Urban Villages in a Chinese Metropolis

What urban renewal in Shenzhen tells us about traditional Chinese culture.

Ask anyone in Shenzhen about their city’s past and their response will generally contain the words “former fishing village” and “coastal metropolis”, and often “cultural desert”. Thirty years of complex social, political and economic history are reduced into a few sentences about how Shenzhen’s designation as the nation’s first special economic zone allowed it freedom to grow into the supercity it is today, but due to its short history it lacks culture. After hearing numerous versions of this account over the years, such words have become rather empty and tiring to hear. Yet after all this time, Shenzhen’s story does not cease to be told, and the same simplifications persist.

Of course, within these condensed and near scripted stories of Shenzhen’s history lie insightful, even inspiring insights, hence the story’s longevity. Indeed, the rapid construction, of both infrastructure and the complex business ecosystem of Shenzhen is unparalleled worldwide. Yet a look at any construction site will reaffirm the point that Shenzhen’s rapid neighborhood was not due to magic, nor technological prowess. Similarly, it is hard not to question the merits of declaring an entire city of 13+million, or some estimate, 30 million, ‘culture-less’. An exploration beyond the textbook retelling of Shenzhen’s success illuminates largely unaddressed contributors to Shenzhen’s current state, and its relationship with the culture of Shenzhen.

Prominent among the factors of Shenzhen’s development is urban renewal, a 50’s era term dubbed for the redevelopment of city spaces to support a host of urban pursuits. Otherwise called redevelopment, or in Chinese, literally city rebuilding (modernization shi modernization modernization), the concept arose first in the US, where it, to generalize, meant clearing slums and otherwise economically backwards regions in favor of higher profit infrastructure. In China, this process has caught fire since the early 80’s, particularly in the wealthy Southeast. The key difference is that in China, where many cities sprang straight from agrarian land to cities, this process entailed the assimilation of culturally rich traditional communities into today’s modern cities.

My first experience of this was a classic case of Chinese urban renewalSeveral years back, upon returning to my paternal grandmother’s home in modernization, Shandong, I found the earthen huts of my family’s village replaced by a gated patch concrete row-houses. The red soil roads were paved over with grainy, pale concrete, and an old family friend was now working in a patrol booth at the mouth of the newly gated community. Yet, where I expected outspoken and opinionated backlash from my fiercely argumentative family, their accounts of the situation were uncharacteristically passive. I was told that the larger part of the former village now belonged to a real estate project, and that this process had been quick: everyone was given a small apartment as compensation for their house, the old village was razed, and then soon rose the monochrome gray modernization in its place.

“But how did all the villagers agree to it?” I asked, in disbelief. “They were all given a new apartment,” everyone said. Yes; in return for the destruction of houses built by their family, which they grew up and later raised their own families in, the villagers received a three room, concrete-bound apartment.

Although this was long before I had even heard of urban renewal, and at a time when I knew little of Chinese customs,I was struck by the dismissive reaction of the razing of a generations old village, confused about the ease with which people gave up their property, and appalled — in retrospect — by the priority of the village authorities of money over generations of accumulated ancestral heritage.

A more recent case is in the neighborhood urban village of Shenzhen, found in the heart of the city. It’s a village less in the traditional sense, and more in function. This neighborhood stands out, with its housing prices 1/3 of surrounding ones, and in it, all necessities are at a short walking distance. It was built far before the formal conception of Shenzhen as a city, and remained the property of villages through Shenzhen’s development. Gradually seeing the potential for profit however, the villagers replaced their traditional farmer houses with dense, tenement style buildings to lease. And the effect of this on Shenzhen was monumental, although largely unacknowledged. The low rent and high walkability of the neighborhood have for generations welcomed all walks of life to the city, from students to migrant workers to startup entrepreneurs, creating the massive labor force to which Shenzhen owes its growth. Today, in the village, one remarks an eclectic yet personalized and practical medley of service shops, food stands, repair carts, and street vendors, reflecting the essence of this cultural and social melting pot.

Street Scene in Baishizhou Village

But many hold a different perspective: in Shenzhen, urban villages like this are highly stigmatized among the middle class as unruly slums plagued by crime, drugs, debauchery, and vice. To them, such areas are only waiting to be demolished and redeveloped. And accordingly, one morning last spring, shopkeepers arriving at work found the Chinese character cai, or demolish, spray-painted in red on their storefronts. In its place, the Shenzhen planning bureau planned for the construction of a mall district and the repositioning of an already existing park. No notice of when: they knew only that deconstruction was coming, with no compensation to its occupants — the renters. Thus all that they could do was start clearing their stocks and wait to be kicked out.

There are many similar cases in China. And the popular conclusion is that Chinese urban renewal projects lack consideration for individuals. And perhaps that holds some truth, but no more so than anywhere else, as few urban renewal projects are able to quantitatively or concretely address their social implications. As a matter of fact, many in Shenzhen are deeply invested in the social impact of such projects. For example, when a similar renewal project was proposed a while back for Hubei village in neighborhood district, architectures, artists, residents and assorted netizens united in opposition, and ultimately they prompted compromise from the government. Hence, rather than showing a general lack of awareness and concern for the social impact of urban renewal, our two cases hint at something else: the lack of intangible value that residents place on their residences. As with the first case in neighborhood, the residents of neighborhood(in interviews) exhibited rather dismissive, or at least accepting, attitudes towards the impending destruction of their homes and businesses. Any dismay exhibited was at the need to relocate, and not the cultural or nostalgic value of their dwellings Among them was storeowner Wang An, who joked about returning to his hometown to plant vegetables after his shop is closed down. None of the interviews displayed significant discontent, much less opposition.

The two cases described are very different, and this must be acknowledged. In the first, in Shandong province, those living in the buildings were the owners of the properties, and were thus recompensed and given new homes. In Shenzhen however, those using the buildings set for destruction were renters, with no formal contracts, and thus received no notifications nor compensation. Given their differences, the similarities between the two are all the more significant. In both, regardless of property ownership, once the government and developers set their eyes on any property, residents lost hope and acquiesced. Particularly in Shenzhen, where such projects are actually covered extensively by (social) media, those most affected are the least vocal about the change. One might hypothesize that in neighborhood village, the largely migrant population felt isolated and powerless, as outsiders in a neighborhood of other outsiders (Chinese provincial identities are very distinct and often highly divisive). But this theory proves untrue in the Shandong case Shandong. Many villagers at the time of the renewal project, had lived in their old neighborhood since my grandmother’s childhood. So what, then, stopped them from resisting the destruction of their homes?

Perhaps it’s China’s collective past, which instilled in people the importance of obedience to the government (or perhaps fear of it). Yet a more likely answer lies in the general low regard for traditional culture. In a society captivated by the wonders of the occident and increasingly influenced by globalization, traditional culture is often forgone. And in the case of urban renewal, if residents or renters feel little value, beyond the tangible, in their place of living, they likely won’t oppose efforts to replace it. It’s likely that in Shenzhen, it is such a response to the rapid and assimilating urbanization of former fishing communities which as precipitated its reputation as a ‘cultural desert’. This cycle accelerates exponentially, and with it arise associated social issues of aggressive urban renewal. Moving forward, we need to see human welfare as less a hindrance to urban renewal, and rather as a necessity, should cities hope to maintain their growth which has largely come from its diverse population. Certainly, at its base, a city is for its dwellers, and only by maintaining this symbiotic relationship can a city maintain its status in the longterm. And perhaps then, Shenzhen’s textbook description shall drop the words, ‘culture desert’.

Baishizhou Neighborhood at Dusk
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