Postmodern orientalism

Originally posted 23 July 2017

One of the distinctive features of Shenzhen are its so-called urban villages. These have a very particular history. In the communist agricultural system, villages were collectively owned and managed by their residents. As Shenzhen expanded, the municipal government was able to claim some land between villages for the city. However, village collectives retained control of the villages themselves and some of the surrounding farmland. Gradually, this farmland was sold off to the city until only the villages themselves remained.

Since villagers could no longer pursue their original occupation – farming – and most had little or no formal education (and were therefore largely excluded from the newly emerging urban jobs) they turned to either setting up small factories within their villages (these became some of the first Shenzhen factories) or renting out rooms or apartments within the urban villages to migrant workers coming to the city.

There are very few urban villages left. Mary Ann O’Donnell has written extensively about urban villages and their gradual disappearance. In 1992, the government turned the production teams associated with villages into shareholding companies, with the villagers as share-holders (Wang, Wang, and Wu). One consequence of this has been that villages have been sold off to make way for highways, hotels, business districts, high-rise apartments and shopping malls.

There has been a great deal written about these urban villages – they are of especial interest to urban planners, architects, and urban historians. They have been interested in them as impediments to urban plans, as potential sources of cheap housing, or as objects of history and nostalgia. But what I want to dwell on here is their particular aesthetic. The villages that remain – such as Nantou and Baishizhou – are now enclaves surrounded by the massive infrastructure of the Shenzhen megacity. In some places, highways and highrises tower over the 6 to 8-storey residential buildings within the villages.

They are densely built and densely populated. Shenzheners talk about “kiss” buildings, built so close together that one could kiss a person in another building by learning out of a window across the narrow alleyways. A huge proportion (about half) of city residents, especially unofficial ones, and especially poorer migrant workers live in these villages. They are often filled with street life – shops of diverse kinds spilling out onto the street, street food, mahjong, pool tables in the street, and so on. Massage parlours and motorcycle repair shops share the sidewalk with mobile phone vendors and restaurants.

The villages feel like little bits of the past trapped in the future that is sprawling all around them. Dark alleyways, crowded streets; high tech, low life. Here, perhaps the 1980s cyberpunk vision of the future reaches its closest realization. Part of this vision was a massively divided and unequal society where megarich corporations dominate power and wealth and everyone else is left to eke out an existence in the “sprawl.” Shenzhen’s juxtaposition of rapid hyper-modernization/ high tech against dense, crowded, urban villages suggests exactly this split.

And, of course, this is Asia. When William Gibson was asked to explain why he set a large part of Neuromancer in Tokyo, he said that he “didn’t even know where Chiba was” (Smith) when he wrote but that “Japan is the global imagination’s default setting for the future” (LARB). For William Gibson and others, it was Japan that seemed the more plausible location for such a future. But given Shenzhen’s history, perhaps it is not all that surprising that it is here we find a few dwindling places that resemble that vision.

Cyberpunk literature emerged at roughly the same time that Shenzhen was being created as a “Special Economic Zone” – a place devoted to capital flows and partly outside the jurisdiction of the central government. The city, like the literature, emerged from experimentation with possible futures. Both Shenzhen and the worlds of cyberpunk emerged as renegade spaces, liminal zones and border zones, trapped on the edges, between East and West.

Part of the reason for the villages existing in the way they do is also geopolitical. The location of factories for manufacturing, especially of global-brand electronics (most notably Foxconn), is one of the major factors bringing vast numbers of migrant workers to the city. It is precisely the globalization of consumer electronics markets and the power of the multinational corporations involved in that trade that creates Shenzhen’s density (and inequality).

Shanzhai phone cases. One is a completely fake case, another is a genuine case, the third is made in the same factory as the fake on a ‘ghost shift’.

The localization and density of this manufacturing also created the possibility of shanzhai (literally, “mountain stronghold”) — guerrilla electronics or “bandit” phones that are often cheaply priced and wildly innovative (often through violating intellectual property laws). The spaces of Shenzhen, especially it’s urban villages, at least through the people that live in them, are connected to this culture of innovation. Or, putting it the other way around, high tech is critical to life and lives of the urban village.

All this is not just to say “William Gibson was right, but he got the wrong city.” Rather, I’d say that Gibson’s vision can be read onto Shenzhen urban spaces in very interesting ways that tell much about its status as a zone of high tech, as a global space, as an unequal space, and as a space dominated by particular forms of capital.