MDes Talks: Exploring Shenzhen

The Concept of a Single Story

I was looking for a way to understand my perception of my (multiple) trips to Shenzhen. It was my first time in China, and I wanted to share with you a deeper article than just a description of what happened there. While I was trying to take a step back and think about it, I stumbled upon on the internet a TED Talk about “The Danger of a Single Story” . What does that mean?

A single story is a unique point of view on something. This story may be told many times, by many different sources, hence printed strong idea in the mind of people – it often becomes a cliché. If we take an example the way US media depict Mexicans as illegal immigrants coming to steal US citizens’ job is a strong single story. Not only seen in the media, but also in politicians where they firmly fixate on expressing a single point of view. With no alternative stories, the population start to believe that the single story is the absolute. The thing with single stories is that they are not wrong, but they are not complete: they deny complexity and overlook a large part of the reality; they are narratives often formulated by the ones with power or influence about the ones who lack it. As we say, the winners write history.

MDes Talks: Exploring Shenzhen

Biased Perception

What is my point towards Shenzhen? France has a single story about China, a single story about Shenzhen. We can summarise with the attitude towards the tag “Made in China”, a label of low quality, cheap product that will be broken quickly. Chinese people are depicted as rude and cultureless, living stacked on each other in heavily polluted cities. The narrative can go on, but you get the idea. This single story denies the tradition and culture, denies the thriving art and the incredible landscapes and diversity of the country. Even if I was aware of the single story concept, and the distortion from the media plus the distance between France and China, it was hard to see through the single story I was given. Only a few movies or exhibitions would reach Paris to show another version of China.

Now you can picture the kind of mindset I had before going to Shenzhen.

The School Trips

The trips all together were interesting even if the organisation was not always planned in good conditions. I struggled a bunch of times at the border as I don’t really look like the picture in my passport anymore (it was taken in 2012 and well, I had short hair), and another time my Hong Kong visa confused the staff. The hostel booked the very last minute did not welcome foreigners and I had to look for a new place at 11 PM when I was, at the same time, running out of cash. After being proposed to stay in a tiny dormitory which looked quite like a hutch, I ended up in a hotel thanks to the help of two classmates. On top of that, you could imagine the low data on my phone, most of the apps I used were blocked in China and obviously, I could not read any local map. This has not been certainly the most comfortable trip I have ever done.

MDes Talks: Exploring Shenzhen

Those problems left aside, I could have a glimpse of Shenzhen. I say a glimpse because the city is much bigger and much more complex than what I have seen. On a trip with the School, I was introduced to OCT Loft. An interesting place, previously an industrial area now an art district of the city.

The large scale of Shenzhen offers wide places, and allows neighbourhood like OCT Loft to welcome companies of art, design, architecture, fashion… in a green environment. The time we spent there was on a sunny day, and the place had the relaxing vibes that invited people to live slow and enjoy time in the tree shadows. My first thought about Shenzhen and about this atmosphere was it is far from the single story I knew about China.

MDes Talks: Exploring Shenzhen

The second place we visited was Nantou (and if you want to know why we were interested in this place, go read Sylvia’s article). Having a different pace of living, a different population density and a different mix of people, Nantou has almost nothing in common with OCT Loft. Here I could visit a traditional house and drink some tea, try a lot of different food and work on my first series of portraits.

MDes Talks: Exploring Shenzhen

Those places contrasted with the night life of Luohu district. There were lots of people dancing, walking, eating and lots of lights and music. The pedestrian streets unexpectedly offered a sense of liveliness making me want to explore around.

MDes Talks: Exploring Shenzhen

Interacting with People

One experience left me with a weird feeling, and it is a subject I have never brought up so far: the white privilege. A day during our trip was spent in Shenzhen Design Week where there were exhibitions of projects and products. Some shops attracted buyers by demonstrating how the high-quality goods were made and used. One of those especially was selling tea; the brand also carried traditional calligraphy and printing that you could try in a small workshop. There I got offered a lot of tea to try out (the white cold tea was delicious) and the demo to play around in the two workshops. After that, I certainly recommended the shop to my classmates. They went there, but none of them got the same welcome or the offer of some tea. At the end of the visit, I had more gifts than anyone else. So, I did enjoy the moment, the warm welcome. But seeing all my classmates being treated differently because they aren’t foreigners has left a bad feeling.

MDes Talks: Exploring Shenzhen

It has been a contrasting experience, from what I observed, to how people interacted with me. Shenzhen has certainly a lot to show and is obviously far more complex than the single story being told.

Photo Credit: Mathilde Gattegno

Posted by Mathilde Gattegno – from Paris and love to see the world. Graduated from architecture with an option in civil engineering. Curious about everything, a huge bookworm, a little bit geek and also enjoy music, sports, going outside to take pictures. Hong Kong is a brand new playground!
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MDes Talks is a series of Student Blogs contributed by students in different specialisms under the Master of Design Scheme. It is set out to share students’ first-hand experience in the d-school pedagogy, their projects, takeaways, and student life in general.
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