Huaqiangbei And Thoughts On Shenzhen 3.0

Unlike its previous semi-formal iteration, the new Huaqiangbei has clear edges and purpose

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If memory serves (and it tends to serve some agenda), I first visited Huaqiangbei (formerly the Shangbu Industrial Park) in 1995, when it was still primarily a manufacturing and residential area, but didn’t know what I was looking at. The big ideas in my head had to do with workers rights and feminism, and so I was aware of the factories, the state sponsored housing, the few department stores, including the then still operative Friendship store, and the iconic Shanghai Hotel with its surprisingly good Cantonese dim sum. I noticed that neighboring Gangxia and Tianmian were under construction, but glossed this new urban morphology as a “new village.” I didn’t realize that the scale of immigration and construction that happened during the 90s and defined “Shenzhen” for me would be different enough from the 1980s that friends who arrived during the Special Zone’s first decade laughing asserted that Shenzhen was changing so quickly that if they didn’t visit a neighborhood for several years it was easy to get lost; Shenzhen in 1989 and 1999 were two different cities. And that was almost two decades ago.

In 2004, I lived just west of Huaqiangbei in Tianmian. The Shanghai Hotel bus stop was one of my regular stations and my favorite neighborhood restaurant was the Old Xi’an Restaurant, which was located just behind the iconic CIVIC Building, one of the first glass and steel office spaces in the area. I shopped for tea in the six-story Rainbow Department and window-shopped for new electronics before it was possible to easily purchase Apple computers and assorted paraphernalia. I remember the Textile Building, but by the time I regularly visited Huaqiangbei, the area specialized in electronics, especially cellphones, although the brands du jour were more of a joke than the creative aspiration that they have become. Short story long enough to establish some kind of ethnographic credibility: for several years, I used to pass through Huaqiangbei to eat dinner, buy high quality DVD pirates, my first digital camera, and wii games (aimed for the Japanese market), and burn CDs (in bulk, but never more than 200) for the odd project.

The day before yesterday, I walked Huaqiangbei for the first time in a while and realized how much about that neighborhood I had taken for granted, more specifically I missed seeing the vanished as it vanished: the Old Xi’an Restaurant that I used to frequent, the low-end and pirated products easily accessible even on Huaqiangbei Road itself, and of course the gritty feel of a working class neighborhood. Not only the storefronts have been upgraded and branded, but the class of window shoppers has clearly risen; I found several vegan options at the new Sexy Salad restaurant. Suddenly, abruptly. Shenzhen 3.0 has been launched.

In this context it is interesting to note that the Fresh Vision 2016 exhibition which just opened in the C6 building in the northern part of the OCT (seven subway stops west of Huaqiangbei) seems about the uncertain (and anxious, very anxious) search to establish meaning, to denominate. For example, Peng Keyue’s figures are rowing at cross purposes while travelling by rubber duckie, while Xu Zhenbang offers an intricate puzzle of images that remain out of focus. Liu Zhongchen’s sculptures hang such that they cast a shadow which obscure the lines of the sculpture, Guo Jing’s dollhouses have been demolished and moved to lockers, and Meng Xiaoyang’s diviner has no eyes. Established in 2004, Fresh Vision displays graduating works of China’s art academies. In his introduction to this edition, Curator Fan Lin suggests that together the work of these young graduates present a “non-purposive attitude.” On his reading, that “non-puposiveness” is the means by which these young arts vigilantly protect their independence. If one can’t be categorized there is space to be otherwise, and yes, the Daoist principle of  wuwei resonates loudly.

In retrospect, the loosey goosey freedom of evading categorization that characterizes Fresh Vision 2016 implicitly critiques the New Huaqiangbei, which has been offered up as “the Silicon Valley of Hardware.” Unlike its previous semi-formal iteration, this new Huaqiangbei has clear edges and purpose; its value has been captured and codified. This shiney version of Huaqiangbei sparkles with maker fantasies and start-up riches, but the question of independence and its relationship to creativity now hovers on the horizon, and this horizon (as far as I can tell) makes visible the form of Shenzhen 3.0.

Below, details from Fresh Vision 2016, Denominating: Power & Game.