The twilight of Shenzhen’s great urban village

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Lucille Barrett
Lucille Barrett
Future teen idol. Hardcore tv lover. Social media guru. Zombie aficionado. Travel scholar. Biker, shiba-inu lover, audiophile, Mad Men fan and proud pixelpusher. Working at the junction of minimalism and elegance to answer design problems with honest solutions. I'm fueled by craft beer, hip-hop and tortilla chips.

Early this spring, the Chinese character for “demolish” showed up in red spray paint on a strip of shops in Shenzhen’s Baishizhou neighborhood. Wang An, 41, has been selling women’s underwear from one of these shops for the last 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-free sale that continued through 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 shop closing in a few days, he still wasn’t sure what he and his wife would do next. Brick-and-mortar underwear stores can’t compete with e-commerce, he said, so, after taking some time to look for new opportunities, they’ll decide whether to leave Shenzhen.

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The planned destruction of Baishizhou will impact its roughly 150,000 residents, many of them recent migrants looking for a new life in one of China’s most prosperous cities. But it also stands to erase a neighborhood whose dynamism rivals that of any in the world. Baishizhou is a labyrinthine dream on 0.23 square miles of mixed-use residential space, with a population density more than 20 times the city average.

Start with Cannery Row, then jerry-rig it to accommodate half the Iceland population, and you’re close to Baishizhou. A tangle of damp alleyways opens at odd intervals onto wider avenues of frenzied commerce – fruit carts, shoe repair, blind massage, hot pot, pig’s feet on rice, coal-roasted sweet potato, fortune tellers, handymen for hire, smartphone engravers, karaoke parlors, smoke shops, love hotels, furniture dealers, street-side 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, a cut, and a wash for about four dollars. All of it hustles by under a sun-blocking canopy of braided telephone wires.

Shenzhen’s government has slated Baishizhou for renewal. 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, along with a skyscraper billed as a new icon for the district. LVGEM posters explain the importance of the surveying work underway to sort out, in advance of the coming buyout, who exactly has an ownership stake in Baishizhou’s cramped apartment buildings.

Baishizhou also includes a densely built industrial area populated with small- and medium-sized businesses – from kitchen-supply companies to surface-mount technology workshops – and skirted with shops and restaurants. Another developer, the state-owned Shum Yip, has begun tearing down buildings to construct an up-market housing development. Plans for this area, which houses Wang’s underwear store, moved forward quickly because, unlike most of the neighborhood, a state-owned enterprise has long owned it Folk Fests.

Wang says he never signed a contract in his 10 years in the location; he compared his informal rental agreement with the one you might make when borrowing a phone from a friend who can decide at any time that she’d like to take it back. This type of agreement is typical of Baishizhou’s renters, who are estimated to make up more than 90 percent of the neighborhood’s residents and 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 a widespread view among them that the obstacles remaining for a large-scale renewal, both financial and human, are enormous. Meanwhile, Baishizhou properties grow more valuable, new businesses open, the children of renters enroll in local schools, property owners continue to upgrade their investments against an eventual buyout, and the promise of a monumental hassle looms larger.

“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,” said Hong Xiaohui, who runs a stewed duck restaurant called Shaxian Snacks in Baishizhou, on the same street as an apartment that 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?”

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