Several years before he was champion of the inaugural and influential singing competition 快乐男声 (on Hunan TV), Chen Chusheng 陈楚生 lived in Tangtou, Baishizhou. Indeed, the first stop on his musical career seems to have been Shenzhen, which in the late 1990s, early 2000s was famous for its indie and rock music scene. The musicians lived in urban villages and performed in the city’s many bars and infamous nightclubs.
The above image Shenzhen (2000) by Yu Haibo 余海波 not only gives a sense of what the city’s nightlife was like at the turn of the millennium, but also the frantic energy that characterized that scene. Of course, Chen Chusheng took a more laidback and folksy approach. His song, Baishizhou sounds almost pastoral, in stark contrast to the world outside his Tangtou apartment. And yes, circa 2000, Baishizhou was not yet linked to the urban grid and Shenzhen was still the world’s factory, relying on the highly transient residents of the villages.
Most are aware that the area we once knew as “Baishizhou” was located north of Shennan Road, comprising four villages–Shangbaishi, Xiabaishi, Tangtou and Xintang. The neighborhood’s name derived from the “Baishizhou” subway station. In turn, the station was named for the historical Baishizhou, a mudflat or sandbank, which was located south of Shennan Road. Historically, our Baishizhou was a continuation of historic settlement patterns, while Baishizhou Village seems to have emerged more recently. Nevertheless, the demolition of our Baishizhou has led to the emergence of a new Baishizhou and this new Baishizhou has a telling (and frankly distressing) general layout. Below, I give a brief overview of the layout and then a brief history of the place name, Baishizhou. And yes, its more speculative than conclusive. Reader be warned.
Photos from Baishizhou, Dec 31, 2023. Three notes: 1, the Baishizhou mural has been replaced with a Shahe mural, suggesting that the area’s rebranding is proceeding apace; 2, the covid regulation infrastructure was solid and expensive, even though the area was already being demolished, and; 3, there are still holdouts in the village, most closer to Shennan Road, however, the center area near Jiangnan Department store, where 302 used to be is difficult to reach because mostly razed and inside the current construction site.
Impressions of the walk, below.
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.
A few months ago, I published an essay that periodizes the development of urban villages in Shenzhen. It provides a more nuanced context of how we arrived at the public shaming of Shatou during the recent Covid outbreak. It also contextualizes Baishizhou as an important landmark in Shenzhen’s cultural geography, speculating on what the demolition of Baishizhou means and might mean for the city. Published in Made in China, Archaeologies of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Long ago, when Handshake 302 was in Baishizhou and Baishizhou was the city’s most icon urban village, we ran a residency program. The first iteration of the residency was “Village Hack.” Several years ago, I reflected on the program and what it taught us about how Shenzheners were formed (paper can be downloaded, below).
So, I developed thoughts on what the demolition of Baishizhou had me thinking about Shenzhen’s urban villages. The folks at Made in China, published it as The End of an Era? Two Decades of Shenzhen Urban Villages. Or, you can download a pdf of the paper, below.
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 went out this morning to buy fresh bread (still warm!) at my favorite bakery. The stairwell in our building is not only spotless, but also smells of disinfectant. In the compound, our resident Party Center (党群中心) had an announcement about sanitation safety on loop. One of the security guards took my temperature as I left and as I returned.
Things that I’ve heard from friends in other parts of the city: streets are empty, but in Baishizhou, more storefronts have been cordoned off; the country may be on lockdown, but it is partial. Urban renewal proceeds. Also, students have been sent reading materials and some have already begun online classes.
Something I’ve heard from a friend whose hometown is near Wuhan: everyone must stay indoors. One person per household can leave once every five days to purchase food and necessities.
Yesterday I walked Baishizhou, remembering the bustle of our rushed departure. Bikes and motorbikes, cars and moving vans clogged the hot streets, and we squeezed through and around pedestrians on their way home or to work or to shop or out for a snack. Yesterday, even the once crowded food alley has been mostly abandoned; a few shops are still open at the intersections between the alley and main roads, but the overwhelming feeling is one of departure and a viscous waiting.