constructing the countryside: kaihua, zhejiang

On Sept 17, I joined members of the Shenzhen based NGO, 观筑 (ATU Architectural Development Communication Center) on a one-day five village tour of Kaihua County (开化县) in Zhejiang. Kaihua is relatively underdeveloped with respect to the economic powerhouses, Hangzhou, Wenzhou, and Ningbo, which are all located in Zhejiang. With respect to Shenzhen, Kaihua like much of rural Zhejiang has been a source of migrant labor. In addition, the Shenzhen Zhejiang Merchants Association is active, and Zhejiang people to be found across the class and professional spectrum of immigrants.

The purpose of the trip was to deepen a conversation between the Kaihua Government and ATU about how to better pursue what is know as 乡村建设 (construction of the countryside). Kaihua is developing leisure tourism for families and yuppies from nearby Shanghai and Hangzhou. ATU has offered to provide a sustainable and relatively low-capital investment plan for the County.

A few notes about the trip.

1. The connection between Kaihua and Shenzhen happens at two levels. First, one of the ATU members is from Kaihua and was elementary school classmates with the current Party Secretary of Kaihua. However, the actual project will be institutionally mediated.

2. The conversation about constructing the countryside is a huge issue in Shenzhen, and taking shape in diverse forms that range from documentary film-making to the ATU project.

3. A Hong Kong professor and students provided a basic design principle for one of the villages, and it seemed the most ready for tourists seeking a leisurely rural excursion.

4. The villages aren’t obviously materially deprived because 30 years of remittances have paid for the construction of new homes. In turn, the villages seem, at first uncontextualized glance, to resemble US American Mac-mansions in an underpopulated suburb.

5. In point of fact, one of the impulses behind the leisure tourism plan is ongoing outmigration. The majority of Kaihua residents are grandparents and young children who have not yet or cannot (for whatever reasons) join their parents in one of the coastal cities.

6. One of the attractions of leisure tourism is 农家乐 (happy at the farmer’s home), where farmers provide guests with fresh, often organic meals. Kind of B&B with Chinese characteristics. As with American B&Bs, the point is a rural excursion without actual agriculture. Successful farmers now farm for themselves and their guests. Indeed, the point is to wash one’s feet and leave the paddy (洗脚上田), further marginalizing agricultural work and those who cultivate the rice, produce, and meat that we eat.

7. The villages are connected by a river and stretches of national forest, which may in time be connected through walking trails. But in the meantime, Kaihua might prove an interesting destination for folks with a motorcycle and curiosity about how the Chinese countryside is changing.

Below is a meander through five villages. The tour begins at a newly built resort in the national forest.

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