Every half hour, every weekend, the Wuqing (武清) high speed railway station fills to bursting point with newly arrived passengers. It’s a 20-minute trip on the bullet train, and a flyover pass decorated with Romanesque statues channels them over to “Florentia Village”, the biggest outlet mall in North China. Built with an investment of one billion RMB, it is meant to resemble a “16th century Italian town”, with its winding alleyways, a “Roman Square”, and an artificial river complete with gondolas. Middle class shoppers pack the alleyways and stream into their favorite designer shops—Gucci, Prada, and Coach. In 2014, a new shopping center “Venice City” sprang up right beside “Florentia”. Under and beyond these monuments to consumerism is the ghost of communities that vanished to make way for modernity—the specter at the food court.
For outsiders, the mall is perhaps the only major attraction of Wuqing. Administratively belonging to Tianjin City, Wuqing District is only 60 kilometers away from Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road. Wuqing’s governmental website prides itself on its location as “at the very heart of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area”. Compared to other typical Chinese towns, Wuqing is surprisingly clean and well-maintained; the roads are wide and bordered by well-kept lawns, bushes, and trees of different hues. Everything here—roads, lawns, communities, factory buildings, and office buildings—seem to sprawl endlessly into an overwhelmingly expansive, well-planned, and surreal materialist paradise. However, when one leaves Florentia Village, the facade gives way to a sparsely populated rural town of high rises.
Real estate buildings spring up on land that once held villages and their people
“Ever since 2000, Wuqing has taken urbanization as its development strategy,” the district’s government website claims triumphantly. “Over the past few years, Wuqing dismantled over five million square meters of villages, which contained over 100 streets. Over 100,000 residents were turned into urban residents, and their identity, lifestyle, and administration have been fundamentally changed.”
The government does not mention how many villages were dismantled or what their names were; rather, they are looked upon at a macro level—streets and square meters to be carved up for profit—a good argument to be sure but one that is never had: the urbanization of rural areas. As the process of urbanization is pushed triumphantly onwards, it becomes increasingly clear that it is presented as a half-told story, with entire communities gone in a flash.
“There were 16 villages,” says 49-year-old Li Shuling positively. For the past two years Li has worked the night shift at Yonghe Soy Milk, a Chinese fast food franchise. She is short, energetic, and like most villagers she gets her information through gossip. “The village Florentia Village is built upon was called Liangzhuang. My village was called Danangong.” Danangong literally means the “big south palace”, a rather grand name for a village that could be built over without anyone noticing. “Now all the villagers of the 16 villages are concentrated in three communities—the Xin Community, the He Community, and the Jing Community.”
A village that remains on the edge of the Wuqing “urbanized” area;
the red characters advertise gravestone inscription. Authorities are
intent on reforming village burial practices, and where the deceased
would have been buried in a private field, they must now rest in a
These three communities are “relocation apartments” (回迁房), and they are massive. Each community consists of 81 buildings that look exactly the same, block after block of exactly the same structures. For these originally rural residents, merely picking their building out of the sprawling identical landscape seems a daunting task.
Liu Guihua now works as a cleaning lady for her own block. She protested fiercely when her son tried to persuade her to move into their new apartment on the 17th floor of the new community. Her biggest fear was that she might never learn how to use the elevator, and this was not an uncommon fear among her neighbors. In the humble beginnings of this burgeoning community, it was quite common for a tan-faced, middle-aged man to rush in, look the button board up and down, and anxiously and helplessly ask: “Is it going up or down?”
But, now in their third year of residence, most of the patrons can manage quite well, and many appreciate the merits of life in a building. The heating system and the sewage system delight everyone who had varied experiences with both in their previous accommodations; heating a high-ceilinged village home was almost impossible, and many of their toilets were built at the other end of their yards without proper (or sometimes any) sewage treatment infrastructure.
Middle-class shoppers swarm Florentia Village, often unaware of the people displaced for their shopping sprees
Wuqing is a town built for cars, and outside these ad hoc communities the roads are wide and bare, no restaurants, no convenience stores. However, those with a bit of business nous quickly started to make a living by selling things from their apartments, and one can get everything they need from these makeshift home stores without ever leaving their community: buying vegetables, renovation services, hairstyling, and more. It appears that, in those listless, identical buildings, a new community has evolved; a self-sufficient organism. They know where to buy vegetables, pancakes and buns, where the barber and the hardware store is, where one can buy curtains. The stores never have signs, but the villagers know them by heart; and when they do get confused, they just need to go into the elevator, which is coated in layer after layer of handwritten numbers and addresses—a sort of community all-in-one yellow pages and information desk.
Despite their surprising and inventive evolution in this new life, the villagers often feel fundamentally frustrated. What bothers Li most is that now every household locks its doors. As she speaks, everyone around nods gravely, sharing the same antipathy of closed doors in the corridors of their residential flats.
“The Life Relocated” is a feature story from our latest issue, “Law”. To continue reading, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.