BEIJING — As a Shaolin Temple disciple since childhood, Shi Xingfeng, president of Bojing Security Agency, often has to remind himself to hide the heroic spirit that often glows from the eyes of martial arts masters.
“It’s professional discipline,” Shi says. “You’ve got to learn to be an invisible bodyguard.”
As a matter of fact, the Chinese super-rich are still not accustomed to the idea of having tall, strongly built men in suits and a solemn face hanging around. It’s considered too indiscreet. “In China, bodyguards are disguised as chauffeurs or secretaries to protect the clients’ safety better,” explains Shi.
But Shi also says there are cultural differences in the approach to paid protection. In the West, if a VIP’s hat has been blown off by the wind, his bodyguards are not to pick it up for him. A Chinese magnate instead expects such services. “The Chinese super-rich have yet to nurture such a concept — a bodyguard is there to protect his safety, not to be his babysitter,” laments Shi.
It was not until 2010 that privately run security services were even legalized in China, which is when Shi founded his security agency. He aspires to imitate Academi, formerly known as Blackwater USA, a security contractor that has worked for the U.S. State Department and usually retrains retired military or police personnel to become premium armed security guards.
Shi says Chinese often have a very poor awareness of their safety. “In China, many rich people are reluctant to hire bodyguards because they believe that it is showing off,” he explains. “They also worry about privacy.”
Moreover, since their homes and the venues they frequent are thought to be well-secured, VIPs in China don’t feel they are at particular risk. “The truth is that as public figures, rich people often attract hatred of the rich,” and are “in much greater danger than an ordinary person” of calculated attacks, Shi says.
After the fact
Som 80% of Shi’s clients are entrepreneurs, but the majority of them came to him only after having run into trouble. “Usually they have already encountered a real security problem, in general verbal abuse but sometimes even physical confrontations, before thinking about hiring bodyguards.”
The latest example is Zong Qinghou, China’s beverage tycoon and the 86th richest man in the world, according to Forbes’ Global Rich List. He was attacked walking out of his own house and injured by someone who had asked him for a job.
In most cases, whether they are robberies or retaliation, the perpetrators aren’t even “professional.” Had these entrepreneurs had a bit more awareness of safety issues, the tragedies wouldn’t have occurred.
A whole engineering system
As the number of China’s super-rich grows, so do concerns for personal safety. “The demand is related to economic development, especially in the coastal cities such as Beijing and Shanghai,” says Xin Yang, the general manager of Beijing Yunhai Elite Security.
Industry statistics show that China currently has some 4,000 licensed security firms with as many as 4.3 million security agents and an annual turnover of about 40 billion RMB ($653 million). And there is sure to be plenty of room for growth in the sector.
For the rich and famous, it isn’t just their own personal safety, but that of their families and properties. This is a whole “engineering system,” as Shi puts it.
Shi says the typical procedure when taking on a client is first to assess all the potential risks, then identify the level of danger and finally develop a specific strategy for protection. Teams of five to eight security personnel are typically dispatched. They include those specialized in anti-kidnapping, anti-tracking or target control, as well as those disguised as chauffeurs or secretaries to offer close minute-by-minute protection of the client.
Having studied martial arts since the age of 15, and having later worked for years as one of the “Zhongnanhai Guards Group” protecting China’s top leaders as well as foreign visitors such as Bill Gates, Zhe Meijie is considered one of the top Chinese security specialists.
Zhe says that while more and more security companies are springing up, the industry lacks supervision and public regulations. “It’s a mixed bag,” he says. “We hope that the government will introduce appropriate policies to guide the industry’s development and that practitioners and managers in the sector get better training, as well as learn to cooperate to avoid vicious competition among themselves."
As such a new industry, China’s bodyguard services are still groping in the dark. To improve standards and find quality recruits, security firms increasingly tap into the ranks of newly retiring police and soldiers. “Decomissioned special forces soldiers possess high military qualities and can adapt themselves fast to bodyguard work. They are our first choice,” says Shi.
Before being put into service, candidates must go through a sort of boot camp, including physical training, kickboxing, martial arts and anti-kidnapping training, as well as business protocol.
“If you can’t fight, you definitely can’t be a bodyguard. But only knowing how to fight doesn’t make you a bodyguard either,” Shi says. “What a bodyguard requires most is intelligence.”
Half the training is related to skills and theories such as driving special vehicles, information collection, legal knowledge, public relations, emergency care, social etiquette. Physical techniques represent 20% and fighting 30%, Shi estimates.
But above all, integrity is still the most important aspect of a profession that involves both danger and privacy. “We are still far from the standards of the profession in advanced countries like America since this is a business that is just starting in China,” says Shi. “We want to become China’s Blackwater, but it’s a tough road. We are learning how to do our job, and we realize that also includes educating the clients.”
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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