The True Engine Of Change In China Is Knowledge

A bookstall holder in China
A bookstall holder in China
Zhang Tiezhi*
The car drove slowly into the early spring night of Hangzhou. The person who had come to fetch me is a new acquaintance named Wang Qixian. As a member of the post-1980s generation he has worked as a white collar worker in the private sector, in Chinese state-owned enterprises, as well as in Taiwanese enterprises in various cities before coming to Hangzhou to start a publishing career.
He has just published a book called “Settling in the Cities.” I asked Qixian why he has chosen to go into a sector where it is notoriously hard to make money, and in particular by specializing in publishing humanities and the social sciences? Unexpectedly, his answer opened up for me a historical window, and allowed me a glimpse into a brief history of China’s intellectual and social changes.
Qixian grew up amidst stacks of books in Zhengzhou city, Henan province. His grandfather had worked for the railroad. Retired in 1978, his hobbies included raising birds and reading, so he set up a small bookstall at the entrance of his alley. In 1983, however, Qixian’s aunt had more than one baby, so both she and her husband were expelled from their work as civil servants.
Qixian’s uncle had the idea of moving the grandfather’s bookstall near the entrance of a park on a big street. The bookstore has branched out since then. At its best, even books such as Freud's "The Interpretation of Dreams" could sell as many as 30 to 40 thousand copies. When the books were all sold out, the readers came and waited at the doorway and grabbed the books on their arrival.

A new hunger
That was in the mid-80s. People were desperately eager to pursue what they had so long been deprived of. They were eager for information and knowledge to understand their times, to fill up their minds, whether the reading was entertaining or thoughtful, utilitarian or literature, art and philosophy. After all, they had nothing at that time.
Yu Hua, author of “China In Ten Words” described a similar scene in his book. In the late 70s, in the little town where he lived, more than 200 people would queue up each morning before dawn to buy books in front of the Xinhua Bookstore. The sensation that Tolstoy and Balzac's literary works brought to the town was like the effect of an opera singer suddenly belting one out in a quiet village.
Qixian’s uncle started his own publishing business in 1988. He published everything including the pirated, the translated, and original Chinese creations. Publishing was an amazingly good business then, before everything came to a sudden halt in the late 80s.
After that, partly because of the political environment, and partly because China joined the Universal Copyright Convention, not all books were allowed to be published any longer. The first generation of Chinese booksellers scattered and encountered various fates. Some had made enough money and switched to other businesses, others specialized in piracy or specialized in school textbooks, translation or publishing local authors.
For his part, Qixian first worked as a white collar employee for a few years, before realizing that it was not for him. He was influenced by the non-mainstream rock "n" roll culture that challenges the establishment. Meanwhile, the lingering smell of books remained in his orbit.
Qixian quit his job and invested in this business that has changed the fate of his whole family: publishing. He is very aware of the fact that it is no longer the 1980s, and it is particularly hard to be doing it all alone. However, there’s a special significance to being engaged in publishing at this time.
This young man spoke with a sage tone: “China is like a house of mirrors. On one hand, Big Brother is watching you; on the other hand, it’s entertainment to death. Nonetheless, whether we call it education or knowledge, or even common sense, this is the foundation of this country. Some demonstrate on the streets, some study theories, I choose publishing to spread knowledge.”
Qixian feels that transforming China requires the spreading of a lot of basic knowledge. For instance, he has published “Settling in Cities,” a book that aroused enthusiastic discussion. He believes that the issues concerning migrant workers and the growing amount of low-level social violence is a big challenge facing China, and will get people thinking.

Pursuing happiness
At the same time, he also sees rising levels of Chinese anxiety and confusion. Indeed, since the rapid economic development of the 1990s, Chinese people's basic material desires have been met. However, most people do not yet know where to find their happiness. They experience Chinese society’s spiritual emptiness as well as the festering nature of institutional life, but they don’t know where to initiate changes.
In different seminars in different cities, I see this enthusiasm for knowledge among many Chinese youngsters. They raise questions passionately and they want to know where China should go.
As a Taiwanese author, I look with envy at China where so many intellectual books make it to the bestseller list. This atmosphere has largely disappeared in Taiwan. After all, Taiwan has already passed its major period of social transition.
Though China’s current publishing market is full of bizarre speculation, I also see many publishers trying their best to come out with books that can help the nation's transition and cultivate Chinese people’s civic thinking.
Qixian moves me most with his words. “In the process of publishing books, we gain a bit more sense of awe. I regard it as repaying the debt of China’s past.”
I asked him finally whether he believes that knowledge can change China. “This is certain,” he said. “Though for the moment, I feel helpless.”
*Zhang Tiezhi is a Taiwanese columnist for Caixin.
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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

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.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

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.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

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?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

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.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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