the difficulty of representing shenzhen’s urban “villages”

Talking about Shenzhen’s urban villages is difficult because legally they are not villages, but “communities (社区)” that have been integrated into the urban state apparatus. Moreover, depending on their location, these neighborhoods have different social functions — slums, gateway communities, and affordable housing for both the working poor and recent college graduates.

Mark Leung‘s photo essay,  Welcome to Wuwucun, a Village in the City offers a detailed and sympathetic look at life in Wuwucun, a Shenzhen urban village and is well worth checking out. However, the images beg contextualization, illustrating the difficulty of interpreting images  in the absence of historical knowledge. Is Wuwucun poor? Are these villagers? Is manufacturing a good thing?  On the one hand, a shorter version of the same essay, for example, explained that these images showed how manufacturing in Shenzhen was providing small steps forward to improve the lives of China’s rural millions. On the other hand, these images depict one of the more peripheral villages in Shenzhen, where the level of poverty depicted justifies ongoing campaigns to raze working class neighborhoods in other parts of the city. In other words, these images can be used either to show that industrial manufacturing in Shenzhen has been good for the country or to justify the Municipality’s ongoing program of razing urban villages in the inner districts.

I started taking pictures in order to document Shenzhen’s complexity, not only through space, but also through time. Shenzhen has three main socio-economic areas — the middle class inner districts, the Cantonese speaking area along the Pearl River, and the Hakka speaking area in the northeastern part of the city. Located in the Hakka areas of northeastern Shenzhen, villages like Wuwucun are some of the poorest in the city. In contrast, inner district urban villages like Xiasha or Baishizhou provide convenient and cheap housing for the working poor, while outer district villages of Bao’an, near and around Xixiang have built successful market towns upon the skeleton of traditional periodic markets and inter-village connections.

The images of Wuwucun, for example, seem to me similar to what Shenzhen’s inner districts looked like from the mid 1980s through the late 1990s. I see Mao-era rural dormitories, factories that are operating as factories and not upgraded to gallery neighborhoods or creative industry parks, and a nearby New Village of tiled handshakes, which for many working families serves as a gateway into Shenzhen’s middle class dream because actual middle class housing is prohibitively expensive. What’s more, these pictures also have me wondering if Wuwucun is a destination neighborhood for workers and working families which have been displaced by the demolition of Dachong and Caiwuwei, centrally located urban villages that had residential populations of over 100,000 each.

Point du jour is simply that communities like Wuwucun are administratively not villages. Instead, they are working class neighborhoods built on top and out of the infrastructure of villages. Indeed, in this case it might be more accurate to speak of “village architecture”. Moreover, unless Shenzhen’s leaders recognize the importance of these neighborhoods to the social life of the city, Wuwucun will not receive investment for upgrading because the former residents own the buildings but not the land. Thus, no one can raze the buildings for low-cost upgrades. Under current law and Shenzhen planning practices, these homes will not be razed and rebuilt until someone buys the building rights, putting up a skyscraper or mall-burban estate, and displacing the current residents.

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