The Shenzhen Village That Once Ruled Hong Kong

There was a commotion near the East Gate. A large crowd had gathered near the old stone archway and they seemed to be moving forward. I pushed past women with shopping trolleys and dodged an electric scooter to reach them. I ended up standing in front of something wholly unexpected: a man and several assistants hurriedly placing a row of household products on the pavement. A man lay sprawled on the ground next to them.

Nearby, the trail of goods morphed into vegetables, then fish, then animal scraps. A skinned sheep’s head stared blankly up at the sky. Near the gate, there were even more people lying on the ground, as if they had suffered fainting spells or something more sinister. A few security guards watched nonplussed as passersby ogled and snapped photos of the strange display. Certainly, nothing like this had ever happened before in Nantou.

It turns out this was a performance by the artist Yin Yilin, who had come to Nantou for the opening of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB). Nantou is one of Shenzhen’s urban villages, a country settlement transformed by the city’s rapid growth into a hive of jam-packed tenements, shops and factories, and this year’s biennale is taking place in the heart of the town, where 30,000 people are packed into one square kilometre.

There are more than 70 urban villages around Shenzhen, and for decades they have been havens for the rural migrants who fuelled the city’s manufacturing economy. They are messy and crowded, but also captivating, with round-the-clock streetlife and the optimism of people building better lives for themselves. In 1981, Shenzhen was transformed from a rural backwater to an economic juggernaut by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who made it one of China’s four Special Economic Zones (SEZ). For the first time since the Communist Revolution in 1949, a kind of free-market capitalism was allowed on the soil of the People’s Republic.

Today, Shenzhen is transforming yet again, this time from a manufacturing hub into a capital of tech, design and finance, a place that makes smartphone apps rather than the smartphones themselves. As the city changes, many urban villages are slated for redevelopment – but not Nantou, which finds itself in the spotlight after years of neglect.

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Nantou’s main gate in 2010. Photo by Christopher DeWolf

“Nantou has 1,700 years of history,” says Xue Feng, Shenzhen’s deputy director of urban planning. “It was at the nexus of Dongguan, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. But then it was forgotten. The general public still don’t have a good understanding of Nantou. Its reputation does not match its status.”

Before Shenzhen, before Hong Kong, there was Dongguan Prefecture, which covered the entire Pearl River Delta from the trading hub of Canton all the way to the edge of the South China Sea. Nantou was the capital of this southern frontier. It was settled around the year 331 by the first wave of Chinese migrants to head south. Located strategically on the western shore of the Pearl River estuary, the village made its early fortune in the salt trade before the Tang Dynasty government built a naval base nearby in 736.

The town that exists today retains almost the same layout as it did in 1394, when the Ming Dynasty government built walls around the settlement. It was the last outpost of Chinese civilisation before the dangers of pirates and barbarians that existed beyond. Local lore says that famed Ming Dynasty admiral Zhang He sailed past Nantou and made a stop at the nearby Tin Hau Temple to pray for good luck on his journey into the unknown.

Nantou’s good fortune ended in the 19th century. Hong Kong was ceded to the British after the First Opium War, which eventually led to the construction of the Kowloon-Canton Railway, whose first mainland stop was in the market town of Shenzhen, 20 kilometres to the east of Nantou. Nantou soon lost its administrative role to Shenzhen and fell into decades of obscurity. Photos from the early 20th century show a dusty, deserted village lined by weatherworn houses. Eventually, the shoreline around the village — the very reason for its existence — was reclaimed, leaving Nantou a landlocked anachronism, a piece of unwanted history in a city that thought it had none.

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Laundry drying outside Nantou’s gate in 2010. Photo by Christopher DeWolf

Most of Shenzhen has been built in the 37 years since the SEZ was established. But the villages are a reminder that the city’s history goes back much longer than that. As in Hong Kong’s New Territories, people have been fishing and farming here for millennia. When the SEZ was established, indigenous villages were considered rural enclaves and governed separately from the surrounding city. Most villagers tore down their old houses and replaced them with tenements to accommodate the migrants coming from all across China to work in Shenzhen. The resulting urban fabric is completely ad hoc: meandering lanes lined by jam-packed buildings that are 10, 11, 12 storeys tall. The same thing happened to Nantou, despite its prestigious history.

I first encountered the village in 2010, when I met Mary Ann O’Donnell, a scholar and artist who has been documenting Shenzhen since 1995 – longer than most of its residents have lived there. Her blog, Shenzhen Noted, is an indispensable resource for anyone interested in China’s fourth-largest city. Much of O’Donnell’s work has focused on these villages. “Hong Kong people are urban, New York people are urban, but Shenzhen people, for the most part, are villagers,” said O’Donnell as we strolled towards Nantou’s imposing stone gate. “Three years ago they were sitting around waiting for the rice to grow. So they’re willing to talk. They’re curious.”

We got plenty of inquisitive stares as we passed through the gate and up Nantou’s main street, which was thronged by hawkers selling a bewildering array of products: fruit, flatbreads, locally-farmed oysters. Many of the village’s historic structures had been preserved, including the greystone yamen that had been the seat of imperial authority for hundreds of years, but they were locked up and abandoned. A woman selling fresh-pressed sugarcane juice occupied the steps of the yamen. I walked past her and peered through the heavy wooden doors, behind which was a pile of construction debris.

A few weeks after meeting O’Donnell, I returned to Nantou and spoke to some of its residents. A woman named Mrs. Lan, who was selling fortune-telling pamphlets and lucky charms, told me she had been laid off from a state-owned factory in her native Liaoning, and she came to Shenzhen every winter to escape the frigid north. Down the street, I met Lu Jianghai, a man from Hubei province who sold used furniture. Migrants sold it to him when they left and he sold it to newcomers when they arrived. “I guess it’s a bit like temporary storage,” he said. “There are four other shops like mine here and we’re all from Hubei.”

Nearly eight years later, in December, I returned to Nantou for the opening of UABB. Everything was the same – but different. The historic structures were still there, but they now housed stylish bookshops, cafés and exhibitions about Nantou’s history. A group of Brazilian artists were busy painting a mural on the side of a concrete building. In the middle of town, a vacant lot where I had once encountered three young boys playing in a pile of dirt is now an attractive public square.

Although UABB takes place in both Shenzhen and Hong Kong, Shenzhen’s version has more than ten times the budget of its Hong Kong counterpart, and it has always been a way for Shenzhen’s government to showcase its latest ambitions. The two previous editions transformed abandoned industrial sites into cultural venues. This time around, the focus is on Nantou and other urban villages. “It’s not just an exhibition – it’s a starting point for experimentation,” says chief curator Hou Hanru, who is the artistic director of MAXXI, Italy’s national museum of contemporary art. “We are stressing participation, experimentation and exploration, so this is the best venue – we are right in the centre of the urban village.”

Hou curated the biennale with the help of Liu Xiaodu and Meng Yan, who run the Shenzhen-based architecture firm Urbanus. Over the past year, they conducted research into Nantou’s urban space, and they were responsible for the creation of new public spaces that will endure even after the biennale is over. Many of Shenzhen’s urban villages are being demolished and replaced by shopping malls and office towers, but Liu and Meng see an alternative future for Nantou, one that embraces the potential of its narrow lanes and village life. Much of Shenzhen is a city of vast boulevards and gated housing estates, but the villages are human-scaled, accessible and open to everyone.

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Nantou from above in 2017. Photo courtesy UABB

Wandering around Nantou during the biennale’s opening weekend, Liu noted how the demolition of urban villages has left migrant workers with fewer and fewer places to live. “Some of them came here,” he said. “Some of them went home. Nantou could become the last urban village that exists in Shenzhen, because it is protected by its history.

But things are changing quickly. The hawkers that filled the streets when I first visited Nantou in 2010 are all gone. The performance by Yin Yilin, with its row of market goods and discarded people, was a way of marking their absence. Nantou’s long history may protect it from demolition, but not gentrification. The village is already becoming more upscale and the biennale may only speed up the process. “It’s something that has concerned us since day one,” says Meng Yan. “The biennale is an implant – it’s like having a chip inserted into your brain. Is it going to cause damage?”

Still, village life goes on. Children still play in the centre of town. The furniture shops are still there. And while the oyster hawkers and fruit peddlers have gone, people still line up outside the village’s restaurants for fresh dumplings and cheung fun. Nantou has survived 11 dynasties; it will probably make its way through this one, too.

UABB Shenzhen runs until March 15, 2018. Click here for more information.

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