Happy Year of the Ram: A Shenzhen Essay 2015/10/23

A friend of mine once asked me, “What would a farmer in Italy or a cab driver from the Bronx want to know about China?” As I think of this question during the Chinese New Year I thought of three things based on my living in Shenzhen for the past decade: the color red, the presence or absence of family, and the mobile phone.

As China ushers in the Year of the Ram, I walk down a familiar road. It is a cool evening and everywhere is that ubiquitous red, whose scarlet shades chime with gold and yellow, framing the vast and complex world of Chinese characters above restaurants and shops, and the red lanterns that sway in the breeze from the South China Sea like radioactive rubies, or tiger’s eyes. I pass through a stall of paper-cut decorations, lanterns impressed with the character for fortune, stuffed yellow sheep dolls, electric wires dangling overhead. “From Guangzhou, made by machine!”, says a young lady, making a stamping action with her hands and pointing to the intricate patterns. Young men walk and chat with a secret smile on their faces, as they perhaps look forward to joining their families in far-off parts of China, while three hundred million people collectively fly, drive and take trains across the country to see their loved ones, to return in two weeks. This is the greatest annual migration in human history, one realizes.

And yet, as I walk down the street, I also see smaller, more intimate vignettes. A father in a blue windcheater, his wife wrapped in a ski jacket, and a little boy about ten years old stand before a flaming brazier on the sidewalk. The boy looks aside at me a little nervously and embarrassed, then turns back to the brazier to throw paper money into the hungry flames. This ritual of respect for deceased family members echoes the traditions of thousands of years, and is perpetuated here in China’s youngest city. The screaming chaos of people yelling into their mobile phones is quiet these two weeks, as many have left to join their families, and the silence is disconcerting, but also immensely soothing, as though the agitated dragon has finally found a few moments of peace and respite. The mobile phones are still everywhere, and heads illuminated with a bluish haze pass me, making me think of the Guangzhou artist friend who recently celebrated his magnum opus, a set of 75 paintings each of people interacting with their mobile phones: farmers, schoolgirls, policemen, laborers, soldiers…

I sometimes wonder what it would be like if a Chinese poet from the Tang dynasty, visited Shenzhen on the New Year. He would at once recognize the scarlet hues that paint a broad swathe across the landscape. He would also be motivated by the absence or presence of kin. Libai would probably drink himself into a stupor. Lishangyin would feel remorse at his experiences of unrequited love, and scribble a mournful poem befitting the Chinese Kafka. Both would not understand the mobile phone, being accustomed to ink brushes and letters.

As for me, my walk down this road is a reminder of how past and present converge in the simplest things, providing a language of symbols and sounds that link us all as human beings in this most amazing time to be alive.

- Mark Obama Ndesandjo