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Do large-scale cultural events help neighborhoods? Reflections on the #UABB in Nantou, Shenzhen

We visited Nantou on the last leg of our 2016 week-long field trip to Shenzhen on a hot, humid day. In contrast to the pulsating lanes of Baishouzhou and its unapologetic messiness, where we had spent relatively more time, Nantou appeared quaint and well suited to touristic exploration.  After all, the settlement had once been a walled city of considerable political importance, and the remnants of that history were strewn across the village in the form of arched gateways, temples and sacred niches. My most vivid memory is that of an active main street full of the myriad tastes of China punctuated by a select number of restored (or being restored) buildings. This, in stark contrast to Hubei, a true blue urban village dating back to the 15th century that faces redevelopment.

This year, Nantou was the venue of the UABB, the bi-city biennale of Urbanism/Architecture that brings together artwork related to the urban experiences of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Walking towards the South Gate of Nantou, we recognized familiar landmarks – the ancestor hall, the ornate gate itself, the garden and its sculptures. And further in, the smaller gate that enters the settlement itself.

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The impressive gate and ancestor hall in Nantou remains unchanged. The white blank wall with the UABB signage on it hides a politically contentious painting that caused a furor during the event’s opening. The controversy led to the review and censoring of many artworks, raising queries about the UABB as a space for dialogue, creativity and expression.

Once we stepped inside, we realized how transformed the space was from what it used to be. The street before us, full of vendors and teeming with life, was now a subdued cleaned-up version of itself. New open spaces had been carved out and designed with great taste, but ‘no climbing’, ‘no touching’ signs all over the street furniture in these made us wonder what the village residents were thinking about the redesign interventions. At the very least, these spaces were being used in many ways and by different kinds of people. Newspapers were being read here, mothers and children were catching the winter sun and old women were resting as well. Further in, we found another lovely large open space – a new basketball court, temporarily in disuse. Presumably it will be resurrected and used as it should once the UABB is over.

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Shaun Teo, whose PhD research is looking at the UABB’s transformative impacts, pointed out many more interventions in a very interesting tour he conducted that afternoon. He showed us some of the redesigned shops in the village, which looked beautiful but to my eyes were a clear push towards gentrification. Shaun showed us two interventions that emerged from a competition: 1- An attempt at entrepreneurship by a migrant renter who was running a cafe at the UABB in partnership with one of the organizers, and 2- A young urban designer’s redesign of a ground floor shop into the Nantou Living Room, his living space that doubles up into a space for village residents to meet and interact. Already, fresh interventions are spinning off of these. The entrepreneur is gathering capital to set up shop on a more permanent basis and the urban designer is taking baby steps forward with the landscaping of a “secret garden” tucked away behind his alley.

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What does an event like the UABB signify to the residents of a neighborhood like Nantou? It is obvious that many have been displaced to make the event possible. Vendors, for sure, have been asked to leave and even some factories in order to get clear floor space for the exhibition halls. Most likely, the UABB has sped up the process of gentrification and the pricing out of current renters, in a location where rents are already quite high. This might mean higher densities and I’m unsure how Shenzhen authorities will balance the heritage value of Nantou will the unfolding densification processes.

On the positive side, the redesigned public spaces and wall art have added value too. From what I heard, the design of the venue was not exactly a consultative process, nor have the venues of previous editions of the UABB retained their look and feel after the event. Perhaps Nantou will reclaim its spaces back and make of them what they want to. Given that Shenzhen is currently working on the redevelopment of urban villages, a gentrified Nantou with a smattering of resident-friendly spaces and interventions is perhaps a best case scenario!

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Broadening engagement: amidst the crowds at JLF

Don’t ask my why this is my first visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival, the literary event that seems to have caught the fancy of the public owing to its curious mix of the eclectic and popular. To be honest, it hasn’t been high on my radar but this year work took me to the Pink City during Litfest week and the coincidence was too much to ignore.

I managed to squeeze in a few sessions, all of them invigorating. Whether it was Pavan Varma quizzing Naqvi on his reading of history or Manu Joseph making tongue-in-cheek remarks about the difficulties writers face putting themselves in the opposite gender’s shoes, the content was rich and engaging. Every single venue was full. The ones with Bollywood  personalities were distinctly overflowing. But sessions on Sanskrit writing and the literature of anger as expressed by Dalit and tribal writers were full as well. I wondered why.

One way of looking at it is that there are simply too many people at JLF and they have to go somewhere and do something! And while this is true, I suspect there’s a lot more going on here beyond the thrill of attending a mela.

I identified a few distinct types of visitors- the artistic and creative community, the must-be-seen-here types, the book lovers, the firangs, the senior citizens and a large number of  school and college students. After a point, I opted out of the sessions and just sat and watched the crowd, overheard the conversations and chatted with folks. I met college kids from Jaipur who had chosen sessions because they were about subjects that were new to them. A friend who attends every year comes here to meet authors and expand his book collection. One young couple told me that it is exciting to be at an event like this where you get a chance to rub shoulders (literally) with everyone from popular Bollywood personalities to your favorite author. For some students I met here, being at JLF was like traveling the world, gaining a new set of experiences. Neither can I complain about passive audiences; I found questions from the floor were very sharp across age groups in the sessions I attended.

Clearly, JLF means different things to different people. All things said, it is certainly a step forward in taking literature, art and academic writing out of its elitist bastion (and may I say, pushing those in the bastion to learn a thing or two from the real world outside!). This is a new world where young people explore many ways to engage with new ideas and fresh content. Our schools and colleges are hard pressed to offer that novelty and excitement and maybe events like this, in some infinitesimally small way, fill that gap. Can we do more?

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