Trying to save a neighborhood

By Carine Chen

A slim, 65-year-old man shows up in the Xiancun’s ancestral hall at 10 a.m. every day. Stepping into the house with a hunched back, he is Yi Xing, who studied art at Jinan University. He grew up in Xiancun and is regarded as the Mr. Know-It-All of this small neighborhood in Guangzhou.

After retirement, he wakes up at 7 a.m. to take a walk and do sports in the community park. In his spare time, he goes to the ancestral hall to meet friends, drinking tea and chatting.

“In recent years, many people I know in the neighbor moved away from Xiancun one after another. People in the hall are my only friends in this neighborhood,” Yi said. When talking about this, Yi feels like that he is proud of having precious friends, but seems to be sad because of people leaving.

In Yi’s memory, Xiancun is a perfect place for him to live six years ago. The neighborhood is near the central business district of downtown Guangzhou. Although his house is shabby, every Cantonese regards Xiancun as a wonderful community due to its excellent location. What’s more, Xiancun has a long history that contains his whole life experience.
However, nowadays the neighborhood is not it used to be. Many places are broken down. Dilapidated buildings stand in the community. Walls of the neighborhood are plastered with demolition logos. Fewer and fewer people do business there because of the government’s demolition plan from six years ago.

“Xiancun has an 800-year history but lost its unique energy from then on,” Yi said and shook his head disappointedly.

What Yi talked about is the event that happened on Aug. 13, 2010. Because of the Asian Games, the Guangzhou government took many measures to improve the city’s image. At the time, the government began to consider a demolition plan.

Residents didn’t enter into an agreement with the government for a long time since the compensation was too low. In 2010, the market price in Xiancun was ¥20,000 per square meter, about $280 per square foot. However, the compensation given by the government was ¥250 per square meter, about $3.50 per square foot, less than residents’ expectation. Only 28 percent of the residents signed the reconstruction contract. The residents thought the officials would continue to negotiate with them because the reconstruction couldn’t happen unless 80 percent of the residents agreed to sign their names.

Unexpectedly, at midnight on Aug. 13, 2010, the Guangzhou government sent near 5,000 police and public security forces to encircle the neighborhood.

“I had already fallen asleep that night but woke up because of the noise outside. I opened the window and found that I was surrounded by police,” Yi recalled. “They seemed to want to destroy the neighborhood, and I can do nothing but try my best to defend my house.”

Police tore down a parking lot in 2010 in the neighborhood of Xiancun in Guangzhou.

The police came without notice, and they used shields, tear gas and nightsticks to disperse people. As for the residents, they took small stones and sticks to fight. The battle lasted for nearly four hours. Finally, the government tore down Xiancun’s parking lot.

People in the Xiancun were angry at the actions of the Guangzhou government. However, the Guangzhou Demolition Office claimed the government got over 80 percent of residents’ permissions, so their actions followed legal procedures. Also, the government worked hard to keep the event out of the official media. Even though residents, including Yi, are dissatisfied with the government, they all knew that the government is not the only reason for the reconstruction dilemma.

“If we could get the compensation in time according to the agreement, the current situation of Xiancun should be better, but the reality is not ideal,” the doorkeeper of the ancestral hall, Lao Hui, said

Many residents think local officials should take the main responsibility of the current dilemma instead of the government because they took the liberty to sell the land to many real estate companies at an extremely low price, including the Poly Real Estate Group Co.
These charges of collusion between local officials and business people gave rise to the discontent.

After a few years of public disclosures, residents finally found out about the process. In August 2013, local officials were under investigation. Then, the Guangzhou Discipline Inspection Department and Prosecutorial Department found the deputy mayor, Cao Jianliao, had accepted bribes. Also, the deputy secretary of the Guangzhou Collaboration Office, He Jixiong, and the local officials in Xiancun were forced out from their position.

Time passed, and the reconstruction still didn’t go smoothly. On one hand, the residents don’t have enough confidence in the government. On the other hand, residents want to protect the 800-year history of the neighborhood.

“The government should come up with some programs that can not only reconstruct Xiancun but also protect its cultural deposits and history,” Yi said.

Now, about 40,000 people live in Xiancun, including about 30,000 migrant workers and their children. The cheap rent is the reason why they are willing to stay in the neighborhood. When parents go out to work, these migrant laborers children play in the vacant buildings. They are free from care and regard these places like a playground.

Watching children’s smiles, Yi often wonder if these kids would remember the memories of Xiancun.

Sometimes, Yi wanders through Xiancun, looking at the sharp comparison between Zhujiang New Town and this small neighborhood. The dilemma of Xiancun’s reconstruction often makes him thoughtful.

“I hope that Xiancun can develop like other neighborhoods in downtown. However, I’m not willing to witness that the neighborhood I grow up in is broken down and disappears, and then many new buildings will rise straight from the ground without any trace of Xiancun’s history,” Yi said.

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