tell me.”

Nanshan District has decided to close down the area completely because the summer rains further weakened the structures. These buildings from rural collectivism are no longer simply considered an eyesore, but also dangerously unsound. The vanishing of Maoist economic legacies was, of course, one of Shenzhen’s raison d’etre. However, Maoism lingered in the nooks and crannies of previously built spaces, such as Tangtou. Indeed, the Tangtou row houses are one of the few remaining examples of Maoist architecture in Shenzhen’s inner districts and once they have been razed, Maoism will become more of a spectre than it already is.

Thought du jour: in Shenzhen, even crumbling, Maoist dormitories can no longer safely shelter the city’s poorest workers and their families. Wither the left, indeed.

Impressions of Tangtou wet and sunny, and still occupied interior.

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the second line: nantou checkpoint to zhongshan park

Walked with Emma Ma and her father, Mike along Shenzhen’s northern loop expressway (北环大道) from the Nantou Checkpoint to the northern entrance of Zhongshan Park. Our path followed the remains of the second line (二线), the boundary that once divided Shenzhen into the SEZ and New Bao’an County. Cobbled together out of debris and plastic poster banners, a makeshift tent settlement hovers atop the obsolescent wall and a border guard platform falls apart. A section of the former border zone has been converted to a logistics depot for the Nanshan Oil company. Ironic, of course. Across the street in Zhongshan Park, the Ming Dynasty remains of the Nantou City wall have been designated cultural heritage. Impressions of the second line, below.

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handshake urbanity — xinqiang community

In 2003, Shenzhen initiated a sanitation beautification project called the “clean, smooth, peaceful project (净畅宁工程)”. The aim of the project was to clean up roads and gutters and trash and beautify public areas, which included razing the shanty communities (棚户区) that once flourished deep in the area’s lychee orchards.

How common were the lychee orchard shanties? Continue reading

another call for a housing boycott in shenzhen

Folks in Shenzhen continue to protest the price of housing. This time, an armless beggar wrote the boycott call on the chest of a Generation 90s young woman. The interesting twist in this story? The young woman is from Hong Kong. I’m not sure how the protagonists’ collaboration ties into the ongoing re-structuring of a grassroots Shen Kong identity and deepening cross border integration (as opposed to official planning). Nevertheless, it is interesting to think about the implications of this protest performance: it took place in Lizhi Park, Futian, neither of the protagonists is identified as a Shenzhener, and yet this protest was represented in the press (晶报) as a Shenzhen story. Details, here.

Update (Mar 1): surfing in Youtube, I discovered a report that she had first tried to get a place to live by offering her chest as a pillow. However, the “price was too high” according to a man in the street.


Gregory Bateson helped me learn to think about how human beings engage in (ultimately) self-destructive forms of competitive growth; Wendall Berry continues to inspire how I think about rural urbanization under capitalism.

Bateson provided a theory of schismogenesis or “vicious circle,” in which our behavior provokes a reaction in another, whose reaction, in turn, stimulates us to intensify our response. According to Bateson, schismogenesis comes in two flavors: symmetrical and complementary. Symmetrical relationships are those in which the two parties are equals, competitors, such as in sports. Complementary relationships feature an unequal balance, such as dominance-submission (parent-child), or exhibitionism-spectatorship (performer-audience). The point, of course, is that unless there is an agreed upon limit to the development of provocation and response, the relationship just keeps going until it hits a natural limit – collapse of the relationship because neither side can continue to meet and exceed the other’s call.

Berry teaches that one of the more deadly tendencies in capitalist urbanization in the United States is to turn all of us, eventually, into Native Americans. On Berry’s reading, the basic structure of American life was to eradicate the people and lifeways of Native Americans and then to replace those people and lifeways with settler capitalism. Importantly, this model of a settled community being replaced by the next, more intensive form of capitalist production both established the rhythm of American development and has become a powerful symbol of how generations of Americans have justified our destruction of people and lifeways in favor of more efficient and valuable forms of life. Importantly, efficient and valuable are defined in terms of profit. Thus, industrial, mass agriculture replace the settlers that had replaced the Native Americans; smart technologies and production are offered as the solution to problems of rustbelt withering.

How have Bateson and Berry shaped my understanding of Shenzhen?

Shenzhen all too clearly grows through an amazing range and diverse levels of complementary schismogenesis. Within Shenzhen, villages, neighborhoods, districts, and municipal ministries all engage in compete for competitive advantage; at the same time, Shenzhen as a city competes with all other cities in the PRD as well as internationally.  In this system, the function of urban planning is contradictory. On the one hand, the Municipal government needs to stimulate competition so that the city can respond to development in Guangdong, China, and the world. On the other hand, the Municipal government also needs to set limits – usually in the form of social goods, such as parks, schools, and hospitals – on how far development can encroach on the people’s quality of life.

Moreover, as Berry noted, the pattern of the first razing and replacement sets the rhythm and symbolic lexicon for understanding capitalist schismogenesis. The problem in Shenzhen is that eventually, we all become locals, our homes and lifeways replaced by more capitalist intensive forms of consumption (increasingly high maintenance housing) and production (higher value added production).

The result has been the ongoing production of rubble. Villages go. 80s housing goes. 90s residences are going. And as in the United States, postmodern nostalgia has become one of the forms that middle class resignation to this fate takes. The poor occupy the rubble until they are moved elsewhere. Images below.

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behind the cocoon

Went for a walk today in the reclaimed land behind the cocoon. Behind the construction walls and semi-tropical topiary, discarded objects, trashed seabed, and squatters constitute the anti-Shenzhen, which erupts and disappears with distressing frequency. Signs of life. Despite.

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As I have wandered the edges of Shenzhen and as those edges have shrunk to the narrow spaces between the city’s elegant tree-lined boulevards and some kind of wall, I have noticed how easy it is to stumble into impromptu latrines.

Lines that redefine the territory: The road, a sidewalk, and a dirt footpath, which followed the river behind the row of bushes and trees that shaded the sidewalk. This particular latrine is located at the Sungang Bridge over the Buji River.

Once upon a time, maybe as many as ten years ago, this walk was part of Shenzhen’s official greenspace. Indeed, old tile walkways still connect the river path to the sidewalk. Consequently, I also stumbled upon chipped bits of walking path and several benches that provided a view of the Buji River.

The speed at which Shenzhen changes is the city’s identity. A popular saying has it that “To see thirty years of Chinese history, visit Shenzhen; to see one hundred years of Chinese history, visit Shanghai; to see 1,000 years of Chinese history, visit Beijing; to see 2,000 years of Chinese history, visit Xi’an (想看三十年的中国,到深圳;想看一百年的中国,去上海;想看一千年的中国,去北京;想看两千年的中国,去西安).”

A friend recently mentioned a twist on this theme, “Shenzhen took ten years to construct a new city; twenty years to construct an old city; and thirty years to construct a garbage city (深圳以十年建立一座新城市;以二十年建立一座旧城市;以三十年建立一座垃圾城市).”


thinking food: images from the houhai overpass, 2002-2010

this post is a brief contextualiztion of  china lab’s  landgrab city exhibition for the shenzhen-hong kong biennale 2009. the exhibit draws attention to the the ways that cities are imagined without reference to the countryside and food production. it also usefully brings china into international conversations about urbanization.

The countryside is a vital but frequently overlooked category in the contemporary discourse around spatial policy, and its role with respect to the future of urbanism is more often than not neglected. Landgrab City is an attempt to visually represent the broader spatial identity of the 21st century metropolis; it proposes a new spatial definition of the city and thereby a more complex understanding of urbanism, one that no longer considers city limits as the boundary of its remit, but instead looks beyond – even across international borders – to the spatial, social, economic and political implications of the planet’s rapid urbanization.

i support efforts to think about food – its production, distribution, unequal consumption – are all critical to how shenzhen is imagined, experienced, and reproduced. nevertheless, this exhibition disturbs me because it discusses shenzhen as if the city were one wealthy enclave, rather than an amalgamation of enclaves -rich, poor, and destitute, which abut and constantly disrupt one another.

shenzhen has sold itself and reform in precisely the terms that china lab uses to describe the city’s “reality”. unfortunately, by taking shenzhen’s self-promotion as fact, rather than promotional fantasy, china lab overlooks  how rural migrants inhabit and  transform shenzhen. this silence distresses me because the spatial, social, economic, and political consequences of shenzhen’s modernization are not implied; they are facts of life for many migrants.

so a very simple point:

In reality, of course, these agricultural territories are not actually clustered around Shenzhen, as in the installation, but scattered across China and contiguous regions.

counter point: a five minute walk from the land grab project, agrarian squatters have persistantly grabbed, evacuated, and reoccupied  a portion of the houhai land reclamation area to grow food, which they eat and sell. the differences between overpass then and now are now are instructive because they illustrate both the persistance of shenzhen’s rural poor as well as their increasing destitution.

the map below locates the land grab project with respect to several generations of agricultural squatters at the houhai overpass.  pictures of the squatters and their gardens, here.

the houhai overpass is located at the intersection of houhai and binhai roads. in the map, the squatter areas are located in the southeast quadrant of the intersection, coastal city in the southwest, and the land grab in the northwest. these areas are roughly a five minute walk from each other. in the map, the blue areas used to be underwater; the brown areas were not.

深大南区:the map is not the territory

the map

Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

Once upon a time, this territory was ocean. There were oyster farms and fishing boats. And the people who lived here had single story homes that came to represent the poverty that these maps and plans would end.

The effort it takes to force territories into maps pulses through each inch of the houhai land reclamation area. Lines imagined elsewhere are being bulldozed, pounded, and moulded into six-lane highways and ten-lane expressways. Beside these roads climb glass buildings and residential developments with exotic gardens – palm trees, English grass, a goldfish pond, which is drained and cleaned once a month.

This is the territory – unmapped, but not unsung: Beneath the grey sky and rising walls of a high-tech research compound, a woman washes vinyl advertizing sheets for indigent tenting, paths veer in hidden enclaves that serve as public toilets, and a child plays on a piece of flatboard that has been placed protectively on top the mud.

Shenzhen’s poor are poorer than they were 15 years ago, when squatters had enough space and privacy to build small shelters beneath the lychee orchards that have also been imaginatively disappeared.

May the new year bring new possibilities.