Urban Villages 城中村

Ruihan Zhang

I accidentally stayed next to one of the liveliest areas in Guangzhou without knowing it when I booked my room. The building where I stayed was at the edge of an old xiaoqu, the basic neighborhood block in all Chinese cities. The building where I stayed had a western name, Canadian Garden Quebec Court. Once I settled down in my room, I went to the food market nearby to explore the neighborhood. I walked across the food market, and I found myself entering  an urban village. The place is called Shangshe.  It was bustling, the street was crowded with people, food vendors at the corners, all kinds of cheap shops and restaurants alongside. One after the other, a cosmetic shop, a tiny hotel, a barber’s shop, a cram school for learning English, a hot pot restaurant, a wangbawangba is the Chinese internet cafe where it is famous for young people and teenagers to spend the whole night playing computer games at a cheap price. 

Soon I found it hard to navigate myself with a clear direction in the village because the streets stretched themselves there without any regularity. Sometimes, a main street led to a place in dead end; sometimes, a narrow passage led me to another big street. Not only was the configuration of the streets a labyrinth, but the streets themselves were irregular, with ups and downs, curves and bends. The regularity in Shangshe was the crowd of people and noise from scooters and advertisements for discounts. From a supermarket, an affective female voice in soft Taiwanese accent was played on a loudspeaker: “If you buy up to 68 yuan, you can get a free detergent …. Don’t miss it.”

On each side of the main street, there were household buildings standing closely next to each other, and they created many narrow, dark, and small lanes in between. Usually, people living there stretch and fix a rope across the empty space between the two buildings and they hang their washed clothes above the narrow lane. Water dropped down from the clothes, making the dark passage even more humid in the muggy weather of Guangzhou. Old cable bundles were also installed and stretched along those narrow lanes. But this narrow passage was also where someone could find business opportunities, mostly for repairing stuff. With simple tools, someone could repair shoes, clothes, bags, and there was also something involved with modern technology, the vendor of putting the screen protectors. 

The buildings in Shangshe were also irregular, as some were taller and bigger and some were slenderer, which made a clear contrast with the standardized Chinese urban buildings—well constructed and all the same height. The buildings in Shangshe were painted in light colors with a romantic hue, light pink, light yellow, light blue, like colors of roses. But the security windows installed on almost every household evened out the rare romantic hue. There is a reason for the popular use of those security windows—the household buildings were so close to each other that I wonder if an athletic person could jump across from his window to the window of the other building on the same floor. 

Land, buildings, and rooms are in some way at the heart of Shangshe and other urban villages. I stopped at a notice board where others had also stopped at. It was a board full of renting posts printed on colorful papers, blue, yellow, red, and white. Those posts were put neatly in order and in four rows. The plasters behind the info-posts were layered on the board, telling the constant demand of the housing market over the past years. One of the posts wrote:

Local landlord looking for tenants, 

single rooms 380-700 yuan

one bedroom one living room 600-1200 yuan

two bedroom one living room 900-1500 yuan

telephone number ……

Young white collar workers  who can’t afford high rental prices in the downtown city, thousands of rural immigrants from other provinces to make a living in the cities have settled down in urban villages, living together with local villagers. Despite the awful living standard because of the lack of proper infrastructure, the attractively low renting price is the reason many people choose to live in urban villages. There are many urban villages such as Shangshe in Guangzhou and in other big cities in China. Many urban cities faded away in Beijing under the city’s demolition and reconstruction program. At least they vanished before I had become old enough to be able to conceptualize the existence of such a village as a city kid. Interestingly, Guangzhou’s urban villages remained lively while urban villages were withering in other cities. Since the 2000s, the speed of urbanization in China was ever increasing and some natural villages were included into the nearby city under the urban expansion. While villagers kept living there, the expanding city surrounded the villages. Some villages were engulfed by the city under the mass demolition programs. Some survived, becoming an “enclave” that mixed a flavor of city to its original taste. The huge contrasts between the chaotic scenes in villages and the orderliness in the city was even amplified when the two were just next to each other. In the center of Guangzhou, the deluxe CBD skyscrapers stand just side by side of an urban village called Xian village. Like socialism with Chinese characteristics, urban villages are urbanization with Chinese characteristics.

When I walked around a corner on a street going upwards, a young man stopped me: “meinü, are you interested in dancing? We have a free trial class today.” He handed over a flyer to me. I don’t like other people addressing me as meinü which means beauty in Chinese. I indeed look normal but not to the extent of a beauty and I don’t like the feeling of being evaluated by my appearance. But this word has become a common way to address young women in China in this context of selling things. Being called a ‘beauty’ is not an honor specific for women, young men also the equivalent title for others to address them, shuaige, which means handsome guy. 

As someone who hadn’t fully commanded the techniques of how to refuse others, I said: “Sorry, I have never danced before. I don’t know anything about dancing.” By this, I implied I wanted to leave, but he continued. “No problem. You look slim and slender. You can be good at it.” He continued again without me answering, “many girls learn to dance to keep their body in shape. Our dancing school has really nice teachers, you know. They participated in the Spring Festival show, and they are the dancers who danced in front of the Guangzhou tower during the show. You should know that a dancer should be a superb one if they can dance  on that occasion.”

“Ok, ok.”

“Then you can try our trial class, the teacher who will teach today also danced in front of the Guangzhou tower. The dancing school is not far away, just 50 meters away from here. You can rest inside.” He already headed towards the dancing school. Since I didn’t have a plan of what to do in Guangzhou, I joined him out of curiosity. The dancing school was called UFO Rocket Dancing Society. It was a simple one-story room divided by the glass wall in the middle into two areas, the left was the classroom, and the right was the reception. 

“Which type of dance do you prefer?” He asked. 

“I don’t know.”

“We have teachers of K-pop, hip-hop, modern dance, and Chinese dance. Many girls like cute stuff, and they learn K-pop. Some girls want to be cool, and they learn hip-hop. You seem like an elegant person, and I feel like you don’t speak so much, so I suggest you learn the modern dance. Just exactly we have a free trial lesson for modern dance today. At 7 pm.” I didn’t have any long-term plan to learn dance seriously, and one trial lesson was enough for me to experience dancing. We added WeChat friends and made an agreement that I would join a free lesson at 7 pm that day. From his WeChat profile, I knew his surname  was Xu. 

I left the dancing school and found that I needed a pair of proper sneakers to dance that night. All the shoes I had brought to Guangzhou only consisted of sandals and boat shoes. I went to a store and quickly picked a pair of white sneakers that fitted me. Behind the reception desk there were two young women similar to my age, early twenties, who welcomed me. When I was making the payment, one of them commented that the shoes I was wearing looked chic. They were blue leather boat shoes with knitted straw decorations around the bottom. “Where did you get them?” the other one asked. 

“From Europe.”

“I study in the Netherlands.” I added. 

“Ah…Europe…Europe…” She said in a murmur and looked thoughtful as if she was imagining the distant European continent. Perhaps she had once had a dream to travel to far-away places; perhaps she was not happy with the current state of her life, selling shoes in an urban village. The word “Europe” from my mouth indeed, in some way, plucked a string from her heart.

Around 7 pm that day, I arrived at the dancing school. Xu was waiting for me. “Here you come. Our lesson already started 5 minutes ago.” I nervously entered the classroom. All the other twelve or thirteen students, all girls, were frozen in one pose with the teacher coming to them and modifying the details of their pose one by one. I found a spot to stand, and other students defrosted from their pose under the teacher’s instruction. We danced to a new song from Jay Chou, a famous Taiwanese singer who dominated the young people’s MP3 and radio channels in the early 2000s. Like the teachers here, Jay Chou also performed on the Spring Festival show, and he even performed five times, perhaps more in the future. In the next hour, I realized that my body was so uncoordinated that I couldn’t complete many movements required by this piece of dance. Plus, there were many short but complicated poses that demanded one’s muscles strength and flexibility. I was too weak and stiff for the dance. In the final round in which we danced from the beginning to where we had learned so far, I experienced one of the most chaotic moments. With Jay Chou’s delightful singing, I connected different steps strugglingly, twisted my waist mechanically, and turned my neck doubtfully. Everything ended in confusion, but nevertheless I sweated a lot and felt energized.

When I left the classroom, my biggest wish was to sneak outside without anyone noticing me. But Xu again already waited for me in the reception area. “I saw you danced pretty well.” He should know his compliment wasn’t true.

“Really? Are you sure?”

“You did better than many other students in the first lesson. I think you have a talent for dancing. Do you want to continue?” He asked me. I hoped we could end the conversation soon, but I already sensed the conversation would develop endlessly with him stubbornly selling me the dancing lessons. He invited me to sit on the sofa and prepared me some chrysanthemum tea. He looked seriously, like he was about to confess a crucial truth.

“To be honest, my sister, you really have a talent for dancing. What type of lesson do you want to continue afterwards?” In China, salesmen and saleswomen like to make fictive relatives. In order to make closer relationship with their customers, they call them sisters and brothers in daily conversations. Sister this, brother that. 

“But I’ll only stay shortly in Guangzhou. Only around ten days, or even less.” I said. 

“It doesn’t matter. We also provide short-term classes. And importantly, we recently had  a special discount for our new students. Let’s consider it.”

“But I will book my flight to Beijing tonight. I can’t stay too long. If you like, I can recommend you to my friends in Guangzhou. I know someone who likes dancing too.” I lied to him. I don’t know anyone in Guangzhou. If I knew any, they probably wouldn’t visit a small dancing school hidden in a crowded urban village. 

My previous prediction was correct. He stubbornly tried to sell me the lessons, and I refused him as stubbornly as he tried. It already felt like an invisible warfare between us. After a few rounds of conversation, he changed the strategy. 

“You come from Beijing, right?” 

I nodded. 

“Beijing is huge. I’m a local Cantonese. I quit my school early. At the end of middle school (15 years old), I told my dad that I didn’t want to go to high school. I wanted to start a business. I went to a vocational training school, and I used my spare time to make money. Once I became a salesman at a small internet company with my friends, we were successful. But after that, I decided to train myself and do something a little bit different. So, I came here. In the future, I still plan to make a lot of money and make my own business. By the way, how old are you?” 


“I’m younger than you, I’m 19 years old. I should really call you sister.”

Xu’s story reminded me of some of my classmates from primary school. Like them, he had stepped into the adults’ world much earlier than I would do. Unlike him, growing up in cities, I was well-protected by people surrounding me: father, mother, grandparents, nanny, and many teachers. I never imagined myself making a lot of money. Finding a suitable job and doing the things I am interested in are the upper limits I could have imagined how life would be in the future. Making a lot of money is an alien concept for me, but it is a common phrase I had heard from Xu. With a round face and long eyes, Xu seemed to have something both historical and present. He is historical, because his pursuit of money happened to reflect the recent history of the fast collection of personal wealth in China since the country embraced capitalism in the 1980s. He is also present because his pursuit of money is perhaps caused by his instinct to survive in society and by the realistic strategy to feed oneself. 

After each of us stated our personal history briefly, I felt both of us just wanted to end the conversation as soon as possible. He recommended a discount that was specially devised just for me, a package of five lessons in the next week for only 70 yuan. I was too tired to come up with any new rhetoric to refuse him, so I accepted the deal. When I finally paid him, it was already after 9 pm. More than one hour’s persuasion work was rewarded by 70 yuan’s income, which was less than 10 euros. 

On the way home, I walked through the still lively urban villages. Under the dark blue night, signboards along the street were lit up colorfully, yellow, white, red, green, and blue. It seemed like the nightlife in Shangshe had just started. At one point, the sky got darker in the quiet night, the crowded people faded away, and the noises vanished. I knew I had left Shangshe village. 




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