hubei villageNote: 5 years after writing this article, they have finally decided to raze the village and redevelop the site. Click here for more info.

Jesse Warren, March 17, 2008, Shenzhen Daily

SHENZHEN is only 30 years old, or so they say. Futuristic gleaming skyscrapers and new technology showcase the city’s modernity. Yet beneath the surface, Shenzhen has a history that exists not only in photographs, textbooks and museums, but in physical form. Perhaps the most interesting and surprising of all can be found in the heart of downtown.

Hubei Village, just east of Dongmen, is a remarkable slice of Shenzhen’s past, living in the present. Occupying an entire city block, its history stretches back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It survives as possibly the last example of local architecture in the downtown area from before Shenzhen’s beginnings as a special economic zone in 1978. How this village has escaped the wrecking balls and redevelopment that has spanned most of the city, one can only guess.

Walking the village lanes is like being teleported to a country village, far from Shenzhen. Spring Festival couplets carrying auspicious messages adorn most doorways. Incense burners and images of Buddhist deities decorate the walls, inside and outside the homes. Laundry hangs out to dry in the narrow alleys. Laughing children run about casually and carefree, playing games. Old stone carvings eroded by the weather line the building exteriors. One doesn’t have to travel far to have a Chinese village experience.

Just across the street from this village of quaint alleyways and traditional homes, a golden skyscraper in the image of a rocket ship towers above — with a BMW showroom on ground level. Framed by the narrow lanes, several idle, unfinished skyscraper skeletons near Dongmen loom in the distance. Other new construction projects, decorated with cranes in action, skirt the neighborhood. The contrast between the new and old is striking.

The original inhabitants of the village, local Hakka people, are all but gone. Most of them now live in modern apartments in Shenzhen or Hong Kong, and rent their former homes to migrants. The new residents, who often come in large groups, hail almost exclusively from Chaozhou, in eastern Guangdong. A resident surnamed Xiao, owner of a small shop inside the village, said “we get strength and support from this community” as she chatted with friends in her shop. Like small towns everywhere, family is bigger than just the immediate family. Indeed, when invited into one home for kungfu tea, a congregation and conversation with more than 10 friendly neighbors ensued. It felt as if an entire village from Chaozhou had been transplanted to Shenzhen.

One especially noteworthy feature of the village is the Zhang ancestral hall, named after the family who first settled the area hundreds of years ago. Portraits of Zhang ancestors adorn the walls, along with the Yellow Emporer. Now the hall is the home of migrant workers who safeguard the site. Designated a local heritage site by the Luohu District Government, the hall enjoys some degree of protection, but is still dilapidated. Intricate stone carvings and a good imagination can, however, give one a sense of the hall’s history.

The northern boundary of the village features a narrow, bustling alleyway lined with Chaozhou-style food stalls and snacks, from rice noodle rolls and fried dumplings to sweet waffles, fruits, soups and more. After wandering the village for some time, it’s a great place to sit down and sample the various flavors of the renowned Chaozhou cuisine.

The presence of this village in downtown Shenzhen begs the questions: Why does it still exist and what will happen in the future? When speaking to local residents, conflicting accounts were given.

Some said the village had not yet been developed because the property owners had not reached an agreement on a selling price. Others claimed the village was completely protected and would never be developed.

A call to the Shenzhen Administration of the Preservation of Cultural and Historical Relics helped to clarify things.

It turns out that many government departments have agreed to preserve the village but no final decision has been made, and no law has been passed, yet.

For now and possibly indefinitely, a slice of Shenzhen’s history remains in the heart of downtown. The charm of a small Chinese village, with traditional architecture, friendly people, and various cultural elements, exists right here in the center of this modern, bustling metropolis. See it while you can.