no time passing… The melody is Pete Seeger’s, but the context is Shenzhen. Last night I was talking with friends, older friends of many years who have lived in Shenzhen since the early 1990s. We ended up talking about China’s population crisis and how it has been manifest in Shenzhen as the aging of menial laborers, the ongoing removal of affordable housing stock as urban villages are razed, and the flight of young families to cities like Changsha, which are actively trying to attract young people using methods that range from housing policy to social media campaigns to create a hip and friendly city image.
The current situation in Nantou illustrates how these issues come together on the ground. The sanitation crews for the area comprise older people, many who had joined their children in Shenzhen to take care of grandchildren, but once the grandchildren started attending school full-time found themselves both with time on their hands and in need of supplemental income. Many of these crew members are past the age of retirement and ineligible for retirement benefits in the city, making them a vulnerable workforce. In terms of affordable housing, Vanke has upgraded many of the handshake buildings on the two main streets in Nantou, replacing family housing with transitional rentals for singletons. Indeed, last time I went to Nantou, the rates for upgraded housing stock was 5,500 yuan a month, while older housing was still priced between 2,000 to 3,000 yuan, depending on location and size. Moreover, over two years of zero-Covid enforcement means that many mom and pop shops have closed up with generational implications. On the one hand, older entrepreneurs have lost accumulated capital and income. On the other hand, that wealth can no longer be passed on to children who may have been raised in Shenzhen, but do not have city hukou.
So yes, restructuring with a vengeance.
So after the Municipality announced that it would suspend demolition of extant urban villages, villagers who will still have to hand their property rights over to the city took to the streets to agitate for demolitions. Because here’s the rub. The city has been using the demolitions as a way of regularizing property ownership, transforming the grays of collective ownership into the black and white of law. Now, the new plan will proceed with the regularization of property without the wealth that demolition has generated. Suddenly, there are villages facing what they clearly see as “lose-lose.” On the one hand, as the city upgrades living conditions in the handshake buildings, in perpetuity rights will become the 70 year rights of ordinary urban property. On the other hand, the transfer fees for those rights will no longer (can no longer) generate instant millionaires a la Gangxia and Dachong.
When the first “Singleton Lunch” was announced on November 1, we received 13 applications for three places. Everyone said that they were excited about the topic and we hope that in future, there will be opportunities for more friends to participate and share their ideas. (For the original article in Chinese, skip to the bottom of the post). Continue reading
Yesterday, I visited the former Tanglang Industrial Park, which has been rebranded as 集悦城 (SoFunLand), a residential area for young workers. The first floor of the factories have been rented out for commerce and the second to fourth (or sixth) floors have been retrofitted as dormitories. This, we are told, is the future of post-Baishizhou downtown; young migrants can live in the dorms until they secure housing elsewhere. Continue reading
In order to talk about the ways in which urban villages are both the form and content of the emergence of Shenzhen, the mind searches for a narrative arc in the earnest hyperbole of a Sci-Fi universe where the good is still mostly good and the bad drags its slimy tale through fetid waste streams. However recycled and repurposed, we’re still talking about the contradictions that made Fritz Lang’s Metropolis so compelling. Above ground, the Metropolis boasts spires and towers for scientifically enhanced bodies that play in an Olympian stadium and pleasure gardens. These beautiful bodies can only be achieved through exploitation and guided mutation; evil is attractive. Underground, human workers endlessly labor. Unappealing and gaunt, shriveled and inert, these low-end bodies are fashioned through usefulness to the machine and dreary tenement lives.
My recent turn to Sci-Fi is (as were Mary Shelley’s and Fritz Lang’s respective turns) informed not so much by a fear of mad science, but by distress over how technology is produced, distributed and used in neoliberal cities. Technology has been central to the form and content of social polarization in Shenzhen. Urban villages are not substandard living spaces. In fact, when compared to low-income neighborhoods in other Chinese cities and abroad, Shenzhen’s villages are almost middle middle class quality. But here’s the rub. Shenzhen’s urban villages are substandard with respect to the city’s gated communities, shopping malls, and office towers–and the gap is growing.
This is just a short note on a conversation that I had a few days ago with an entrepreneur who lives in Baishizhou. She’s a millennial, runs a small business, earns over 10,000 a month, and lives in Baishizhou. Why? Because she wants to buy a house in Shenzhen and living in an urban village is the only way to save money for the down payment. It turns out she’s not alone. Her friends who want to purchase a home in Shenzhen are opting to live in a village, while friends and other millennials who have decided not to buy a home are renting in housing estates. On her account, even folks who are making upward to 20,000 a month are choosing a village if they want to buy a home, while their colleagues who aren’t saving for a home are paying three to four more times a month, traveling, and spending their money and time cafes, microbreweries, and music venues. These are, of course, first generation migrants. Most second generation migrants have houses through their parents, who migrated to Shenzhen before the 2004 housing price boom.
Takeaway? We’ve known for a while that many nearby firms provide dormitory housing in Baishizhou, while many architects and designers who work in OCT firms have opted to live in the village for convenience. It seems, however, what we hadn’t picked up on (or has only recently emerged) is the extent to which the desire to buy a house in Shenzhen is shaping the way that millennials are inhabiting the city and reshaping the urban villages.
Just saw this poster advertising the opportunity to purchase a house on a small Malaysian island next to Singapore. The houses are relatively large and the agent is conveniently located in Shenzhen. The appeal? One can “[R]eturn to Shenzhen ten years ago, and invest in the Special Zone of a Special Zone.”
Here’s the rub. I saw this in an apartment complex in Dalang, at least twenty minutes from the nearest subway station. Everyone wants to by a house, and even places as relatively remote as Dalang are no longer viable options for migrants, even if they have a job, and even if they have savings.
On my way from said subway station to the elevator where this advert was posted, the cabby explained that since Lift (didi) and Uber had come to Shenzhen, it was no longer profitable to drive a cab. He planned on going back home to Jiangxi. When I mentioned that it seemed more and more people were leaving the city, he agreed, saying “there noticeably less people on the street.”
Talking about migrant workers in China (and throughout the world’s booming mega-cities) usually means “rural to urban migration”. However, this is not the case in Shenzhen, where “urban to urban
immigration” has been as fundamental to the city’s success and growth. Indeed, the diversity of Shenzhen’s migrant population complicates easy understanding of what it means to be a Shenzhener, let alone academic debates about urban belonging and ideologies of exclusion. Continue reading
So yes, it seems that affordable housing problems are not simply escalating, but also creating new market niches. Recently on the subway, I pick up a leaflet advertising condominiums for sale in Shenzhen East, out near Dachong. The catch? The developers weren’t targeting single families who are buying their first home or even trading up for bigger and better, but rather the developers are targeting potential landlords. From the copy:
Exquisitely designed hotel apartments, 5 years guarrentied rent, as soon as you buy you can start collecting rent.
It turns out there’s a word for the ongoing architecture of inequality: conspicuous construction.