poverty isn’t a sign of moral depravity…

…or incompetence or sexual deficiency (if male) or too much testosterone (if female). And yet. The city’s ideology continues to promote masculinity and personhood as signs of the moral and deserving self, rather than effects of a class system that remains predicated on rural-urban divisions. Indeed, Shenzhen illustrates that even when rural people have become part of the urban prolitariate they can be ruralized with respect to the city’s more urbane classes. Continue reading

egalitarian architecture

One of the more interesting architectural continuities between Maoist Tangtou and Handshake Baishizhou is the ideology of egalitarianism (平均主义).

When Tangtou villagers first came to Baishizhou in 1959, they gave up their rural status and became members of the Shahe Farm (沙河农场). As members of the Farm, their hukou status was “non-rural (非农)”. This meant that they had rights to socialist welfare benefits, including housing, a salary, a rice allocation, and education for their children. In turn, they gave up their land rights. All this, even though they continued to do agricultural labor. Thus, as a architectural typology, Tangtou’s flat houses were not rural buildings — traditional or modern — but rather socialist dormitories.

According to the Maoist planned economy, non-rural members of socialist work units were entitled to dormitory housing, or “one houselhold, one room (一户一间)”. Within these dormitories, all facilities were the same — the same size sleeping and communal areas, the same number of windows, and the same access to the collective canteen and outhouses, differences in family size, notwithstanding. This type of dormitory construction was the architectural manifestation of a larger egalitarian ideology.

Of course, architectural egalitarianism was relative to regions as well as local resources. For example, the dormitories that Tangtou villagers built in Baishizhou were one story structures made of cement admixtures, wooden beams, and Hakka technology. After the canteen system broke down, families constructed small stoves outside their front doors, but continued to share nearby outhouses and wells. In contrast, dormitories in cities ranged from buildings of stacked, one-room efficiencies with a bathroom at the end of the hallway to buildings of multiple room apartments. In the colder northern cities, the decision to turn on and off central heating for everyone in a dormitory was an extension of this theory as was the decision not to provide central heating to dormitories south of the Yangtze River.

The construction of urban villages in Shenzhen has been an extension of architectural egalitarianism in the post Mao era. All handshakes were built on plats of 10 X 10 meters. To insure equal access to sunlight, there is a mandatory distance of 3 meters on the east-west axis between buildings and a distance of 8 meters on the north south axis. This mandated layout is the basic grid of an urban village. Moreover, when juxtaposed against older settlements, including rural dormitories like Tangtou or village settlements at Hubei, for example, the layout of a handshake settlement extends and often further rationalizes the egalitarianism of the previous layout.

This form of development has brought with it two urban planning conundrums:

  1. The 10 X 10 grid, with its mandatory distances of 3 and 8 meters between buildings pre-empts the efforts to put in adequate roads. 3 meters is small enough that handshakes have grown closer together — albeit without touching — on the east-west axis. At the same time, 8 meters is only wide enough to accommodate one traffic lane, which often gets jammed during deliveries or when too many motorcycles dart through.
  2. Public space and access to main roads is at a premium within the settlements. At Tangtou, for example, the large basketball court in front of the 59 dormitories is the one large space, where children and older people can meet outside. At night this area becomes a night market with more business than those areas in the Baishizhou alleys. Likewise, the roads that connect Baishizhou to Shennan Road are also the most profitable because they have storefronts in areas with large numbers of pedestrians.

The ongoing ruralization of Tangtou (and other urban villages  neighborhoods) has had paradoxical ideological effects. On the one hand, thinking of Tangtou as rural empowered Tangtou residents to make handshake land grabs. On the other hand, thinking of Tangtou as rural continues to justify the exclusion of Tangtou residents from discussions of future development, differing to the expertise of “urban” intellectuals and authorities. Moreover, the urban planning problems presented by Tangtou are considered effects of “rural” and “traditional” thinking. However, Tangtou is as “rural” and as “traditional” as Greenwich Village, NYC. The current built environment of Mao-era dormitories and post Mao handshakes is itself a product of non-rural socialism, first as the Shahe Farm and then as the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.

And there’s the rub: what does it mean that “rural” and “traditional” Tangtou Baishizhou has come to represent all that is good and problematic about Shenzhen’s “urban villages”?  More generally, what are we to make of Maoist egalitarianism — both its continued appeal to the broad masses of Chinese people and its problematic manifestations — when we confuse it with a Chinese past that never happened?

Sexing the Greed, or How We’ve Gone from “Marrying Shenzhen” to “Can a Woman Get Married in Shenzhen?”

Surfing 天涯深圳, I came across a brief post by an author who claimed that her friends had urged her to leave the city because

“A woman can’t marry in Shenzhen. The most desperate are those who’ve been here form more than two years. There are more and more leftover women in Shenzhen and it’s a big problem (在深圳嫁不掉。其中一个在深圳待了两年的人更是发感慨,深圳剩女越来越多,是个大麻烦)”.

Clearly, this is a small blip in the much larger national discussion of “leftover women (剩女),” which (according to 百度百科) designates upwardly mobile, successful women who are still unmarried as they approach their 30th birthday. The over-30 crowd, it goes without saying, are desperate or resigning themselves to being single for the rest of their lives. The term as well as the debate are obviously misogynistic. More distressingly, however, like the phrase “naked marriage (裸婚)”, the expression “leftover woman” sexes the greed that has come to characterize Socialism with Chinese characteristics as if by fixing what’s wrong with women we could fix what’s wrong with society.

It’s a scary logic. Continue reading

Awkward Encounters: Urban Planning, Historic Preservation, and the Persistence of Rural Forms in Shenzhen

I participated in the “Learning from Shenzhen” Symposium on Dec 10, 2011, which was part of the biennale. For the curious, I’ve uploaded o’donnell-awkward encounters, a pdf file of images and arguments from the paper I gave.

沧海桑田:The transformation of Shenzhen Villages

For those wondering, is there a documentary on Shenzhen villages out there? The answer is yes and its 15 hours long! CCTV and SZTV produced 沧海桑田:深圳村庄30年,  a 30-episode television documentary to commemorate the SEZ’s 30th anniversary.

Not unexpectedly, the documentary’s ultimate happy end is urbane Shenzhen. Nevertheless, each of the 30 episodes does raise issues worth talking about and also gives current Party takes on these issues, which is always useful information. In fact, that take may be the point; the commemoration of the SEZ’s 30th Anniversary included a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of pre-reform Baoan society and history, reminding us that the villages no longer exist as such. What remains are ideological and economic struggles over the properties held by [former village] stock-holding corporations that have not yet been fully integrated into the Municipality’s urban apparatus.

That said, however, there is also the question of what a truly integrated Shenzhen society might look like. And consequently it is interesting and hopeful to think that the economic questions may also force re-evalution of who belongs in the city.

So, how are those ideological battles being waged in the contemporary SEZ?

Continue reading