A Wild Side of Guangzhou
by Cao Fei

Tucked in amongst bustling market places in the old quarters is San Yuan Li, the historic settlement of Guangzhou. Translated as "triple prime back-lane", this quaint village precinct has been likened to a hidden closet of the City. Its dank, seamy sidewalks and dark back-lanes present an abstruse appearance, as if to remind the onlooker that it holds age-old secrets known to very few city burghers of the present day. The village has dissolved into obscurity because few people pause from their buzzing daily preoccupations to contemplate its significance or to savour its cultural heritage. Indeed, many are not even aware of its existence. For just one day, we put on the hat of a temporary denizen and begin our sojourn into this ancient labyrinth shrouded in misty fog. During our walk in the narrow back-lanes and tight passages of the village, we sniff the strong aroma of garlic and hot spice soup and listen to the bellows of stall vendors peddling their wares, accompanied by wailing babies sitting close by. We gape at the scampering rats and sneer at sewage dripping down the sides of the portico walls. Then there is the moment to reflect on the inverse relationship between the availability of discount bargains and the shortage of space, between the galling brazenness of the place and a matching vitality.

We are spellbound. Here is a maze of winding lanes, alleyways, and rustic blind passages, creating the crinkles in a larger tapestry that we call the City, drawing us to come closer, arousing our natural curiosity. We look, and we look on, through the viewfinder of our camcorder. But before we can fully comprehend our desire to capture everything around us, an inexplicable sense of anxiety over what we are filming is descending on us. It is as if we are expectant of a certain event somehow manifesting itself. Then the thought dawns on us that the subjects before us are beyond our control. Innumerable pedestrians and tricycles simply keep on darting about, whipping up trails of dust and smoke in their wakes. It is too easy to pan them in and out of the viewfinder. People look back at the camera lens with mistrust in their eyes. We keep a critical distance behind our monitor screen, but we really wish we could have the full confidence of all our subjects of study. Why? Because we are sincere.

We begin by wandering along the streets outside the village. Rather aimless, we watch the vehicles speed by, crowds of people parading past, and of course, the aeroplanes in the sky. The aircraft roaring pass overhead produce such an enormous sound wave that it threatens to flatten every living thing on the ground. It pierces through your heart, and then emerges from the surface of your skin before evaporating into the air. On an average day, aircrafts take off and land at 5-min ute intervals at the nearby Baiyun Airport. They have become an inseparable part of daily life in San Yuan Li. The year-round thundering noise from jet engines does not seem to have the slightest affect on the locals, who simply keep on buzzing around with their normal activities. These people appear to have forgotten the constant rumble and scream from aeroplanes or else they must have serious hearing problems. Perhaps the densely packed office buildings and dwellings around the village have sealed up every niche from the ground up, leaving no cracks and crannies for the jet noise to seep down onto the heedless crowds below.

Entering the village through a side-street, we see houses flanking the main thoroughfare, all with television sets or radios blaring at full blast. This deafening cacophony offers the villagers’ a main source of entertainment and a window to peek at the outside world. Not far from a public toilet, the dilapidated Li's Family Clan Ancestral Temple is now the sanitation service depot for the whole village. Its portal architrave and pole beams are rotten. The patterned woodwork on the door panel is also badly damaged. The tile roof is overgrown with weed and mildew. Obviously, nobody is paying attention to the old temple in distress and there is little hope of anyone repairing the ravages of time. In the main hall, several sanitation workers are chitchatting away, a few others tending potted plants. Outside, a team of welders is making a series of pops and crackles, intermingled with the rumble and roar of aircrafts flying high in the sky. The welding guns produce intermittent bursts of ultraviolet flashes with flying sparks and puffs of smoke, sporadically lighting up the inscription plaque adorning the temple entrance. In a nearby pathway, an abandoned rubbish cart gently gives off a rotten stench. These assortments of burlesque props conjure up a mockery of the village's old family traditions, as well as a foreboding of its inevitable changing fate. The other ancestral temples in the village are turned into either schools or offices. They no longer bear any traditional significance. When history and reality are set in such stark contrast, it gives rise to an overwhelming sense of cynicism. Long ago, this little hamlet was a most dignified and earnest place. But like so many other places caught up in the rush for economic development, San Yuan Li is now driven by all manners of unchecked intemperance, playing out on its streets various real-life dramas of murder, romantic rendezvous, prostitution, and drug dealing. With rounds of strenuous cleanup efforts, the village is trying to change its image from a sleaze den to something more benign. However, attempts to remove the social ills also give the place a sense of forlorn hope and despair. We are curious about the village's crazier days before the cleanup. But it seems that even its craziness has slipped into history, alongside the village's heroic past in the revolutionary eras when its spirited peasants rose and fought against an invading British Expeditionary Force. In order to unveil the true personality of this rather unique hamlet, we attempt to dissect and scrutinise it through our camera lens, then re-assemble the fragments into an exposé of San Yuan Li from a fresh perspective.

We continue our walk in San Yuan Li village. The alleyways are dark, strewn with litter, and often packed with crowds. Whenever we get lost in the small alleys, as it happens rather frequently, we pause to examine the many objects and people attracting our attention. It is best not to lapse on your concentration while traversing these intricate passageways, as you frequently have to dodge objects coming from different directions. Wastewater may unexpectedly splash down from above, one of the crowds may trip on your heel from behind, or you may collide with one of the ubiquitous motorcycles coming from the opposite direction. All sorts of mishaps await the unwary. The haphazard manner in which things happen begets an alertness that keeps us on our toes rather than distracting us. What we see here in San Yuan Li village with our own eyes is, by and large, a throwback to the stories we heard before about this place, since we soon bear witness to a succession of cop and robber, sex and lust, crime and money plot-lines, plus many, many other enthralling possibilities.

The couple running the grocery store came to San Yuan Li from Hunan Province to start a new life after losing their jobs in a state-owned enterprise. They have many tales of local affairs to tell. They say there was a once glowing red-light district in the village, which now languishes in the doldrums. They tell us how the waves of “crackdowns” have hurt their livelihood by driving away their customers, who are mostly migrant workers from the provinces. Then there is the latecomers' resentment and envy towards the well-established native villagers, who charge exorbitant prices and ostentatiously display their wealth. They say that all San Yuan Li residents, newcomers and natives alike, are doing their part to corrupt the place. This is perhaps a rather sad reflection, but it does not obliterate the village’s immense cultural legacy, its accepting attitude towards newcomers, its openness and spontaneity. Though it has been dubbed the “sleaze crease” of Guangzhou, people still savour its dirt and grime in apparent delight, and continue to live up their lives here with zest and relish. The fact that the sky is shielded from view by rows of closely placed houses is no hindrance to people pursuing their fanciful dreams in the darkness. For many, this place is a most gratifying paradise, their human nature stark naked, basking under the intense incandescent streetlights.

To really get to know San Yuan Li, our video cameras are far from adequate. Everything about the village becomes so much more personal and amicable the moment locals accept us by relaxing their apprehension. We begin to really feel this place and blend in with the surroundings. The villagers speak a slightly accented Cantonese typical of the outlying areas of the City. Their mannerism is a curious mix of down-to-earth country folk and the modern-day city slicker. After losing their land to urban development, these former peasants now live comfortable life styles thanks to the rental income from the houses they built around the village. There is a limit to the amount of available land for new buildings. Hungry for more space to increase rental income, the villagers have no choice but to contrive ingenious ways of reaching up to the sky, digging underground, as well as stretching out sideways in every conceivable direction. They would squeeze the already cramped lanes, take over footpaths and public roadways, or erect illegal structures like rickety tin sheds, wooden huts and so forth on rooftops, creating a host of fire hazards in the process. From the eaves and protruding edges of two adjacent houses a mass of drain pipes, wires and cables of all descriptions, plus thick tangles of cobweb shoot out across the open space above a narrow lane, bundling the buildings together from the second story up, much like two passionate lovers held in a intimate embrace. Even the household Earth Guardian Gods living in miniature shrines are forced to compete for space with humans. The insatiable craving to expand into more space is responsible for this most grotesque dwelling style. The villagers' apathy for their surroundings only adds to the impoverishment of architectural style in their own backyard. Nevertheless, we manage to unearth one most surprising find. Dispossessed of their agricultural lands, the villagers are now reclaiming their rooftops as a sanctuary to retrace their pastoral past by turning them into concrete gardens, laying down goldfish ponds, growing vegetables and flowers, using the open space to erect aviaries or to raise chickens. Because all the houses are in such close proximity with each other, virtually every rooftop verandas in the village are interconnected. This fortuitously transforms the countless rooftops into a San Yuan Li hallmark spectacle, an immense "sky plaza", which also turns out to be extremely helpful to thieves, since they can jump from house to house, covering large tracks of area in a short time. In an effort to attract tenants, the peasants turned landlords have strategically adopted the method of recruiting grocery-shop keepers as their part-time real estate agents. They also put up signboards or stick advertising posters to walls and lampposts around the village. These rental ads are out there vying for attention amongst a seething mass of other posters and bills peddling anything from STD treatment to electrical appliance repair, private detective, noodle chef training class, and go-go girl service. These contrasting graffiti art exhibits a pageantry of anarchic, freewheeling urban commerce.

Filming San Yuan Li village during the rainy season puts a heavy strain on the crew. Under a bleak and cloudy sky, the damp air we breathe in becomes unbearably stifling in the already poor air quality of the village. A stinking odour from piles of garbage permeates the passageways. Totally oblivious to people's presence are packs of well-fed rats merrily scurrying back and forth along the gutters and between their various hideouts. Because of high population density in San Yuan Li, the village residents produce large mounds of rubbish every day. These can be something of a bonanza for certain creatures and often do become sites of mad scrambles between man and animal. Many wandering vagrants from afar make their living by picking through the village residents' throwaways, looking for any bits and ends of value that can be sold to recycling traders. We are amazed at the apparent ease with which the locals attune to even the most extremes of squalid conditions. They seem to have simply accepted the disarray and filth as part of every day life.

All kinds of strange acoustic effects stimulate our auditory senses as we walk in the back-lanes and alleyways in San Yuan Li. The tiniest of sound created in such claustrophobic surroundings, be that the turn of a key, or a jangle of the bicycle bells, is instantly amplified into tremendous echoes. A motley soufflé of Canto-Pop or Taiwanese music, Korean or Japanese TV soap operas, as well as Chinese Kung Fu movies pour out from each and every household, colliding, whirling, bouncing around from house to house. This reverberating melee creates a higgledy-piggledy kind of theatrical gallimaufry. Strolling into one of the many privately owned telephone-kiosks, our ears are instantly bombarded by a semantic and phonetic mélange of provincial accents and back country colloquialisms. Zero distance between houses means serious erosion of privacy for landlords and tenants alike. For this reason, windows are covered up with curtains or an assortment of decorations is pasted onto the glass panes. This flimsy barrier is the only thing that covers the murmuring, muttering, whispering, groaning, family squabble, or amorous liaisons inside the dwellings. Glancing through window screens, one can sometimes see a tenant girl putting on makeup in front of the dressing table, or a bare-chested man preparing a meal in the kitchen. The “deluxe” stainless steel security doors are omnipresent amour-plated emblems in San Yuan Li. They encase group after groups of village houses. There are doors behind doors, partition after partition. Burglary is the most common petty crime in the village. Longstanding anxiety over security concerns besets the local residents and tenants , straining their trust on one and other. However, living in a social melting pot has nurtured a noteworthy quality in the village residents, making them very adept at embracing and tolerating different values. They have learnt to solve the many problems that can arise from their differences. Here in the village, many situations can spin into warfare, with some protagonists in defence, some on the offensive, and others making conciliatory compromises. Everything unfolds amidst a chorus of rowdy clamours yet life tends to proceed along on a steady pace.

Up close, we come face to face with a hairdresser in a garish floral shirt, followed by a trendy local youngster wearing a head of flaming red hair; after that, a saucy chick in a translucent outfit sails past, then a pair of young girls in school uniforms, with rotund outlines, and further up the path, some elderly folks lazily lounging around or snoozing in the shades. They apparently come and go in the same alley every day, often rubbing shoulders past each other, or peeking across rooftops observing one and other. They remain strangers yet they recognise each other. The imagery they evoke is one of undisciplined overindulgence, yet they brim with self-assurance, their manners eccentric but filled with zest. Some of them belong here, others will perhaps move on, going from job to job. The shabby surroundings and budget living here suit the sojourners particularly well because, for many of them, a place like this is useful for establishing a foothold to explore the City. After they have strengthened their relationship with the metropolis, they will forsake this place in search of another route to enter the urban mainstream. They yearn for flying. Like the aeroplanes taking off and landing over San Yuan Li, they fantasise someday, somehow, they too could take flight.

As we leave San Yuan Li, we step back to our city life. We begin to doubt if San Yuan Li village actually belongs to the metropolitan community we live in. When we show what we have recorded about San Yuan Li to other people, few of them can really appreciate its true character. The village we know now is a place that is completely cut-off from the outside world and yet remains totally open. It inspires us to ponder many questions, such as how to define a city, or what is a village. Our stopover has only provided us with an open conclusion. What we have recorded is an attempt to unravel the subject's hidden message. The ultimate goal of this narrative is no more than just restating that San Yuan Li village really is a physical entity, and that it does exist in our metropolis.

03 May 2003

Translated from Chinese to English by Simon Young, Anglo-Chinese, Shenzhen
English Proofread by Luo Hui, University of Toronto




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