Heritage and an Old Pile of Concrete

The gate to Xin'an Ancient Town.

The gate to Xin’an Ancient Town.

A while ago, a dear friend of mine gave me a guidebook to Brussels called Secret Brussels, which is part of a series that focuses on the more uncommon sights and attractions in (mostly) European cities. The places featured in these books are well-known and draw thousands, if not millions of tourists each year. It amazes me how many guidebooks of places such as Brussels, Rome, or Paris are still sold each year, not only because so much information can be found on the internet, but also because the majority of guidebooks provide exactly the same information. What is missing, are books about cities such as Shenzhen, where nearly every sight is a secret.

According to most of the information about Shenzhen, this is the place to be: Luohu Commercial Centre.

According to most of the information about Shenzhen, this is the place to be: Luohu Commercial Centre.

When I first visited Shenzhen seven years ago the only attractions promoted were Window of the World, Splendid China, Minsk World, and the Luohu Commercial Centre. Shenzhen was a place to do business and shop for cheap knock-offs. I spent hours on the internet trying to find websites that mentioned other places and succeeded in the end. Although it has become easier to find out about places such as Dapeng Fortress, the Hakka Museum in Longgang, and the Tian Hou Temple in Chiwan, most people visiting, or even living in Shenzhen will not have visited these places, because tourist information is still sparse and requires some research.

Xin'an is one of Shenzhen's (still) many 'urban villages'.

Xin’an is one of Shenzhen’s (still) many ‘urban villages’.

One of the more hidden places in Shenzhen is Xin’an Ancient City (Xin’an gu cheng 新安古城), also known as Nantou (南头) in the district Nanshan. It’s a fascinating part of town where very old is mixed with more or less new. During the Ming dynasty Xin’an was the seat of government of a county bearing the same name, which encompassed today’s Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Huizhou. Parts of the old city walls and gates are still visible, as well as the buildings of an opium den, a silver shop, a brothel, and official headquarters. In one of the alleys there is an eighteenth century stele denouncing the evils of prostitution.

Nantou Catholic Church.

Nantou Catholic Church.

A lot of the old stuff has been restored and rebuilt, which may put off those who prefer more ‘authentic’ heritage, but the fact that the local authorities have bothered preserving these remains and dedicating a small museum to this site means they do think this heritage is important. One of the more fascinating buildings is the Nantou Catholic Church, which was originally founded in 1913 by the Canossian Sisters as an orphanage. During the Cultural Revolution the church building was turned into a school, which probably saved it from demolition. Shenzhen listed the building as a cultural relic in 1984 and it has been included in the Guangdong Province Cultural Protection Unit since 2003. In 1992 the building was reinstated as a Catholic church, where, surprisingly, the Pope’s portrait is well-represented.

Inside Xin'an: a mix of Ming/Qing and 1980s-'90s architecture.

Inside Xin’an: a mix of Ming/Qing and 1980s-’90s architecture.

Despite being known for its modern appearance and innovative spirit, there is still attention for the old in Shenzhen. However, this is a relatively recent trend and many old buildings have indeed been destroyed. Besides the very old, there is also the recent old that must not be forgotten. The Ming and Qing dynasty buildings in Xin’an are surrounded by relatively low storey buildings from the 1980s and early 1990s. As the city is modernising, many of these buildings and its accompanying ‘urban villages’ are disappearing, because few people see their historic value. Considering that they are the first buildings of the city of Shenzhen, they are certainly an important part of local heritage, as this article argues. Heritage conservation is a tricky business, especially with so many interests involved. I hope the government will see as much value in these piles of concrete as they do in the ancient piles of bricks.

Courtyard of the Nantou Catholic Church.

Courtyard of the Nantou Catholic Church, surrounded by modern buildings.

The Importance of Being Blonde

Why couldn't she pick this one?!

Why couldn’t she pick this one?!

When I first arrived at Shenzhen University I was given a DVD of last year’s foreign-students-do-Chinese-stuff-show. Having done something similar for the Confucius Institute (I’m on the internet somewhere…) a few years ago, I was not going to put myself through that again. Hardly a month had gone by since I had spoken those ominous words when perchance I discovered my calligraphy teacher had entered me into the Beijing Language and Culture University’s calligraphy contest. My class teacher, Wang laoshi, had posted a link on WeChat, encouraging everyone to “vote for our students”, not knowing she meant me. This competition wasn’t too bad. It was a relatively obscure contest and there wasn’t much of me visible – although the sample of my work is one of the worst I have produced and the video is upside down. I had done my bit, or so I thought…

Soon after Wang laoshi approached me about the upcoming Shenzhen Expat Speech and Talent Contest. She said that it was important for the university to have their foreign students participate in such events, especially Western students. There are only three Western students in my class (the others are all Korean except for a Vietnamese and an Indonesian young woman), of which I am the only one with blonde hair and blueish eyes. Besides, I’m from a cute little country with tulips and windmills, so I was the obvious choice. As kind and sweet Wang laoshi may seem, she has magical powers of persuasion; no one has ever dared refuse her yet. And so, without actually really uttering the words, I had agreed to another competition.

I’d always wondered where people got the idea from that China is a mystical and mysterious place. I now understand what that means: if you ask for information, you only get cryptic and/or incomplete answers. As I was now taking part in a speech contest, I wanted to know what I had to say. Wang laoshi told me to write a piece about the beauty of Shenzhen and to turn up with my calligraphy materials at the end of the week. Wait a minute. Calligraphy materials? No one said anything about calligraphy. Wang laoshi: “You need to have a talent. We’re going to shoot a film for the selection rounds.” This contest was making me feel ever more uneasy and to make matters worse, I had caught a cold too. A day before the planned filming I felt really lousy, so I told my  teacher I was not going to be able to turn up the next day. I felt somewhat relieved that I wouldn’t have to go through with this whole contest and even had a real excuse, be it a little exaggerated – the deadline for submitting the video was a day later. My cold was a blessing in disguise and everyone managed to “save face”.

The story doesn’t end here. The next week Wang laoshi announced there would be a show with all the language classes participating. Feeling a little bad about the previous week I said I would sing a Chinese song. At least that is something I can do and have some control over. Well, I thought I did. Two weeks later I was handed a text and found myself playing a part in “The Voice of Shenda”. Of course this wasn’t just for fun, it had to be a competition; not so much between the students, but between the teachers. After some really good and entertaining acts (and about six renditions of Xiao Pingguo) – we were up with a mediocre play, it was really rather bad. At least I could sing a pretty traditional Chinese song without tacky karaoke background music, which went down a treat with the public. My performance wasn’t too bad, but it wasn’t all that spectacular either. However, I am now recognised all over the campus. It didn’t help that Wang laoshi added a line in the play that revealed my Chinese ancestry (yes really, Chinese blood flows through my veins and I even have the forearm crease to prove it!). Also, Wang laoshi’s lobbying skills are very lihai*. During the judges’ deliberations she was cosy with just about anyone who might have some influence, including the dean of the international faculty. By now it should not come as a surprise to you that my class won first place.

Wang laoshi, proudly holding our Certificate of Excellence. The dean on her left looks proud too.

Wang laoshi, proudly holding our Certificate of Excellence. The dean on her left looks proud too.

Surely there is no more! Remember that speech contest? Wang laoshi has some serious guanxi* that reaches far and wide, because she managed to arrange that I could still submit my video at a later date. Of course I made it to the finals, lucky me. So there I was, the day after the “The Voice of Shenda”, hair and make-up fixed Chinese style by the organiser’s stylist, armed with a calligraphy brush and about to recite my view of Shenzhen’s beauty. Wang laoshi decided it would be a good idea that I also sing that Chinese song again for added cuteness. She mentioned I had a good chance of winning, because most of the competitors were Asian. In addition, the dean of Shenzhen University’s international faculty was in the jury. I was invited to the stage to give my speech and I might indeed have won if it wasn’t for me collapsing of exhaustion. The heat and noise might have had something to do with it too. In the end I did manage to get out of the contest after all!

Fear not, dear reader, Wang laoshi hadn’t finished with me yet. Two weeks ago she asked me to write a small piece for a memorial album of the Shenzhen Department of Education. This past semester I have taken part in a programme for local schools to introduce foreign cultures. It was a fantastic experience, even though I found myself stereotyping the Netherlands with as much passion as I have tried to do the opposite with China for the past four years studying sinology. Oh, the irony in criticising Chinese for making me do Chinese tricks! Windmills, cheese, the king, Xi Jinping and tulips… the Dutch government should be paying me. All the students taking part were invited last Friday to a ceremony with government officials, the university’s organisers, and school teachers. A lot of speeches, dancing and applause was involved, and of course the award ceremony, followed by photo sessions.

Shenzhen University is very proud of its international department and does its best to promote it to the outside world. However, the majority of the international students are Koreans whose appearance is difficult to distinguish from the Chinese population (for me, anyway). Therefore, anyone who doesn’t look Chinese/’Asian’ is put in the spotlight, especially if they have special features such as blond hair, pale skin, blue eyes, etc. If you are not Russian or American, that will make you an even more likely target for competitions and other promotion events. One is only considered a real foreigner if one looks like a foreigner. In some ways, my Korean classmates are treated like locals. When they speak Chinese, no one will praise their efforts as they would mine, just because people expect Asians to be (able to speak) Chinese. They have to work just as hard for their achievements as I do, but get only half the credit.

Some final advice for those studying in China: don’t bother trying to get out of any competition, there really is no point. Be especially prepared if you are blond.

* Google it.

A Road Less Travelled

SZU campus

SZU campus

For many second-year students of Sinology at Leiden University the exciting and nerve-wracking period to apply for China scholarships is about to commence. The lucky few who are granted a year’s study in China will most likely go to one of the big universities in Beijing. Because it is the capital city, I suppose it is a logical choice for most students, but I can’t help but wonder why there are not more students who decide to study in other parts of China. I can understand the appeal of being near Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and at the centre of political power, not to mention Wudaokou. Beijing has its own peculiarities and charms, such as the hutongs and pirate Putonghua, but there are also many disadvantages to living in Beijing: pollution in the capital is some of the worst in China, winters are freezing cold, while summers are scorchingly hot, traffic is heavily congested, and public transport is overcrowded.


The lake at SZU

Of course, my primary reason for studying in Shenzhen is because I can combine it with my research at Shenzhen Museum. But even if I would be in China to only study the language I would probably have come here. For those who have heard of Shenzhen, their views are generally quite negative about this city. The city is supposedly sterile, unpleasant, unsafe, and it has no history. In the seven years that have been coming to Shenzhen, I have certainly had a different experience. Being one of the largest migrant cities in China, Shenzhen is a fascinating place. It is also a good place to practise your listening skills, because you are likely to hear accents from all over the country. It is a planned city, so can feel a little like SimCity, but is also very green and spacious.

The campus of Shenzhen University is a city in itself, which is about as large as the city centre of Leiden. The university is right next to the Hi-Tech Park, where large companies such as Tencent Technology (QQ, WeChat) have their headquarters. Although the buildings are a little old and worn out, the campus grounds are really beautiful. It feels like you are in a botanical garden. Cute open mini-buses take you around the campus.

Eventhough the university canteens serve about 20.000 students every day, they still manage to serve freshly made food. What's your excuse Leiden University?

Eventhough the university canteens serve about 20.000 students every day, they still manage to serve freshly made food. What’s your excuse, Leiden University?

There are nearly fifteen types of Chinese cuisine to choose from at one of the twenty canteens. There is an Olympic-sized in- and outdoor pool, with matching stadium, lakes and forests, and even a golf course! You could probably spend your entire studies on the campus without ever leaving as everything is provided for. The teaching level is rather good, at least in the advanced class. We have comprehension and spoken Chinese classes three times a week. Additionally there are classes on Chinese writing, reading newspapers, history and society, and language and culture. There is no special listening class, but then, keeping up with what the teachers are saying will give you plenty of practise. Furthermore, in the higher level classes the Westerners are hugely outnumbered by Koreans (there are only four non-Asians in my class), which means you are less likely to switch to English during the break, or after class. The university has set up a programme with local primary schools where foreign students are invited to give a talk about their country and culture, which not only is a great opportunity to practise your speaking skills, but you even get paid for it.

Beijing is not the only place in China where you can get a good language education. It is definitely worth considering universities in other cities, especially when you are an aspiring Sinologist. You might be surprised what you can discover whilst taking a road less travelled.

Hi-Tech park as seen from Shenzhen University. Tencent Headquarters prominently in the centre.

Hi-Tech Park as seen from Shenzhen University. Tencent Headquarters prominently in the centre.

Fieldwork, Formalities, and Freaking Out

Entrance of Shenzhen Museum

Doing fieldwork for the first time is quite terrifying, yet fun and exciting at the same time. My supervisor is at the other end of Eurasia, so there is nobody around give me disappointed looks when I’m procrastinating. On the other hand, the prospect of annoyed e-mails always looms if my reports are not up to scratch. I have just handed in my first report, so fingers crossed! Don’t get me wrong though, my supervisor is not a brute. In fact, he is actually quite a nice guy… I think.

My first weeks in China were occupied with the usual bureaucracy anyone moving to another country has to deal with: obtaining papers, getting papers stamped, stand in line and listen to some Latino sing London Bridge is Falling Down for half an hour, hand in papers, and hope for the best. After getting all the paperwork out of the way, it was time to concentrate on getting things arranged at the university for my language studies. As I have always written traditional characters, my simplified character writing skills leave something to be desired. I had no idea what the placement test was going to be like, so I decided to practise all the characters I am supposed to know – of course I had intended to start practising months ago, but why do something today when you can freak out about it three months later? For two weeks I wrote pages and pages of simplified characters, only to find out that the “placement test” was just a conversation with one of the teachers about which class you think you should be in.

I had myself placed in the advanced class, which I can certainly handle, but is much harder work than I had expected (more about the university in my next post). It has only been in the past two weeks or so that I have finally been able to get on with my work at the museum. You might be wondering what am I actually doing at the museum. Well, so was I on my first day. I am researching the nationalist narrative of the permanent exhibition of Shenzhen Museum and looking at how national and regional identities interact or are conflicting. There is 12,500 m2 of exhibition space to collect data from, which makes it a rather daunting task. Unlike my unsuccessful attempt at studying simplified characters in sensible portions, I am not doing too badly at the museum.

Entrance Hall of Shenzhen Museum

Entrance Hall of Shenzhen Museum

At first glance, Shenzhen Museum looks pretty difficult to analyse, but the longer you stare at the exhibits and the texts, the more you will find. If you think Shenzhen only existed since 1979, then you are wrong: the museum boasts a 7000 year history! Of course, this region is older than the current city, but linking the Neolithic Age directly to today does require some imagination. Although I am here to scrutinise the hell out of this museum from an academic point of view, it really is worth a visit. It is easy to forget that the current geopolitical landscape isn’t static and eternal. A nice example displayed by the museum dates from before the Opium Wars, when this region was part of Xin’an county, which included all of Hong Kong – something that is difficult to imagine, especially with the current protests going on.

The greatest challenges of doing fieldwork here are not the ever-present opportunities to procrastinate, the worries about getting things right, or being distracted by Chinese language homework. The greatest challenges are remaining inconspicuous as the only blonde-haired, fair-skinned visitor at the museum – a challenge I have failed at miserably, considering the number of times I have already had to pose for photographs with Chinese tourists – and  figuring out where to eat after work. Speaking of which…