Museums with unique community characteristics brightly record the memoirs of ordinary people

By Li Qing
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, April 23, 2021
Adjust font size:
A sand table is displayed at Shijia Hutong Museum, which showcases an overall view of Beijing's hutong and courtyards. [Photo/Xinhua]

After China's policy of reform and opening up got underway in 1978, electronic industry resources from the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong consistently gathered in the southern city of Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. That was the one moment in time when the Huaqiangbei Electronic Market in Shenzhen's Futian District set off on its now legendary journey. A manifestation of cutting-edge information, the tech super-hub today accounts for nearly 90 percent of the city's electronic digital products trading shares.

This particular street market grew from several factories of roaring machines into a street of small electronics processing and trade outlets. Nevertheless, today, it is an established business circle featuring multifaceted structures of all sorts. The area's development embodies both the launch of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and the ultimate motivation for many ordinary people to let their dreams set sail. For instance, Chinese tech giant Tencent was born there.

Due to the rise of domestic brands and online shopping, Huaqiangbei has gradually lost its industrial position. However, its splendid past decoding Shenzhen's development amid the processes of opening up and the people's struggling spirit was presented by Huaqiangbei Museum in Futian. Unveiling on December 30, 2020, it narrates the stories of the entrepreneurs there as well as the evolution of the business circle and hi-tech products.

The museum is the fruit of all those related to Huaqiangbei's history, Huang Wei, Deputy Mayor of Futian, said at the opening ceremony, adding that it will offer visitors a different experience, both traveling back in time as well as catching a glimpse of the future. The museum protects the unique culture of the electronics market and makes for a creator's paradise.

Landmark of an era

Recently, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) announced the theme for the 2021 International Museum Day on May 18, The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine. Echoing the concerns of society, ICOM not only calls on museums to embrace the challenges brought on by COVID-19, but also to rethink their relationship with the communities they serve.

Meng Yu, a 31-year-old teacher in Shenzhen, regards Huaqiangbei Museum as an album of his father's career. "My father used to come here several times a month. He would purchase products there and then transport these to his shop in a neighboring city. This was how he supported our family."

Meng recalled those days that if people were able to obtain a spot on the market, they could jump on the express train of Shenzhen's development and its promising electronic industry.

Walking the museum, Meng was amazed by a model of the city made up of electronic elements. "It was hanging upside down from the ceiling. Combined with the lights and cyberpunk decorations, I felt like I was entering The Matrix," he told Beijing Review.

Meng took many pictures and posted them across social platforms; a lot of viewers gave them a thumbs-up and asked him where this museum was located.

Interactive facilities supported by hi-tech, such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality, form another highlight of the museum.

Further items on display at the museum came courtesy of the visiting public, such as a dual cassette recorder produced by Shenzhen Jingwah Electronics Co. Ltd. in 1984. Beepers and brick-sized old cell phones are part of Meng's childhood memories. They were the fashion icons of the era, and young people born after the year 2000 may have only very little understanding of them, he said.

"I admired my father very much when he first showed them to me back in the day. Though I have a lot of digital devices today, all of which are far more advanced, I've never felt like that again."

The exhibition not only demonstrates the miracles of the market, entrepreneurs and even Shenzhen by large, but also showcases just how the country transformed from the level "made in China" to "created in China," according to Huang. With numerous ambitious people in Huaqiangbei, the market has removed its early-days label of being a "gray" market with fake products and grown into Aladdin's cave of gadgets. Its struggle over the past four decades is encapsulated in the museum.

Today's museums can expand their influence based on local policies, locations and cultural advantages; this is the key to the prosperity of China's museum industry, Wen Huainan from the National Museum of China said in an article published by the Journal of Archaeology And Museology.

Home is where nostalgia lives

To learn about life in the hutongs, the Beijing labyrinth of traditional alleyways, also known as the Shijia Hutong Museum, is a must-visit. Located in one of the most historic of the hutongs, the museum, courtyard 24, features brown, rustic wooden doors, gray walls and tiles, and white marble door markers. It was once home to Ling Shuhua, a late modernist writer and painter.

The city's first public hutong museum, first unlocking its doors in 2013, gives visitors the lowdown on how the hutongs and the traditional courtyard homes within them have changed over the years.

The museum features many everyday items including copies of labor contracts, old furniture and bus tickets. They give visitors a sneak peek of what ordinary Beijing life must have been like back in the 1920s and 30s. In addition, the museum has furnished two room interiors according to the styles of a typical Beijing family from the 1950s and 60s, as well as the 70s and 80s.

In one room, audio tools send out over 300 sounds of the hutongs throughout the decades, including street hawkers and vendors promoting their wares, the sounds of sharpening scissors and knives and pigeon whistles... Those sounds that have gradually disappeared amid the capital city's urban development are preserved there. They are part of the traditional and ordinary Beijing life, epitomizing the personalities of both the residents and living space.

For instance, families living in the hutongs used to acquire most of their daily life's necessities from peddlers traveling through the streets and lanes, Colin Chinnery, the man behind the sound project, told Xinhua News Agency.

Most sounds representing the old Beijing have left and therefore Chinnery felt the strong need to record them in a bid to evoke people's memories. Certain sounds, such as that unmistakable ringing hum of the pigeons in flight, are unique to Beijing, but fewer and fewer of these can be heard.

"Sounds deliver messages about culture, history and personal feelings."

Besides building the image of a city through museums, people should also further support their connections to others on the long term, Ding Shu, head of the Laozihao Museum in the historical district of Laomendong, Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, told People's Daily.

Instead of displaying items, stories with cultural and historical significance that can evoke people's empathy are the main target of an exhibition, Wen said.

Laozihao, time-honored brands lasted decades or even over 100 years, and grain and cloth coupons stemming from the planned economy period are on display at the museum.

Pork sausage produced by Lamei, a shop in Nanjing, that was started 150 years ago, is a must-have during Spring Festival celebrations, Lin Silong, a Nanjing native, told Beijing Review, adding that many of the brands featured in the museum to this day remain first choice for her family members.

"I visited the museum together with my 70-year-old grandmother. She enjoys it very much and can tell me many a story linking her growing up to those brands," she said.

Museums in China are taking on an increasingly prominent role in the country's economic and social development, bringing the people a growing sense of gain and happiness, Weng said.

"Nevertheless, people should put additional emphasis on the themes of modern and contemporary China, which still need more and louder voices in this industry. This is what we need to explore in the future," he concluded.

Follow on Twitter and Facebook to join the conversation.
ChinaNews App Download
Print E-mail Bookmark and Share

Go to Forum >>0 Comment(s)

No comments.

Add your comments...

  • User Name Required
  • Your Comment
  • Enter the words you see:    
    Racist, abusive and off-topic comments may be removed by the moderator.
Send your storiesGet more from