A village waiting to disappear

July 2012

Beihuqu Village is muddy.

Saturday's torrential rain -- Beijing's worst in 60 years -- have transformed the village's dirt roads into oozing troughs of thick wet clay, which makes entering a bit difficult. Eunice (who is wearing flip flops - bad move) and I slog heavily through the wet coffee-colored earth, clumsily wobbling over mud puddles, our SLR cameras swinging from our necks with each off-balance step. Meanwhile, the locals stare. Nobody comes to Beihuqu (北湖渠) unless they really have to. "Tourists?" a local woman scoffs, bewildered, when I explain why we're taking pictures. "Why would any tourist want to come here?"

The truth is, I've come because I want to see a chengzhongcun (城中村), which translates to "urban village" or "village within the city" but really is more like a slum. Nobody recommended Beihuqu to me; I pulled the name out of the appendix of a research paper on Chinese migrant workers. To be honest, I wasn't even sure if the place still existed. Scattered around the outskirts of Beijing, chengzhongcun are concentrated settlements of poor migrant workers who come to the city from other provinces in the hopes of finding work. If these cun get in the way of urban development, like a new highway or airport or shopping mall, then they get destroyed. They are ephemeral, transitory ghettoes.

I enter the village and I notice its strange stillness. Strolling through the muddy roads, I spot a few people doing chores, and some others milling aimlessly about. But aside from the shrill rattle of crickets in the scorching summer heat, there is little commotion, little energy.

In an already poor country, Beihuqu is by far the most run-down place that I've seen in China. Plywood paneling hastily nailed to empty window frames and old plastic tarps serve as protection from the dust; mountains of untreated trash - old instant noodle boxes, plastic bags, beer bottles - litter every sidewalk, piling high next to old couches missing the cushions and mattresses with gaping holes so that you can see the rusted springs. Kids run around in the street, playing with whatever junk they can find. I see two small children entertaining themselves by repeatedly trapping a small dog inside the compartments an overturned wardrobe.

Why do people live in places like Beihuqu? It's not as simple as a question of poverty. Most Chinese migrants are barred from obtaining proper urban living conditions because they lack an urban hukou, or "household registration". A legacy of the Great Leap Forward, the hukou is one of the Communist Party's most important forms of social control, tying eligibility for all sorts of public services, such as health care, education and housing, to the place you were born. So, if you're a migrant from the countryside and you have a rural hukou, and you come to a place like Beijing and you want to see a doctor, or send your kids to public school, or get subsidized housing, you are what we officially call "shit outta luck".

In effect, this creates a underclass of transient urban migrants who are basically allowed to come to the city and provide the cheap labor that fuels China's economic growth, but are legally barred from receiving any of the social welfare pie. And that's where the chengzhongcun come in. Shady, crappy, and temporary, they are perfect for migrants who think that they can just cash in then peace out. But increasing numbers, trapped by destitution, end up staying, forming small, impoverished communities nestled within China's increasingly prosperous urban centers. These are people of the chengzhongcun. They are the forgotten ones.

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So I decide to talk to some of the residents. I approach an older lady, resting in the shade with her infant grandson. Ni hao, I say. Keyi wen ni yi xie wenti ma? (Can I ask you a few questions?) She tells me her story, and I understand bits and pieces. She's originally from Henan province, she explains, but has now lived in Beihuqu for thirty years. I ask her why people move to Beihuqu, and she scoffs. "Nobody's coming to Beihuqu any more. This place is a disaster. Look at these streets," she says, gesturing at the muddy mess before us. "Look at the quality of life here. People have given up on this place." I ask to take her picture, but she waves her hand no.

There is a house across the street with "For Rent" scrawled in black on the wooden door. I ask the owner how much; he tells me three hundred fifty yuan a month ($58), but glances skeptically at my silver camera as if to say, "come on, what's your deal?" Nearby I notice shirtless men sitting on the sidewalk's edge, watching me. They have large dragon tattoos that cover their entire chest. Gang members.

Making our way down a side street, Eunice's flip flops get stuck in the mud, and an old man with a big straw hat starts laughing at us. "This isn't bad," he says, "look at my house." My jaw drops. His living room is filled with at least three inches of thick, creamy mud, with an improvised path shoveled out through the middle. Even the floor of the adjacent bedroom is covered. "How did this happen?" I ask him incredulously. He shrugs and smiles, as if genuinely amused by his shitty luck. "When the rain came, the mud washed in." I detect not a single trace of urgency, stress, or anger in his voice. I realize the village feels like a place trapped out of time.

We trundle into the town grocery and I buy two popsicles (1 RMB each), as an excuse to strike up a conversation with the shopkeeper, a younger woman wearing a polka dotted blouse. When I introduce myself as a foreign student she jumps to her feet, lowering her head respectfully.

"I've been here for two years now," she says slowly, explaining that she's originally from Jiangsu province, without any family. "Everyone here is a migrant. People come here to look for work in the city. But now the government is slowly demolishing Beihuqu. So nobody really comes here any more."

She pauses, and looks out the window for a moment. The sun illuminates the curve of her face. She's can't be more than twenty-five.

"I can't say I like it here," she says, finally. "I wish I could go somewhere else." It's obvious, though, that she can't.

The afternoon unwinds slowly. Beihuqu is stuck in the mud.