chimerican geographies of opportunity and despair

This year I was in the Chinese northland during the first week of the Trump presidency, a fact which had me thinking about national geographies of opportunity and despair. (Honestly, how could I resist when we were celebrating the Year of the Cock?!) Of note? The pride and resentment, wellbeing and jealousy that I encountered in the Chinese interior resonated with my experience of the American heartland, where my parents were born, even as the valuation of Shenzhen and other southern cities seemed much like American valuations of  the progressive northeast, where I was raised.
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cultural smog

I am in Tianjin where the smog is thick. It creates grey on grey cityscapes and irritates eyes and throats. My niece, a lovely and talented young woman jokes that, “Chinese people have iron lungs,” instantly showing up the dystopian anxieties that animate cyberpunk and urban fantasy (as popular literary genres, not simply as lifestyle choices).

I remember similarly edged jokes from my mother’s relatives and friends when we went back to the UP, where iron mining and tree harvesting for the paper mills had reshaped the wild north. “That,” they said with a half apologetic laugh when they glimpsed our pinched noses, “that is the smell of money.” Continue reading

afternoon sun, tianjin

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wide open skies

Much new development in Hexi Tianjin means that the skies are wide open, the farmers missing in action, most buildings uninhabitted, and sunlit beauty that reminds me of Texas.

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watching the SZ evening news in Tianjin

I have been watching the Tianjin evening news, but last night had the chance to watch the SZ evening news (via SZ satellite television) and the differences between program content were as interesting as the similarities. Impressions below. Continue reading

firecracker aesthetics

Yesterday was 初二 or the second day of the lunar new year and firework play continued with children of all ages setting off bright red crackers and sparklers and colorful blooms.

In the early afternoon, I walked along the City River, where over sixty years ago, the PLA liberated Tianjin. And here’s the point: Walking past aligned rows of apartment buildings,k grey lots of orderly trees, and the straightened riverbank – indeed, the sky seem slotted against the horizon – I suddenly understood the necessity of fireworks. Not only do colorful flames shine bright against the muted landscape, but also disrupt the relentless and massive grid that organizes this spaces.

Rumor has it that the Tianjin Fire Department charged 100,000 rmb for a license to sell firecrackers this year, up from 50,000 from last. I’m not sure what Shenzhen Municipality charges because I didn’t think to ask. But here, in a winterscape of star,k light and modernist squares, I craved red flames and the power to soften hard lines endlessly looming.

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What is harmonious society?

I am in Tianjin and heard the following definition of harmonious society:


What is harmonious society? The rich become richer, and the poor become more civilized!

Yes, one of the joys of Tianjin remains the city’s justifiably famous ability to “talk”. Indeed, the city has a reputation for being the hardest audience in the country, producing some of the sharpest wits in the crosstalk tradition.

thoughts from tianjin

This entry was written in Tianjin on July 17.

These past two days, I have been in Tianjin, visiting in-laws. I also met Joel and Jessica of China Hope Live. My trip here has me thinking about how habit informs what we can see and experience. I left Tianjin more strongly convinced that there are many Chinas, not simply scattered over the country’s official territory, but also flourishing within the country’s diverse municipalities.

The first two impressions I had of Tianjin were of lack—no blue sky and not many tall buildings. Clearly, I was looking at Tianjin through eyes accustomed to seeing Shenzhen, where smog is the exception and glass skyscrapers the new norm, especially in Luohu, where I have been living. Moreover, these observations included unreflective judgments: (1) Shenzhen is cleaner and therefore better than Tianjin and (2) Shenzhen is wealthier than Tianjin and therefore more contemporary. Both judgments confirmed that my decision to live in Shenzhen was correct.

Only after a bit of acclimatization did I begin to see Shenzhen through what Tianjin might offer. In particular, one of the most important aspects of leaving Shenzhen is that it enables me to place Shenzhen within national trajectories, rather than within and against Hong Kong trajectories. This balance is one of the most difficult things to maintain when thinking about Shenzhen, which is both a Cantonese and a PR Chinese city. Histories of Shenzhen need to be written from both Hong Kong and Beijing, otherwise it is too easy to overlook either the role of policy or that of international capitalism in the construction of Shenzhen. Below are ways of thinking Shenzhen through impressions of Tianjin.

First, a literate rather than simply oral take on local history, as well as ongoing efforts to interpret that history with respect to national history. In Shenzhen, I usually hear the line “there is no history here ()” as self-serving justification for ongoing development and attempts to transfer landuse rights from village corporations to the state. However, in Tianjin the idea of no history is differently nuanced. On the one hand, Tianjin was one of the most important Chinese cities both before 1949 and during the Mao era. As in Shenzhen many important events have taken place here. On the other hand, many of Tianjin’s older residents went to school both before and after 1949. Indeed, Nankai University is located in Tianjin. These older residents can both discuss Tianjin with respect to Chinese imperial history as well as reframe the Chinese Revolution. Thus, unlike in Shenzhen, where local residents have experienced the effects of policy decisions, in Tianjin, some local residents have been recording, contemplating, and evaluating past events for over 100 years. In this sense, Shenzhen has history as a memory, while in Tianjin it is possible to use written histories to supplement oral history. Indeed, much intellectual work in Shenzhen entails documenting the present for future interpretations. Suddenly, the importance of “making history” seems more urgent in Shenzhen, and the concomitant responsibilities heavier if only because there are people writing history in Tianjin and so few of us in Shenzhen.

Second, time in Tianjin shows up the historic specificity of both forms and evaluations of globalization. In contrast to Shenzhen, where globalization is celebrated as the means of unmaking the mistakes of socialism, Tianjin’s colonial enclaves once proved the moral failures and social injustices that constituted Western imperialism. Indeed, one way to frame both Tianjin and Shenzhen history as moments in the history of the People’s Republic would be to look at the histories of these two cities as different efforts to use Western capitalism for Chinese ends. Another take would be to compare and contrast how foreign capitalists invested and inhabited these two cities. The dormitory system seems a wonderful place to begin such a study. Another would be to look at patterns of immigration. Still another might be to trace the conceptualization and construction of foreign enclaves, which have been reproduced in Shenzhen, not as concessions, but rather as neighborhoods that cater to foreign tastes, including private homes, English language schools, and leisure. Finally, one could also examine how Tianjin functioned and Shenzhen has functioned to prepare young Chinese to go abroad are remake China’s position in the world.

Third, the way that the Shenzhen experiment has and has not been picked up and redeployed outside Guangdong. While in Tianjin, I noticed the presence of China Merchants (招商集团) and Vanke (万科集团). It would be interesting to track these transformations through the presence of Shenzhen people in Tianjin, as well as Shenzhen financed projects. I know several Shenzhen architects and developers, who have projects in Tianjin. In Shenzhen, I hear about these projects, but have never visited them.

This trip has reminded me how travel helps counteract the mental numbing that all too often accompanies the repetitions of my daily routine. In the hazy light of a Tianjin morning, it seems even more necessary to organize my life to facilitate clear thinking, or if not completely clear thinking, to organize my life to make apparent the sedimentation of thought. Pictures of Tianjin index this process.

Today, after breakfast, we leave Tianjin and head to Beijing for the weekend.

jingjin flavors: authentic northern taste

京津风味 breakfast team

there is a sociological approach to food. i could tell you that what’s interesting about “flavors of beijing and tianjin (京津风味)” on nanhai road in shekou (just between industrial roads 7 and 8, or diagonally across the street from garden city, where the shekou wallmart is located) is that tianjian people living as far away as in luohu and longgang will make a 1 and 1/2 hour trip just to eat a real tianjin breakfast. i could mention that at these decidely un-cantonese breakfasts, diners sit around and talk in tianjin dialect, reminiscing about life up north. i could also mention that the restaurant provides an unofficial meeting place for the tianjin hometown club (not quite an association). but instead, i want to rave about the food.

jingjin flavors serves up the most authentic tianjin specialities in the city and is well known on the chinese internet. according to the owner zhang hong, the secret to her success is the quality of her wheat products. she has employed seven tianjin cooks to make noodles, flat breads, oil sticks, dumplings, pot stickers, and bread crisps just like they do in tianjin. zhang hong believes that many of the tianjin restaurants that opened and failed in shenzhen, failed because they skimped on the wheat. “you don’t make money on wheat products, so many restaurants just made noodles or a flat bread. but anybody can do that. my long-term customers return to enjoy the tastes the remember from childhood, and that’s wheat. of course, the other dishes have to be high quality, but the real secret to gaining customer loyalty is a fragrant flat bread that takes them back to tianjin in a bite.”

for breakfast, you can order jianbingguozi (煎饼果子), soy milk with old toufu(豆浆加老豆腐), or soy milk in gravy (with a swirl of sesame paste)(豆腐垴), tianjin wontons in a claypot(沙锅馄饨), sesame flat bread(芝麻烧饼), and oil sticks (油条). go to jingjin flavors to satisfy every carb and salt urge you’ve ever had. it’s a delicious way of starting the day. it’s also a great way of discovering how some northerners are inhabiting shenzhen.

in the interests of furthering cross culinary understanding, i end with a photo of shenzhen’s latest campaign: don’t eat cat or dog meet, boycott cruel killing. stewed cat and stewed dog (separate dishes, not stewed together) are hakka specialities available in longgang. and again, i know people who will drive over an hour to enjoy the flavor of hometown food. i’ve made the drive with them and, if asked, will probably do it again. really. joys of anthropology of food are not to be underestimated!