The red circled characters on the walls, chai qian 拆迁, are a ubiquitous sign in China’s ageing neighbourhoods. Urban renewal projects have seen a prolonged and systematic eradication of old neighbourhoods and urban villages, most admittedly in sad disrepair. In their place, the widening of paths and roads, perhaps a new transit line, but often the construction of new apartment complexes resulting in urban gentrification replacing pockets of much maligned ‘urban-sprawl’.
It is a process intimately linked to the growth at the heart of China’s economy and the notion of property as both a form of cultural currency and investment in for the future. Seen by almost all as win-win: house owners get a pay-off for their share of the dilapidated tenement (or a new place to live in a more remote part of town), local governments get to sell land use rights to mega-developers, and the burgeoning middle class get to live in a handsome new complex close to transport and schools. That’s the narrative.
In Changqing town, on the edge of the cities older city center, an extension of the metro system and a program of urban renewal encircling one of the most prestigious universities in the country has sounded its death knell. Little now remains of this once densely close-nit community of compact houses, winding lanes and shop lined alleyways. Half the town has been levelled, its presence already been wiped from online maps. Half demolished buildings stand as a stern reminder to the fool hardy that remain. Most of the buildings have had the gas turned off, meaning cooking, and heating as winter approaches, have become a game of survival.
The remaining residents still till its community gardens, the local tailor mends a few garments each day, the community washing machines lay mostly idle, and almost all of the stores have been shut. Peering inside, the cramped single story pingfang 平房 are like tiny time capsules filled with the detritus of peoples lives.
Gone too is the sense of community. The friends and social connections formed through communal living and patronising local businesses have been broken, replaced instead with a sense of uncertainty about the future – to stay and find somewhere close by or relocate to an entirely new location on the fringe of the city? Finding a sense of belonging in the fast moving modern China is as great a challenge as finding a new place to live. A great leap many here are afraid to make.