When I Try To Piece Together The More Invisible And Detached Parts Of Mei Fang’s Life – An Exploration in Embodying Shenzhen

Academia, Creative Non-Fiction

I grew up in a household of women. My father was the only man, so the Hui family was a woman’s kingdom. Every time I sit down to write about my family I imagine three women— my mother, sister and I, the three main characters of all my stories. I was raised by my mother. But if I’m being honest, I wasn’t only raised by her. There was Mei Fang. She was short, with a wide nose and hair scraped into a loose ponytail. She always smelled very faintly of fish. Rarely do I acknowledge the presence of her life in mine, and the times I do I am forced to reconcile with some knotted feeling of love and guilt, kinship and detachment. Perhaps I could have known her better. Perhaps what I don’t know about her illuminates something I have never explored. Here is her (re)constructed story.

When I Try To Piece Together The More Invisible And Detached Parts Of Mei Fang’s Life

Mei Fang was my a-yi; the domestic worker that my parents hired when we moved to Shenzhen in 2002. What made Mei Fang different from basically every other person I met in Shenzhen was the fact that her family was actually local. They lived on Lingding Island off the coast of  both Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Guangdong people through and through, Mei Fang’s family, pre-reform period, survived off fishing.

Shenzhen was China’s finest Post-Mao creation. Previously called Baoan County, it was a mainly compiled of fishing and farming villages. In 1980, Baoan County became China’s first Special Economic Zone, chosen for its geographical proximity to Hong Kong, a major commercial and industrial port. The population of young, skilled Chinese workers grew as they started working for transnational corporations that started to locate their factories and businesses there. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping embarked on the Southern Tour and visited Shenzhen for the first time. There, he crucially sided with the young workers actively rejecting the rhetoric of hardline Communist Party members who were concerned about Shenzhen’s turn towards consumerism rather than politics as their ideology.

Yuan Geng, the founder of the Shekou Industrial Zone, drafted up slogans in support of Deng’s remarks. The two most famous ones, which can be found on billboards in Shenzhen, are: “Time is money, efficiency is life” and “Empty talk endangers the nation, practical work brings prosperity.” Any time we drive the 10 minutes to Shekou Port (where we would take the ferry to Hong Kong), we pass the brown and gold sign that is erected among bushes on a patch of groomed grass.   

Most people who live in Shenzhen are not from Shenzhen, or even close by; because Shenzhen was China’s first Special Economic Zone, those who moved to Shenzhen were there for one thing: work. My father used to say that Shenzhen’s history is only 30 years old; it began in the 80s, the moment when it stopped becoming “just a fishing village”— and I’ve heard people echo that sentiment. “Shenzhen has a short history.” “It has no culture.”

Mei Fang’s childhood consisted of fish and salty water. She played among mangroves, helped her father with the day’s catch, ran around the wet market with her older sister. She wore sandals or went shoeless. Shekou lay in her palm like a worn, familiar pebble. The coastline was a toe’s touch away. The sea smelled like a fish warming under the sun. At night, her father fixed nets under a single, smoky bulb.

It is important that Shenzhen has no culture. It is what allows for people to occupy its space, to feel recognized and accepted. In the Chinese imaginary, Shenzhen is like a white slate, a place where one can shed their old identities, ditch their old clothes by the bank, and come out newly anointed as the future of China’s development. But who is allowed to create in this blank space?  The desiring subject is also productive— the more she desires, the more she creates Shenzhen. In Desiring China, Rofel identifies a “structured forgetting” that needs to occur in order for cosmopolitanism to occur. One needed to be “completely unencumbered by the government” (127), to reject ones historical lineage to Maoist era China. Shenzhen is a city that encapsulates this structured forgetting. By defining its history as beginning in 1980 and not existing prior to that, Shenzhen lives only in the post-Mao era. It becomes a city borne of only capitalism.

Yesterday I phoned my mother. I asked her where, exactly, Mei Fang lived when she was young. She told me she lived on an island near Shekou. The government moved her family off the island when Reform and Opening Up happened.

“It was fine though,” she said. They gave her family some land.”

I imagine Mei Fang’s father packing up his nets. Hauling them into his boat, maybe for the last time. Turning off the lone lightbulb for good.

I wonder why they didn’t give her family some sea.

In Shenzhen, you are one of four things: A waidi ren, or outsider (immigrant), a migrant worker (many of whom are part of the “floating population”, deterritorialized bodies that are unaccounted for on censuses) a bendi ren, or local, or a Shenzhener. One does not have to be a local to be a Shenzhener— in fact, one might not be a Shenzhener even if one is a local. The label “Shenzheners” denotes more than just where one is from legally. It has to do with urbanism, cosmopolitanism, and consumerism. One is a Shenzhener when they strive for, and attain, these statuses; when they are able to carry the contradictions of both transcending and embodying Shenzhen (O’Donnell).

Rofel describes the role of the desiring subject as the “…individual who operates through sexual, material, and affective self-interest.” Rofel uses the term “desire” to …“gloss a wide range of aspirations, needs, and longings… this desiring subject is portrayed as the new human being who will help to usher in a new era in China” (3). Deng’s Southern Tour and Yuan Geng’s slogans helped legitimate Shenzhen’s (and, eventually, China’s) turn towards neoliberal capitalism— the expansion of market endeavors and privatization, and the decentralization of power to local governments and privatized companies. This, in turn, helped to create a new nexus of desire in China— one that rejected Maoist views and encouraged the transformation into a postsocialist, bourgeois being: a being that is distinctly identified within the Shenzhener.

My family is not from Shenzhen. I was born in Hong Kong, but our family moved to Shenzhen when I turned 7. We moved to be closer to my grandparents, who moved there in the late 80s. Then, my grandfather started working for China Merchants Bank at the over-ripe age of 65, and he helped to oversee the development of Shenzhen into city it is today.

My grandmother told me how she cried every night when they first moved to Shenzhen in the 80s. They lived without electricity and running water, in the middle of seemingly nowhere. There was absolutely nothing, she said. My grandfather worked on the hope that one day, there would be, and ten, twenty, thirty years later— earth had eaten sea, metal grew from the ground like broken teeth, highways replaced estuaries as the sprawling capillaries of Shenzhen’s skin.

Questions to myself: What happened to Mei Fang’s father after Reform and Opening Up, when, in a span of thirty years, the bay became smaller and smaller? What happened when the prosperity of the sea disappeared into land? What happened when the land disappeared into steel, concrete, and asphalt? What dreams grow out of asphalt?

But I guess my grandparents missed something. Maybe they missed the way the sun came up over the waters of the Shenzhen Bay, lighting up the estuaries that crept over the land like veins. Maybe they missed the way migratory birds would swoop, circle down, pick their feet up gingerly while landing in the water. Perhaps they never explored the fisher’s market, the sales made over clams, oysters, shrimp, saltwater fish. Or perhaps they did. And if they did, perhaps they made eye contact, over shiny scales and wet gills, with Mei Fang’s father.

My life with Mei Fang was wonderful and playful. She would take me to and from school on the back of her bike. We played outside in the neighborhood almost every day. She taught me a game from her childhood called “fighting snails”: we would gather snail shells, and, each choosing one, we would press the pointed tip of its coil into the other and see whose got broken first. We did this for hours, leaving behind minuscule webbed pieces of keratin on the sidewalk. Ultimately, she was my first companion. 

“I hired her because she had worked at McDonalds, so I knew she would be very clean.” — My Mother. Note how cleanliness is identified by new, cosmopolitan, western, industrialized. Note how Mei Fang fries the same round, 9 cm patty 127 times a day. Note how she wiped down the metal counter in three broad strokes, from left to right. Note how she folds her apron one, two, three times in half.

There is a landlocked passenger ship ten minutes walk from my home. China bought her from the French. After arriving to Shekou in ’83 the government started to reclaim the land around her. It now contains bars, a Brazilian barbecue restaurant, a cigar shop, and a four-star hotel. Footnote: Minghua (Ship), Wikipedia.

My mother loved the way Mei Fang prepared fish. Her favorite was when she made fish broth; a pale yellow cloudy liquid, steaming hot. When the broth was served up, the kitchen would smell like the water in the bay, warm and dirty— a smell that you could sometimes still get a whiff of  in the reclaimed soil, granite, and concrete our home was built on.

As much as a Shenzhener must be a being one encompasses, one must also be recognized as one by their environment. Some rules for visibility: one mustn’t dress laotu (like a country bumpkin); one must speak proper Putonghua; one must be clean, live in a proper apartment or house, have a white-collar job. Perhaps, even have the means to hire a domestic worker. One must perform the part of being a Shenzhener in order to embody and become. Therefore, I am a Shenzhener. My mother and father are too; and so are my grandparents. In each generation, our flexibility has only grown. My grandparents moved to Shenzhen, my parents moved to Hong Kong, I moved to the US, my sister’s child has both German and Hong Kong citizenship. All of this account for our Shenzhenness. But not Mei Fang and her family, even though they are true locals.

When my mother hired Mei Fang, she had just quit her job working at the McDonald’s that was six minutes away, walking distance, from where we live. It was located close to the Minghua ship, in the commercial and recreational center called Sea World. In 2005, they renovated the McDonalds and it became more like a sleek, modern sit-down restaurant rather than a fast-food place. The tinted brown windows were replaced with clear sheets of glass, glass paneling separated seating arrangements, the stools were replaced with aluminum chairs. You could look in through the glass doors and see a diorama of almost-bourgeois living. It was the place families would take their child for a treat if they did well in school. It was the place young lovers went on dates. Work hard and you will eat McDonalds. Desire hard and tomorrow we will be China and beyond for an instant— if you are what you eat. Rofel calls McDonalds “…the new dreamworlds of cosmopolitan consumption” (120). For a while, Mei Fang was responsible for maintaining this dreamworld that seemed to work naturally and of its own accord. Sometimes, she was also able to be on the other side of the mirror, a consumer herself. I wonder where nature carried her there. I wonder if she wore ‘consumer’ like a second skin.

Whenever Mei Fang prepared steamed fish for dinner, she would always carve out its still-beating heart and call me from my room to come see. The little red heart still pulsing in the palm of her hand, a delicate muscle the size of a fat almond. Mei Fang held it gently, tenderly; the ocean’s specters swirled in and out of its two chambers. Touch it, she said. I cringed. No, I said. I stayed and watched until the beating stopped. Mei Fang would then throw the heart into the trash.

Note: Mei Fang’s father died around a year ago.

Now, we usually think of Shenhzen’s factories to be centers of migrant labor, but in the early days of Shenzhen’s industrial development, many factory workers were from the surrounding areas. Mei Fang’s generation of rural youth found work through the new factories that were hungry for eager workers. Mei Fang was a production-line worker for a while and factory-hopped frequently. She made toys, shoes, and other manufactured goods. “She said she found it exciting at first,” said my mother.

Pun Ngai’s ethnography of dagongmei in Shenzhen reflect how this desire to become an urban (and therefore, cosmopolitan) subject meant that they also had to “…make war with one’s past identity” (117). Ngai also refers to dagongmei as “liminal” subjects: those who are neither rural nor totally urban. For Mei Fang, another intersection to consider: her localness. Ngai’s ethnography details her experiences witnessing a privileging of Cantonese speakers and local workers. What did she lose? What did she gain? What could she not see?

In Chinese, production line translates as 流水线- “line of running water.” The production line ran as smooth as water. The production line ran as smooth as the river. The production line ran as smooth as the length of shoelace in Mei Fang’s hand, each worker strung into an eye that looked for and beyond prosperity. It was an empty eye. Hollow, like words; penetrable by nimble fingers. Along this production line were Mei Fang and others. Others, others, others, Mei Fang. 

Bloomberg, May 2, 2013. China’s Parents Crave Illegally Imported Baby Formula

… As of April 23, border officials say they’d seized nearly 20,000 pounds of powdered milk and arrested 879 people, many of whom were part of a smuggling syndicate. In 2012, 420-plus people were arrested for smuggling illegal drugs through Hong Kong.

For a while after she stopped working for my family, Mei Fang smuggled baby formula in/across the border, two tins at a time, between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. It was relatively well paid, apparently, for what she had to do—take two tins on the Hong Kong side from the van parked two streets away, go through the automatic glass doors into the pale beige monstrosity that is Huanggang port, wait, in snaked lines, for her turn through customs. Somewhere in the middle of this large borderland is a line on the floor.

Diluted, empty milk. Melamine in milk. Powdered milk melamine posing as protein. Baby gallstones in babies. Melamine gallstones in milk babies. Powdered melamine milk fed to baby gallstones. A baby panic. 300,000 babies in hospitals; 6 babies dead. Chinese flock to Hong Kong pharmacies; empty the aisles of their clean milk tins.

March 2013

Hong Kong locals start to grumble; complain. Locusts are driving up their formula prices and leaving their babies hungry; locusts are even flying to Australia, New Zealand, Canada. In Hong Kong, a new law is passed: No Taking More Than 2 Tins of Baby Formula Over The Border to China. Within this border are Mei Fang and others. Mei Fang and others, others, others, others others, Mei Fang. Her hair in a loose ponytail at the nape of her ringed neck, escaped tendrils vignetting her view; her left hand that once held squirming fish now clutching two tins of her livelihood, her right holding her identification card. Patiently, she waits in line. Patiently, she does not fly.

If Shenzhen is China’s embodiment of cosmopolitan desire, what does its relationship to Hong Kong suggest? Hong Kong’s longer capitalist and cosmopolitan history still marks it as China’s New York— the true world city in East Asia. If Shenzhen was somewhat modeled after Hong Kong, does Hong Kong still symbolize a true, enviable cosmopolitanism? Can middle and upper class Hong Kongers ever feel like those from Shenzhen are not lesser than? In other words, if a Shenzhener went to Hong Kong, would people see their difference? 

Similarly, it feels like these moments of scandal are the little earthquakes that remind Shenzheners the limits of their cosmopolitanism. That still, Shenzhen will be seen by the outside world through the lens of a monolithic China. China: corruption; greed; too many people of too low quality; low quality; poison and pollution in air, food, water; depletion of resources; animal cruelty; aggressively expansionist; censorship; shit in a hole in China, everywhere in China. When the milk has melamine, run to Hong Kong. Run to the nearest real cosmopolitan haven. Better yet, run to New Zealand, Australia, Canada.

MY MOTHER: “I’ll send you some photos of the old Shekou. It might prompt something different for you.To us of an older generation, we think, “Ah, how desolate, how backward and wild.” But perhaps you will find it beautiful.”    

She sends me black and white photos of the water. Men fishing on bamboo structures. A thin sandy path through scraggly grass, mountains that you barely ever see in the background. A heap of oyster shells, mottled grey and white. A dangling fishing net laden with thousands of fish.

For a while, my mother re-hired Mei Fang to take care of my sister’s half German, half Chinese infant. She claimed she was good with babies. I come home for summer vacation and witness Mei Fang rock the baby to sleep, gently whisper in her ear, wipe her mouth from left to right, smooth out an errant curl of hair.

Within the postmodern discourse of development (wherein providing services and information become the new, and dominant, form of “immaterial labor”), Sheldon H. Lu identifies a kind of immaterial labor that is focused on the “affective labor of human contact and interaction.” He describes this labor as “…immaterial, even if it is corporeal and affective, in the sense that its products are intangible, a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, or passion” (4). This child grew up to love Mei Fang, as did I, when I was young. A sense of ease, well-being. The child’s fat hand opening and closing on Mei Fang’s index finger. At night, Mei Fang’s hand  rests on the sleeping child’s chest that rises and falls at double the speed of hers. They are in sync. They might be in love.

The baby had not outgrown Mei Fang yet. The fish heart beats temporarily, the snail shells crumble infinitely into dust. I moved on. I left the country. My thick desire expanded, embodied Shenzhen, and I became a corporeal manifestation of the Shenzhener. Mei Fang was stuck somewhere else— a liminal space, a purgatory for those who are, but not quite. Her untold history held her back. The sea held her back. Reclaimed land held her back. Ghostly, like tendrils of smoke. She always smelled faintly of a wet, warm, fish. The smell would never leave her.

She belonged, but not enough. She belonged to a history that had been purposefully forgotten. Those that forged ahead would not look back. I didn’t. Now I ask: What is her desire? Does she long for salt water, fishing nets, honeycombed gills? Does she long to also become a cosmopolitan being, irrevocably untied from home?

There always is a clear power dynamic between hiring and hired, and Mei Fang was no exception. Working at our home created a tension for Mei Fang. On one hand, she was in the space of and had access to some form of a cosmopolitan life. Mei Fang would tell my mother her arguments with her siblings, her son acting out and refusing to study, her husband buying property without consulting her. My mother would give her advice while doing cross-stitch embroidery at the edge of her bed, Mei Fang sitting on the blue lazy boy adjacent to her. When my mother was able, she would try to help Mei Fang’s predicaments. When Mei Fang told her about her son struggling with English, my mother had me tutor him over the summer. But she also cleaned, washed, cooked, cared for the child. When my mother thought she taking too much time off, she would get reprimanded. The physical presence of Mei Fang in our house created a suspended belief. She could get close to a Shenzhener household. She could even benefit. But her existence in the space of our home meant that while she was there, she would never become.

Questioning my mother further: I found that the land given to Mei Fang’s family was small, and it was passed on to the eldest son in the family. I also found out that many locals have been able to profit off of developers who have bought their land. “Many of these locals just sit around all day now. They don’t do anything. They have too much money because their land got developed.”

However, this has not happened to Mei Fang’s brother ‘yet’. I asked my mother what he was doing in the meantime. She was not sure. A couple years ago, Mei Fang’s sister had lent him some money to buy a small fishing boat. He tried to fish on it, but his catch was never profitable. “There’s been too much overfishing, and too much pollution,” my mother said. “Last time I heard about him, he was a hired fisherman for some fishing companies.”

I imagine Mei Fang’s brother. His skin is browned by the memories of a sun on his father’s back. He drives the boat in an increasingly shrinking sea. Bay turns to lake. Lake turns to pond. Pond turns to a sink. He circles, circles, circles. There are no fish. Fish turn into dirt from a nearby mountain. All he can dredge up with his net is black. Soon he is on solid land, his net stuck in soil.   

He might roam for some time. So will Mei Fang. They will be lured back, time and time again.


“Minghua (ship).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.

O’Donnell, Mary Ann. “Of migrants and immigrants, shenzheners and locals: some definitions.” Shenzhen Noted. N.p., 21 May 2015. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.

Pun, Ngai. Made in China: women factory workers in a global workplace. Durham: Duke U Press, 2005. Web.

Rofel, Lisa. Desiring China: experiments in neoliberalism, sexuality, and public culture. Durham: Duke U Press, 2007. Print.


“Empty talk endangers the nation”:

Http://yourcarangel.com/author/yca-admin/. “China Adventures – PART 3 – All Work and No Play – Your Car Angel.” Your Car Angel. N.p., 2015. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.

“Time is money, efficiency is life”:

@Dreamstime. “Shenzhen, China: landscape sculpture.” Shenzhen, China: Landscape Sculpture Editorial Stock Photo – Image: 54137488. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.


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