By Young Yang
One refreshing Thursday afternoon after a rainy morning, two elderly women go to the square in front of the library in Jinan University as usual.
Dong Yi and Wang Huaan have lived for many years in Shipai Village, which was built in 1273 and now is the biggest neighborhood in the downtown area in Guangzhou near the university.
Wang usually sits on the bench, watching children running and parents chasing. Dong takes her soccer ball and MP3. She’s good at juggling football.
Dong is 56. “I can kick shuttlecock for over 2,000 times by my right foot and almost 200 times by the left. Once there was a competition, I participated and won the championship, by increasing the record to 2,730 times,” Dong said. “But it was 10 years ago. Now I can’t do that.”
Dong is younger and more energetic that Wang, 69, and other women of Wang’s age because Dong didn’t do as much farm work as Wang had done. Wang’s knees and back are in a bad condition. She walks slowly and carefully to protect them.
Wang was a farmer before the government expropriated her land for urban planning. In the ’60s, the government took much of the land in Shipai Village to build a new community, including Jinan University, South China Normal University and a racetrack.
The neighborhood changed from crops to brand new schools and race horses, and villagers had to found out another way to live. “I’ve been a barber, a merchant. I sold clothes and socks,” Dong said.
When Dong juggles the soccer ball, he usually enjoys Danny Chan, a famous Cantonese singer at late ’80s and early ’90s. Dong and Wang have never traveled outside of Guangdong Province. “My son runs a little company in Yi Wu; he asked me to move, but I refused,” Wang said. “I lived here for all my life, and I like here.”
Dong and Wang usually use their spare time to pick recyclable bottles and cans to earn extra money.
Contrast the two elderly women with the college graduates and migrant workers who choose to live in Shipai Village. The location is convenient for people who work downtown, and the prices are relatively low.
“I lived in Shipai Village when I was 28 years old after moving to Guangzhou and looking for a job,” Situ Xinhong said. “It was 1999. The rent was ¥300, or less than $60, per month.”
Situ is a computer engineer and owner of a farm in Sinkiang. Situ is now living in an apartment at Huajing New City, which is next to the campus of JNU. “Back then the government was focusing on rebuilding these areas, building the first batch of commercial residential buildings, big malls and the Tianhe Sports Center in the new urban area,” Situ said. “I heard that some villagers received lots of money from the government to make up for their land.”
In the early 1990s, the reform and opening-up policy changed villagers’ life. On the one hand, the economic was booming, and the city was expanding. The change brought money and opportunities. Some villagers left and went north to do business with the money they received from the government.
For the villagers who stayed in Guangzhou, their identities changed. The rural household registration was changed to urban household registration. The urban household registration gave families social welfare, like health insurance, endowment insurance for adults and the ability for children to enter better education facilities.
Wang has spent all of her 69 years life in Shipai Village and has witnessed the changes.
“There was a small lake at the location of that banyan, which has slanting trunks that nearly close to the ground. The place where we played games became this square. The whole teaching building was built on dust and mud. ” Wang said. “It is a great change.”
The pace of development never slows down. According to a city plan, 58 streets in urban villages will be “thoroughly transformed” and 86 streets will be “roundly renovated.” The leader group of the project described Shipai Village as an example of “both proper repair of the old buildings and building new structures in the old style.”
“Shipai Village is one of the most famous urban villages around the world. There are at least a dozen of academic paper discussing this village. One of my former students who studies in France is now working on Shipai Village for his thesis,” Feng Jiang, the subdean of the school of architecture of South China University of Technology, said. “Urban village is not the dark side of the city’s history. It is an uncommon example for studying the development of the city. The value of Shipai Village is irreplaceable.”