Monday, February 06, 2006

Feature

Surviving in Beijing's 'Forgotten Corners'
By Josie Liu
South China Morning Post
Feb. 1, 2006

On a cold and windy winter day, the dirt and rubbish sailing through the air force Henan migrant worker Li Min to retreat inside the 10 square metre hut that is her Beijing home.
The basin and water barrel she uses to hand wash her family's clothes takes up most of the free space inside.

The rundown brick-and-tile structure sits on the edge of Taiyanggong, one of more than 300 villages filling the cracks in Beijing's rapidly expanding urban sprawl. Some residents call them the "forgotten corners" of the city, saying: "No one takes care of us. No one sees us."

Ms Li's village, which used to be a rural community on the outskirts of the city, is just a two-minute walk from the North Third Ring Road and only one bus stop from the China International Exhibition Centre. But few city residents venture there.

The woman moved to Taiyanggong in November from another urban village. She lives there with her husband and 10-year-old child. She works as a cleaner in a nearby apartment building and her husband collects scrap material from nearby households.

The room, which costs 100 yuan a month, houses all her essentials - a worn-out queen-size bed, two old closets, a small colour TV her husband found, and scores of coal bricks lined up against a wall. A bag of eggs and some vegetables are stacked up beside the coal. She has to ride a bicycle to get to the nearest public toilet.

A small stove is the only source of heat in the room but despite the sub-zero temperatures, Ms Li says it is not cold.

"It's good to live here, although the house is not as good as that in my home town. We have three rooms back home, but we don't have money. We came here just to make money," she said.

Migrant workers such as Ms Li make up the vast majority of people living in urban villages scattered throughout Beijing, especially in formerly rural districts including Chaoyang and Haidian. An estimated 1.5 million people live in these villages. The simple, one-storey buildings the workers and their families inhabit are leftovers from a time when the surrounding land was used to grow grain or vegetables.

That land was gradually swallowed up by urban development, but the villages were left untouched. Now their mass of old flat houses forms a sharp contrast to the surrounding skyscrapers.

Chen Mengping , chief of the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences' Economics Institute, says some of the pockets of land were left behind because developers did not think it was economically viable to build on them.

"The government should take care of the sites where real estate developers see no profit can be made," Professor Chen said. "Real estate developers pursue profits, but the government should serve the public interest."

He said that in some cases, developers, whether private or public, had acquired the land for construction but demolition was put off when funding could not be found for the projects.

Although the villages were portrayed as slums in media reports, Professor Chen said the residents were not necessarily poor.

Many were migrant workers newly arrived in Beijing, or recent college graduates. They lived there temporarily and moved out when they started to make more money, he said.

For most migrant workers, urban villages are the best option they have. Alone, or with their families, they live in single rooms attached to the original houses of local residents. Rents are cheap, 100 to 200 yuan a month, and they are close to the city, where most work.

Rent has become the main source of income for villagers. Zhang Gengdi , 64, grew vegetables in the fields of Xiju village off the West Third Ring Road until 1995, when the government took over the farmland to build the road and skyscrapers.

All she had left was the house her family built. She lets out three rooms in her yard to migrant workers, collecting 800 yuan in rent each month. "I would not be able to live if not for the rent," Ms Zhang said.

Despite owning spacious homes and making money from rent, locals like Ms Zhang have much to complain about. "It's always messy here," she said. "The public toilets are very dirty and stink in summer."

Ms Zhang also said she did not feel safe. "People from the northeast fight," she said. "They're very brutal. Thieves often break into households. We locals dare not cross paths with the migrants."

But Ms Zhang said residential towers were being built to house her community and although she was concerned about losing her rent income, she would move.

"If I move to a multi-storey building, at least I don't have to walk out of my home to go to the toilet any more," she said.

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