Banana Empire





Back in the peaceful and sprawling green swathe of Shenzhen.  I was lucky enough to find a translator and enthusiastic guide, Mr. Jeffrey Li, for a final day of poking around in the city’s villages.  According to the researchers at Urbanus, there are roughly 40 ‘Villages in the City.’  I had heard a number closer to 200.  The city is in a state of flux; it is constantly growing.  Some villages are being demolished to make way for more office high-rise towers.  I saw the demolition debris during my first trip down Shennan Road and wondered if this building type and the life within would soon be erased from history.

Xiaodu Liu says this isn’t a Chinese phenomenon.  He cites similar examples from Bangladesh and somewhere in eastern Europe.  He recommends some hot spots for village exploration as well as his firm’s book, Village/City City/Village.

The trip got ethnographic really fast.  Li and I arrived at the site, and we could have been in Emeryville.  California on the outside and China just beyond the crust.  This village in the city was wearing a mask, but through the cracks and crevices, we saw those handshake-sized alleyways, the shops of everyday things, and the people that call this neighborhood home.  We walked the streets and ate at a local restaurant.  The villages are a great case study in the necessities of daily life.  Essentially, basic needs are all you find.

We went up into one of the typical six-story village towers.  (Seven floors requires an elevator, so that constraint has generated the form of these buildings.)  We met a family (Man and Woman A) living in one bedroom of a two bedroom apartment.  They were beyond hospitable – invited us in, offered us a drink and a chat with english-speaking brother/friend, Vincent (Cheng Zhi).

Reminiscent of the density of Beijing’s Hutongs, these village towers offered more space, and seemingly, were more livable.  I was carrying some Hutong postcards in my bag, so I took the opportunity to ask the family if they would rather live in the lower style villages or the tower.  They like the space that the tower provides.  I asked about their opinion of the city too.  They like the transportation in Shenzhen.  Really, though, Man and Woman A are like so many others here, working to send money back to their families living in inland China.  They are here for survival rather than by choice.  Their ‘one child per family’ (Child A) is actually back ‘home’ as well.

The winding space of the streets below is really fascinating.  Walked around some more, photographed, and wondered how my thesis might be able to accommodate degrees of public architecture like this.

The post title:  I was at the markets today.  If you didn’t know, China is renowned for its ability to copy brand name merchandise.  Since most of the factories where the actual products are manufactured are nearby, it is not surprising that their fakes are very good.  Clothing, watches, bags, electronics, books – you name it – China copies it.  Some would argue that, just as the architecture is often a ripped-off version of a Western building, China isn’t really producing anything new, just recreations and simulations of other things.  Anyway…I saw a knock-off Banana Republic blouse….the brand’s impeccable font replaced with the words, “Banana Empire.”  Nice.  It’s true, some things can’t be replicated.

Noodles for lunch: $0.88
Tiffany earrings: $2.20
Switching flights because I showed up at the airport on the wrong day (I’ve done this twice now): $0.00  (It wasn’t free last time.)
Power to the people: priceless


About this entry