Predoctoral Spotlight: Shan Huang on Development and Urban Politics in Hong Kong

Meet Shan Huang, a Stanford doctoral candidate in anthropology and a 2020-21 APARC predoctoral fellow, whose dissertation provides an ethnographic account of Hong Kong’s political culture in the post-Handover era.
[Left] Hong Kong skyline; [Right] Encina Hall, Stanford Florian Wehde, Unsplash

Hong Kong is a geographically, culturally, and historically unique city. Shan Huang, a Stanford doctoral candidate in anthropology, is fascinated by how the history and culture of “Asia’s World City” continue to affect its social and political development.

predoctoral fellow at APARC during the 2020-21 academic year, Shan researches urban studies and contemporary social movements with a focus on Hong Kong and mainland China. His dissertation examines how the Hong Kong government’s developmental schemes are confronted by grassroots actions aimed at democratizing urban planning and promoting alternative urban futures.

APARC introduced the predoctoral fellowship in January 2021 as part of our expanded funding and training offerings in response to the harsh impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on students' academic careers and their access to future jobs and valuable work experience, and in recognition of the critical need to make the field of Asian Studies more diverse and inclusive.

We chatted with Shan to learn more about how his study of anthropology informs his research interests, how's he has spent his time away from Stanford during the pandemic closures, and how he's planning for the future in unpredictable times.

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Tell us about your dissertation and research interests. What initially drew you to these topics?

My current research broadly concerns the contested field of urban politics in which established regimes of “development” meet various sociopolitical demands and cultural aspirations that call these regimes into question. My dissertation, Land, Democracy, and the Urban Future: An Ethnography of Political Culture in Late Colonial Hong Kong, examines how Hong Kong government’s developmental schemes are confronted by grassroots actions that aim at democratizing land-use planning and promoting alternative urban futures. A full-length ethnography of Hong Kong's political culture, it also seeks to reflect on urbanism of our times.

With characteristic images filled with skyscrapers and dense residential buildings, Hong Kong is typically portrayed as an urban miracle. In contrast, my main fieldwork was conducted in the massive countryside of the metropolis. There, I followed the path of a network of advocate groups, local residents, and activists who are invested in reviving agriculture, studying local history, and strengthening community ties through experimental social projects. In revitalizing the villages that many of them used not to be familiar with, they are also exploring how to make new environmental, social, and political visions tangible and participatory for ordinary citizens. It is these methodologies of envisioning that interest me the most.

I was initially drawn to this research on a field trip to Hong Kong’s countryside during the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Summer School at Lingnan University in 2016. Thanks to the wonderful tours led by local activists and researchers, I came to be fascinated by the anti-displacement campaigns there and the question of how the urban-rural connections shape what we know as “Hong Kong.”

What’s something unexpected that you’ve learned through the course of your research?

The most unexpected experience during the course of my research in Hong Kong was certainly my witness of the 2019-2020 protest movements triggered by the Extradition Law Amendment Bill. As an anthropologist trying to understand Hong Kong’s political culture, I learned from this game-changing event about the limit of my field. As I wrote elsewhere, it means the government’s exhaustion of strategies of control, which, read in the longer trajectory of the city’s social and political transformation, suggests the furthest extent to which the post-Handover arrangement can win consensus among citizens. I also think that the failed politics of land-use planning, which is another field of civil participation, may also serve as a concrete example that explains how this grand limit has eventually arrived, though in a less eventful manner.

When you’re not working on your dissertation, what kinds of things have you done to stay grounded during this year of quarantine?

In the first few months of quarantine, I couldn’t do much on my dissertation, so I started learning more cooking skills by watching videos by vloggers who specialize in Chinese cuisines. After I relocated to China in the past summer, I had the chance to cook for my extended family a few times with all I had learned and they seemed to really like it!

How have the unusual circumstances of this past year and your time as a remote predoctoral fellow at APARC affected your research goals?

I was fortunate to complete the main part of my fieldwork before the COVID-19 pandemic, so I’m very lucky in that. The main challenge regarding my predoctoral fellowship is that I couldn’t join as many APARC/FSI talks as I wish due to the awkward time difference!

Where are you hoping your interests take you after you receive your degree from Stanford?

One practical thing I’ve learned during the pandemic is the need to be prepared for sudden changes in plans. This is particularly true and challenging for the community of floating, “international” scholars to which I belong. My hope is to still find an academic home where I can teach and polish my work, but I am also trying to be more poised for other possibilities. In the end, perhaps learning how to relax about some planning and expectations is not a bad thing either.

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