旧村改新:initial observations

this is another thoughts-in-progress entry. these past few days, i have been trying to organize thoughts about the 旧村改新 (old village make-overs), a recent government initiative to clean-up shenzhen’s new villages (now understood as “old”). this was part of the reason for posting on luohu; i actually took that series of pictures last december, but the juxtaposition of new luohu village, the era of two cities building, the new housing development, and the renovated train station point to issues that come together in the make-over initiative. so if you haven’t yet, you may want to first take a walk about luohu.

the point, of course, is simple: there are many shenzhens and they all abut one another. indeed, it’s as difficult to miss new villages, which have a distinctive layout and architecture, as it is to overlook a high-end housing development. these different urban forms actualize the different development trajectories that shenzhen’s villagers and white-collar migrants have pursued. that is to say, even if we bracket for the moment the question of whether or not shenzhen has deep, imperial history, nevertheless, it has been over 25 years since deng xiaoping began reform and opening just north of hong kong. architecture styles and urban plans actualize different moments in this process, providing a material history of the city. with the village make-over initiative, the government seems determined to remove traces of historic difference, even as cultural officials continue to moan about shenzhen’s lack of history. below is a picture of the arch at the entrance to huanggang new village.

the old village make-over initiative first came to my attention over dinner last year, when friends were discussing the government’s decision to raze 18 mid-rise buildings), right at the huanggang cross-border checkpoint. the topic came up not because those at the table disagreed with the make-over process, but because this was the first time china was simultaneously imploding 18 buildings. the event was know as “china’s first blast (全国第一爆).the buildings belonged to yunong village (渔农村). if memory holds, the conversation focused on the technology involved, the need for a modern area to face hong kong, and the avarious fearlessness of villagers, who continued to errect illegal, rental properties.

this past year, i have watched construction teams lay the foundations for a new yunong with something of a jaded eye. this is not the first time that the municipal government had directed a movement specifically at shenzhen’s urban villages. and in a certain sense, it often feels like a more of the same kind of project.

in 1991, the government initiated the rural urbanization movement (农村城市化运动) with the goal of integrating all villages into the municipal government and giving all shenzhen peasants, citizen status. this was called the double transformation. this movement finally ended in august 2004, when baoan and longgang districts announced that all villages had been redistricted and all villagers had been given a new hukou. shenzhen was thereby the first city in china to have neither villages nor villagers within its borders.

for officials determined to turn their city into a global, international city, the end of rural shenzhen was a major milestone. indeed, in this area shenzhen has been heralded as a national leader. these administrative changes, however, did not irradicate the visceral spatial differences between shenzhen villages and the surrounding city.

in order to deepen the integration of the villages into the fabric of the city, shenzhen officials turned their gaze to the built environment as a sign of rural-urban difference. consequently, the following year, in 2005, the government decided to start the old village make-over initiative. crudely, this entails razing what are known as “handshake buildings” and replacing them with modern residential developments. handshake buildings are so-called because they are so close to each other that neighbors can reach out their windows or across their balconies and shake hands. the initiative includes building plazas and public areas, as well as different kinds of housing developments. i include a picture of a row of handshake buildings, huanggang new village.

compare with an image of the new urban dreams currently under construction in huanggang:

the old village make-over initiative was formally approved on october 28, 2005. it is a special five-year plan to improve the urban villages (城中村), speed up urbanization, promote the unification of infrastructure within and outside the sez, realize the joint planning and harmonious development of urban villages and other areas in the city, and to advance the architecture of a global, modern, and key city, errect a harmonious and efficient shenzhen. the curious can check out the full old village make-over plan online.

nevertheless, the question of make-overs and everyday life only became interesting the other day, when i was in shuiwei and huanggang, two of the futian villages that abut the hong kong border. frankly, i was impressed with the layout of shuiwei’s culture plaza, which boasts a funky (if derivative) outdoor stage, a curious rocks museum (the rocks are mainly from guangxi), and a library. i also had tea at a colorful hong kong style teashop, where the milk tea was strong and rich. suddenly, i wanted to move from tianmian, which is conveniant but not like shuiwei. (the lack of tasty but reasonable restaurants in tianmian is a bone of ongoing contention. after all, one of the defining features of the urban villages has been the quality and price of the restaurants.)

my desire to move to shuiwei points to an underlying fact about new village life; the primary source of income for most villagers is rental property. this has meant that villagers have built as densely and as highly as possible, with little concern for the overall environment. it also has meant a density of cheap beauty and massage parlors, restaurants, places to play mah johng, food markets. indeed, since the mid-1990s, as most of shenzhen’s factories have been pushed outside city limits, the importance of rental property and services to village economies has grown. the main residents of the villages are low income migrants, usually from the countryside.

it seems that the ratio of villagers to migrants in the villages concerns the government. the villages maintain their own militias (民兵) that act as a police force within village borders, shifting social regulation from the state to these quasi-governmental organizations. according to futian government statistics, for example, there were 19,353 villagers registrared in 15 administrative villages (there are 20 natural villages in futian.) those villagers provided housing for 572,143 migrants. a ratio of 1 villager for every 29.5 migrants. (these figures do not include unregistered migrants, some of whom live in illegal housing, but others who live in the underground walkways that connect villages to the city proper.) these migrant laborers are precisely the persons regularly identified in the press and popular opinion as causing social unrest. outside the sez in baoan and longgang districts, the villager to migrant ratio is even higher. thus, this research suggests that the greatest challenge facing the make-over movement is a contradiction between the villagers’ economic interest (as landlords) and the state’s interest in maintaining social discipline.

i conclude with a picture of the home of the shuiwei militia (水围民兵之家).

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