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A Tale of Villages in the City

GB Geo-Blog

A Tale of Villages in the City

A Tale of Villages in a City

When a municipality expands as rapidly as Guangzhou has, it engulfs surrounding villages.  The result is approximately 138 pockets of rural villages, some encircled by skyscrapers and others lying at the margins of the city.   Locals call them ‘villages in a city’ (城中村) even though some of them hardly resemble rural villages.  Venturing into the ‘village’ of Kangle on foot is like accidentally stumbling into the set for Slumdog Millionaire. The maze-like web of tiny allies is lined with discount shops, illegal garment factories, hair salons, and tricycle buggies.  Kangle even has its own technical school and ancestral worship hall tucked into the allies.  

The spatial landscape reflects the types of informal economic relations at play in these ‘independent kingdoms’ detached from the city’s administration.  When the village was compulsorily bought by the government, local peasants started constructing multi-story buildings as fast as they could, projecting rising property value.  They effectively became 暴发户 (nouveau riche) as they transformed from peasants to landlords renting to migrant workers who can only afford to live in these urban villages.  They also lease to factory bosses who set up make-shift factories where cohorts of single migrant laborers stitch beads onto pleated skirts and punch holes into buttons. 

These ‘black’ (illegal) factories – as they are known to locals – operate without licenses, don’t pay taxes, and don’t offer labor contracts.  Instead, they hire headhunters (包工头) to squat on street corners with cardboard signs advertising temporary positions.  And if labor is temporary and informal, then workers are usually not protected by the Labor Law.  In fact, these black factories can reportedly disappear or shut down without notice, making it impossible to track down who is responsible for a workplace violation.  This form of cheap labor is less visible precisely because it is hidden in the dim allies of urban villages, but it is no less insidious.   

Despite the lack of social welfare and protection, these urban villages lower the bar of entry into the city for migrant workers.  However, the upcoming Asia Games has put pressure on policy-makers to resolve the ‘problem’ of urban villages that are seen as hotbeds for social disorder.  This past summer, the Guangzhou municipal government announced that 138 urban villages are to be reformed over the next decade.  But what this reform effort entails is not clear; it will most likely involve tearing a least a portion of these villages down so that they can be completely integrated into the city.  But doing so would mean that the state would take back the land use right from the village collective then transfer it to real-estate developers.  This could be a fraught process. 

How do you think policy-makers should reform these urban villages?  Share your global insights. 


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  1. Kevin November 5, 2009

    It kind of reminds me of Zhang Li’s book on Zhejiang Village in Beijing. Obviously far from identical to the case you are describing but there are some interesting parallels I think.

    I suppose this process of suburbanisation, if I can call it that, is happening to a lot of Chinese cities. I have personal experience with this so-called urban villages in Beijing. In fact, my grandparents, after they relocated what used to be semi-industrial district of Chaoyang and now the CBD, are currently living in one of the far (or at least, it used to be considered ‘far’ before Beijing expanded outward rapidly in the past decade) south district of Beijing, where a lot of migrant workers live and work.

    I think the whole process of urban transformation should definitely be looked at very closely. My Honours supervisor has done some work on Xiaoqu and master plan; and Zhang Li has written about urban geography in Kunming. It is fascinating.

  2. Diana Fu November 13, 2009

    Yes Indeed. I find that the concept of urban village is very ambiguous because it can apply to not only villages surrounded by a city but also by villages lying on the outskirts of an expanding city like Beijing’s. By the way, have we met before?

  3. Kevin November 13, 2009

    Yes, we met briefly at a conference on construction workers organised by Shen Yuan and Pun Ngai and in Xiaoxiaoniao’s office last summer, and my gmail account linked me through your email to your blog here.

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