The Serendipitous Making of Made in Shenzhen (Episode 1)

This might read a little like a merry-go-round that occasionally runs off on any of several tangents.

Try to stay on board.

Imagine. You are an artist. You wake up to find yourself in a strange city. Two paths open up before you. You must choose one. On the left, you must be quick! Rummage through your pockets, pull out an idea and marshal every resource along the way to realise a masterpiece worthy of your name. On the right, you must wait.

And wait.

And hope that inspiration shall fall upon thee like the dew.

And trust that said City will reveal its secrets and let you weave them into some enchanting tapestry.

In the first case, you are like a colonial master – you bring your seeds and teach the locals to grow them. In the second, you are… well, what are you? An artist with no idea. Here, your saving grace is the art of listening.

But do spaces speak?

Perhaps they do, but when I first arrived in Baishizou, it was so loud, I could neither hear her nor myself!

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How do you frame your first impressions of a dazzling metropolis? My debut showcase, organised by Handshake 302. Photo by Kaichin Chang

Monday 4am. I’m dropped off in a street that looks like everyone had dinner and left the dishes on the floor. Jumping puddles of I’m-not-certain-what, I drag my bags through a runny alley, smoke and the stares of food vendors. Boy do they break the fast early here! Or do they just not sleep? I’m to learn later that it is the latter.

Baishizou is an urban village in Shenzhen. Just across the Sea from Hong Kong, Shenzhen was China’s first communo-capitalist experiment, also known as a Special Economic Zone. It is, therefore, a pool for migrant workers from all over China, come to have their go at achieving the capitalist dream. They wanna be rich! Who doesn’t?  Baishizou is said to be the largest haven for those migrants who do not wish to spend two arms and a leg on rent. It is cheap. The room I am occupying, I’m told, is a standard habitat for a migrant factory worker. I’m lucky to have it to myself. There would usually be two to three people squeezed into a couple of square inches.

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A typical alley in Baishizou. Jiangnum Baiho Supermarket to the left, my room is tucked up somewhere on the right.

It is here that I am to take a 30 day artistic residency, a prestigious award from the Africa Center , hosted by Handshake 302. A residency is a dedicated period during which an artist normally cuts off all that is familiar and is immersed into the creation or continuation of a work of art. In this particular instance, I am that artist who wakes up in a daze, with no clue what the days ahead might hold.

And so I wait.

My strategy is to listen. But everything in Baishizou seems to shout. Neon signs. Blasting boom-boxes outside every other shop. Swarms of people. The young. The old. The somewhere-in-between. Red, yellow and blue share-bikes litter the side-walk. Electric bikes sneak up on me at breakneck speed. The heat. Oh the heat! It’s so humid, little rivulets are running down even the prettiest girls’ napes. My personal myth is that the sea which they buried and built over, rises up in moist alarm to haunt them. Mary Ann tells me, twenty years ago, this was all sea and rice paddles. Mary Ann is the founder of Handshake 302, my host organisation.

I stop and try to listen again, or to be more precise, gather my wits. But Baishizou just goes on without skipping a beat. This place has a specific rhythm, like a machine with a human heart and a face that changes every hour.

10am The back alleys are pretty much bare, even somewhat clean. The locals have gone to work. The main street with 1001 shops is buzzing, the fresh food market is living and breathing with smells I’ve never heard before and grandmothers are thrusting their grand babies into the arms of wandering artists.

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After 60 seconds and a series of wild gestures we arrived at the perfect pose.

Photo? Photo?

They plead with smiling eyes and ask me to face this way and that, thirty pound baby in my arms.

Ni hao piaoliang!

They point at my hair and giggle. Mesmerised, they want to touch. The rate at which I am being asked for selfies, you’d think I were Angelina Jolie. I play along. I think it’s sweet and harmless. But have they never seen an African? It’s my first time in China but I’m sure I have seen their likes somewhere before, you know, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan…oh wait, those were from Hong Kong , but still! Ok fine, Kungfu Panda and what was that movie, the one where the master turned his apprentice into a guru just by mopping the floor? Also, I have seen their relatives building roads in my home city.

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Jiangnum Baiho Square by night. The untrained eye might miss their own doorstep as streets turn into makeshift restaurants.

10pm Baishizou transforms into a maze of dining corridors. Meats and dumplings and mushrooms that are roasted until they taste like bacon; noodles and rice and soups float in palm-sized dishes, mobile chefs fry and boil under the blinding bulbs. The square in front of Jiangnam Baiho – the supermarket just across from my room – fills up with wolfing city workers. They are back to dine before they retire for the night. And repeat tomorrow.

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A fleeting sense of calm. Jiangnum Baiho Square by day

10am Where did everyone go? The streets are clear again. The square in front of Jiangnam Baiho supermarket is now a playground. Little children climb, swing and twist on the public gym equipment. Old men and women watch, silent as mannequins, until the next odd stranger saunters by.

Mary Ann, my hostess, has been documenting Shenzhen for over 20 years. She is American, but her Mandarin is perfect, complete with the sweet-pitch–switch that only Chinese women can pull off. On the third day of my residency, we meet at Jiangnum Baiho – my true north in this place – and she takes me to meet Baishizou’s village chief. We have tea for days. We tell stories about tea. We sample five different flavours of tea. We take more tea. And then sip some more. In his office is a miniature model of the new Baishizou, all towers and parks and ponds.

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Mary Ann & the Village Chief contemplate the future of Baishizou.

Baishizou seems to know that the clock is ticking against it. Mary Ann tells me, grim as a seer gazing into a darkening sky, that in a year it will be razed to the ground! The future of its migrant dwellers hangs in a shaky balance. Soon this marsh of neon lights, runny streets and night food vendors will be replaced with flashy skyscrapers. Whereas the landlords are pleased as rabbits in a bucket of carrots, the tenants bury their heads in their lives, hardly talking of their impending doom. They just carry on working hard, sharing teas and slurping up their noodles. Oh yes, and dancing in the streets, like nobody is watching.

Day 4. I visit Wutongshan. This is a little village far, far away, at the foot of Wutong Mountains, east of Shenzhen. A river runs down the mountain and winds through the quaint settlement. You can hear the water rushing by at every turn. The streets are lined with colourful boutiques. These are not ordinary shops. They are studios belonging to painters and sculptors and designers. It would seem that many artists run here for creative refuge. The moment I set foot in Wutong shan, my every sinew sighs with relief from tensions I did not know I harboured.

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Wutong Shan’s tranquility seems to draw many artists.
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This installation outside Xu Gengliang‘s studio in Wutong Shan is a testament to China’s elaborate tea culture. And yes, we did share a tiny cup of tea.

Whereas Baishizou is like a spicy dish that one can’t quite taste, as it sets ones palates on fire, Wutong Shan feels like of a soft fluffy pillow. Cushioned by nature and several paces slower, the little village reins even the jumpiest of minds to stillness. An intriguing series of events presents me with a choice – to spend the month in either of the villages. I watched a TV show once, where they said the secret to Chinese Cuisine is to create a fine blend of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy. Could I strike a balance between the two extreme realities?

Friday, Noon.

I am leaving Baishizou, dragging my bags once again over who-knows-what, feeling as disoriented as I look. It’s been five days and I’m still jet-lagged, so it makes perfect sense to my body to wake up at noon. I was supposed to meet Annie, my new hostess in Wutong Shan, at 10am. Two hours later, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the simple task of getting myself there. I decide to take a cab, even though it might cost half my stipend. But there’s a small problem, I would not know how to explain to the cab driver where I am going. They don’t speak English. I don’t speak Chinese. I need Annie to send me directions written in Mandarin. But Wi-Fi isn’t working in my room and my phone is 3G – too slow for China. It seems they are not running this obsolete technology on their networks anymore. There are places in the world where you can get away with not having a fully functional smart phone. China is not one of them. So I cannot reach Annie.

1pm

A round old man walks up to me. He smiles and with a twinkle in his eyes, says something that I have no ability to understand, not because I am too flustered, but because I cannot differentiate is from was in Mandarin. My blank gaze is not convincing and so he continues to explain in earnest, as if we shared mother tongues.

Someone help me get to Annie! Is there a coffee shop with Wi-Fi nearby?

Before I fully realise what’s happening, my shoulders are being gently, firmly massaged by a perfect stranger in the middle of the street. Nobody stops to stare because it all fits into the scene. I finally get it. The old man is a masseur, runs a spa upstairs, he could give me a dizzying massage and Wi-Fi that works if I just popped in for a sec. I look in the direction of his spa – it’s tucked up somewhere in a sooty edifice, cables running all over it like the World Wide Web. As if to stop this charade, it begins to pour. An impolite Shenzhen typhoon, blowing this way and that and flooding the streets all over again like it did last hour. The masseur insists on lugging my bags himself to the veranda of Jiangnum baiho – remember the supermarket? He won’t let me carry even the lighter end. As we wait for the rain to catch its breath, he takes the chance to pour out his heart.

Masseur: I lowi you.

Me: I’m sorry what?

Masseur: I lowi you

Me: I do not understand Chinese.

I’m to hear this phrase many times later, from random men, often following a two minute conversation.

The rain stops. Masseur hauls my bags down the bustling street, all the way to the subway station and leaves only after I have purchased my ticket to Wutong Shan.

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Only in Wutong Shan. These odd companions carried on with their tête-à-tête for over ten minutes.

And thus I chose to straddle Shenzhen’s calm and wild sides, going back and forth between Wutongshan and Baishizou, sampling the chaos of the urban- village, getting lost in the city, before retreating to the village-village.

Watching

Waiting

Listening

Trusting that Shenzhen would reveal her secrets and let me make a masterpiece worthy of both our names.

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Sunrise on Annie’s rooftop, Wutong Shan. Here my vision for the residency began to come into focus.

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6 Replies to “The Serendipitous Making of Made in Shenzhen (Episode 1)”

  1. Cath, your writing is fabulous! And thank you for sharing Shenzen and Baishizou with us. I see myself in its tight alleys and bustling streets, tasting its- her- sweet and sour foods, and listening to the friendly mandarin chatter. How enchanting! Can’t wait to read episode 2.

    Liked by 1 person

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