Early this spring, the character for “demolish” appeared in red spray paint on a strip of shops in Shenzhen’s Baishizhou neighbourhood. Wang An, 41, has been selling women’s underwear from one of these shops for the past 10 years.

“When they knock it down, I guess we’ll just go home to Hubei [province] and grow vegetables,” he joked in April. The spray paint marked Wang’s shop as one of the buildings scheduled to be torn down in the first phase of Baishizhou’s renewal. He responded to the news with a buy-one-get-one-free sale that continued throughout the summer.

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On August 31, he received notice that his power would be cut in a week. The next day, the demolition of a swathe of buildings behind his shop began. With his store due to close, Wang still wasn’t sure what he and his wife would do next. Bricks-and-mortar underwear stores couldn’t compete with e-commerce, he said, so, after taking some time to look for new opportunities, they would decide whether to leave Shenzhen.

The planned destruction of Baishizhou will affect roughly 150,000 people, many of them recent migrants looking for a new life in one of China’s most prosperous cities. But it also threatens to erase a neighbourhood whose dynamism rivals that of any in the world. Baishizhou is a labyrinthine dream on 0.6 sq km of mixed-use space, with a population density more than 20 times that of the city average.

A tangle of damp alleyways opens at odd intervals onto wider avenues of frenzied commerce – fruit carts, shoe repairers, blind-massage parlours, vendors of hot pot, pigs’ feet on rice and coal-roasted sweet potatoes, fortune-tellers, handymen for hire, smartphone engravers, karaoke parlours, love hotels, furniture dealers, lamb butchers, elementary schools, mahjong rooms, communal laundry wells, open-air billiard halls and a vast number of hair salons, where customers can get a head massage, wash and cut for about HK$30. All hustling under a sun-blocking canopy of braided telephone wires.

Shenzhen’s government has slated Baishizhou for renewal, and the current proposal from Hong Kong-based developer LVGEM aims to replace it with 59.2 million square feet of high-rises, malls and hotels, plus a skyscraper billed as a new icon for the district. LVGEM posters explain the importance of the surveying work under way to sort out, ahead of the coming buyout, exactly who has an ownership stake in Baishizhou’s cramped apartment buildings.

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As well as housing, Baishizhou has a dense industrial area populated by small- and medium-sized businesses, from kitchen-supply companies to surface-mount technology workshops, skirted by shops and restaurants. Another developer, state-owned Shum Yip, has begun tearing down buildings here to construct an upmarket housing develop­ment. Plans for the area, which encompasses Wang’s under­wear store, moved forward quickly because, unlike most of the neighbourhood, it has long belonged to a state-owned enterprise.

Wang says he never signed a contract during his decade in the location, comparing his informal rental agreement to one you might make when borrowing a phone from a friend who can decide at any time to take it back. This type of agreement is typical of Baishizhou’s renters, estimated to make up more than 90 per cent of its residents, and who have no claim to compensation when the renewal begins.

Many of the renters interviewed for this story see Baishizhou’s demise as manifest destiny, an inevitable part of Shenzhen’s story of unbridled development. But there’s also a widespread view among them that the remaining obstacles to a large-scale renewal, both financial and human, are enormous. Meanwhile, Baishizhou properties grow more valuable, new businesses open, the children of renters enrol in local schools, property owners continue to upgrade their investments against an eventual buyout and the promise of monumental hassle looms larger.

If you ask any boss or a guy in a high-up place now, they’ll tell you they got their start here, that it was the first place they lived in Shenzhen
Duan Peng 

“Nobody knows when it’s going to happen. I came here five years ago, and they said they were going to knock it down in three years,” says Hong Xiaohui, who runs a stewed-duck restaurant called Shaxian Snacks in Baishizhou, on the same street as an apartment she shares with her husband, mother-in-law and young daughter. “Everyone says something differ­ent. There are people who say it’s just about to happen, and those who say it’ll be three, four, five years from now. But even the landlords don’t know, so how could we know?”

The Shenzhen story, from fishing village to thriving metropolis

Shenzhen has grown from a population of about 30,000 in 1979 to an estimated 18 million today, breaking the 10-million mark to become a megacity faster than any other place in history. With its sweeping eight-lane boulevards and kaleido­scopic expanses of indistinguishable pastel apartment blocks, Shenzhen has the kind of urban landscape that arises when a flood of money rolls in unexpectedly and then doesn’t stop.

But there are irregularities in the sprawl. These are the chengzhongcun, literally “villages in the middle of the city”, and millions of people live in them. These villages usually take the form of a huddled warren of nine- and 10-storey “handshake buildings” packed so closely together that residents can stick an arm out of the window and shake the hand of a neighbour in the opposite building. A lack of lifts limits the buildings’ heights so that, when seen from above, urban villages look like stunted patches in the cityscape; undergrowth in a forest of high-rises.

But the chengzhongcun have somehow resisted the bland modernisation that has overtaken the surrounding city.

“When I walked into Baishizhou for the first time, it brought me back to childhood,” says local architect Duan Peng, 44, who has researched Shenzhen’s urban villages. “The little streets and alleys, the humanity of the place.”

“Village” may not seem the right term for a cluster of tenement-style walk-ups that can house more than 100,000 people. Chengzhongcun hang onto the name partly because of the familiarity evoked by the traditions and small-scale businesses that thrive among their migrant populations, and partly because these places really were villages before modern Shenzhen started growing.

In the late 1970s, when Beijing undertook to turn Shenzhen into the country’s first special economic zone – an experimental area with relatively liberal financial policies – the government had to purchase land from local villagers, mostly farmers and fishermen, and convert it to municipal property. Officials took the path of least resistance, buying up the farmland but leaving the villages themselves untouched.

This gave villagers lump sums of cash but extinguished the means for their agricultural lifestyle, and essentially set them adrift in a rising sea of construction projects. Crucially, though, their homes were still designated as rural land. Although they were living at ground zero for Shenzhen’s big bang of urbanisation, they held on to special home-ownership rights, giving them a degree of freedom in deciding what to do with their pockets of the city.

In other words, they were in a fine position to participate in Shenzhen’s capitalist experiment. As waves of migrant workers flowed into the city to fuel the manufacturing boom, the villagers put their money into maximising rental space, constructing residential buildings that went as high as tenants were willing to climb, and then partitioning them into ever smaller units and crowding them closer and closer together. In the process, they gave Shenzhen a backbone of affordable, albeit poorly regulated, housing that was vital to the city’s rise.

Baishizhou’s cheek-to-cheek walk-ups were built in the same spirit. But the neighbourhood stands out among the city’s chengzhongcun for its sprawling size, which it owes to an earlier brush with history.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD NOW called Baishizhou is actually a group of five historical villages. Their boundaries blurred after they were absorbed into a Mao-era collective farm established in 1958. (A row of long, tile-roofed dormitories built at the time, and now surrounded by handshake housing and open-air barbecue tents, is one of Baishizhou’s most distinctive features.) When the collective farm gave way to state-owned enterprises in the 1980s, villagers held onto housing ownership rights, and it is they, as well as those who bought into Baishizhou’s later construction, who stand to profit from compensation for redevelopment.

Last year, Shenzhen’s housing prices rose nearly 50 per cent, the fastest annual growth of any major city worldwide. And urban villages, thanks to their peculiar origins, are often located on extra-prime real estate.

About 8km as the crow flies from Hong Kong’s Mai Po Marshes, Baishizhou is at the heart of Nanshan district, not far from a thriving technology park that houses home-grown giants such as Tencent and DJI. It straddles Shennan Avenue, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, at a locus of bus and subway transportation that swarms in the mornings with everyone from factory workers to freshly graduated software developers.

The surrounding area is a testament to Baishizhou’s inability to take a hint. There are three amusement parks, a golf course, a gated community modelled on the Italian Riviera and a flourishing, but expensive, neighbourhood of parks, malls and creative industries.

“From a business perspective, redeveloping Baishizhou is obvious,” says Jet Cui, 30, a tech start-up founder who grew up in the neighbourhood. “From the government perspective, it’s Shennan Avenue. We call it ‘the name card of Shenzhen’, because on either side of the road it’s all famous companies, famous buildings. But then there’s Baishizhou, and it’s a kind of black dot.”

In Baishizhou, a room big enough for a married couple can be rented for between HK$1,500 and HK$2,500 a month. A basic space in a mid-range apartment complex just outside the village might cost three times as much. Small-business owners and industrial workers are key constituents of Baishizhou’s population. But the area is also increasingly home to young professionals, who are driving a government effort to trans­form Shenzhen from the world’s factory into a hub for tech­nology, innovation and design, and helping it live up to the nickname China’s Silicon Valley.

“If Shenzhen loses its affordable housing, the whole chain will break,” Duan says. “The industrial sector will hollow out, and for most of our start-ups, our design companies, and our tech companies, the cost of labour will go up, because almost all of their young workers live in the urban villages.”

At a time when start-up incubators are cropping up all over Shenzhen, Baishizhou hangs on to a reputation as a talent incubator for the city – the inevitable landing pad for hungry new arrivals. As Cui sources parts for Bluetooth headphones he’s developing to pair with the new iPhone, he says he often bonds with executives over Baishizhou origin stories.

“If you ask any boss or a guy in a high-up place now, they’ll tell you they got their start here, that it was the first place they lived in Shenzhen,” he says. “They paid 500 yuan to stay for a month, and the rest was for living expenses. It was a start, and without that, they’d have nothing.”

Still, Cui sees Baishizhou’s redevelopment as a foregone conclusion, and says his parents, who own their apartment, are going to be overjoyed when the time comes to sell. Previous redevelopments of urban villages in Shenzhen, such as Nanshan’s Dachong village, are legendary for having made instant multimillionaires of original owners with favourable holdings, though rumours also fly of the ill treatment received by those who held out against a buyout.

Before Baishizhou is razed, Duan wants the voices of its residents to be heard. On Saturday afternoons, he walks around the neighbourhood and photographs residents and local business owners holding a small blackboard. On it, they chalk their names and a simple two-character message, “buchai”, meaning “don’t demolish”.

“During past urban village redevelopments, they’ve paid attention to the interests of the developer, of the government, of the original residents, but no one has ever paid attention to the interests of the renters,” Duan says. “And to some extent, these renters are the real owners of the urban villages. They have made huge contributions to Shenzhen and the urban villages, but if the government says raze, then the village is razed, and if the government says get out, then the people have to get out.”

On his walks, Duan is gathering names for a petition, which he plans to submit to the city government along with portraits of residents. He’s often rejected or outright ignored, as modern China has little social precedent for what he’s doing, but he usually gets four or five signatures a trip.

“It’s not about making the government look bad; it’s about communicating with them so they understand the whole situation,” he says. “We’re not against the improvement of the urban village, but we’re against this totally destructive method of throwing out everything to rebuild.”

There are signs Duan’s efforts aren’t in vain. This summer, he joined a chorus of voices, including local designers, archi­tects and artists, opposing the planned redevelopment of another Shenzhen urban village, Hubei. The issue caught the attention of the local media, in part because of the village’s obvious historical value. Hubei, whose roots stretch back to 1466, has narrow lanes laid out in an eight-by-three grid typical of ancient Cantonese villages, and rows of squat, tile-roofed houses that squat behind a well-used ancestral hall.

As with Baishizhou, it was due to make way for shopping centres and apartment complexes. But the outcry carried the day. Plans to redevelop the historic heart of the village were cancelled, although the redevelopment of the area surroun­ding the old village will go ahead.

In August, the city government shared a draft of new guide­lines for urban renewal, with sections that seemed to allude to Hubei. As well as special allowances for urban villages with  historical value, the guidelines also broadly recommend that future renewals of chengzhongcun employ renovations and quality-of-life improvements as a first approach rather than wholesale demolitions.

Whether the new guidelines will affect Baishizhou’s future remains to be seen. Buildings are already coming down in Baishizhou’s industrial area, but a policy shift could change the dynamic in negotiations over the rest of the neighbourhood.

Meanwhile, the electricity at Wang’s store has been cut. On September 10, he and his wife were still there, trying to sell the last of their stock from a darkened store, while workers around the corner tossed debris out of gutted buildings.

The Washington Post