This is a rather lengthy passage. I intended it to be short but with so much to write about I was just able to write on.
(How I wish I could have remotely as much stuff to write about when it comes to an assessment essay)
Background to my visit(s): On Urban Villages
Shenzhen as a city is indeed virtually rather void of a local identity: Most of the city’s publicity media are always revolving around its generic skyscrapers and shopping malls designed by some wealthy American architectural firm. Being a city founded barely more than 40 years ago, and migrants from all around the country forms vast majority of its inhabitants.
I do acknowledge that none of these attributes are unique to Shenzhen indeed. However, (haha of course spot on! There must be a ‘however’ in articles like this!) it is almost universally established among us born-and-bred Shenzheners (is this even a word?) that the attributes that which genuinely defined the city from all competition, lies in the very speed and scale by which everything is done. Over the past decades the city experienced one of the most significant levels of growth anywhere on Earth–both in terms of the migrant population and the amount of new stuff coming up all over the place. This scale of the influx, and its amalgamation of all sorts of people and things, is also precisely where the peculiarity of Shenzhen lies.
Thus if I were to name one thing that genuinely characterised Shenzhen, I would reckon that to be the legacies left by this nearly unprecedented scale of expansion. None such remnants are anywhere as significant in scale, as that of what both locals and social anthropologists refer to as urban villages (城中村). These, in short, are vast swathes of illegal, private (and most likely structurally unsafe) residences constructed with neither safety nor architectural concerns whatsoever, that sprouted out on lands that used to be owned by what was traditionally local villages. If you’ve never been here its quite difficult to define them, because these buildings simply don’t exist anywhere outside of the “Shenzhen context”, because it possesses an amalgamation of the attributes of shantytowns, villages, as well as a centre-city location. The only thing that I can distantly relate is (was) the rather extreme example of Kowloon Walled City–Apart from urban villages being not anywhere near as architecturally stunning as that. But still they are unique products of Shenzhen’s mass urban growth.
It is hard to estimate just how many people actually reside in these urban villages. Anecdotal evidence suggest a figure north of 2 million are living in these dire conditions, most of which being migrant workers renting bed spaces from wealthy landlords. They are however very poorly documented academically, but are in my view extremely worthy of deeper anthropological and sociological enquiry. There’s little to no outside visitors to these urban villages because most white-collars wont even bother to come anywhere near these places. This, coupled with how most residents work, sleep and live all within their block, renders each urban village practically a little segregated, self-sufficient ‘world-of-its-own’, with their local shops, restaurants, committees, markets, schools and whatnot, all of which being exclusively catered for the local population, and all sorts of people reside in these quarters–construction workers, cleaners, shop assistants, barbers, taxi drivers…possibly drug dealers…who knows?
Yet a nearly unprecedented amount of gentrification/redevelopment is undergoing in Shenzhen at the moment (I’m not going into as to whether its a good thing or not, it depends on the way you see it). The primary target of what they referred to as ‘urban rejuvenation’ projects, are of course these urban villages. Over the past ten years or so, swathes of these urban villages are being torn down to make way for high rise and retail all across the city. Deep in heart, as much as I like the original Lingnanese village buildings to be preserved for their architectural merits, a part of me sort of want to see them go too…because they are simply way too ‘third-world’ in both appearance and functionality, and quite frankly occasionally crime-ridden.
But then, I’m torn on this matter. Mostly for that, well, this gentrifying process being also an evident manifestation of elitism (On a side note, while personally being staunchly against the regressive left, this final few words of the last sentence almost seems like a slogan SJWs enjoy to use in whining all about, but that’s way off-topic). Well anyway, on this matter specifically I do need to sympathise with the working class indeed. As the buildings are bought and taken down by the government and property giants, the wealthy landlords receives compensation amounting to the tens, or even hundreds of millions, while the entirety of the migrant workers living in these tenement quarters are now left without even four walls and a roof–Just so that more luxury apartments and upscale shopping malls catering for the wealthiest could be built on their place.
Amongst the many dozens of such urban villages spread across down that are now under demolition or the threat of it, two of the most famous urban villages (or infamous, depending the way you see it) are that of Baishizhou (白石洲) in Nanshan, and Hubei (湖贝) in Luohu. Both of these are now approved by local authorities to be demolished in their entirety, so that, as aforementioned, some so-called ‘urban rejuvenation’ can take place.
Despite both being urban villages on the brink of demolition, they are much different in terms of their histories. Aesthetically, Baishizhou is just about the worst imaginable, since it was not originally a village like most other urban villages, so nothing much dates back further than the late 70s here. It is filled by nothing more than the blandest of illegal tenements–Some of which sprouted fifteen stories high. Hubei, on the other hand, is a genuinely ancient village with a recorded history of more than five centuries.
Both will be gone before 2020, but the exact times are yet to be confirmed. Most residents of either urban village have been told to leave and the vast majority have done so. Seeing that I’ll be heading to the UK again in a couple of weeks, I just have this need to give both these urban villages one more visit as soon as possible–Simply because I cannot guarantee that any of these buildings will still standing by the time I return.
After getting some repairs done for my old phone nearby, I arrived at Baishizhou just about 2pm. I used to know this general surrounding well because my old school was (and still is) right across the street from here. I’ve hardly been on this side of the road though–Except occasionally when buying some junk food after school–Because its simply not the safest place to be in, period.
With the exception of some shops and restaurants, nothing much have changed (as of now) since the days I went to school. The general ‘crappiness’ of the place still permeate through the air: The pungent smell of food waste and sewage, children running about with neither shoes or a decent shirt, stray dogs wandering across the blood of chickens the butchers killed and chopped into pieces just now…These descriptions might make it seem as a dire–almost abhorrent place to live, but it is also very everyday, very grass-root, since these scenes are microcosms of the ways in which all these 150 thousand inhabitants of Baishizhou–and the upwards of two million ‘urban villagers’ are livin’-it-up.
Nuff said, here’s some photos to give you a better picture:
As aforementioned, Baishizhou and Hubei are two very different places located at two very different parts of town. Upon leaving Baishizhou, I hopped on a train that carries me 16 kilometres eastbound to my next destination.
Hubei is extremely centrally located–a mere 10 minutes away from one of the largest shopping districts in town, and situating immediately across the road from B Exit of Hubei Station, it is very accessible indeed. It is thus not surprising how the property giants vied for this piece of land, and needed the old townhouses to be demolished.
But then on the other hand, regardless of how it is now ruined by capitalism and illegal construction, Hubei is a gorgeous Lingnanese village at its heart, and while it is thoroughly engulfed by modern high-rises, and albeit left under abysmal conditions, the half-millenia-old village itself for the most part has largely survived.
Although it is extremely dilapidated nowadays, revitalisation is perfectly possible. Yet they ended up chosing the other option with irreversible consequences. I genuinely don’t wish to see it go in the name of ‘progress’, but as I mentioned in this post, heritage is meaningless against the merciless bulldozers of property giants.
Anyway, so upon entering, the first structure discernible is the ancestral temple of the village.
Translates as something in the lines of: “Stay clear of this building, it is found to be structurally unsafe”. Wait…wait a second…these buildings have stood here steadfastly for more than two hundred years and you’re only posting this now on the eve of demolition? Or is this just another excuse to expel the inhabitants?
Anyway…Enough meandering through deserted alleyways. I genuinely want to get a glimpse of the scale of Hubei from a vantage point. What better way of doing so than to go upwards?
Long story short, I made my way up to the top floor of an apartment building nearby. The security of many things here in China are much less relaxed that that of the West. One such instance can be how one can simply walk in to private apartment blocks with ease.
I could go on elaborating my further thoughts on this, but I reckon it’d be a better idea to end it here without troubling you with further details.
On the same afternoon I went for a stroll around Dongmen, a notable shopping district near the original settlement of Shenzhen. I documented that in another entry (Click here), give it a read if you so wish.
Thanks for reading!