The Dark Side of the Miracle: Spectacular and Precarious Accumulation in an Urban Village under Siege (A Photo Essay)

A landscape view of a rural urban area in Xian Village.
Tong Lam, untitled (2013), from the series Where There Is No Room for Fiction. Light box. Prior to the violent confrontation between the authorities and the land-owning villagers in 2010, there were about fifty thousand people—mostly unskilled rural migrants—living in Xian Village. Since then, the population has plunged dramatically as many landowners have accepted the compensation from the government-backed developer out of pressure or fear. Still, by 2013, when this photograph was taken, about 30 percent of the owner households had not yet accepted the compensation package. Those owners continued to rent out their dormitory-style apartments to migrant workers. Courtesy of the artist.

Written and published by Tong Lam

Despite their informal nature, Chinese urban villages are actually part of the infrastructure that institutionalizes and normalizes China's uneven development by providing cheap dormitory-style accommodations to the country's vast army of unskilled rural migrants who flock to cities as precarious laborers. This essay uses an urban village renewal project in the southern city Guangzhou to analyze the politics of eviction, demolition, resistance, and gentrification in light of the region's shift from low-value to high-tech industries.

Abstract

In spite of their informal and substandard nature, Chinese urban villages are actually part of the infrastructure that institutionalizes and normalizes China's uneven development by providing cheap dormitory-style accommodations to the country's vast army of unskilled rural migrants who flock to cities as precarious laborers. This extended photo essay uses an urban village renewal project in the southern city Guangzhou to analyze the politics of eviction, demolition, resistance, and gentrification in light of the region's shift from low-value to high-tech industries. When urban villagers appropriated ideas of tradition, lineage, and socialist collectivism to fight against the government and the developer, their purpose was to acquire greater compensation and even symbolic capital in order to secure an urban middle-class future for themselves. In the process, however, they have further foreclosed the futures of many rural migrants whose survival in the city rely on cheap accommodation in these slum-like enclaves, even though survival in this context often implies dull and dead-end jobs with little prospect of social mobility. Drawing on the author's visual project called Where There Is No Room for Fiction, the selected photographs here provide a visual ethnographic account of the contested landscape of an urban village under siege. As well, these images explore the possibility of a critical aesthetics in order to engage the official vision of urban modernity that is saturated with spectacle and speculation.

Read the full article on the Duke University Press website, here >>

Two boys sitting on rubble by the side of a small water body, across from an unplanned housing complex, looking at their phones, against the night
Tong Lam, untitled (2015), from the series Where There Is No Room for Fiction. Light box. Prior to its urbanization in the 1980s, Xian Village was made up of picturesque farmlands and tranquil fishing ponds. After its partial demolition, the village began to look more like a scene from the dystopian fiction. For migrant renters inside the village, empty lots filled with debris and rubble were the only public spaces available to them. Courtesy of the artist.
young people sitting in a bar in the middle of a informal housing structure, on red-clothes tables and red plastic stools, in a with hazy sunlight coming from the open ceiling above
Tong Lam, untitled (2017), from the series Where There Is No Room for Fiction. Light box. Villagers waiting for their families to arrive for the Lunar New Year banquet in one of the ancestral halls. Because of the government's divide-and-conquer strategy, a discord emerged among Xian villagers. Those who had agreed to the existing compensation packages dined inside the various ancestral halls, whereas those who continued to resist were assigned to dine together in the former schoolyard nearby. Courtesy of the artist.