Shenzhen - city of kitsch

The following appears as the sixth chapter in:

Mark Anthony Jones, Flowing Waters Never Stale: journeys through China, Zeus Publications, Burleigh MDC, Queensland, 2008, pp.54-65.


Shenzhen – city of kitsch

In recognition of her hard work and loyalty, Xiaojing’s employer provided her with two free tickets to visit the Meridian View Centre, located on the sixty-ninth floor of the green-coloured Diwang Commercial Building, which towers up to three hundred and eighty-four metres off Shenzhen’s main thoroughfare of Shennan Lu; the city’s most easily recognisable building, its main architectural symbol.

Our tickets were torn, and as we passed through the turnstile we were each handed a promotional brochure, bilingual, and which I wasted no time in reading. ‘Standing at the Meridian View Centre,’ it said, ‘which is the first high-rise theme sightseeing and entertainment scenic spot in Asia, you can easily see just about any sight within Shenzhen city and parts of Hong Kong.’

‘With the unique location and amazing view,’ it continued, ‘it is the best place to witness the epoch-making policy one country-two systems and the great change of Shenzhen city from a small fishing village of late twenty years.’

I was quite keen to view the city from these heights, but before Xiaojing and I were able to make it to a window we were briskly ushered into a small cinema, where we were each shown to a seat, and asked to wait patiently. Decked out like a ship’s cabin, the cinema resembled the sort of set one might expect to find at a Warner Bros. Movie World theme park. Within minutes the cinema was full, the lights turned down, and the show ready to commence. The Pirate’s Legend, it was called.

Based on an old tale about a pirate named Chang Pao, who thrived in this area during the nineteenth century, this multi-media show was an attempt at simulacra, with its combination of video footage and holographic images all shown in synchronicity with the sounds of wind and rain and lashing waves that, when combined with the hidden high-powered fans that blew hurling gusts of wind onto the audience, were meant to simulate conditions out at sea. At one stage during the show, images of cute furry rats were shown scrambling about the ship’s lower decks whilst my calf muscles were tickled by a moving ‘rat’s tail’ hidden somewhere beneath my seat.

According to the Window of Shenzhen website, Chang Pao was not only a Robin Hood type character who robbed from the rich to give to the poor, but he also ‘successfully drove away the foreign invaders’ from the Pearl River delta area, making him an ideal patriot; a folk hero to celebrate.

Of course, the reality of Chang Pao’s life wasn’t half as glamorous as it was made out to be by this kitschy presentation, with all of its treasure chests and shining swords and Disney-type imagery. For starters, Chang Pao didn’t succeed in ‘driving away’ any foreign invaders at all – though the pirate Confederacy did inflict significant damage on the Qing navy. As B.J. Lofland points out in his essay on Piracy: A Selective Historical Account, plundering on the high seas was so out of control at the time, that the Chinese authorities actually sought the help of foreign fleets to help tackle the problem. Six Portuguese ships were hired for six months to work on pirate control, and it was with the help of a Portuguese official from Macau, Miguel de Arriaga, that Chang was able to negotiate his surrender in 1810 to the Qing navy. Not only this, but pirate ships, including those of Chang Pao’s Red Fleet, seldom even attacked European ships except when known that they were very weak or poorly manned. He wasn’t quite the brave, fearless, swashbuckling repeller of foreign invaders that he has so often been made out to be.

Chang Pao was certainly no Robin Hood either. Mr Glasspoole, an officer with the East India Company ship, Marquis of Ely, was actually captured with seven other men by Chang’s fleet in 1809, and was held captive for eleven weeks until eventually being exchanged for a ransom made up of two chests of opium, two casks of gunpowder, and a telescope. After his release, Glasspoole wrote a report describing the activities of Chang and his pirates, noting that they spent most of their energies plundering small coastal villages, and that in doing so, they behaved very barbarously. They regularly collected protection money, and villagers were often kidnapped and then ransomed for either food or for money. Many entire villages were burnt to the ground, and female captives were often forced into sexual slavery, and those prisoners who attempted to escape were normally tortured or killed. A favourite method of torture, said Glasspoole, was to nail the feet to the deck for several hours.

Being a pirate in Chang’s fleet was hardly glamorous. As Glasspoole noted, the ships were infested with rats, which were sometimes added to the human diet – a diet that normally consisted of little more than coarse red rice and fish. According to Glasspoole, at one time during his captivity they lived on only rice and caterpillars for three weeks. ‘Feast or famine,’ he said, ‘was the normal lot on pirate ships.’

The Meridian View Centre’s entertainment certainly did distort the city’s past and present in the way that it presented a nationalist cause centred on economic development and the country’s One-China Policy, and by its glorification of past anti-imperialist struggles, pitted against successive waves of foreign invaders by hero-pirates. It masked reality, with its claim that ‘the cultures, the style and features of both Shenzhen and Hong Kong have merged here beautifully,’ and that both Shenzhen and Hong Kong share histories as ‘one continuous line, nurtured by the long Shenzhen River’ whose ‘people have grown up on both sides’ – whose common cause and whose shared destinies had been interrupted only briefly, by the colonial exploits of a foreign power. The fact that the Qing navy’s ability to resist foreign fleets had been seriously weakened by their own struggles with home-grown pirates, whose numbers are thought to have exceeded forty thousand, had simply been left out of the picture, omitted from the entertainment. The ambivalence that most of today’s Hong Kong residents feel towards Beijing’s political leadership was likewise ignored.

What I also found interesting about the Pirate’s Legend show was the way that it distorted China’s sexual history, by presenting the past as though everybody had, in the nineteenth century, cherished the same sexual practices and morals that are now espoused by China’s mainstream today. The show made a big deal of the fact that Chang Pao married, that he was therefore not too far removed from society’s conventions. The fact that the woman he married was his boss, that it was a female pirate who led the entire Confederation, was simply left out of the presentation. The idea that a woman could be a leader, could wield so much power, just doesn’t sit very comfortably with the patriarchal attitudes of today’s business and financial leaders.

The inherent bisexuality of all human beings, if we accept Freud’s view, was also, perhaps not surprisingly, denied by the View Centre’s pirate legend. In ancient China, homosexuality was seldom regarded as a sin, and bisexuality was considered almost a norm. One thing that is rarely ever discussed by the Chinese today, is the fact that even the founder of the Chinese nation, China’s first Emperor, Qin Shihuang-di, had young male lovers. The scholar Pan Guangdan has even reached the conclusion that almost every emperor during the Han Dynasty had at least one male lover – a practice that was also common throughout the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties.

Bret Hinsch, in his book Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China, discusses the fact that early Western observers in China, such as the Jesuit Matthew Ricci for example, had noted the acceptance of homosexuality in China, but could do little to change it. One British official, writing in 1806, reported that among the Chinese ‘the commission of this detestable and unnatural act is attended with so little sense of shame, or feelings of delicacy, that many of the first officers of the state seemed to make no hesitation in publicly avowing it. Each of these officers is constantly attended by his pipe-bearer, who is generally a handsome boy, from fourteen to eighteen years of age, and is always well dressed.’

J.L. Turner, a British captive of Chang Pao’s Red Fleet in 1807, said that each pirate vessel carried eight to ten kidnapped women who were ‘intended to please all the society indiscriminately and to do the work of their sex,’ yet it seemed to him that the ‘greater part of the crew were satisfied without them’ because they instead were in the habit of committing ‘almost publicly crimes against nature.’ Glasspoole, during his captivity, also noted that the most prized captives of the pirates were young boys.

The fact that Chang Pao was himself kidnapped by pirates at the age of fourteen was also omitted from the entertainment. Cheng I, the infamous leader of the pirate Confederacy, owed much of his success to the organisational and diplomatic skills of his wife, Cheng I Sao. It was they who kidnapped Chang Pao, adopting him as their son.

Cheng I and Chang Pao soon became lovers, though Cheng I’s wife didn’t seem to resent this relationship. Indeed, Cheng I also maintained numerous other male lovers, including the commander of the Black Fleet, Kuo Po-o-Tai. When Cheng I died during a battle in Vietnam in 1807, aged forty-two, his wife, Cheng I Sao took over the command of the Confederacy, and appointed Chang Pao (her husband’s favourite) as her chief lieutenant – putting him in charge of the Red Fleet.

Chang Pao and Cheng I Sao did eventually marry one another, sometime after their surrender in 1810. The Governor-General of Canton had offered them both an amnesty in exchange for giving up their piracy, allowing Cheng I Sao to set up a very profitable gambling house and brothel in Canton, while Chang Pao went on to become a colonel in the Qing army.

As Jean Baudrillard has argued, the post-modern world is a world whose signs have made a fundamental break from referring to ‘reality’. In The Precession of Simulacra, Baudrillard wrote that simulation ‘is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance’, but rather ‘the generation by models of a real without origin or reality.’ It is, he asserted, ‘no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody’ but instead the substituting of ‘the signs of the real for the real.’ Primary examples he said, include psychosomatic illness, Disneyland and Watergate.

Even human sexuality it would seem, our own nature as human beings, has been derealised – substituted instead by a discourse that ‘naturalises’ monogamous heterosexual relationships bound legally by marriage as the only ‘normal’ practice of sexual behaviour and instinct – a discourse which is purely ideological and historical, but which is instead presented as being fundamentally inherent to our collective natures, and therefore unbroken by time. The simulacrum functions not only to entertain, but also to create and to maintain societal amnesia. The imagery used to describe the various scenes one can enjoy from the View Centre’s windows provide yet another example of how the real is replaced by the beyond real, for they were clearly designed to give the impression that all of Shenzhen’s economic development had somehow been preordained by nature, that both Shenzhen and Hong Kong had been ‘nurtured’ by the one mother. I wandered over to the viewing area, to one of the windows facing north, where I noticed a placard telling me that all of the ‘modern high-storey residences’ that I could see had ‘grown up with plenty of vigour like the Wutong Mountain.’

So here in Shenzhen, towers of concrete and glass rise up out of the landscape as naturally as do mountains, ‘revealing the new look of the Shenzhen Economic Special Zone’ for locals and visitors alike. I turned again to my brochure, which, rather interestingly I thought, advised me that it was here that I could enjoy ‘a panoramic view of the real metropolitan scenes of Shenzhen and Hong Kong.’

The word ‘real’ is what aroused my curiosity, is what provoked me into ploughing deeper into analysis, for it seemed to me to be an admission that everything else here was merely fake. On offer were ‘life-like simulated flights in the air, a splendid high altitude web site, a robot guide, some colourful shopping space, a quiet and romantic café and so on.’

The café itself, facing south, not only offered its patrons a view, but also the ‘charm of old Hong Kong’, decorated as it was with a few street lamps and sign posts, faked in a 60’s style, all there to give the café a look reminiscent of the type of scenes depicted in Wong Kar-Wai’s film, In the Mood for Love.

The Meridian View Centre, like Shenzhen’s various theme parks as well as Hong Kong’s new Disneyland, offers little more than a simulated ‘paradise’, a distraction from the bleakness or blandness of everyday life, and of course, all for a price. Xiaojing and I may have had our tickets given to us for free, but printed on those tickets was an entry fee of sixty yuan.

Behind the façade, as always, there lurked a sales pitch. We had merely been sold something billed as being better than real – something which, in actuality, was little more than a fake reality, a conceptual and mythologised model of reality, but with no connection to reality, and with no origin in reality – marketable precisely because it was able to claim itself as being something more exciting and pleasant than reality. The panoramic view overlooking the ‘real’ Shenzhen that one is able to enjoy from this building’s great height is simply not inspiring enough in itself, it would seem. The reality of Shenzhen’s cityscape is that it looks little different from all other Chinese cities of similar size. It is nothing special, nothing most people would be willing to pay sixty yuan to catch a glimpse of. The view from the Meridian View Centre is only marketable if the city’s history of economic development itself is mythologised, and if it is packaged together with other ‘attractions’ – a ‘high-rise theme sightseeing and entertainment scenic spot,’ as my brochure proclaimed.

Before leaving this hyperreality, Xiaojing and I paused to examine the wax replicas of Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom were seated in discussion on red armchairs in simulation of their historic 1982 meeting in Beijing to discuss the eventual handover of Hong Kong.

‘Look at his watch,’ observed Xiaojing. ‘It’s still ticking!’

Indeed it was ticking, and it even kept an accurate time. But of course, it was never Deng’s watch in the first place, not in actuality.

‘What do you mean, it’s still ticking?’ I smiled. ‘It was never actually worn by Deng, I’m sure.’

Xiaojing, suddenly realising her naivety, smiled with embarrassment. She had been momentarily fooled, seduced into this world of hyperreality, unable to recognise the difference between the real, and the beyond real. For her, this watch looked like the real watch that Deng had actually worn during his 1982 meeting with Thatcher, and so for her, it therefore was real, and its link to the real Deng Xiaoping it seemed, had remained unbroken by the years that had passed, with its hands still ticking, still keeping an accurate time. The authenticity claimed by this watch was not historical, but visual.

For me though, all of these ‘attractions’, including the wax models, were just far too kitsch to be convincing, to be capable of being construed in any way as reality. Kitsch is more than just bad taste. It is bad taste precisely because it is false, because it is cheaply faked. It is, essentially, a commodity aesthetic, which is why kitsch is the new face of China – and nowhere perhaps is it more evident on the mainland than here in Shenzhen, where plastic coconut palm trees grow ubiquitously from street corners, and where many shops and schools and even some homes are designed to look like Disney castles, its massage parlours like Roman temples.

All of this hyperreality of course, imploded the moment we stepped back out onto the busy streets below, where we were confronted by the true reality of Shenzhen’s economic development, by all the inequalities it had produced, by the sight of the city’s nouve riche strolling along with shopping bags in hand, their clothes labelled with ‘brands’ that signified their new power as consumers, elevating them to ever greater heights in social status. Wandering about from store to store, from ‘attraction’ to ‘attraction’, these middle class slaves to fashion, with gods now reified as either money or things, inadvertently rubbed shoulders with the city’s beggars, with the city’s underclass – with people living out of rubbish bins, with people whose reality denied them access to such entertainment for distraction or denial, whose pockets were too empty to consume art for consolation, and whose life’s struggles they played out against the surreal backdrop that is Shenzhen kitsch.

This attitude of mine, perhaps not surprisingly, provoked a heated response from Xiaojing.

‘Don’t be so cynical,’ she snapped, and then frowned. ‘Consumer society gives people individual choice; it gives them plenty of freedom to experiment with who they want to be. Nobody in China today wants to live the way people did before the reform era, during Mao’s time, when everybody was poor and had to dress and think the same. Why do you think everyone here loves Deng Xiaoping so much? The reforms he started have made China great, and have lifted 250 million people out of poverty within the space of only one single generation. This city didn’t even exist twenty-five years ago, yet now it’s the fourth richest city in the new China, and is full of skyscrapers, good department stores, art galleries, night clubs and more than eighty KFC restaurants, including the first KFC restaurant to open on the mainland.’

Her voice swelled with pride when I expressed surprise at this figure, and she continued, telling me how she had recently read a newspaper report on how KFC now has over seventeen hundred outlets in China, and McDonald’s seven hundred and seventy – its first mainland restaurant also having been established here in Shenzhen, back in 1990.

McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut, I realised, had all been proudly appropriated by the Chinese as symbols of their own modernity. In countries like the United States and Australia it is usual to equate McDonald’s food with low cost and fast service, but here in China ‘the Big Mac was rapidly transformed into a form of haute cuisine,’ as the anthropologist Yan Yunxiang has observed, becoming ‘a place where people could gain status simply by eating there.’ Many Chinese urbanites have even appropriated American fast food restaurants as desirable spaces in which to relax, transforming them into leisure centres, sometimes even study centres, with their climate- controlled environments, clean toilets and soft music all adding to their special appeal. When customers linger in McDonald’s or KFC for hours, relaxing, chatting, reading, studying or doing their homework, spending as much time as possible over their food, they are, in the words of Yan Yunxiang, ‘taking the “fast” out of fast food.’

The Sinicisation of the McDonald’s experience is also evidenced in the renaming of Ronald McDonald. In Chinese, ‘Uncle’ and ‘Auntie’ are voluntary honorific titles, generally given to any older person, irrespective of familial relation. By referring to the ‘fast food’ clown as ‘Uncle McDonald’, and to the female receptionists employed to cater to their entertainment needs as ‘Aunt McDonald’, children are able to imagine themselves as part of an extended family, their use of honorifics an expression of their filial piety.

KFC and McDonald’s are of course not the only enterprises to have done well in China, which is now the world’s third-biggest consumer of luxury goods, accounting for over twelve percent of sales worldwide. Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton are all popular in the department stores of China’s larger cities, as are L’Oreal and Nivea products, and the best-selling lipsticks in China are Maybelline. Global retailers such as Carrefour, Wal-mart and Ikea have all invested heavily in China, and as Deborah Davies points out in her study on Urban Consumer Culture, China’s urban residents are ‘avid and knowledgeable consumers of transnationally branded foodstuffs, pop-music videos and fashion.’ There are over eight thousand brands of shampoo and five hundred brands of toothpaste available in China, yet despite so many brands to choose from, consumers tend to be very discriminating. Xiaojing refuses to use anything on her hair other than Pantene or Sassoon.

Through advertising and consumption, popular culture, which is commercialised culture, has become deeply rooted in Chinese social life, and as Yue Daiyun has pointed out in her essay on Public Culture in China Today, is now ‘the main force and system in constructing the ideology of the present.’ It has transformed Chinese values, making people more materialistic, standardising people, argues Yue, into a ‘single and commercialised cultural form’, causing them to ‘lose their complex feelings of being human beings by concealing their real needs.’

But for staggeringly large numbers of Chinese, real needs are being met, in the areas of housing, education, healthcare and spending power, as the United Nation’s Human Development Report shows. ‘China has registered some of the most rapid advances in human development in history,’ says the 2005 report, ‘with its Human Development Index ranking increasing twenty percent since 1990.’ China in 2007 was ranked eighty-one out of one hundred and seventy-seven countries, although uneven development has created huge inequalities, with Guizhou ranking alongside Namibia (ranked one hundred and twenty-five on the index) in contrast to Shanghai, which is more comparable to Portugal (which ranks twenty-nine on the index).

The income gap that exists between rural and urban residents in China is now the biggest in the world, with the typical city-dwelling family earning more than three times that of their rural counterpart. Even in the wealthy coastal cities, inequalities are sharp, with blue-collar workers earning on average ten to fifteen times less than white-collar professionals employed by multinational corporations.

The poorest of these blue-collar workers, whose salaries average only around one thousand yuan a month, tend to be migrant peasant labourers, who, according to China’s State Population and Family Planning Commission, had by 2004 swelled to over 140 million in number. Some are seasonal workers, but most tend to establish a more permanent presence in the cities that offer them employment, only travelling back to their home villages during national vacation periods. Many live in miserable conditions, preferring instead to send their hard-earned cash back home to their families, rather than spending it on better quality lodgings for themselves. The prosperity of China’s middle class is built on the backs of these floating workers, unfairly exploited as they often are on such low salaries, and for such long working hours.

Just as Xiaojing and I were about to board a bus back home, I noticed a small gathering of workers, clearly migrants from the countryside, easily identifiable by their older, less fashionable styles of dress. All were taking turns to have their photo taken in front of the iconic Diwang Building – once the tallest in all of Asia – each one claiming some belonging to the city, it seemed. Their photos, no doubt, will be sent home to the relatives, used to assert for themselves a new identity.

Although clearly not the intended patrons of the Diwang, these migrant workers were using the building for their own ends, prompting me to wonder whether I should read Shenzhen through Michel de Certeau rather than through Baudrillard, for I witnessed in the ‘tactics’ of these workers the ability to create a space for themselves in a place defined by the architects of elitist power and wealth.

Xiaojing was right to raise the issue of individual agency, and to bring me to task for overlooking it. Roughly eighty percent of Chinese city dwellers now own their own homes, giving these middle-class urbanites a strong personal stake in the economy, and when it comes time to furnish and to decorate their own abodes, as Deborah Davies has demonstrated through her research, consumer choice can enable shopping sprees to be experienced as expanded autonomy and pride. There is certainly more freedom available to the masses than the mere ‘grazing on the ration of simulacra the system distributes to each individual,’ as Michel de Certeau has so justly pointed out.

‘I don’t want to go home now, I want to go shopping instead,’ Xiaojing declared. ‘Don’t complain, it’s every Chinese girl’s favourite pastime, and I do need a new handbag.’

I was hardly in the mood for department store crowds, but nor was I in the mood for an argument. I inhaled slowly, deeply, filling my lungs with oxygen, and perhaps with a little carbon monoxide – the fumes of a passing cab. I must be like water, I thought to myself, unassertive, always taking the path of least resistance, always resigning myself to my fate.


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