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October 21, 2011

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'Container villagers' face being moved on

IN a roadside settlement where all the "buildings" are freight containers, Xiao Hunquan stepped out of his home into the dust-filled air, clutching a government notice bringing bad news.

The same notice is pasted to each container, or what Xiao calls "moving castles" - a nod to Japanese animated movie Howl's Moving Castle.

It states: "You must leave with your illegal container homes within seven days as they have damaged the environment and threaten public safety, or you will face forced relocation and bear all the consequences."

For more than four years, Xiao and another dozen non-local people - migrant workers, vehicle repairman, businessmen and cooks - have been living in and running small businesses from their containers by Jiangdong Road in Pudong.

Truck containers have been modified into stores, restaurants, garages and even cheap hostels, gradually forming a "village" serving as a rest station aimed at the thousands of long-distance truck drivers passing each day.

Most residents say they live and work in containers to avoid the city's high rents.

Gaoqiao government officials said they have received many complaints from nearby residents.

They accuse the container dwellers of being noisy and making the area unsafe by bringing hundreds of strangers there every day.

"Relocation," said Xiao, shrugging as he scanned the notice. "For container inhabitants, relocation is the last thing we worry about."

Residents said it would take them less than an hour to relocate, as all they had to do was pack, hitch the container to a truck and move to a new site.

"Wherever land is unoccupied can be our new home," Xiao said.

Residents said a container costs between 10,000 (US$1,566) and 20,000 yuan, and they spend several thousand yuan on fitting it out.

In the city, they could not buy 1 square meter in a residential building for that sum.

But life is tough, the container dwellers admit. "The first thing you have to get used to is the 'sandstorm,'" said 26-year-old Wang Lei from Shandong Province.

"Thousands of container trucks pass every day, bringing dust and noise."

And as the containers are not fitted with bathrooms, inhabitants have to use public toilets and baths.

Moreover, the metal structures are swelteringly hot in summer and unbearably cold in winter, said Wang.

"The bright side is that you don't have to worry about rents and you can have the 'moving shop' go wherever customers need you," said Liu Xueshan, 30, from Shandong who owns a container eatery that brings him around 60,000 yuan a year.

To Gaoqiao government, the container villagers have long been a headache.

"They keep playing hide -and-seek with us," said an official, surnamed Wang. "When we tell them to leave, they obey but days later they settle down at another spot."

Wang said the government was thinking about offering jobs to the container inhabitants so they can live in more conventional homes.

In a truck parking lot on Jiangxinsha Road, some container homes have been torn down, and houses are being built for the container inhabitants, officials said.


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