The translation of 城中村 as “urban village” misleads. In fact, it is more accurate to call them urbanized villages, with the understanding that a village is not simply a rural settlement, but also and more importantly a corporate entity. The village settlement became urban, and in the process created a class of corporate land owners, who own the buildings. Thus, for example Baishizhou, where several thousand households control the real estate where 140,000 people live. Dalang Precinct (大浪街道) has an idegenious population of 8,000+ with a migrant worker population of over 500,000. The villages and some villages are not poor, they are the “local rich”.
Dachong, Hubei, Baishizhou — the list of urban villages that have been or are in process of being rennovated (a euphamism for razed and rebuilt) is, of course, the list of the most important real estate developments in contemporary Shenzhen. The plans for these new neighborhoods resemble those of Southern California, with climate controlled buildings, exquisite landscaping, and carefully planned walking areas.All this to say, when not talking about the need for low income housing (for both the working poor and recent college graduates) or rejoicing in the messy, cheap convenience of urban villages, the general Shenzhen consensus about urban villages in general is that the buildings and environment sub-standard. The goal is to replace them with neighborhoods that have enormous shopping malls at their center.
Now, the ideological irritant is the extent to which young intellectuals and urbane Shenzheners have coded the suburban impulse as tasteful, while the guilded buildings of the village corporations are being called “dirt wealth” buildings (土豪楼). In other words, there is something worse than being “exploding” or nouveau riche (暴发户); one could be “vulgar” rich, or 土豪. Indeed, vulgar rich is the term used to describe the skyscrapers and office buildings that villages (or individual villagers) have commissioned. The problem, of course, is that the logic of building vulger rich buildings is the same as building nouveau riche buildings. Urban villages and suburban cities hire the same architectural firms, use the same materials, and aim for the same symbolic ends — to announce their social importance. The only difference is the exterior of these buildings; where’s the guilded tipping point from nouveau to vulgar riche?
More importantly, the cultural coding of suburban urbanization as “tasteful” and rural urbanization as “tacky” misses the point — neither urban typology completely nourishes the human soul because both forms rely upon exploitation and exclusion in order to generate the capital investment necessary to build and rebuild Shenzhen.