Hong Kong architect documents Shenzhen villages doomed by development

In exhibition and an upcoming book, Hong Kong University architect Du Juan shines light on villages absorbed into urban Shenzhen and their residents, many of whom face an uncertain future

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2016, 11:07am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2016, 4:45pm

Shenzhen is the face of the new China, a sleepy fishing village transformed into an industrious manufacturing centre and now a gleaming hi-tech and financial hub. At least, that’s the official line.

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The reality is much more complicated. Before it became a special economic zone and a city of 18 million people, Shenzhen was not a single fishing village: it was hundreds of villages. Many of them still exist today, embedded within a landscape of office towers, shopping malls and massive housing estates. Over the years, they have been transformed into jam-packed enclaves of tenement housing where migrant workers can find a cheap apartment in a convenient location.

“The history of the urban villages is the history of Shenzhen,” says Du Juan, a University of Hong Kong architect who has been researching the villages for more than a decade. She is working on a book about them that will be published this year, and she recently unveiled an exhibit about the villages at the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture, which runs inside a derelict Shenzhen flour mill until the end of February.

Everyone is just waiting for these villages [in Shenzhen] to be demolished. I’m hoping that day comes as late as possible. The city is not ready to lose all of this affordable housing
Du Juan, HKU architect

Each village has its own character. In the west, Nantou’s history stretches back nearly 2,000 years, and it still boasts intact Ming dynasty gates. In the east, Dafen has become a hub for oil painters who reproduce famous artworks. In the middle, Baishizhou sprawls across several square kilometres, teeming with restaurants, outdoor billiards halls – even a specialty coffee shop and craft brewery.

When Du speaks about the villages, her voice is tinged with a sense of urgency. Many of them are slated for demolition and redevelopment, including a large portion of Baishizhou, which is home to more than 300,000 people.

“It’s constant tension,” says Du. “Everyone is just waiting for these villages to be demolished. I’m hoping that day comes as late as possible. The city is not ready to lose all of this affordable housing.”

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Du’s exhibit at the biennale, From Villages to City: The Informal History of Shenzhen, takes the perspective of an outsider delving into village life. It opens with panoramic views of the city, where the high-rise landscape is interrupted by dense clusters of walk-up buildings known as “handshake buildings” because of their proximity to each other. “People see them as these monolithic clusters,” says Du. “But everything you see in the villages has a very specific reason behind it, in the policies and politics of the land.”

This is represented by an animated map of Shenzhen that shows the evolution of the villages over time: hundreds of black dots on a landscape that is quickly transformed from fields to city.

When the special economic zone was established in 1981, it was already home to hundreds of thousands of people making a living in fishing, farming and market towns. For the next couple of decades, these settlements maintained an official rural designation, even as the city around them developed. Many of the indigenous villagers moved to Hong Kong or overseas, replacing their old houses with apartment buildings, which were rented out to the migrant workers who fuelled Shenzhen’s economic boom.

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Even after the villages were officially merged into the rest of the city, the complexity of their land ownership has allowed them to remain a distinct part of the urban landscape.

In her exhibit, Du represents this through portraits of village residents: shopkeepers, hawkers, labourers, children – many of whom rely on the villages for basic services, since they do not have the Shenzhen residency permits that give them access to schools or health care. “People are the foundations of the urban villages,” says Du. They are melting pots of people of different ages, occupations and from different regions. “If you go outside the villages you rarely see children or the elderly or the disabled [out on the street]. It really embraces them all.”

Nobody can say for sure how much longer this unique dynamic will last. Du credits the villages with providing cheap, accessible housing and economic opportunities throughout the city, but in recent years, Shenzhen's government has aggressively tried to reinvent the city as an upscale tech and financial hub. Many villages have already been redeveloped into glitzy office and retail developments.

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“You drive people towards outer districts where the infrastructure is not well developed,” says Du.

What complicates matters is that village property is usually owned by corporations established by indigenous villagers, who have moved elsewhere, while the actual village residents are migrants without any legal rights.

Mary Ann O'Donnell, an anthropologist who has documented urban change in Shenzhen in 1995, writes on her blog, Shenzhen Noted, that virtually no one in the city considers village residents to be stakeholders – even the villagers themselves, who see their situation as transient. “That would explain why there is little outrage when handshake renters get kicked out of their buildings without compensation and without any attempt to find replacement housing for them,” she writes.

Du thinks it’s time to reconsider that attitude. “Demolishing a place like Baishizhou would cause all these problems that are hard to foresee right now,” she says. That’s one of the reasons she was keen to work on the exhibit at the biennale. It’s also why she is rushing to finish her book on the villages. It was originally conceived as an academic text, she says, but with the future of the villages under threat, she recently rewrote it to appeal to a wider audience. “You can’t understand Shenzhen without understanding the urban villages,” she says.

For information about the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture visit szhkbiennale.org