Urban villages sparked my interest way before I arrived in Shenzhen. They seem to attract the attention of people of different spectrum due to their interesting character and uniqueness. Numerous journal articles, research and analysis have been written about them (but unfortunately, here at UPDIS I haven’t met anyone who has done research in this area.) Since I arrived here I have visited a few urban villages. One of those located close to where I stay in Shenzhen is called Gangxia. I went back to visit this site a couple of times and took some pictures so I can document my experience.
(If you don’t know what urban villages are please read Pam Phan’s blog entry here where she nicely describes how they got evolved.) Shenzhen is said to have more than 200 urban villages. Many of them, including Gangxia, are located on areas with prime real estate value. They provide cheap housing for farmers and other migrants. They are crowded and messy. While some would call them slums but they are different to them. They have narrow alleys, lack of light, sanitation and health issues. But many urban villages have commercial streets that are vibrant, especially in the evenings, and offer (informal) economic activities such as cheap food and low cost personal services (hairdresser, massage).
Ganxia is one of these vibrant villages located in the CBD, and I believe it is one of the largest ones. Or at least it used to be one until West Gangxia Village (a 22 hectares site) was demolished a few years ago. After a long process of negotiations with the villagers it got bulldozed down, and the space will be used for office buildings and high end housing. These are currently being built. (See the areal images before and after the demolition, and my photo of the site that I took just before my camera broke – I apologize but that is why this is the only picture I have). (If you want to see pictures taken after the demolition of the West Village in 2009 they can be found here, courtesy of Jesse Warren.)
Getting out of the Shenzhen Metro exit an impressive gate with lanterns welcome the visitor (see photo above). A Chinese friend told me that the writing on the gate has poetry on it, and the gate itself appears to have cultural significance rather than referring to a particular area. As walking with the crowd soon one finds a commercial street with lots of shops offering food, tea, wine, medicine, appliances or … cosmetics and teddy bears. One of Gangxia attractions is definitely shopping and even more importantly food.
While the buildings lack of infrastructure, there are several amenities are offered in the area. I was surprised to find a nice playground for example, a large urban plaza with a stage-like infrastructure, and a large park right next to it (Shenzhen’s Central Park). I try to avoid having to give my opinion on urban villages because it is such a controversial subject, but I just say that while the urban villages are eyesore for many people (esp. urban planners) but they do provide services low cost housing to newcomers to the city who otherwise would have a harder time to find a cheap place to live in this expensive city in central location.