thoughts on the spatial distribution of shenzhen’s population

How many people actually live in Shenzhen? The numbers vary. Current Shenzhen Party Secretary Ma Xingrui says 20 million. However, the administrative population supposedly hovers at 18 million, while the city itself has never admitted to more than 15 million. Rough estimates suggest only 4 million people have Shenzhen hukou, another 8 million have permanent residency, and another 5-8 million “float” unofficially within the city

These statistics obscure how Shenzhen’s urban villages spatially organize these three administrative classes. For example, Shi’ao (石凹) Villagehas a local population of 4 to 500 people and a renter population of 20,000, making the ratio of local to renters residents 1:40. The ratio of local to renter populations in Baishizhou is an astonishing 1:77. Moreover, it is clear that renters–even floaters–aren’t actually leaving the city. Instead, they are finding newer (and often) narrower niches within the village.

Much like US American suburbs which manage inequality through distance, Shenzhen’s urban villages do the hard (and socially productive) work of managing inequality within the city. The majority of floaters and a large percentage of permanent residents live in the villages and tend to work in service and the semi- and informal economies, while hukou residents and wealthier permanent residents occupy “official” housing estates and tend to work in the formal economy.

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can renters become stakeholders in shenzhen?

I like meeting and talking with visiting urbanists because the conversation is refreshingly straight forward about constructing society (via environmental interventions). Who are the stake holders, they ask. Where can we find them? What should we ask them? These clear and solid questions help me think more precisely about Shenzhen because identifying stake holders entails (1) acknowledging competing rights to the city and also (2) mapping the fraught and unformed territory of Shenzhen identity; who does have rights to this city of immigrants? And how did might they claim them?

Today, I’m thinking about approaching these questions through the construction and allocation of rental property.  Why do urban village handshakes — despite constituting the demographically significant residence in the city — why don’t they transform migrants into stakeholders? Continue reading

reports from caiwuwei

The research division of Urbanus has sponsored Fu Na and Chris Gee’s research in Caiwuwei these past three years. Just recently, they released three videos that take viewers on walks through what remains of Caiwuwei. Of note: Caiwuwei has been upgraded and polished into an exemplar of the potential of high density living that can be created through appropriations of handshake buildings. So commercial opportunities and low-cost conveniently located housing, with minimal investment in public spaces and amenities. Links:


对话城中村_Conversations with the Urban Village

蔡屋围24小时 / Caiwuwei 24 Hours

dachong update

Located west of Baishizhou and east of Shenzhen University and the Shenzhen Science and Technology Park, Dachong was once a large urban village with over 1,200 handshake buildings. It is being redeveloped into an upscale residential area, with office buildings and mall.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to re-visit Baishizhou and get a sense of how the construction is being organized. Of note? A section of handshake buildings have been renovated as temporary housing for Dachong villagers, construction workers and young project administrators. By removing buildings, the developer, China Resources has created an intimate neighborhood with a park, basketball courts, and winding roads as well as a temporary shrine and ancestral hall. Indeed, this repurposing of extant handshakes is not only smart, it also suggests the contours of possible upgrades to extant urban villages, where the selective removal of one or two buildings would open up necessary public space without massive displacements of working class families, migrant workers, and young white collar workers.

Impressions of the temporary handshake neighborhood, below.

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handshake 302

CZC logosCZC特工队 is a group organized to engage Shenzhen’s urban villages through art, theater, and social media documentary projects. Our first project is called “Handshake 302”.

The concept behind Handshake 302 is simple: Baishizhou is our “artspace”, which has its office at Shangbaishi, second block, building 49, apartment 302, a 15 sq meter conveniency apartment in Shangbaishi.

We will use the actual apartment to commission and develop installations. Our first project is “Numbers” and will open on October 10. In addition, we work with visual artists, performing artists, and writers to develop projects that engage and extend Baishizhou. We will use the Baishizhou Culture Plaza (and outdoor stage) to develop performance pieces. On October 20, for example, Peter Moser will work with local street musicians to create a communnity concert. We also encourage artists and performers to create and install / perform works throughout Baishizhou. Fat Bird, for example, is currently developing a piece that uses the Tangtou rowhouses as their stage.

Handshake 302 has been accepted by the 2013 Shenzhen-Hong Kong Architecture Biennale as a collatoral venue, bringing Baishizhou into conversation with the main venues in Shekou.

Impressions of 302 and its immediate environment, below.

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moving on up…shenzhen identity and urban villages

Urban villages inform and shape popular understandings of Shenzhen, both domestically and abroad. Intellectuals, also here and elsewhere, have decried the decision to raze villages and put up new and improved postmodern housing estates, offices and shopping malls as it short-sighted and violently anti-working class. However, in Shenzhen, there has been no street level organizing as such to stop the razing; a decision is made, plans approved, people moved.

In this context, it is interesting to note the temporary nature of Shenzhen patterns of inhabitation. Even before settling in to their first dorm room or urban village share, migrants intend to move. This intention might be vague — I’ll move when I get a better job, or buy my house — but “moving on up” is one of the reasons people migrate to the city. Moreover, in practice, people move when they change jobs, they move when they get a raise, they move when they have a partner, they move when their parents come to live with them. They also move as investment strategies, from one home to the next. Indeed, as far as I can tell, people only seem to stop moving (for the time being), when their child is at a desirable school. If the school is undesirable, changing school district zones or moving to parts of the country where gaokao competition is less fierce.

In other words, inhabitation patterns seem to preclude the time necessary to grow attached to neighborhoods. The current fondness for urban villages seems overwhelming is often nostalgic (missing the challenge of first coming to Shenzhen) or political (we need housing for the working poor), but it is rarely the result of long-term living in a village. Many of the people I have interviewed who do live in a village want to leave. They want their own home (not a rental), or if they are a landlord who lives in a handshake, they want to live in a modern high-rise.

All this to say that the lack of grassroots resistance to razing urban villages in Shenzhen isn’t as counter-intuitive as it may seem from the outside. Those who want to keep the villages don’t actually live there, and those who live there are anticipating moving out. Indeed, I have come to believe that the social questions posed by urban villages have less to do with preserving these neighborhoods, as they do with making long-term inhabitation possible. If the villages were places that people actually wanted to live, raise their child, and retire, then there would be a very different political and economic response to the ongoing demolitions.

NOTE: Handshake buildings as a form of local real estate development were an artifact of the 1992 decision to transfer inner district village lands to the city. In the 1980s, villagers built free-standing homes for themselves, and some collective rental properties and dormitories. However, once the 1992 policy limited village land resources, villagers stopped building individual free-standing homes and built multi-story rental buildings. In the outer districts, where land remained under village control until 2004, villagers built neighborhoods of free-standing homes for themselves, and multi-story rental properties next door.

egalitarian architecture

One of the more interesting architectural continuities between Maoist Tangtou and Handshake Baishizhou is the ideology of egalitarianism (平均主义).

When Tangtou villagers first came to Baishizhou in 1959, they gave up their rural status and became members of the Shahe Farm (沙河农场). As members of the Farm, their hukou status was “non-rural (非农)”. This meant that they had rights to socialist welfare benefits, including housing, a salary, a rice allocation, and education for their children. In turn, they gave up their land rights. All this, even though they continued to do agricultural labor. Thus, as a architectural typology, Tangtou’s flat houses were not rural buildings — traditional or modern — but rather socialist dormitories.

According to the Maoist planned economy, non-rural members of socialist work units were entitled to dormitory housing, or “one houselhold, one room (一户一间)”. Within these dormitories, all facilities were the same — the same size sleeping and communal areas, the same number of windows, and the same access to the collective canteen and outhouses, differences in family size, notwithstanding. This type of dormitory construction was the architectural manifestation of a larger egalitarian ideology.

Of course, architectural egalitarianism was relative to regions as well as local resources. For example, the dormitories that Tangtou villagers built in Baishizhou were one story structures made of cement admixtures, wooden beams, and Hakka technology. After the canteen system broke down, families constructed small stoves outside their front doors, but continued to share nearby outhouses and wells. In contrast, dormitories in cities ranged from buildings of stacked, one-room efficiencies with a bathroom at the end of the hallway to buildings of multiple room apartments. In the colder northern cities, the decision to turn on and off central heating for everyone in a dormitory was an extension of this theory as was the decision not to provide central heating to dormitories south of the Yangtze River.

The construction of urban villages in Shenzhen has been an extension of architectural egalitarianism in the post Mao era. All handshakes were built on plats of 10 X 10 meters. To insure equal access to sunlight, there is a mandatory distance of 3 meters on the east-west axis between buildings and a distance of 8 meters on the north south axis. This mandated layout is the basic grid of an urban village. Moreover, when juxtaposed against older settlements, including rural dormitories like Tangtou or village settlements at Hubei, for example, the layout of a handshake settlement extends and often further rationalizes the egalitarianism of the previous layout.

This form of development has brought with it two urban planning conundrums:

  1. The 10 X 10 grid, with its mandatory distances of 3 and 8 meters between buildings pre-empts the efforts to put in adequate roads. 3 meters is small enough that handshakes have grown closer together — albeit without touching — on the east-west axis. At the same time, 8 meters is only wide enough to accommodate one traffic lane, which often gets jammed during deliveries or when too many motorcycles dart through.
  2. Public space and access to main roads is at a premium within the settlements. At Tangtou, for example, the large basketball court in front of the 59 dormitories is the one large space, where children and older people can meet outside. At night this area becomes a night market with more business than those areas in the Baishizhou alleys. Likewise, the roads that connect Baishizhou to Shennan Road are also the most profitable because they have storefronts in areas with large numbers of pedestrians.

The ongoing ruralization of Tangtou (and other urban villages  neighborhoods) has had paradoxical ideological effects. On the one hand, thinking of Tangtou as rural empowered Tangtou residents to make handshake land grabs. On the other hand, thinking of Tangtou as rural continues to justify the exclusion of Tangtou residents from discussions of future development, differing to the expertise of “urban” intellectuals and authorities. Moreover, the urban planning problems presented by Tangtou are considered effects of “rural” and “traditional” thinking. However, Tangtou is as “rural” and as “traditional” as Greenwich Village, NYC. The current built environment of Mao-era dormitories and post Mao handshakes is itself a product of non-rural socialism, first as the Shahe Farm and then as the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.

And there’s the rub: what does it mean that “rural” and “traditional” Tangtou Baishizhou has come to represent all that is good and problematic about Shenzhen’s “urban villages”?  More generally, what are we to make of Maoist egalitarianism — both its continued appeal to the broad masses of Chinese people and its problematic manifestations — when we confuse it with a Chinese past that never happened?

handshake urbanity — xinqiang community

In 2003, Shenzhen initiated a sanitation beautification project called the “clean, smooth, peaceful project (净畅宁工程)”. The aim of the project was to clean up roads and gutters and trash and beautify public areas, which included razing the shanty communities (棚户区) that once flourished deep in the area’s lychee orchards.

How common were the lychee orchard shanties? Continue reading

classical thinking

Many have told me that the Yi Jing is always relevant, even in Shenzhen; it’s just a question of knowing how to interpret what is already there. Consequently, I have been wondering how I might use the Yi Jing as a way of understanding Shenzhen.

According to Yuasa Yasuo (2008) divination in the Yi Jing designates the act of knowing the dao or the way. One comes to the Yi Jing when one makes a decision that will determine one’s future, but in order for the divination to be accurate, one must come to with an ethical purpose and clear intention. So defined, divination as understanding is both teleological and practical. On the one hand, the Yi Jing counsels that we interpret any event in terms of both its origin and its telos, which is often unknown, but assumed to comply with the inner logic of the events that will have led to its arising. On the other hand, the Yi Jing provides strategies for harmonizing one’s particular intention with nature and society such that negative consequences of contradiction and imbalance might be ameliorated. Together, divine understanding and action constitute the dao, an ethical unfolding of natural processes, agrarian seasons, social mores, and human intention. Thus, the Yi Jing is a book about time, its possibilities and complications; it not only anticipated Shenzhen by two thousand years, but also provides a moral ecology for narrating both the city’s history and what this history might mean beyond the righteousness of facts.

In other words, interpreting the Shenzhen built environment would be an act of divining the new world order that Shenzheners are trying to realize by constructing the city. What then are we to divine from the self-fashioning of Shenzhen’s urban villages? What are the longings that have been built into an environment that prevents them from being realized? Continue reading