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?

Impressions of Guangming New District

Located at the Dongguan border in the middle of Baoan District, Guangming New District (光明新区) remains surprisingly (within Shenzhen) agrarian. The settlement layout at the District center feels like a small market town and still runs along village paths, even though trucks rumble over the newly imposed traffic grid. The New District’s development has lurched along, hindered by its distance from both the Guangshen Highway and the Kowloon-Guangzhou Railway. In fact, according to a local villager, until the 1970s, no actual road connected the area to Shajing (in the west) and Loucun (in the east). Instead, villagers pushed wheelbarrows on a network of paths that threaded through lizhi orchards, around vegetable gardens, and into rural settlements.

Under Mao, Guangming was a farm (农场), a non-rural designation which had the same administrative rank as a commune (公社), but a different personal policy. Like a commune, farms were responsible for agrarian production. In contrast to commune farmers (农民), however, farm workers were state employees, receiving a monthly rice ration, food coupons, and housing. Practically speaking, farm workers were farmers with socialist benefits. In the Reform era, as Guangming was gradually integrated into the state apparatus, the farm remained not only the most organized institution in the area, but also the one with the most direct access to government monies, which could be redirected for capitalist purposes. Today, Guangming Farm is a tourist destination/ agrarian themepark/ playground (光明农场).

In addition, Guangming was a designated settlement first for Indonesian returned Chinese in the 60s and then for Vietnamese returned Chinese in the 80s (Wang Caibai provides a history of 归侨 as an official designation in the Chinese polity). This meant that the Returnees were integrated into the local work plan as farm labor, but were not given land rights, which have remained in either village or state hands. Indeed, even as late as 1990, then Guangming Market was posting laws pertaining only to Returnees. Nevertheless, the Returnees were often familiar with capitalism in ways that the local villagers were not and also, through family outside China had access to some investment capital. This is important because Guangming is not considered an Overseas Chinese Hometown. Moreover, as a remote part of Shenzhen, the area did not have immediate access to the early Hong Kong investment that went to border villages, even when there were no direct kin relations.

Today Guangming remains relatively clean and naturally beautiful. The local government is pushing renewable energy and resource development as well as suburban life styles in modern high rise developments. With the laying of new roads and the creation of an express bus route from the Shenzhen Bay border to Guangming, Shenzhen has made it easy for Hong Kong people to visit or move to these new developments. In addition, highways now make Guangming a short ride from the airport.

Due to its remote location and special designation, Guangming’s recent history is complicated and has produced a landscape that juxtaposes late Qing and Republican flat homes, Mao-era tile homes, handshakes, mid80s official housing, lizhi fields, mountains, several industrial parks, and construction sites, not only providing scenes for imagining what pre-reform Shenzhen was like, but also offering a space where another, more sustainable form of development might be pursued. Or so I hope. A walk through the center of Guangming New District, below.

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