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March 31, 2014

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It’s the hard knock life in forgotten ‘villages’

FOR Jin Fengying and her husband, home is a 10-square-meter room where two bunk beds and a wooden table vie with them for space.

The couple are residents of one of Shanghai’s slum neighborhoods, carefully screened from adjacent boulevards and modern high rises by concrete walls. Their neighborhood is called a “village” within the city, but it’s hardly the idyllic place the name suggests.

The narrow lanes lined with back-alley hovels are marked by peeling gray walls, detritus, tangles of overhead electricity wires, washing flapping from clotheslines and the fetid smell of squalor. It’s not a site commonly associated with modern, gleaming Shanghai.

This blight is Shanghai’s urban headache. According to a report by the Shanghai Comprehensive Management Committee published last year, the city has about 104 such “villages” in districts that include Minhang, Yangpu, Baoshan, Putuo, Xuhui and Pudong.

Many of them are former rural communities that were gobbled up in rapid urbanization and then forgotten. Old farmhouses were subdivided into tiny rooms with low rents, and became magnets for poor migrants and criminals.

Jin’s neighborhood, along Zhongyi Road in Minhang, was called Youyi Village in its rural past, but the three blocks of farmhouses that once stood here have been converted into tiny hovels.

Jin is not one to complain. Cramped conditions in her home have eased since her two children left home to look for jobs outside Shanghai.

“My room is luxurious compared to other homes in the neighborhood,” she said.

The couple pays 530 yuan (US$85) a month in rent. Their landlord wants to raise that to 1,000 yuan.

A native of Anhui Province, Jin, 44, earns 1,620 yuan a month working in a private company. Her husband is in the transport business, earning hardly much more. They simply can’t afford anywhere nicer to live.

Her landlord, she said, carved up two two-story houses into 30 small units with a hodgepodge of concrete walls and wooden boards. Most of the tenants, who largely come from poor inland regions of China, work in factories or on construction sites.

“The landlord built some extra rooms from the current houses, but they were condemned as illegal structures by the government and torn down only last week,” Jin said, pointing to a heap of construction waste dumped in a corner of the neighborhood.

Jin’s room is on the edge of the village, facing a relatively wide corridor leading to the street. The location allowed her to build a 1-square-meter “kitchen” closet of planks just outside the entrance. Despite the lack of space, Jin and her husband have managed to squeeze in a television, refrigerator, microwave and fan.

 “Winters are okay because the room is small enough to keep warm,” she said. “But summers can be really hard with so many people. Sometimes our room floods during heavy rains.”

 The units in the neighborhood are separated only by flimsy walls.

 “The neighbors here have no secrets,” Jin said. “I have to listen to my neighbor snoring as well as my husband.”

A few doors down, another couple from Anhui Province lives with their three children in an 8-square-meter room.

“Their room is on the second floor, so they can’t build a ‘kitchen’ and cook for themselves,” she said. “They use a spittoon for a toilet. The home smells foul.”

Jin said theft is common in the village. She never keeps cash on hand for more than a week’s needs. Garbage may pile up for days because sanitation workers rarely venture into the neighborhood.

These “villages,” with their exposed electrical wiring, are extreme fire hazards. Earlier this year a resident died in a neighborhood fire. Poor drainage systems and sanitation can also create potential disease risks.

In Yangpu District, “villages” along Dinghai Road are inhabited by shopkeepers who moved into the area when part of the street was converted into stores. People hang their clothes on the webs of electrical wiring that hang over the back alleys.

In some “villages” in Pudong’s Sanlin area, dilapidated apartments facing streets have been turned into down-market restaurants and shops for tailors, hairdressers, appliance repairmen, card dens and even illegal dental clinics.

Havens for crime

“The city’s image is damaged by these so-called villages,” said Fang Qizhong, a member of the political consultative committee for Pudong.

“Sanitation and safety are only part of the problem. They are havens for crime,” he said.

Fang, who used to live in Pujiang Town in Minhang, is no stranger to life in the “villages.”

“Some neighborhoods have developed their own underground rules, and some residents could be called gangsters.

“They are involved in illegal businesses, like counterfeit goods, drugs and even prostitution. The local management authorities can do little about it,” he said.

As a legal adviser, Fang has submitted proposals to the Shanghai government to try to raise awareness of the need to deal with the slum neighborhoods.

“I can understand that remedying this situation is a long-term battle,” he said.

“Relocating residents will be costly, not to mention the difficulties of cracking the benefit chain of illegal businesses.”

According to the Shanghai Comprehensive Management Committee, the city government has put 11 villages on a reform list this year. Another 20 are expected to be added by the end of next year. The reforms will be “based on the willingness of villagers, the participation of society at large and the rules of market operations,” the government said.

Ni Rong, deputy director of the Shanghai Construction and Management Committee, told the annual session of the Shanghai Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference earlier this year that the city government is aware of the “villages” problem.

However, the problem cannot be corrected overnight, she said.

“We have a habit of blaming government for the problems of urbanization,” said Zhang Letian, professor at Fudan University and an expert on People’s Communes.

“But it’s people who are the key factor. Many of these ‘villagers’ refuse to obey laws and regulations. They persist in believing that the more trouble they cause, the more attention and compensation they may receive from the government.”

Indeed, some property owners in the “villages” have been accused of actively building as many unauthorized additions as they can in the hopes of receiving bigger compensation when the villages are eventually demolished.


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