40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening up

Soul-searching over 'urban villages'

Baishizhou is one of Shenzhen's about 230 "urban villages", and its largest.
Baishizhou is one of Shenzhen's about 230 "urban villages", and its largest.ST PHOTO: DANSON CHEONG

Mr Li Guangming remembers the advertisement on Dafen village that he saw in the paper almost 20 years ago. "China's No. 1 oil painting village", it read, describing the village as a scenic idyll, with some 2,000 painters and artists working on both 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 central Henan province, who then had a job painting movie posters.

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.

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 about 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. Instead, many saw an economic opportunity and built residential blocks providing low-rent housing for the millions of migrants who have crammed into the city over the years. But they also have a reputation for being dirty, crime-filled ghettos 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 one of the reasons - the city has been redeveloping these areas. The redevelopment of urban villages in the past few years has prompted some soul-searching within the city.

About three years ago as more of these villages started to disappear, Shenzhen native Liu He said, people began 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, 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 in Dafen have seen him progress from painting copies of classics in its alleyways to opening his own shop and painting original work.

Mr Zhang Jiacheng, 28, who runs a social enterprise in Nantou, another urban village, said many who grew up in urban villages saw them as their hometowns and would feel severed from their roots when they are demolished. "This is something that is very important to them," he said.

The closely packed blocks, known 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.

Both migrants and Shenzhen natives interviewed by The Sunday Times felt that while conditions should be improved, the original villages should also 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 were renovated and painted in bright hues of orange and green. Elevators and linkways were built to join the blocks. There are cafes and bars on the ground floor.

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.

"What are the ingredients of a good city? You can have the genericness of shopping malls and condos, or a place like urban villages where barriers to entry can be low and inclusive to people from all social layers," said Mr Lai.

Danson Cheong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 09, 2018, with the headline 'Soul-searching over 'urban villages''. Print Edition | Subscribe