polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Zhuhai’s Disappearing Village

by Natalia Echeverri

In a recent post, I included some pictures of Shenzhen in 1980 (similar to the one above), just a few years after the establishment of the Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Thirty years later, these images of a car-free fishing village have been erased by a towering metropolis.

During a recent visit to Zhuhai, I found an area where a similar anachronistic scene still exists. On the western edge of the city, across the river from Macao, a former fishing and trading village now sits quietly behind construction walls — a ghost-town swept up by development. Large tracts of the settlement have already been razed. Intact blocks have been colonized by tropical house plants. Other streets bustle, only with demolition workers.

Nonetheless, there is also a sign of resistance. Someone has their laundry out to dry. An old woman peers at us from a dark window. Sprinkled along streets of mostly bricked-in homes, some inhabitants refuse to leave. It is unclear what the future of this site will be.

Many villages in southern China, swallowed by urban sprawl, develop organically as villages in the city (VICs). VICs are vital to migrant laborers in need of cheap housing, but are often unimaginably dense and without proper infrastructure. But as lessons are learned by urban planners, urban villages like those in Zhuhai are being more carefully integrated into the city plan. Unfortunately, this is often done to the benefit of developers more than the villagers or migrants.

Zhuhai, a city in the Pearl River Delta across the border and river from Macao, markets itself as a "Chinese Riviera" for recreation and leisure. Like Shenzhen, it became one of China's five SEZs in the early 1980s and was one of the few small fishing villages in a largely agriculture land. Although now a modern city, the transformation still lags behind that of Shenzhen — a recognizable "world city" with a population of nearly 10 million.

But as the images above suggest, Zhuhai is on the verge of a larger transformation. Macao, its neighboring SAR, has only recently developed as a world-class tourist destination and is growing as rapidly as the Chinese middle class. The effects of this will certainly spill over into Zhuhai. What's more, a mega-infrastructure project is under way to connect Zhuhai directly to Hong Kong with a bridge and tunnel across the Pearl River Bay (a route only traversed by ferry now). This connection will be anchored in Zhuhai by a new CBD and plans for service and tourism growth.

The villages in the city will inevitably be lost in this growth. But let's hope there is a way to preserve their vitality, their source of affordable and accessible housing, their pedestrian scale and community spaces, and their open and entrepreneurial spaces.

Credits: Photo of Shenzhen in 1980 by Leroy W. Demery, Jr. Photos of Zhuhai by Natalia Echeverri.