A FIVE-PART ESSAY, “LAYING SIEGE TO THE VILLAGES” HAS BEEN PUBLISHED ONLINE AT OPEN DEMOCRACY. HERE’S PART FIVE, WHICH DISCUSSES INFORMAL URBANIZATION AND THE CREATION OF NEIGHBORHOODS FOR AND BY THE WORKING POOR.
5. Baishizhou: Neighborhoods for the Working Poor
As of 2013, Baishizhou was the largest of the so-called urban villages in Shenzhen’s inner districts. With respect to the overall layout of Shenzhen, Baishizhou occupied both the southern and northern sides of Shennan Middle Road, at peripheries of both Luohu (moving west) and the Nantou Peninsula (moving north), making it one of the most centrally located transit centers in the inner districts (map 8). As of 2013, Baishizhou had a total area of 7.4 km2 and an estimated population of 140,000 residents, of whom roughly 20,000 held Shenzhen hukou and 1,880 were locals. The population density of Baishizhou had breached 18,900 people per square kilometer, more twice that of municipal average of 7,500 people per square kilometer, a statistic which in 2012 had made Shenzhen the fifth most densely populated city on the planet. There were 2,340 low and mid-rise buildings in the area, with an estimated 35,000 units. Monthly rents ranged from 700 to 3,000 rmb, which were significantly cheaper than in neighboring Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) or nearby housing estates, where a “cheap” apartment could rent for 4,000 rmb.
Map 8: Location of Baishizhou, 1996 Master Plan
Many of the garbage collectors for the area live in the cheapest rentals, rural Mao-era dormitories where it is possible for three workers to share a 30 m2 dorm room for 200 rmb a head, plus electricity and water. Old Cai, for example, was 65 years old, when interviewed. He came to Shenzhen after retirement because his monthly pension is 40 rmb per month, but he and his wife need 20,000 rmb annually, or about 1,700 a month to meet their expenses. In Baishizhou, he makes a living collecting and reselling cardboard boxes and other garbage. He says he can save money this way because although there’s no real profit, he makes enough to support himself and to bring a little home for Chinese New Year. However, the diversity of Baishizhou residents also includes working families who have lived in the area since migrating to Shenzhen over twenty years ago and young professionals who are sharing their first flat independent of their families. One family from Sichuan, for example, rents a 60 m2 two bedroom apartment for 1,700 rmb a month, which the husband, his wife, her mother-in-law, and their two children share. During the day, the parents work at one of the OCT themeparks, while the mother-in-law takes care of the children and housework. In addition, many of Shenzhen’s young designers and architects who work in the OCT Loft, a renovated factory area for creative industry live in higher-end handshake buildings, which sometimes include parking space for a car.
In addition to rental properties, the first floor of most Baishizhou buildings was used for commercial purposes and the area boasted several commercial streets, at least two night markets and entertainment areas, in addition to independent vendors and office space for independent carpenters, builders, and handymen. There was an elementary school and several nursery schools. Moreover, in between two of the abandoned factories of the Shahe Industrial Park enterprising migrants have set up the Baishizhou Pedestrian Street, which mimics the Dongmen Walking Street. There are food stalls and toy vendors, and several juvenile rides.
Clearly, using the term “village” to describe this level of settlement density and diversity is misleading – Baishizhou is a vibrant urban area composed of five neighborhoods – Baishizhou, Shangbaishi, Xiabaishi, Xintang and Tangtou, which under Mao had been organized into a state-owned agricultural collective, Shahe Farm. In the early 1980s, 12.5 km2 area of the Shahe Farm was partitioned into two enterprise areas – Overseas Chinese Town in the eastern section and Shahe Enterprises in the western section. In the mid-1980s, both OCT and Shahe built factories for assembly manufacturing. However, the management teams and access to investment capital were significantly different. OCT was a state-owned enterprise and its management team educated professionals from China’s major cities. In contrast, the former collective leaders managed Shahe and its development. In the post Tian’anmen era when Shenzhen’s low-tech low cost manufacturing had ceased to be as profitable as during the 1980s, OCT developed themeparks – Splendid China, Window of the World, and Happy Valley – to stimulate the economy. In turn, this investment also enhanced the rental value of the area and drove the redevelopment of the former industrial park into a Soho like creative area.