tantou: these are not mcmansions

This past week, I joined members of ATU on a research trip to Kaihua County, Zhejiang. ATU is a Shenzhen-based NGO, and their mission is to bring critical attention to architecture and urban planning practices. Most recently, they have decided to intervene in rural development in order to ameliorate the problems of bringing urban planning and its ideologies into rural areas.

Kaihua County has been designated for development as a rural tourism destination. The surrounding area is known for its general beauty, old trees, and tea production. It is easily accessible from the county seat at Kaihua and nearby Quzhou City. Hangzhou City residents can make the trip in about four hours; Shanghai residents can make the trip in six hours.

This trip, Kaihua officials asked ATU to focus on planning suggestions for Tantou Village, which has no obvious tourist attraction, but has already applied for review as an AAA destination. The County and Township governments have financed investment in a lotus viewing pond. Individual investors are currently investing in growing grapes. Most of the village’s older housing has been razed or allowed to crumble and replaced by large farmer homes. Large and unwieldy constructions, these homes are being built in phases as owners and their children send remittances to purchase materials and finance construction. They are also the basis of planned tourism. To date, 13 of these homes have been upgraded (using County and Township funding) to function as Bed and Breakfasts for Quzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai residents.

Kaihua’s county- and township-level officials hope to create a viable rural economy to stem the ongoing abandonment of the countryside by young rural residents who have left the countryside to work in city’s like Shenzhen. We were told, for example, that in Tantou there are roughly 300 households of which only 30 to 40 are occupied full-time. Tourism seems a viable option to integrate Tantou into the monetary economy because urban construction along the coast has resulted in urban desires to return to nature or even the simpler lives of their childhood. The general thinking is that if farmers can make a living from rural tourism then (a) they won’t need to abandon the countryside and (b) their lives will be more dignified than is possible for migrant laborers.

Kaihua’s foray into rural tourism is part of a more general effort to create “new villages” throughout China. ATU members is interested in working in Kaihua County in order to explore the possibilities of more locally responsive models of development, including more village participation in the transformation of their homes. Kaihua County and Township officials are interested in an economical sustainable model of rural tourism that also achieves political goals. The question, of course, is where the overlap of these two goals is located, or whether villagers will continue to be marginalized from ongoing development even now that it has arrived on their doorsteps.

Impressions of a rainy day winter walk in Tantou Village, below.

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