Why the hell NOT!

Article Gary Wood

‘Why do you go there?’ is a question I am asked often by Chinese people. My reply to this question is always the same; ‘Why the hell not!’

We are talking about my journeys to the Cheng Zhong Cun (城中村).

For those who don’t know what Cheng Zhong Cun is, it basically translates as ‘Village within a city.’ Let me give you an example. Imagine you are walking past Xiao Zhai Saga Mall and you notice the area has a good level of urban development and infrastructure that functions well. This is how we expect a big city like Xi’an to be, right? However, imagine you head west from this area and you arrive at Ji Xiang Cun and decide to head down a back alley off the beaten track. You are suddenly greeted with neon lights advertising things such as watch repair, key cutting services, noodle restaurants, and pool halls. The buildings around you are no longer the giant 32-storey apartment complexes we see popping up everywhere, but instead you are surrounded by buildings that are packed tight together and are approximately 6 – 8 storeys in height. These are the areas referred to as Cheng Zhong Cun.

Let’s move back to the question posed at the beginning of this article and allow me to elaborate on it a little further: ‘Why do you go there?’

To begin with, I’ve lived in Xian almost 9 years now and when first arriving I remember seeing these small communities dotted around the city, but never really made the effort to venture in and explore. I was more interested in the Bell Tower, Muslim Street, Big Goose Pagoda, and dare I admit it, Park Qin! However, as time went by I realized that many of the old neighborhoods I would walk past were slowly getting tore down and replaced by shopping plazas or giant apartment complexes. Eventually, after 2 – 3 years living in Xian, I decided to go in to one of the dense alleyways and I was blown away with what I saw.

It is true in my experience that many Chinese aren’t too struck on these neighborhoods and often see them as an eye sore. None the less, I believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and where many will see dilapidated buildings and dirty alley ways, I see vibrancy, community and history. I see vibrancy as the packed alleyways have so much going on and are one of the only true places left in the city where street food vendors and hawkers aren’t told to ‘Move on’; I see community as many of the businesses operating here are family-owned, established with the locals, and are ran by people whose families have lived in that community for generations; I see history because these places are an example of the rapid urban development that is swallowing the old communities which once made up the bulk of our wonderful city.

Xi’an isn’t the only place in China to contain these Cheng Zhong Cun communities. Shenzhen has, or at least did, have a plethora of these small neighborhoods before it went through its massive scale of urban development. Apparently Dongguan is also full of them. What do these cities have in common? Huge numbers of migrant workers.

The Cheng Zhong Cun are areas where many migrant workers who flood into the city, and make a massive contribution to the economic development of the country, are able to locate cheap and affordable accommodation. The Cheng Zhong Cun are like a city within a city, containing everything many of the migrant workers may need such as cheap eateries, public showers, and army surplus style stores that can provide clothing and equipment for the massive number of construction workers living there. Many of the rental properties aren’t necessarily registered or the most attractive, yet a blind eye is often turned to this (and rightly so!) as it means the much-needed economic migrants who move around the country can find a place to stay and work.

Since time is passing quick and these communities are on the decline, I have recently taken it on myself to visit one of these places every couple of weeks, take photos and upload them to a new web-site I’ve created (https://beautifulchina.weebly.com). I’ve decided to do this as a means to record and preserve a tiny element of Chinese culture that is slowly fading away. As the country develops at breakneck speed, these small tightly knit communities are on the decline and are being replaced with soulless apartment complexes, or shopping plazas housing TNC’s such as Zara, Starbucks and Uniqlo. Although arguments can be made for these TNC’s moving in and providing benefits like pension schemes and professional job training, I believe it would be a shame to let these small communities vanish into history.

I am appealing for anyone out there who has ventured through these communities in the past and has photos they would like to share, to please get in touch via my web-page. I would of course credit any person who provides pictures, and if people so wish, it would be great to meet up and venture into these communities with other like-minded individuals who are also passionate about them.
These communities may not be the most aesthetically pleasing, they may not be the cleanest, but their sense of community is unrivalled by any of the giant apartment complexes found throughout the city. Like I said earlier, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I find these communities to be nothing short of beautiful.

Gary is a Brit who has lived in Xian for almost 10 years. He can be contacted via his web-page: beautifulchina.weebly.com