A Foretaste of Shenzhen: Experiencing Hong Kong vis-a-vis Eugene, USA

Much has been made in my posts so far about conceiving of experience more holistically. Besides, I proffered that such “holistic” multi-sensory experience had much to offer as a methodological approach guiding my ethnographic project in Shenzhen. I contended – as per phenomenology – that just as “things” present themselves in a manifold, our senses and sensibilities, too, are multiple. The    world is replete with things and our senses are many: and we apprehend/experience them in a multiplicity of ways. In my previous post I referred to different profiles of Shenzhen that present themselves to us, using a number of photos to support my point. By using such visual re-presentations, I am invoking our sense of sight to convey to the reader the different profiles/facets of the Shenzhen landscape. But what of a more holistic experience of Shenzhen, as per my methodological prescription thus far? How should one experientially account for Shenzhen?

Perhaps it is helpful to begin with a description of the sense one first gets of Hong Kong when arriving from Eugene, Oregon, on the West Coast of the U.S. I offer a consideration of this scenario of going from the U.S. to H.K. since I feel this experience to share some parallels with that of journeying from H.K. to the Chinese mainland. This is not a hypothetical but in fact how I actually made my way to the PRC (People’s Republic of China) from the U.S. three or so years ago.

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When one flies in from the cold, refreshing evergreen environment of an Oregonian winter and arrives in the ostensibly cosmopolitan world-city that is Hong Kong in January, one is immediately struck by the sense of being in a different place. The difference is palpable and it is felt upon arrival at the airport. Bodies are squeezed for space as one gets swept along in a tide of human movement whose pace is rapid and unforgiving. One gets the feeling of having to shuffle along, to keep pace, or risk the possibility of being stomped on. The competitive spirit seems to come naturally, for one discovers that a similar situation prevails on the roads as well. Cars, cyclists, and pedestrians compete for space with an intensity not felt in many, especially smaller, U.S. cities.

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Alternatively, as there are different modalities of perception, one can simply inhale to sense the difference. The air does not have the crisp, fresh quality of the Oregonian atmosphere that allows one the indulgence of taking deep, long breaths. The dismal air quality in Hong Kong stops one mid-breath. It is not necessarily putrid but there is the sensation that one is also inhaling physical objects: particles. As one draws in air, there is the sense that one’s nostrils are being overwhelmed. The discomfort is physical. With the increased population density and the vibrancy generated by the unrelenting movement of people and machines over noticeably tighter spaces, pollution becomes an inescapable fact. Juxtaposed against the tremendous bustle and density of the archetypal Asian (and, one might say, non-Western) city, one is compelled to ask if this is why the West is commonly celebrated for its supposedly well cared-for, if not pristine, natural environment. Moreover, is it the ecological and civic-mindedness of the average citizen in the West that accounts for it, against its lack in the non-West, as commonly portrayed?

One has a similar moment-of-truth experience when crossing the Hong Kong border northward into Shenzhen, only that the experience is perhaps more intense and memorable. It may seem strange from a political viewpoint to be speaking of a border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, especially given the 1997 British “handover” of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Is Hong Kong not a part of China? [Warning: One risks being vilified for asking this question in the politically-charged climate of today’s (late 2014) HK .] What does “reunification” mean if not the literal restoration of political unity to erstwhile disparate political entities? Why, then, the need for a border? Such territorial borders within state boundaries never fail to boggle the mind unaccustomed to the idiosyncrasies of Chinese political practice. A generous reading tending to favour the Chinese Communist Party could see it as a vindication of its claim that it would adhere to the principle of “one country, two systems.” Arguably, it is a promise the CCP appears to have kept, at least on the surface of things. But as I will describe in the following post, “one country, two systems” rings true not only in an abstract political sense; it is palpable, detectable by the senses, too.

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