The Shenzhen Flâneur

It’s easy to spot Mary Ann O’Donnell in a Shenzhen crowd. She’s the one wearing a pink-and-orange linen scarf and flowing dress. She’s also white — a rather rare sight in a wealthy city that is still off the radar of the roving crowd of expatriates that have settled in Shanghai and Beijing. Don’t let appearances deceive you, though, because O’Donnell knows Shenzhen better than just about everybody.

Armed with a camera and a notebook, O’Donnell roams the city’s streets, collecting stories and photos that sometimes posts on her blog, Shenzhen Noted. When she first moved to the city in 1995, it was just 15 years old, a shifty frontier town. Now it bears the veneer of global capitalism: giant malls that wouldn’t be out of place in Causeway Bay dot the landscape, in between luxurious housing estates and international chain hotels.

But Shenzhen is far more complicated than meets the eye. For all the new malls, the reality is that Shenzhen is still a city of villages populated by poor migrants who’ve arrived from across China for a shot at success. That’s the Shenzhen that fascinates O’Donnell.

I met her last month on a damp, chilly afternoon, in the western district of Nanshan. We strolled through a series of old country villages that had been absorbed into the fast-growing city.

Chicken feathers scattered in a village lane

“You can see when you come into these parts of Shenzhen that people inhabit them as if they were villages. What people forget is that half of Shenzhen’s population live in urban villages,” she says.

After Shenzhen became a Special Economic Zone in 1979, the farmers who lived in the indigenous Cantonese villages — officially known as “rural collectives” that had special land-ownership rights — began to rent out their houses or replace them with walkup apartment buildings. Many of these buildings were packed so close together, they earned the nickname “shake-hand buildings,” because if you were to reach out your bedroom window you could shake hands with the person in the next building over.

Though they are often dingy, the villages are the liveliest parts of Shenzhen, and their narrow, winding streets pulse with activity. You can get your clothes fixed by street seamstresses, you can buy fresh locally-grown vegetables and food from every corner of China, pirated DVDs, bags, trinkets, live chickens. Whereas the Shenzhen that most tourists see a rigidly planned city of massive boulevards and giant buildings, the villages are intimate and human-scaled.

They can also be remarkably friendly places. As we pass a handsome old apartment building, O’Donnell asks a security guard what it is. He explains that it’s the old living quarters for teachers at the high school across the street. They end up chatting for ten minutes. “Hong Kong people are urban, New York people are urban, but Shenzhen people, for the most part, are villagers,” says O’Donnell. “Three years ago they were sitting around waiting or the rice to grow. So they’re willing to talk. They’re curious.”

O’Donnell is an anthropologist by training. Raised in the suburbs of New York, she studied Chinese at a liberal arts college in Vermont before eventually going to do a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Houston’s Rice University. That’s when she first came to Shenzhen, to do research on the creation of wastelands.

Soon, though, she realized that Shenzhen, as an amorphous, ephemeral kind of city, was far too complex to be packaged into a theory-bound academic paper. Her steps into academia became more tentative. After a series of stints as a professor at a string of high-profile universities in the United States and China, she decided to devote herself to exploring alternative ways to represent Shenzhen.

Now O’Donnell is a modern-day flâneur, someone who wanders the streets and observes the city without any explicit purpose. She writes papers when she feels like it — she has one coming out in Gastronomica called “The Cultural Politics of Eating with Old Shenzheners” — and she performs visual poetry, which combines photos of Shenzhen with poems that are expanded and modified by members of the audience. She also runs an experimental theatre company called Fatbird Theatre.

As we make our walk through one village, we turn into a narrow lane and come across an old one-storey house with a pitched tile roof and a colourful frieze, a sign that it was likely built by a wealthy family. Nearby is another, similar house, but in much worse condition. It’s for rent.

“Would you live there?” asks O’Donnell. “It’s terrible, the owner is trying to rent this place out to some poor family when it’s almost falling apart.” We turn the corner and bump into a man from Xinjiang who tries to talk to us, but his Mandarin is nearly incomprehensible.

We round a corner past a pile of discarded furniture and come across a street market, which leads to a beautiful tree-lined avenue. O’Donnell explains that in the early days of the Special Economic Zone, Shenzhen was conceived as a city of leafy boulevards, but this plan was largely abandoned as the city expanded and a more expedient approach to development was abandoned.

Eventually, we turn onto Nanxing Road, a busy strip of restaurant and clothing shops blasting loud dance music. We come across a Hong Kong-style dessert café and go in for milk tea and tong shui.

“It was really boring being a teacher,” she says. “I think my work is too arty for anthropology. Art doesn’t need an overarching theory. And it’s just more fun to walk and take pictures and write poems than to do surveys and sit in the library. What I’m doing now is like open-source fieldwork. I get to do the fun stuff and someone else can do the drudge work.”

Prewar Nationalist-era building surrounded by recent “shake-hand” structures

This weekend, O’Donnell will demonstrate her work and participate in a discussion at INH-SZ, a temporary art space in Baishizhou, one of Shenzhen’s largest urban villages. The event starts at 3:30pm and will include Guangzhou artist Duan Jianyu, architect Doreen Liu and Phoebe Wong from the Asia Art Archive. For more information see CNNGo.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Friday March 05 2010at 04:03 am , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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