坑梓: what to do with all this history?

Outer district urban villages generally comprise four sections–the historic village settlement, the new village settlement, a commercial center, and an industrial park. As in the inner districts, in the outer districts demolition and forced evictions have transformed new villages even as mandated deindustrialization and participation in the creative economy have reshaped industrial parks. However, the question of what to do with the historic settlements is much more acute in the outer districts, especially in Kengzi (坑梓) and Pingshan (坪山), where large Hakka compounds have been condemned, but not scheduled for preservation. Up until five or six years ago, the compounds were still occupied and collectives managed them as rental properties. Today, however, although sections of the compounds have been opportunistically repurposed, nevertheless, the overall sense is increasingly one of ruin, as if we were waiting for the compounds to collapse and solve the problem of surplus history for us. Impressions from two of the Huang family compounds in Kengzi, below.

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meizhou: the violence of rural (re)construction

This is the first part of a six-part essay, Meizhou: The Violence of Rural (Re)construction. Rural construction (乡建) is currently one of the most important debates in Shenzhen specifically and China more generally. As China’s “first city without villages”, Shenzhen has an important place in this debate. In fact, Shenzhen is held up by social progressives, real estate developers, and Party officials alike as a model of what rural construction should be. More locally, civic groups are beginning to organize around this issue in order to promote more just visions of the city.

Friday, September 19, 2014, we made the five-hour bus trip from Shenzhen to Meizhou. We were an assorted group of scholars, architects, and journalists, but we had joined documentary film maker Deng Shijie in common cause–to visit the Meizhou suburbs in order to bear witness to the human suffering that has resulted from current development policies. Shijie and his allies are central to a small, but meaningful citizenship movement in Shenzhen. Many of Shenzhen’s second-generation have become active in what we in the United States would call social justice issues, but which in Shenzhen operate under the glosses of philanthropy (公益) or social renewal (社会创新).

We arrived well past midnight, but were greeted warmly by villagers who are trying to voice their demands. Some want to maintain their current homes, others want more equitable compensation, and all want the government to bring out a viable and legal relocation and compensation plan. And that, of course, is the crux of the matter. The government’s plan to construct a new city notwithstanding there has been no release of a relocation plan. Instead, villagers are being bought and when that fails forced out of their residences. Two of the nastier strategies of displacement are (1) using the police and/or local thugs to harass and beat villagers until they sign off and (2) razing homes and then transferring money to villager escrow accounts. If the villagers use the money, the action is interpreted as acceptance of the government’s terms. If however the villagers do not use the money, after a five-year period the money will be returned to the Ministry of Land. There are also reports of villagers having been detained at local police stations in order to compel village heads of household to sign property transfer agreements. (For an introduction to China’s duel system of land ownership by way of Shenzhen, please see “Laying Siege to the Villages“).

The crude background to this travesty is the Chinese state’s commitment to making urbanization central to economic development and (more importantly) a criteria for promotion within the Party and government. In 2011, Meizhou began planning a new city on the rural land that was traditionally held by villages. However, urbanization directives accelerated in March this year when China released its National New Type Urbanization Plan. Subsequently, in September 2013, the Meizhou government released the Meizhou Jiangnan New City Detailed Plan (梅州江南新城详细规划) for public debate. The official discussion period was from September 24 to October 20, 2013. The plan was made available in three sites: the Meizhou Government Building, the plaza of the Jianying Park, and the municipal urban planning. However, according to villagers, the City continued to raze homesteads during this time. Additionally, the City also targeted traditional Hakka compounds and ancestral Halls. Architect Ye Yikun (叶益坤) has been the leading voice of opposition to demolishing historic architecture.

Below are images from our trip to several villages in the Meizhou suburbs.

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The other five entries in this series are:

Part II/ Meizhou: Hoodlum Government

Part III/ Meizhou: Living Genealogies

Part IV/ Meizhou: What Gets Preserved

Part V/ Meizhou: Lessons from Shenzhen

Meizhou VI/ Meizhou: Selected Translations

hakka borderlands: xiawei and shiyan

On Thursday, I joined a group of architects and students from the Future Cities Laboratory on a rainy guanwai trek along Bulong Road, which parallels the second line. This particular trek interests because it hints at generations of ongoing cultural transformation both as industrial manufacturing has spread and as Cantonese and Hakka urban villages have renegotiated collectives identities over the past 150 years.

We departed from Huaqiangbei and crossed at the former Buji Checkpoint, which today has been partially cleared to make room for the Buji subway station (Longgang Line) although cars still lined up to pass through check booths. Directly north of the erxian boundary, Xiawei Village (吓围村) handshakes huddle tightly, giving the impression of an ordinary new South China village. However, the entry gate and main hall of Xiawei’s ancestral hall remain, suggesting that at some point the village had enough collective funds to erect a substantial building. According to an old worker who was organizing collected paper products in the compound plaza, villagers continue to burn incense for ancestors during the Spring Festival.

We then headed west to the precinct headquarters of Shiyan. During the Mao-era, this area also served as the headquarters of Shiyan Commune. Located between the Kowloon-Canton railroad and Guangzhou Shenzhen corridors, Shiyan has remained relatively poor when compared to precinct headquarters at Buji or Shajing, for example. Nevertheless, it has Mao-era flat housing, Reform era factories, and two generations of single-family homes and handshakes. More to today’s point about Hakka borderlands, Shiyan is also interesting because it is located along Baoan County’s traditional border between Cantonese and Hakka cultural regions. Thus, although the Ye Ancestral Hall boasts Hakka exhortations of Confucian morality, the structure itself, like many of the areas older flat buildings are Cantonese style.


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cultural homogenization in shenzhen. and not.

Most discussions of Shenzhen emphasize that as an immigrant city, Shenzhen is a Mandarin speaking outpost of national culture in the midst of Guangdong Province. However, this description glosses over the historical division of Baoan County into Cantonese and Hakka cultural areas, and how urban development focused on the SEZ (rather than the entire Municipality).

The establishment of Baoan and Longgang Districts in 1992 institutionalized these historic divisions, with a Cantonese cultural-linguistic area (Baoan District) and a Hakka cultural-linguistic area (Longgang District). At the same time, the traditional SEZ (bounded by the second line) formed the core of Mandarin national culture in the city.

Thinking about Shenzhen as a tri-cultural city enables understanding of how cultural homogenization does and does not take place. Today, I’m thinking specifically about the creation of a recognizably “rural” local identity versus an “urbane” Shenzhen identity. In the area surrounding the Universiade Village, for example, these various trends are most visible in ongoing construction and demolition projects.

Construction wise, the planned Universiade Village boasts beautiful, glass stadiums and swimming areas, which reflect urbane aesthetics. Indeed, the nearby 5-star hotels and upscale residential areas lump Shenzheners (the Mandarin nationals) with cutting edge international taste and consumption. This aesthetics contradicts that of the mid-90s generation of handshake buildings that constitute much of the Longcheng Street residential area. Architecturally, it all seems a straight-forward contradiction between rural and urbane Shenzhen, which in turn is often misread as a contradiction between Cantonese and Mandarin spheres.

In fact, walking through a small Hakka Village, like Dawei indicates how recent handshake buildings as an architectural sign of the rural are in Shenzhen. In Dawei, the handshake buildings have been built into and on top of a traditional, small Hakka compound (similar to the one in Sungang). In other words, handshake buildings create a common “rural” or “Baoan local” identity for (once culturally and linguistically distinct) Cantonese and Hakka villages only in contradistinction to a Mandarin identity.

Visual evidence in slideshow, below.

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