the left behind

Here’s the thing about the retreat of manufacturing from the townships and villages of the Pearl River Delta; these areas have urbanized, migrants have settled in and are raising families, but as the low-end jobs and shops that once sustained local and migrant communities follow the factories elsewhere, these neighborhoods are withering. Consider, for example, the older section of Dongguan–莞城, which only twenty years ago was a vibrant community and today is an abandoned reminder of the area’s complicated history with Ming pirates and British opium, its deep relationships with the late Qing Chinese diaspora, and the Pearl River Delta’s urban village origins. Old Dongguan has become a focus of concern for urban planners and concerned citizens: how to revitalize an “old street” that is no longer viable, but sits on prime real estate, or more precisely, inquiring minds want to know: to raze or not to raze historic areas and landmark buildings?

Located in the heart of old Dongguan, the student body of Ruanchong Elementary School embodies the changes that have redefined the Pearl River Delt since Reform and Opening began forty years ago. Circa 2018, 70% of the students are second generation immigrants, while the other thirty percent are “locals,” whose family traces its deep-ancestry to Dongguan. All of the children are from families with upward aspirations, but they, like the school have been “left behind” as Dongguan’s prosperty has shifted to newer parts of the city.

Ruanchong Elementary School alumna architect Yin Yemin and Ruanchong elementary school principal Chen are trying to build the area’s history into the school curriculum. It is classic community building with a great big heart and cute kids / history walk guides. Through a year-long celebration of the school’s 115th anniversary, the school is teaching local history, painting murals, and invited alumni back to interact with the school. Principal Chen reports that each week alumni return and students’ pride in the school has grown. Yemin speaks softly of the need to root programs in the everyday.

They face tough odds. Once a center of riparian trade and assembly manufacturing, Old Dongguan is already half-closed, while shops have been repurposed for piecework. Those shops that are open for business sell products that can be bought better and cheaper online. Meanwhile, the narrow roads seem primed either for redevelopment along the lines of Xin Tiandi… And yet herein lies the awkwardness of Old Dongguan. Who would visit the old city, when there are better examples of 1930s homes in Guangzhou and Foshan and more “authentic” examples of recent history in Shenzhen?

Below are impressions of my tour of Old Dongguan with three of the student guides from Ruanchong Elementary School. May they thrive.

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