SHENZHEN - Mr Li Guangming remembers the advertisement on Dafen village that he saw in the paper almost 20 years ago.
"China's number 1 oil painting village", it read, describing the village as a scenic idyll, with some 2,000 painters and artists working on either banks of a river.
"In my mind there was this beautiful image, I thought of painting and admiring the scenery at the same time," said Mr Li, a native of Henan province in central China, who had a job painting movie posters at the time.
The "river" turned out to be a canal for discharging stinking sewage, as Mr Li discovered when he moved to Dafen in 2001 from nearby Dongguan.
But there were also painters, churning out imitation Van Goghs and Monets.
Located in the north of Shenzhen, Dafen gained a reputation for imitation artworks after a Hong Kong businessman brought over teams of painters in 1989. The village reportedly produced 60 per cent of the world's oil paintings at one point.
Over time it has morphed into something of a tourist destination, with painters hawking their art along narrow alleyways.
Dafen is one of Shenzhen's 230 "urban villages", farmers' residential land left untouched by the authorities when they acquired surrounding farmland for development.
Original residents were allowed to build homes for themselves on these pockets of land. But many saw an economic opportunity and built residential blocks instead, providing low-rent housing for the millions of migrants who have crammed into the city over the years.
But these villages also have a reputation for being dirty, crime-filled ghettoes with poor infrastructure.
Until last month, when Shenzhen's government decided to suspend demolition of urban villages - citing the need to preserve low-cost spaces as a reason - the city has been redeveloping these areas in a bid to "upgrade" them.
But for its evolution into a tourist destination and hub for the oil painting trade, Dafen could have faced the same fate, said Mr Li.
The redevelopment of urban villages has prompted some soul-searching within Shenzhen.
Shenzhen native Liu He said about three years ago, as more of these villages started to disappear, people started to think of them as one of Shenzhen's "rare treasures" and a unique feature of the city.
Mr Liu, who thought the same, co-founded Handshake 302, a non-governmental organisation that seeks to educate people about these places.
"Urban villages are important because they offer new people coming to Shenzhen a place to live, a platform from which they can improve their lives," said Mr Liu, 28.
For Mr Li, his 17 years spent in Dafen has allowed him to progress from an artist painting copies of classics in the alleyways to opening his own shop, where he has started to paint original work.
Mr Zhang Jiacheng, who runs TAS, a social enterprise in Nantou, another urban village, added that many people who grew up in urban villages saw these places as their hometowns or birthplaces, and would feel severed from their roots when they are demolished.
"This is something that is very important to them," said Mr Zhang, 28.
Indeed, the closely packed apartment blocks in a typical village, known locally as "handshake buildings" because residents of facing blocks are close enough to shake hands, have become a Shenzhen icon.
Singapore has gone through a similar tussle between preservation and redevelopment - colonial-era shophouses used to be thought of as rundown, but are now valued as heritage icons, the Singapore Heritage Society said in August this year.
Both migrants and Shenzhen natives interviewed by The Straits Times felt that while conditions of urban villages should be improved, the original villages should be preserved.
And efforts are beginning to be made to do so.
For instance, Shuiwei was once a rundown complex of 35 blocks with trash-strewn streets, but villagers, working with a developer and the government, rejuvenated the area.
The blocks have been renovated and painted in bright hues of orange and green. Elevators and linkways have been built to join the different apartment blocks. On the ground floor, cafes and bars have moved in.
The area's rejuvenation has given it a young, hip vibe, said Mr Chris Lai, principal architect of D'Office, the firm behind the design, which has won architecture awards in China.
He added that this showed there were creative ways of preserving such places.
"What are the ingredients for a good city? You can have the genericness of shopping malls and condos, or a place like urban villages, a place where barriers to entry can be low and inclusive to people from all social layers," said Mr Lai.