an urban village by any other name…

This week Kaiqin, Wu Dan and I have been in Xiamen for a Tiffany glass DIY workshop. The workshop was held in a gated housing estate near the tourist docks for going to Gulangyu. As we couldn’t afford to stay in nearby hotels, we found a small (40 sq meters including open area) b&b (民宿) in Shapowei (沙坡尾), which any quick google will tell you is unlike any other neighborhood in the city. It’s hip, it’s arty, and it lives like an urban village.

Image from The impact of the built-up environment of streets on pedestrian activities in the historical area Lemin Zhang et al.

Shapowei is a sheltered harbor on the southern coast of Xiamen island, near Xiamen University. There are restaurants, shops and cafes where tourists can enjoy a relaxing afternoon before a night of clubbing. College students also frequent favorite shops, and so the area is as young and vibrant as the hype would have it.

Not mentioned in the rave reviews are the nearby residential areas. The b&b we stayed at is connected to Daxue road by a narrow alley that gets increasingly tight the deeper one goes into the settlement; indeed there are alleys so cramped that you can’t open an umbrella in them. Moreover, the spaces are shared in intimate ways. Two of the walls of our courtyard, for example, were in fact the walls of two nearby houses, and the entryway comprised our living area and the wall of a third neighbor. We ate at an Indonesian restaurant which was spread across three sites: a kitchen that opened to an alley, a first floor area located across the alley and a roof top that could be reached either via stairways that traversed the spaces between buildings. I believe we even walked across the edge of a building before arriving on the rooftop.

It goes without saying that it has a deep history that is difficult to track because it seems to have been a peripheral area of the city. According to Yongming Chen, over the past century the landscape of Shapowei has changed as the position of water people have shifted. During the Republican era, they lived on land, settling on land during fishing reform in the fifties. However, during the Cold War the Taiwan Straight was no longer “just” a fishing area (is anywhere ever “just” a place?), but also a battleground. During the early years of Reform and Opening it was an important smuggling port, and now it has become a niche tourist area.

So, Shapowei lives and feels as a Shenzhen urban village, where the membranes that connect official and unofficial places, policies and memories are the rich culture where Xiamen lives otherwise. Or perhaps, it is more itself? After all, Xiamen has thrived in between; in between Quanzhou and Zhangzhou in the Song, Yuan and early Ming; in between the Qing and the Ming revivalists on Taiwan, and; in between centralization and entrepreneurship. After all, both Xi Jinping and his current economic vice premier He Lifeng got their start here.

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