The Twilight of Shenzhen’s Great Urban Village
The dense, tangled warrens of Baishizhou will soon succumb to modernity. Yet without them, this Chinese metropolis might never have risen.
Before Baishizhou is razed, Duan wants the voices of its residents to be heard. On Saturday afternoons, he walks around the neighborhood and photographs residents and local business owners holding a small blackboard. On it, they chalk their names and a simple two-character message, “buchai,” meaning “don’t demolish.”
“During past urban village redevelopments, they’ve paid attention to the interests of the developer, of the government, of the original residents, but no one has ever paid attention to the interests of the renters,” said Duan. “And to some extent, these renters are the real owners of the urban villages. They have made huge contributions to Shenzhen and the urban villages, but if the government says raze, then the village is razed, and if the government says get out, then the people have to get out.”
Duan is gathering names for a petition as he goes on his photo walks, which he plans to submit to the city government along with the portraits of residents. He’s very often rejected or outright ignored, as modern China has little social precedent for what he’s doing, but he usually gets four or five signatures a trip. “It’s not about making the government look bad, it’s about communicating with them so that they understand the whole situation,” he said. “We’re not against the improvement of the urban village, but we’re against this totally destructive method of throwing out everything to rebuild.”
On a trip to Baishizhou in late April, Duan approached a man and woman walking home from a market with their young daughter. The man, a 31-year-old software developer who asked to be referred to only by his last name, Wu, had lived in Baishizhou for three years. He said he’d already seen two of his previous neighborhoods in Shenzhen demolished.
The family agreed to be photographed, and afterward Wu asked if he could join Duan for the rest of the evening to help with the project. He dropped his family off at their home in a nearby handshake building and came back down carrying a second blackboard.
There are other signs that Duan’s efforts aren’t in vain. Earlier this summer, he joined a chorus of voices, including local designers, architects, and artists, opposing the planned redevelopment of another one of Shenzhen’s urban villages, Hubei. The issue caught the attention of the local media, in part because of the village’s easy-to-see historical value: Hubei, whose roots stretch back to 1466, has narrow lanes laid out in an eight-by-three grid typical of ancient Cantonese villages, and rows of squat, tile-roofed houses that marshal behind a well-used ancestral hall.
As with Baishizhou, it was set to make way for shopping centers and apartment complexes. But the outcry carried. Plans to redevelop the historic core of the village were canceled (though the redevelopment of the area surrounding the old village will go forward). In August, the city government shared a draft of new guidelines for urban renewal efforts, with sections that seemed to allude to Hubei. Along with making special allowances for urban villages with special historical value, the guidelines also broadly recommend that future renewals of chengzhongcun use renovations and quality-of-life improvements as a first approach, over whole-sale demolitions.
Whether the proposed new guidelines will impact Baishizhou’s future remains to be seen. Buildings are already coming down in the neighborhood’s industrial area. But a policy shift could change the dynamic in negotiations over the rest of Baishizhou.
Meanwhile, the electricity at Wang’s store has been cut. On Sept. 10, he and his wife were still there, trying to sell off the last of their stock from a darkened store, while workers around the corner tossed debris out of gutted buildings.
Top photo credit: Theodore Kaye/ChinaFile