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.

shenzhen garbalogy


this morning as i walked the edge of houhai i stumbled upon another former settlement, where the squatters’ housing and kitchens had been razed, but then reconstituted in even more transient form–beds have been made inside the water pipes that are now being installed. signs of life: shoes, mosquito coils, and makeshift offerings. when i asked one of the women salvaging plastic wrapping from the site, she said that the settlement had been razed just this week. two more permanent fixtures remained–a pink shrine and a 42 stall traditional outhouse. the outhouse seemed relatively clean; perhaps it has been built in anticipation of the work teams that will soon move onto the site.

this is the second time this month that i have stumbled upon housing arrangements that have been hidden in plain sight on the border between housing built on the reclaimed land and newly reclaimed construction sites. just three weeks ago, while walking near the western corridor bridge, i came across a squatting settlement. the small pup tents were located along a sidewalk that was temporarily out of use due to construction. however, a hill and mounds of dirt in the reclamation site kept the settlement out of sight. i only came across them because i jumped the temporary barrier that had been installed, while a more permanent; it seems easier to go through concrete one was being built.

during a brief and admittedly superficial engagement with the other three anthropological subfields, i took several archaeology courses. i didn’t understand the joy of finding bicuspids, nor did i fantasize about going off to dig up the remains of lost civilizations. i did, however, like the idea of theorizing a life out of garbage, which william rathje initiated in 1973 with the tucson garbage project and popularized in 2001 with the publications of rubbish! the archaeology of garbage.

one of rathje’s points is that there are discrepancies between what we say we do and what are garbage reveals that we do. i’m not terribly interested in catching people lying; it seems unnecessarily stressful to constantly assess the degrees of truthfulness in any statement. nevertheless, i think that garbalogy might be useful when looking at how shenzhen has razed and continues to raze squatter settlements. officials maintain that shenzheners are building one of the most modern cities in china. the promise of modernity includes the promise of material comfort for all residents. however, the garbage that this process generates includes neighborhoods, family homes, and migrant livelihoods.

i like thinking about houhai through garbagology because it makes facts about squatters’ lives immediate and visceral, stubborn. it is difficult to talk one’s way around the image of a child who cut his head playing near his mother’s salvage cart. indeed, that child’s life measures the degree of truth in any statement about how globalization has been beneficial for shenzhen.

of plants and smog

shenzheners are developing an environmental consciousness. indeed, the shenzhen 2030 development strategy calls explicitly for sustainable development. so now we encounter billboards to protect endangered species. the irony, of course, is that these billboards have been raised at the former new houhai coastline. about 10 years ago, the elephant would have been standing on the beach. 20 years ago, said elephant would have been up to its knees in water, possibly even deeper.

save endangered species billboard

moreover, only five years ago, if memory serves as well as i hope, the elephant would have been standing beneath “blue skies and white clouds.” these days, smog is an all too often topic of conversation in shenzhen. most folks blame the cars, and then quickly remark that cars are necessary, both for convenience and building the economy. all of us, however, lament that the environment has deteriorated so obviously, so quickly.

at the same time, shenzhen’s furious pursuit of garden cityhood proceeds. recently exotic plants abut the new roads and construction sites of the houhai land reclamation zone. although beautiful, these plants irritate me. unlike the once ubiquitous and local banyan tree, shenzhen’s palms and bushes and flowering trees don’t provide shade. they also require large teams of gardeners, who water the plants with an irrigation system that stretches along the ever changing coastline. these plants confound me. i wonder where their gardeners live and how much they earn; as far as i know, the blue uniformed gardeners in central park, live in dorms in the park itself, but there aren’t any dorms on the landfill, only temporary construction dorms. the extent of the irrigation system also has me wondering, given the city’s water shortage, who isn’t getting water if imported fonds are. and if perhaps, we’ve reached the final coastline.

this afternoon, on the landfill, i stopped to talk with several people. one, a migrant worker who had just came to shenzhen and lived in one of the nearby shanties, said that it was nice to walk on the coastline where the air was fresher. true enough. i actually breathed in salty air. a second interlocutor, was an old shenzhener, originally from ningbo, who like like me, enjoys photography. he showed me some of the pictures in his very nice camera–flowers, parrots, traditional architecture, and old village rivers.

“unfortunately,” he said, “shenzhen is a new city, so there isn’t much beauty here.” as i understood him, beauty referred to things natural and manmade that had a graceful harmony. he admitted that all shenzhen’s glass buildings were impressive, but not yet beautiful, unlike shanghai, where old sections of the city had been preserved and improved. his comments had me wondering if we wait long enough, shenzhen will become beautiful through age. although with all the upgrading and razing of older sections of the city, this path to beauty may not be the most efficient and shenzhen may as well just stick with its the newest is the most beautiful aesthetic. speculation aside, we agreed that the smog had become a serious problem that would become even more serious, “unless the government takes serious action.” as we separated, me to take more pictures of houhai and him to continue searching for beauty, he exhorted me to visit other cities, especially shanghai, “where the environment is really beautiful.”

i am not sure if shenzhen’s utopian origin sets residents up for disappointment, or if memory creates beauty where it may not have been; i’ve been to shanghai, and i remember smog, in addition to the lovely buildings. i do think that the utopian impulse behind the city’s construction continues to inform longterm planning. the idea of shenzhen as a sustainable city is, if it is nothing else, a call to create a better future. and yet. houhai continues to transform the south china environment and climate at a pace unplanned, and more than likely, with unforeseeable environmental consequences.

pictures of plants and smog here.

new squatters

abandoned wanxia village, old shekou

this week, my good friend steve came to shenzhen. as we were walking around shekou (from seaworld toward the new pennisula housing estates/dongjiaotou/wanxia village remains), he asked if shekou had become seedier, focusing me on something i’ve noticed but not registered: the quality of life of shenzhen squatters has deteriorated. previously, many lived in the older remnants of inner city villages. however, with the rennovate the inner city villages (旧村改新) in full swing, much of that cheap, squalid, but solid with some kind of sanitation and running water housing stock is vanishing. instead, squatters are building more and more temporary housing on the fewer and fewer boundaries between the expanding city and remains of baoan county.

the erasure of impromptu vegetable gardens symbolizes the increased transience of squatter settlements. indeed, the vegetable gardens once symbolized alternative economic possibilities for those outside the formal economy. it is a dangerous world, when illegal gardens come to symbolize spaces of urban possibility for new migrants. this is, of course, most visible at seaworld, where the last of the oyster farmers are being swept away, and new generation of squatters have moved onto the garbage and landfill heaps that constitute the new coastline. two years ago, the oyster farmers not only had houseboats, on land, they had more or less permanent installations for processing oysters. today, only a few remain, and they are clearly leaving. soon.

pictures from the past three or four months.

the sweetness and the people

royal jelly and fresh honey, straight ahead

yesterday walking in the lychee orchard section of shenzhen’s central park, yang qian and i stumbled upon bee farmers. they do the guangdong bee circuit–shenzhen, pingyuan, nanhai–following the pollen. they are from pingyuan and have been coming to the central park these past eight years. the honey is amazing. for those of you in shenzhen who happen on this entry they’ll be here for another week or so, before heading north. more bees, here.

at dinner, i was telling a friend about the 蜂民, i even tried 蜜民, before folks understood that i meant 蜂农,a phrase which (unlike 蜂民) shows up automatically in pinyin word-processing. yang qian laughed and said it sounded like i was talking about “crazy people (疯民)”.

then qingfeng joked, nobody wants to be 民 because that character has a negative connotation in chinese.

i said what about 人民?

no, not good. better to be an official.

who aren’t part of the people?

chuckle, chuckle.

i persisted, what about citizen (公民)?

that can’t be helped (无奈)!

everbody at the table laughed, reaffirming the unquestioned truth that as an american 公民 i couldn’t understand what it means to be a chinese citizen. we then started talking about the medicinal benefits of lychee honey, which helps develop anti-bodies to local strains of flu. it was a polite segue that suddenly seemed a portentious metaphor. now i’m wondering about social honey and culturally born strains of flu: what keeps the people healthy?

found objects: houhai

this entry unites two of my obsessions: discarded objects and the houhai land reclamation project.

looking from old coastline toward the houhai land reclamation

in shekou, the land reclamation project continues, with new housing developments popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain, so to speak. like any good mushroom, these developments thrive in dark and fetid spaces, only to be washed up and presented as luxuries. the first step in growing a development mushroom is razing whatever came before (in the sense of shenzhen history: this entry presupposes that the rural has already been displaced). what came before is usually narrow, one-story high temporary concrete structures, which functioned as residences and small businesses (more or less from the 1980a), but also more substantial, once-upon-a-time intended for the long haul, housing (late 80s, early 90s).

step two in cultivating mushrooms is picking through the rubble, scavanging whatever might still be of use–plastic can be sold, as can metals. as i stepped through the remains, i found a small clay teapot and picked it up. one of the pickers yelled at me in a henan dialect that i didn’t understand. when i asked if she wanted the teapot, however, she said no, adding in mandarin, “it can’t be sold.” she wasn’t interested in talking with me, lugging her scavagings to a truck, where a man weighed and bought them.

pickers, like this woman, move onto the temporary rubble heaps, setting up campsites that blend into the rubble. indeed, the campsites are difficult to distinguish from the garbage. the tents are made from the same plastic the pickers are scavanging and the kitchens seem burnt piles of stuff. but looking closely (or prying as the case may be), i saw fresh vegetables, packaged foods, and soap, although no source of fresh water. at this site, there were two campsites, and each had a separate stove. lucky pickers have a bicycle to cart findings to collection stations, where they can sell them.

step three, of course, is the arrival of construction crews. images of objects found while others picked, here.