NAIL ’HOOD

The World of Chinese - - NEWS - TEXT BY JEREMIAH JENNE PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY YU BIRUI (俞必睿)

最后的城中村

Progress marches on, but one throw­back neigh­bor­hood clings im­prob­a­bly to a pre­car­i­ous ex­is­tence, in the shadow of some of Bei­jing's most iconic struc­tures: Huashiy­ing, a poverty-stricken war­ren of shanties, shops, and lo­cal cul­ture. As the forces of moder­nity and or­der rip the heart from his­toric hu­tong, the sur­vival of this ur­ban vil­lage seems even more im­pres­sive. But how long can it hold out?

For Bei­jingers, this spring will likely be re­mem­bered as the sea­son of the bricks.

The build­ing of the Great Walls of Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion has blocked off—or knocked down—many of the city’s mom-and­pop busi­nesses. Yet while progress marches on, the neigh­bor­hood of Huashiy­ing (化石营, lit­er­ally “Bar­racks of Fos­sils”), also known as Guan­dong­dian (关东店) af­ter the nearby thor­ough­fare, clings im­prob­a­bly to a pre­car­i­ous ex­is­tence in the shadow of some of the city’s most iconic struc­tures.

De­spite an im­mi­nent demise re­ported as far back as 2008—when the gov­ern­ment made the erad­i­ca­tion of im­pro­vised build­ings and makeshift util­i­ties, known as “shed ar­eas” (棚户区), an ur­ban pri­or­ity—this war­ren of shanties, shops, and lo­cal cul­ture per­sists, wedged awk­wardly near Bei­jing’s East­ern Third Ring and the gleam­ing steel and glass of the Cen­tral Busi­ness Dis­trict (CBD).

And the sur­vival of cen­tral Bei­jing’s last ur­ban vil­lage seems even more im­pres­sive as the forces of moder­nity and or­der rip the heart from the hu­tong of Dongcheng and back­streets of Chaoyang. But for how long?

Only a few hun­dred me­ters across at its widest point, Huashiy­ing is a throw­back neigh­bor­hood, a win­dow into a not-so-re­cent past when Bei­jing ac­com­mo­dated both mon­u­men­tal mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture and vi­brant lo­cal neigh­bor­hoods. It is also the kind of or­ganic com­mu­nity as equally re­viled by overzeal­ous ur­ban plan­ners in China as ro­man­ti­cized by vis­i­tors from afar.

It is an im­promptu com­mu­nity of im­pro­vised build­ings and makeshift util­i­ties. Elec­tric and ca­ble lines criss­cross over­head, con­nect­ing build­ings with hastily rigged boxes which would defy code even in China. Wa­ter blad­ders, col­ored black to at­tract the sun’s heat, adorn rooftops, their noz­zles dan­gling through win­dows and homedrilled aper­tures to pro­vide at least a sem­blance of in­door plumb­ing and hot wa­ter to the build­ing’s res­i­dents.

Oc­cu­pied by the 3501 Cloth­ing Fac­tory the last 60 years, the neigh­bor­hood is osten­si­bly still home to its re­tired work­ers. How­ever, al­most all the rooms and shops are sub­let to mi­grants from China’s in­te­rior. This is the turnof-the-mil­len­nium Bei­jing that plan­ners are work­ing hard to erad­i­cate: The An­hui aun­tie with the cloth­ing store; the girls from Dong­bei in the sketchy bar­ber­shop; the guy from He­bei and his fruit stand.

These neigh­bor­hoods, whether es­tab­lished in al­leys or in­side metropoli­tan blocks of a more re­cent vin­tage, have long been the first stop for ru­ral work­ers seek­ing a bet­ter life in the cap­i­tal. They were—and, to the ex­tent al­lowed in to­day’s cap­i­tal, still are—footholds for dream­ers and the des­per­ate alike to build a fu­ture in one of the most dy­namic cap­i­tals in the world.

But those dreams grow in grime. As with the hu­tong neigh­bor­hoods of Bei­jing’s old in­ner city, life in Huashiy­ing

HUASHIY­ING IS A THROW­BACK NEIGH­BOR­HOOD, A WIN­DOW INTO A NOT-SO-RE­CENT PAST

is one of pri­va­tion. Pub­lic bath­rooms are a throw­back, and not in a pleas­ant way, to a time when re­strooms looked like the scat­o­log­i­cal apoc­a­lypse of the Rag­narök, as imag­ined by Jackson Pol­lock.

Rows of old-world brick houses in the cen­ter, for­merly the fac­tory’s dor­mi­to­ries, func­tion as an­chors for the makeshift (and likely il­le­gal) struc­tures sur­round­ing them. In­side, dark stair­cases wind past open doors. Swal­lows nest be­tween floors, ven­tur­ing out, like their hu­man neighbors, in ever-ex­pand­ing sor­ties to bring back life’s ne­ces­si­ties. Huashiy­ing is a con­ve­nient nest­ing spot, near enough to one of Bei­jing’s ever-in­creas­ing epi­cen­ters of pros­per­ity yet tol­er­ant of all, re­gard­less of means. There are few quar­ters in down­town Bei­jing will­ing to al­low nest­ing birds in the apart­ment hall­ways. The same could be said about af­ford­able hous­ing for the cap­i­tal’s ever-fluc­tu­at­ing mi­grant pop­u­la­tion.

But life goes on. In the evening, the streets come alive;

NEIGHBORS SMOKE AND DRINK, YOUNG WOMEN GOSSIP IN DOOR­WAYS, GLANC­ING FURTIVELY AT MALE PASSERS-BY

peo­ple wait un­til the last pos­si­ble mo­ment to re­turn to dark and dreary rooms. Chil­dren play out­side, dodg­ing carts and bi­cy­cles. Men smoke and drink, green bot­tles emp­tied of cheap beer ly­ing by their feet like fallen sol­diers. Young women gossip in door­ways, glanc­ing furtively at male passers-by.

From above, one can see build­ings crowded to­gether in im­prob­a­ble ge­ome­tries. A sign in the al­ley lead­ing into the neigh­bor­hood warns of fumes from un­safe meth­ods of heat­ing; one fears what a sin­gle match might do. Amid the jumble, a lone tree rises from a roof, the sur­round­ing shanties built tightly around the trunk, the roots bur­row­ing into the foun­da­tion. China is fa­mous for its “nail houses” (钉子户), lone hold­outs against de­mo­li­tion, stick­ing up de­spite at­tempts to tear them down. The tree is a poignant metaphor for the whole block, a “nail tree” at the heart of a “nail neigh­bor­hood.”

“There’s a rough qual­ity,” says Jens Schott Knud­sen, an at­tor­ney and pho­tog­ra­pher who has lived near Huashiy­ing for five years. “But you get a sense that it’s a real com­mu­nity.” Knud­sen’s pho­to­graphs cap­ture the stark con­trasts of Bei­jing’s some­times-hap­haz­ard de­vel­op­ment. “You have these shan­ty­towns, and in the back­ground is some of the most ex­pen­sive real es­tate in the city.”

Bei­jing’s ur­ban plan­ners cer­tainly have Huashiy­ing in their crosshairs, yet it’s not en­tirely clear why no­body has pulled the trig­ger. Lo­cal scut­tle­butt ranges from the area ben­e­fit­ing from the pa­tron­age (or at least the pa­tience) of an in­flu­en­tial landowner, to the neigh­bor­hood’s faintly pre­pos­ter­ous rep­u­ta­tion as a place for pow­er­ful men to qui­etly stash mis­tresses. A more likely ex­pla­na­tion is that the land has sim­ply be­come too ex­pen­sive to de­velop.

The 0.01 square-kilo­me­ter CBD plot on which Bei­jing’s tallest sky­scraper, the China Zun Tower, is cur­rently near­ing com­ple­tion was pur­chased by

“THERE’S A ROUGH QUAL­ITY, BUT YOU GET A SENSE THAT IT’S A REAL COM­MU­NITY”

the CITIC Group for an as­ton­ish­ing 6.3 bil­lion RMB; that was in 2010. In 2016, China Real Es­tate News re­ported that “Cen­tury City,” a com­plex of shops, of­fices and high­end apart­ment, would be built over Huashiy­ing.

Just un­tan­gling own­er­ship could prove a lengthy ob­sta­cle. In 2011, de­vel­op­ers sued dis­grun­tled Ts­inghua Uni­ver­sity fac­ulty mem­bers who de­clined an of­fer of 2.4 bil­lion RMB to va­cate a cam­pus in the CBD, even af­ter the uni­ver­sity ap­proved the deal. The same year, new reg­u­la­tions on ur­ban de­vel­op­ment banned ex­pro­pri­a­tions un­less they were for “the pub­lic good,” ef­fec­tively making pri­vate projects like Cen­tury City il­le­gal.

At one of Huashiy­ing’s many cheap eater­ies, the staff spec­u­late about the fu­ture. “So many of Bei­jing’s neigh­bor­hoods have been de­mol­ished,” says one. “Some­day this will be too. But no­body knows when. It’s how it is in Bei­jing right now.”

Like their brick homes, Huashiy­ing’s older res­i­dents are made of stur­dier stuff. “We’re the orig­i­nal houses in the neigh­bor­hood—they want to move us, but they can’t af­ford it,” says Ms. Li, who lived in the neigh­bour­hood for half a cen­tury. She has fam­ily all over the city, but doesn’t fore­see her­self leav­ing.

“Dong­daqiao [bus ter­mi­nal] is right

next to us, and I can go any­where from here,” she says. “This wasn’t al­ways so de­vel­oped, but then they built the sky­scrapers they cov­ered us up—so we be­came the ‘ugly’ parts.”

Even­tu­ally, this heart of Bei­jing is ex­pected to serve as the jewel at the cen­ter of Jing-jin-ji (京津冀), a cen­trally planned mega­lopo­lis which will com­bine the cap­i­tal with the nearby city of Tian­jin. The sur­round­ing coun­try­side of He­bei (the ‘Ji,’ af­ter one of the province’s old names) will sprout com­mu­ni­ties in­tended to sat­isfy the res­i­den­tial, com­mer­cial, and in­dus­trial de­mands of the re­gion.

In this vi­sion of a well-reg­u­lated ur­ban space—pop­u­la­tion 80 mil­lion or, to put it in other terms, Ger­many—bei­jing’s city cen­ter will be a “po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural zone.” No­body re­ally knows what that means, and the mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment is be­ing vague on the par­tic­u­lars, per­haps de­lib­er­ately so. But the mass cam­paign to brick up and over small busi­nesses, many of which, to be fair, were op­er­at­ing with­out busi­ness li­censes or in il­le­gal spa­ces, sug­gests it will be, above all, an or­derly city.

In the bat­tle be­tween or­ganic—and pos­si­bly messy—lo­cal cul­ture and the state’s re­lent­less fetishiza­tion of a san­i­tized moder­nity, it seems de­press­ingly clear that Bei­jing will in­deed be­come a cleaner, more or­derly and tidy, but al­to­gether less in­ter­est­ing city.

The denizens of Huashiy­ing do not seem to worry much about forces be­yond their con­trol. Sev­eral said sim­ply that they don’t know when they will be forced to move, but they’re ex­pect­ing the worst.

“It’s hung on for so long,” says Knud­sen, “But it’s hard to imag­ine where the city’s go­ing now that it can pos­si­bly last much longer.” Un­til that time comes, this tiny ur­ban vil­lage en­dures, an in­con­ve­nient re­minder of Bei­jing’s di­verse past, with lit­tle hope of in­clu­sion in its brave new fu­ture.

“EVEN THOSE ON THE VERY EDGE OF SO­CI­ETY HAVE THEIR DIG­NITY”

Small busi­nesses, many of them un­li­censed, serve the lo­cal mi­grant com­mu­nity rare singly in­crea rs, , vendo al­leys -side the Street cen­ter , line for ’s sities Bei­jing neces in cost glow- of­ferin nts re­side

Ram­shackle spa­ces of­fer af­ford­able rents for lo­cal busi­ness, like this key-cut­ting and shoe-re­pair work­shop

Im­pro­vised store­fronts are in­creas­ingly seen as an ur­ban blight by city plan­ners

The com­mu­nity is home to many for­mer fac­tory work­ers who have lived there for decades

Tra­di­tional-style roofs, in­creas­ingly rare in Bei­jing, are sur­rounded by mod­ern apart­ment blocks

A woman walks past a lo­cal relic— a scrapped Xiali model taxi cab

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