This is a speculative post about something that has been niggling at the back of my mind this past year. Or at least since I started walking around Shenzhen after COVID restrictions lifted circa April 2020; I think the era of urban villages in Shenzhen has ended.
I’m dating the beginning of the urban village era to 1992, when rural urbanization began in the inner districts (the historical SEZ or 关内). I’m dating the end of the urban village to now-ish, with the demolition of Baishizhou, which has been ongoing since 2016. In between, I think there was a golden era of urban villages that began roughly around the time that Futian District demolished the illegal housing towers of Yunong village in 2006. Subsequently, gentrification characterized major urban villages, which were increasingly stratified, catering to the needs of white collar migrants. After Gangxia (2009-2011) was demolished, urban village gentrification intensified because we had learned how much compensation could be. In 2019, this era ended with the mass evictions of Baishizhou in 2019 because Baishizhou was the last major urban village on Shennan Road. Indeed, although there are smaller villages scattered throughout the inner districts, these villages are not major commercial centers like Caiwuwei (Luohu), Gangxia (Futian), and Baishizhou (Nanshan) once were. Instead, the remaining urban villages are more likely to be small and relatively cheap housing neighborhoods whose residents rely on forma commercial centers.
Urban villages as we imagine them are a product of the inner districts or historical SEZ. The outer districts (form New Bao’an county) developed via large Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs) like Dongguan and rural areas throughout Guangdong. The outer districts primarily relied on assembly manufacturing and large industrial parks to accumulate capital. In contrast, since 1992, urban villages have been commercial and residential areas, supporting the formal development of Luohu, Futian and Nanshan. Indeed, the big three villages–Caiwuwei, Gangxia, and Baishizhou–were informal commercial centers that abutted and preceded formal developments in Luohu, Futian, and Nanshan respectively. (The economic stagnation of Luohu is an ongoing topic of conversation, but not the topic of today’s post).
Practically speaking, this means that the older sections of the outer districts are currently thriving as Shenzhen’s demographics and residential patters are restructured. Places that I’ve found to be vibrantly urban include Xixiang, Fuyong, and Shajing. These spaces also tend to have a deep history in the region and are located just north of Qianhai. Indeed, Qianhai seems to be functioning much like earlier inner district development, with a formal settlement placed next to a historic area. Old Buji continues to thrive just north of Luoho. Unlike inner district urban villages that were much smaller than the formal areas, the outer district settlements are physically large with dense populations of several hundred thousands. As of 2017, for example, Bao’an District had an official population of over 3 million. The traditional Hakka areas–Longgang (with the exception of Buji), Pingshan, and Yantian districts–remain relatively underpopulated and are being transformed into middle class commuter areas and redeveloped historic areas. But that’s a story for another day (possibly when I speculate about why Luohu has been “left behind” Futian and Nanshan).
So all this to raise a question about how we think of Shenzhen as it enters its fifth decade: if the era of urban villages has ended then perhaps we’re entering a golden era of Bao’an?
If you knew Baishizhou, you’ll recognize in the photos below the route that I walked circa December, 2020.