Monday, August 25, 2008

Postcard from Guangzhou

GUANGZHOU — Sanyuanli Village, located in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, is proud of its standing in modern Chinese history. During the first Opium War (1839-1842), villagers here successfully routed the British soldiers from the area. As I walked through the village this week, several local residents reminded me of that old battle, pointing out that, at the village’s front entrance, stands an obelisk commemorating the courage of the local "martyrs" who pushed back "British imperialism."

"There are about 50,000 residents here today," one of the residents told me as I walked through a narrow alleyway that led me from one end of the village to the other, a walk that took about 20 minutes. "And many are the descendants of those who fought the British."

But Sanyuanli does not feel like a traditional “village” anymore. Up until 30 years ago, the area was still an agricultural area where all houses were actual one-story village homes. But ever since China introduced the economic reforms in 1978, migrant workers from other provinces began to pour into the Guangzhou area looking for work. Many of them settled in Sanyuanli.

As a result, living units (see video) were stacked one on top of another. Separated only by the narrow walkways from the original village layout, these makeshift four-story towers are so close together that one architectural writer has called places such as Sanyuanli “handshake villages”—where living units are so close to each other that residents can literally shake hands with neighbors. And the view on the ground is also different now: in some corners the living units have blocked sunlight completely, though the liveliness of the barber shops, snack stalls, and internet shops seem to remain just as vibrant as ever.


Angilee said...

There's an interesting comment about that word "village" as it applies to Sanyuanli on one of my photos on Flickr. We were struggling with that word a bit -- turns out it is municipal label.

Jacky Peng said...

haha..“三元里抗英”. We learnt it in our primary school history class. The message of this story in our history book is, the people in China was able to beat the foreign invaders, while the corrupted Qing government could only exchange our precious land for peace.

It is said that Guangzhou has 138 "villages in the city". Guangzhou is trying to urbanize or transform these village into part of the city, but there are lots of problems. See this story,