Guangzhou urban villagers defend homes

Few remain in old Tan, but a Hong Kong man is among those who say they fight for justice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 6:07pm

With eight centuries of history, Tan is the last urban village left in Guangzhou's Zhujiang New Town, a prime site filled with high-end office buildings. Like the 137 other urban villages in Guangzhou, old Tan is gradually being reduced to concrete rubble by the wreckers' ball. Under heavy pressure, most villagers in Tan signed eviction agreements with a private developer. But there remain about 20 holdouts, including Yao Qijiu, 47, a Hong Kong man with family roots in the ramshackle village.

When did you come to Tan?

I quit my job as a vegetable wholesaler in Cheung Sha Wan, Hong Kong, in November to join my brothers to defend two buildings that belong to our family. The developers always look for excuses to demolish our homes when no one is guarding the site.

What is happening in the village?

We have to walk over mountains of concrete debris. We find it impossible to sleep at night, especially my mother. Even swallows are racing against time to find a building that will last long enough for them to sustain a nest. Last week, I tried to rescue baby swallows falling from their nests after the building was wrecked but I was too late. Abandoned cats and dogs are often beaten to death by construction workers. It's really sad - humans and animals are made homeless together.

What is the biggest threat?

The "security guards", who are just hired thugs. Two villagers in their 50s and 60s were beaten up because they refused to hand over their keys and remained in the village. My mother's wrist was bruised when she was pulled away by guards as she tried to block a bulldozer from advancing. The thugs are Putonghua-speaking outsiders. Things will get worse as these guards, who were hired by developers last August, will be replaced next month. Their replacements will be paid 1,000 yuan and get 10 days' pay for each villager they evict. They have already prepared 20 to 30 water pipes as weapons.

How do the authorities handle your complaints?

They ignore us. We've called for police more than 20 times but they won't even come inside the village. Other times they won't even respond. An elderly man who was beaten up twice is now carrying chilli powder [to throw in the face of attackers].

How many buildings are left standing?

There are about 20 buildings left shared by six, perhaps eight, families. Of those, three belong to Hong Kong people. We stick the flags of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region on these buildings to identify ourselves. My building was recently broken into by thugs. They destroyed my family's ancestral altar.

How fast is the demolition equipment moving in?

They normally take down about three buildings a day, but they once tore down seven.

What was Tan village like?

It has stood for more than 800 years, and is our Yao family ancestral village. Before 1992, all the villagers were peasants and we grew vegetables but the government began to claim our farmland, so we gave up farming and opened restaurants instead. Tan village was home to more than 1,000 indigenous villagers and up to 10,000 migrant worker tenants a few years ago.

When did demolition begin?

We first learned of a demolition plan in 2005 and were offered compensation of 30 yuan per square metre. We would also be allowed to move back after new apartments were built.

Why didn't you accept the offer?

The demolition issue was brought up time and again, then last year the compensation was lowered to 27 yuan. There has been no increase after all these years. None of us are notified about details of compensation and what size apartment we will be offered. Most residents have caved in. We are the last ones who refuse to sign the agreement. The government sent people to threaten our tenants to move out. We have never seen any kind of permits that give the developers the right to knock down our buildings. We are not just standing for our own interests, but for fairness and justice.

What was the worst time for you?

It was horrific when demolition reached full speed. Shattered glass from demolished windows was flying about. It was just like the Japanese invasion. Now it is better only because most buildings are already gone.

How long can you and the others hold out?

I don't know how long we can last but I'm not afraid. These are my land rights.

Why do so many from other urban villagers flock to Tan?

They often come here to show support as their communities face similar problems.


Yao Qijiu spoke to Mimi Lau