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.
One of the results of grid management (see Covid Among Us for details) has been the hardening of the city’s informal boundaries. However, this process has been ongoing for several decades in part via the imposition of a second traffic grid on top of the original traffic grid. In practice, this has meant re-purposing earlier, narrow roads as the internal roads of a cordoned off housing estates 小区 and laying a wider, more extensive network around the newly isolated gated community. In other words, what was initially planned as an open city, was incrementally partitioned and closed off even before grid management came online. In some sense, 2022 zero-Covid protocols merely accelerated a process that was already underway. Once you understand the logic of how the traffic grid was re-inscribed, its possible to see how boundaries were hardened through urban expansion.
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.
Short but very sweet story about a friend’s cat, who is pregs with first litter–hee! Originally, my friend had planned to have the kitten neutered, but. By the time the kitten was old enough to safely undergo the procedure, friend’s building was locked down. And so, she had to wait for the lockdown to lift in order to bring her cat to the vet. Meanwhile, kitty went into heat and made a great escape into the urban village, where apparently the semi-feral community was having a good, good time. About a week later, the cat returned, much to my friend’s relief. My friend had secured her balcony (no more escapes) and settled in to wait out the outbreak. A few weeks later, however, kitty began showing. If all goes well, kitty will give birth next week.
Many years ago (and it was a different world), I interviewed HUANG Weiwen about Shenzhen’s urban planning imaginary. The year was 2016, and there was a general hope that urban villages might come of age and transform the city for the better. Anyway, here’s the article.
Shenzhen’s citywide lockdown has come to an end. Kind of. Last night, there were countdowns to midnight, firecrackers set off at village gates, and then people charging out. I’m not sure where they were going at midnight, in a city that was still primarily closed. But there were thousands celebrating in the streets outside their gates. The expression for this rush is ‘冲鸭,’ which literally translates as ‘charging ducks,’ but translates as ‘go for it.’ In fact, it has been a week of poultry metaphors, as a new phrase on the web is 叮咚鸡 (dingdong ji), which is a pun for the expression ‘wait for further notification’ that ended ever. single. covid announcement. I’m not sure where the expression came from (I’ve seen debates that the original is Cantonese, but no confirmations), however, chickens are running rampant through Shenzhen memes.
A great Shenzhen neighborhood brings together several generations and types of housing. There is usually an urban village or two, danwei housing that was built before 2000 (more or less), and a larger mall complex that brings in the subway. When these clusters of different building types are located within walking distance of each other, you end up with a thriving independent food scene, affordable housing for singletons and low-income families, and upscale spaces that provide air-conditioned comfort for a cup of coffee or a cram school.
Among 90s generation immigrants (who are twenty-something or just turned 30), Meilin has become popular because it not only provides a diversity of housing and shopping options, but also because it is centrally located; anyone who lives here is looking at relatively quick commutes to work. Nearby urban villages are also popular among low-income families, who can rent two-bedroom apartments for 3,000-4,000, which is expensive, but doable with two parents working and an elder who watches children.
The popularity of this kind of mixed housing neighborhoods means that Shenzhen doesn’t have enough elementary school places where most families live. Historically, Shenzhen has lacked school places relative to population, but that was managed through hukou. However, since the city has allowed the children of long-term residents to attend elementary and middle school, high-density schooling has increasingly become an issue in the city, especially in neighborhoods like Meilin, where low-income families live.
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.