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February 24, 2024

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Rising like a phoenix! Breathing new life into city-village symbiotic growth

TWO steamed pomfrets, a plate of wild celery, a dish of scallions cooked with chicken giblets, a bowl of rice, and two pieces of egg-stuffed meatloaf.

On a brisk evening last month, I got these delicacies — enough for my three meals except for rice — for only 34 yuan (US$4.80) from a newly opened rural canteen catering to seniors near and far. In the breakdown, I spent a little over 10 yuan for each meal, which was unimaginable had I patronized even an ordinary urban restaurant.

But I was not the “luckiest” to have such affordable meals. For local villagers aged 60 and beyond in Beixin Village in Shanghai’s suburban Qingpu District, where the well-furbished canteen is located, a more favorable package was available. For example, local senior villagers would pay only 25.50 yuan for what I had bought — 25 percent off the original prices.

“Don’t worry. Although you’re not from our village, you’ll enjoy a 15 percent discount when you turn 60,” an old local villager explained to me with a Duchenne smile — a genuine smile that involves the cheeks and eyes — while patiently helping me package my food into plastic boxes.

“Then, I just have to wait for another two years or so. Not bad,” I said, telling her I will turn 60 in 2026.

“You don’t look that old,” she said with an even broader smile.

I was wearing a thick knit hat, and I suspected she might have thought otherwise had she seen my gray hair. Anyway, I could feel her friendliness toward a stranger.

She said she was 60 years old and could still work, so had got a job at the canteen, responsible for ushering in customers and keeping order, among other things. Every day she walks less than 10 minutes from her home to the canteen.

More and more local senior villagers came to the canteen around 6pm, as I had my food packed. I talked to several villagers aged around 70 who were waiting in an orderly line — the queue was so long that some younger customers had to wait outside in a covered corridor. The elderly villagers told me that the canteen had become something like or better than their own kitchens — service was convenient and food was cheap.

“Our village deposits a certain amount of money in our seniors’ cards, and we may add some more if we want,” said an old female farmer who was waiting next to me. “Food is generally cheap, and you get soups and hot drinking water for free.”

“Do you come to the canteen very often?” I asked her.

“Yeah, I often come here, though not every day,” she replied, with a polite smile typical of a plain and simple farmer.

A senior chef and a middle-aged cashier both told me that the canteen receives several hundred customers on average every day — a heavy “foot traffic” that keeps canteen staff super busy from 6am to 7pm, the opening hours.

Two days later, on a slightly sunny noon, I went to the canteen again, only to find more customers crowding in. I ordered two steamed pomfrets and a bowl of rice again, plus a dish of sliced sausage and a plate of bok choy, a kind of Chinese cabbage. This time I used my own portable food box to pack the lunch set and walked five minutes to a nearby rural forest. It was the first time I had enjoyed lunch in such a rural setting, where birds were chirping amid sunlight filtered through rows of fir trees.

And, as I ate under the warm weather, with tender breeze blowing, at noon, a number of elderly villagers were either walking their dogs or ambling alone in the newly created 5-hectare forest park as a way to exercise after lunch.

A young mother living in a nearby community brought her little daughter, who scampered so happily in the bosom of nature that she didn’t know she had lost a shoe until I reminded her.

By the time I returned to the canteen from a field interview in the afternoon, a man in his 30s was eagerly waiting outside the canteen gate at 3:50pm, 40 minutes before the evening food service would begin. He told me he had rented a farmer’s house in the village and works in the neighborhood in the logistics industry, one of the biggest money-spinners in Huaxin Town, where a number of the country’s major courier service companies are headquartered.

“This canteen relieves me from daily cooking so that I can focus more on work,” he said. It usually takes him seven minutes to walk from his rented home to the canteen.

My subsequent research showed the village has around 2,200 residents, most of them seniors, whose children largely work away from home. In addition, about 6,000 people come from outside the village, renting vacant farmers’ homes to support their work and life in adjacent neighborhoods.

Improving rural landscapes

The 1,000-square-meter canteen opened on January 21, and on that single day, more than 400 customers came, creating a scene of harmonious rural communal life I had long missed.

The newly built rural canteen and forest park signify Huaxin Town’s robust efforts to spruce up its villages, with the 4.2-square-kilometer Beixin Village being a role model. In 2023, the village was elected as one of Shanghai’s beautiful villages for its improved rural landscape and life.

In Songshan Village, separated from Beixin by a dusty highway, several dilapidated factories and warehouses have been dismantled to make way for a future ecological corridor. As I walked through Songshan Village last month, I found it was abundant in wild forests but, in many cases, they were made inaccessible partly because of a few remaining rundown facilities. A government notice on the spot shows that all these ramshackle buildings — symbols of the once-chaotic growth of low-end industries — must be pulled down by May.

What distinguishes Beixin and Songshan from many other villages undergoing similar reforms to spruce up their rural landscapes is that they both sit within a 15-minute walk from the old Fengxi neighborhood, the largest “urban village” under reconstruction in Shanghai.

An “urban village” generally refers to a compressed urban settlement built wholly or partly on former farmland. As the local economy and life gradually lose their luster, such a dense settlement becomes less and less ideal for sustainable growth or living.

Björn Alpermann, professor and chair of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Würzburg in Germany, says “urban villages” come into existence through urban sprawl: When cities expand in the surrounding countryside, the agricultural land is converted while the housing plots of villagers remain untouched.

This view is to some extent echoed by Yang Chuankai, an expert on urban population and rural revitalization from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. In an interview with Xinmin Evening News, published on December 29, Yang explains that “urban villages” are a mixed rural-urban space born from urban sprawl, in which some farmlands are converted into urban landscapes while farmers’ houses remain somewhat intact.

In Fengxi, for example, of the total 2,257 households to be relocated, 504 live in farmers’ houses, while the rest live in different types of buildings, such as commercial apartments or public rental flats. According to the Xinmin Evening News report, it’s a complicated case when it comes to defining the nature and characters of the land and buildings in such an “urban village.”

Fengxi became a famous town about 1,500 years ago, thanks in part to its prosperous Buddhist culture that attracted pilgrims and business people alike. In modern times, it developed fast throughout the 1980s and 1990s as a hub of small businesses, like the manufacturing of luggage.

Since the late 20th century, however, Fengxi has been stuck in the doldrums with an increasingly slack business and an ever more crowded space. Many labor-intensive industries were past their heydays.

Peng Xiuying, a middle-aged woman who had lived in a 40-square-meter flat in Fengxi, told Xinmin Evening News that she could hardly continue to live in her dilapidated room, which often suffered from roof leaks during rainy days.

Many residents shared Peng’s views: They cherish their neighborhood spirit but look forward to moving into new apartments in the future. Xinmin Evening News concluded that the rebuilding of Fengxi, which is expected to take eight to 10 years, will finally see the end of the old ramshackle space characterized by narrow lanes, crowded flats and dirty water flowing here and there.

When I crossed a bridge linking Beixin Village with the 85-hectare old Fengxi neighborhood, I found most former residents of the “urban village” had moved out and many residential and business buildings in dilapidated shapes had been or were being dismantled.

Walking through the debris or between the remaining buildings, I could still see how rundown the “urban village” had become — battered chimneys atop a dilapidated bathhouse, poorly designed houses protruding onto the streets, and factory grounds where polluting trucks used to park.

When Fengxi is reborn in eight to 10 years, it’s expected to become a low-carbon community featuring residential neighborhoods, a Metro line and an idyllic riverside space — all contributing to the creation of a 15-minute walking space that minimizes carbon emissions.

“It’s like planting 447,000 trees every year,” Xinmin Evening News noted, citing official estimates about the effect of energy-saving technologies and designs to be applied in Fengxi’s renovation. Trees can help absorb carbon emissions.

Guo Ge, an expert on urban regeneration, told the newspaper that a rebuilt Fengxi will provide a shot in the arm for rural development. Echoing his view, Lu Weifeng, head of Beixin Village, said recently that Fengxi’s renovation is a boon to the village, which can further develop its rural tourism.

A few days’ field study of Fengxi and nearby villages convinced me that the age of “urban villages” will soon become a thing of the past, as Shanghai is promoting a symbiotic growth of its urban and rural areas. The city began to revamp its “urban villages” in 2014, and by the end of 2022, it had approved 62 “urban village” renovation projects.

The Paper, a leading Shanghai-based news portal, reported last year that the city plans to complete the renovation of all “urban villages” by 2032. What Shanghai has been doing meshes well with an earlier United Nations suggestion that cities can no longer be treated as distinct spaces unconnected with the regions surrounding them.

The UN noted: “The functioning of urban settlements depends on land in the surrounding rural areas for food and water supply ... When carefully managed, rural-urban interactions can result in harmonious regional development outcomes.”

In an increasingly urbanized globe, Fengxi’s reincarnation will go a long way toward redressing the world’s developmental problems by breathing new life into a symbiotic growth of the city and the village.

Coincidentally, the Chinese character for feng (凤) in Fengxi’s name means phoenix, a mysterious bird often associated with legends about reincarnation.


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