Shadow of Times
by Ou Ning

San Yuan Li, or "triple prime back lane", was once a quiet rural settlement nestled in the foothills, yet guarding the northern approaches to Guangzhou on the fringe of the old city boundary. It found its way into the history books after the 1841 incident, when villagers revolted and fought against the British Expeditionary Force during its invasion of Guangzhou, which was once China’s largest commercial port as decreed by international treaty in the 1800's.

At that time, British companies essentially had total control of the infamous trade in opium, and huge quantities of the addictive drug were brought into Guangzhou by sea before being shipped to all parts of the country. The then Qing Dynasty government dispatched the special commissioner Lin Tse-Chu to Guangzhou to stamp out the thriving yet recently outlawed trade, and in the process provoked a series of Sino-British conflicts which was to lead to the open hostility we now call the "First Opium War". Thus, over 160 years ago, the villagers met international capitalism face-to-face: an encounter that was brutally coerced upon them by foreign interests. "She Xue", or community schools, originally formed by concerned private citizens as a fraternity of community-based groups promoting education for the people, and which later evolved into a militia network, were entrusted with the clandestine role by the villagers to organise the resistance. This developed into one of the war’s largest popular insurrection movements. In San Yuan Li today, there is a museum dedicated to the civil insurrection against the British forces, a cenotaph to the insurrection, and a main thoroughfare named after the popular uprising, all commemorating the heroic feats of the local people in that bygone era.

However, history has a penchant for poking fun at people. Ironically, after going full circle more than a century later, history is again allowing the village to associate its name with drugs. In 1999, due to the inflow of huge quantities of narcotics and large number of drug peddlers and addicts, law and order in the community was turned upside down and crime rate exploded. This prompted the Drug Enforcement Commission of the National Ministry of Public Security to brand the village as a vice area. In fact, it was put on a nationwide list of 17 black spots with the most serious enforcement problems in illicit substances, and was earmarked by the Ministry as a major target for cleanup measures,

San Yuan Li is typical of more than 120 “villages-amid-the-city” in metropolitan Guangzhou. The name “villages-amid-the-city” was coined for these communities because they are all located within the municipal precinct yet retain a characteristic group dwelling style found in rural areas. Formerly, the villages were in the countryside away from the urban centre and became the “villages-amid-the-city” we know today as a result of recent city expansions. This is because during the planning stage for redevelopment, the government requisitioned the farmlands but, at the same time, preserved the rural residents' private dwelling plots and the rural residence registration system. The subsequent urban developments that sprang up in re-zoned farms completely hemmed in the former rural settlements, making them virtually marooned islands in a forest of modern city high-rise blocks. Captured by the dynamics of city commerce, land value in the “villages-amid-the-city” is locked in an upward spiral, and villagers are scrambling to build unauthorised multi-storey buildings on their reserved private dwelling plots to earn rental income. As a consequence, “villages-amid-the-city” have become communities where an extremely diverse and transient demographic mix of residents co-exists. Due to its proximity to the Guangzhou railway station, which is China’s busiest railway station, San Yuan Li has the largest and most complex population of all “villages-amid-the-city” in Guangzhou. Coupled with disarray in its administrative systems and municipal management, the place is slowly descending into a haven for drug dealing, criminal activities and the sex trade.

“Villages-amid-the-city” are not unique to Guangzhou. They can also be found in such Pearl River Delta centres as Shenzhen and Zhuhai, as well as the inland cities of Xian, Shijiazhuang, Taiyuan, Zhaoqing, Kunming and Hangzhou, among others. Managing these “villages-amid-the-city” has long been a headache for the authorities. In fact, it has become a considerable financial and political liability of historic proportion for the government. We can trace the origins of this dilemma to circumstances in earlier periods when loopholes were created in the various basic land management policies and initial town planning. In particular, it can be seen as a legacy of the "new economic movement" and urbanisation of the 1980s and 1990s. In all, the existence of the “villages-amid-the-city” in today's metropolitan environments presents a big obstacle for Guangzhou to become an international centre of business and commerce, a goal shared by most other cities in China.

Nevertheless, there is currently an array of new and ambitious urban expansion plans unfurling at breakneck pace in the new suburban district of Panyu. The government has also selected Xiao Gu Wei, an island in the Pearl River, within the borough township of Xinzao, as the site for a new university town. In order to complete this project in time for the first intake of students in the inaugural academic term beginning in September 2004, the authority is hard at work publicising information to, and negotiating with, the local villagers regarding arrangements for land requisition. Because many local people are refusing to move, negotiations have turned into particularly protracted and difficult affairs. People are asking such questions as, should the authorities put in place a programme of compulsory relocation or, history lessens aside, if it indeed appropriate to save certain rural villages. The problems of communities such as San Yuan Li, who are the pioneering beneficiaries of the first wave of urbanisation of rural areas in the city outskirts, are coming back to haunt us.

Will the government make the same mistakes again? This "San Yuan Li Project" endeavours to record the peculiar phenomena surrounding Guangzhou's urbanisation process, and to examine government planning policies and their accountability and effectiveness in managing the challenges associated with “villages-amid-the-city”. Comprised of a documentary film and a printed publication, "San Yuan Li Project" is a collaborative effort by a team of nine cameramen and women and two sound recording artists, using a total of six digital video camcorders, one digital audio tape recorder, three digital cameras, and three conventional still photography cameras. We started off in the suburbs, at a construction site epitomising the most recent urbanisation development. From there, we moved into the city, and then into the “village-amid-the-city”, commenced our survey in San Yuan Li, took samples for detailed analysis.

Using two small speedboats we borrowed from fishermen of Xiao Gu Wei Island, we observed modern day Guangzhou suburbs from a distance, in the main channels of the Pearl River. Cruising upriver, we filmed row upon row of new houses lining the riverbanks: dream homes built by Guangdong entrepreneur developers. The frantic building spree taking place in this part of the city proves the American style of suburban living is extremely well received by people. Although they have yet to acquire the purchasing power to buy cars, countless white-collar workers are nevertheless making their homes here, apparently quite content in spending long hours commuting daily by public transport. Some day, after they have bought their cars they will of course create traffic jams in the suburbs, pollute the air with exhaust emissions, and likely become disheartened by ever more apathetic relations with neighbours.

Why do people so obsessively worship suburbs? Can we not create a comfortable living environment within the city itself? The violent colonisation over a century ago is reincarnating itself today in the new shape of global dominance and its encroachment of cultural values. At the same time it is giving us the American suburban myth, globalisation is also sowing the seeds of misgiving and antagonism. At the Xiao Gu Wei ferry terminal, the government's land requisition posters are prominently displayed on one wall, while posters independently put up by the villagers themselves, carrying battle cry campaign slogans to defend their homes, cover the facing wall. A nervous and tense mood fills the air, with both sides deadlocked in an impasse.

In Panyu, we pay our visits to a number of large outdoor fibreglass sculpture yards that specialise in making decorative figures for new homes, restaurants, entertainment establishments and shopping malls. Inside these outdoor production factories, a motley collection of USA supermen, Hollywood robots and monsters, basketball stars, celestial classic figures from Europe, together with the indigenous God King of Righteousness, Guanyin (a Buddhist Goddess), Buddha, plus many political personalities sit side by side – a powerful and surrealistic atmosphere in this fast rising new suburban township. As far as we are concerned, this is globalisation at work, bringing in all sorts of different values and cultures together, kneading them into one time-space twilight zone, and turning the cities of today into the spirit realm tomorrow.

After traversing the inner cities, which has already reached a saturated state of development, we enter our target destination, the “village-amid-the-city” of San Yuan Li. What we are about to be confronted with here is a completely different reality. Because this village is a historic heritage site, some quaint old buildings are well preserved. There is an old temple called "triple prime temple" which was built in the early Qing Dynasty and was originally dedicated to the Northern God King. On account of the temple having once been used by the village militiamen as a meeting place to organise their resistance during the First Opium War, it was subsequently refurbished by the authorities and turned into the "Museum Dedicated to the Insurrection Against the British Expeditionary Invasion Force". The two classical archways, built in 1925, still stand proudly on both sides of the village, in the northern and southern perimeters. A line of five clan family temples representing the five main clans of San Yuan Li rub shoulders with closely packed clusters of modern-day multi-story residential buildings. While these ancient structures are examples of Southern China rural dwelling styles or relics of a religious and patriarchal clan system tradition, all the new buildings are rental dwellings and a product of the new economic period: illegally constructed by the villagers to maximise incomes. In order to obtain the largest possible floor space when putting up these houses, village builders typically only left a small gap between adjacent structures, creating the so-called "threads of light" in “villages-amid-the-city”. Strolling down these cramped passages in San Yuan Li, with all the houses almost glued together, all daylight blocked out, and ugly bundles of plumbing, duct-lines and electrical wires and cables of all descriptions tangling into a mess, is like walking in an underworld. The ambience is gloomy, depressing and disorienting.

We call these cluttered small passages hidden under the shadows of building structures "back lanes" in contrast to the shop-lined bustling main streets. Filth and vice are habitually attracted to these lanes, where the sky is permanently obscured from view; indeed, in a nutshell, they can be dangerous places. If these lanes are allowed to develop into the city, they would almost certainly become breeding grounds for some of the least desirable urban traits of mistrust, suspicion and anxiety. Like most “villages-amid-the-city”, most of the passageways in San Yuan Li bear the distinctive physical characteristics of back lanes, and the alienating environments foster an overguarded and cagey existence.

We discovered a most interesting space in San Yuan Li -- the rooftop verandas of the rental dwellings. Airplanes can be seen continuously landing at and taking off from the nearby Baiyun Airport, with some of the planes occasionally flying very low, showing their enormous bodies. Looking down at closer range, an expansive panorama of city lights can delight the eye. Therefore, many tenants living in the village often go to their rooftop to catch a breath of fresh air. Former peasant-turn-landlords or owners of these multi-story buildings also make good use of the rooftop to cultivate flowers, grow vegetables, or even raise a few chickens. In a sense, then, rooftop verandas are turned into a small aerial farm, in the process perhaps bringing back people’s pleasures of a former pastoral life, a life the former villagers no longer enjoy as city dwellers. To some extent, these verandas have become a safety valve for “village-amid-the-city” residents, as a way to release the stress and strain of living in very cramped quarters in a very high-density and built-up urban environment.

By the time we began filming this documentary, most of the perilous things about the village of San Yuan Li had been improved. After the government had carried out a series of strong measures and public mobilisation campaigns cleaned up the village, drug dealing and substance abuse had all but disappeared from sight. The once thriving and highly developed underground sex industry no longer ruled the place and the crime rate had been drastically reduced, back down to low levels. Every day and every night of the week, both the security wardens in their grey uniforms and the green-uniformed "violence and crime prevention squad" equipped with electric shock batons are on beat, patrolling all the street corners and the sideways and byways of the village. They are all residents from the village itself, working for the village committee which, now restructured and renamed the village management limited liabilities company, is independently recruiting, organising and paying the wages of this special group of wardens. By independently organising and operating these security teams, thus embarking upon a collective effort to manage their own affairs in public law and order, the villagers are in effect carrying on the traditions of "She Xue", or community school. This is an embodiment of the age-old San Yuan Li spirit of cherishing freedom and autonomy. On a more general level, while the cleanup efforts in San Yuan Li have achieved considerable success, the government's acknowledgement of the issues relating to the “village-amid-the-city” problems and its preparedness in taking practical steps to solve them by allocating funds has also won the hearts and minds of the majority of Guangzhou citizens. During the course of our project and while making the documentary, we also came into face-to-face contact with many grassroots party member cadres and clerical administrators. Their energy and efficiency left a deep impression on us and totally changed our prejudiced view of public servants.

According to government plans for San Yuan Li within the next three to five years, the main thoroughfare of Anti-British Avenue is to become a pedestrian walkway. Two public squares adorned with outdoor art sculpture displays in a "resistance" theme, plus allotted space for greenery and flowerbeds, will respectively appear in front of the southern and northern entrances to the village. All roadways will be widened to a minimum of 10 metres, which will dramatically reduce the density of the area. In addition, new dwellings to re-house all village residents will now be constructed using carefully thought-out overall designs compatible with and coherently integrated with the surrounding environments. There are many, many other blueprints as well, and all of the planning schemes, including those mentioned here, emphasize the historical and political significance of the community. One obvious reason is that this is increasingly being recognised as a measurable and substantive outcome of public service performance and has already been brought onto the agenda of the work of the government. We are of the view that “villages-amid-the-city” such as San Yuan Li will one day no longer be part of the city scenery. Our story, from a purely community and humanity perspective, is aimed at preserving an archive of an alternative history that registers the urbanisation process of the city of Guangzhou.

I actually started to be interested in San Yuan Li as early as 1992. I was a university student back then, and lived for a while in the village. Though the city blocks were already besieging the village at that time, its conditions were nowhere near as chaotic and horrifying as the period around 2000. All those cramped houses, the dark alleyways, and the huge numbers of people living there is a vision particularly touching and poignant: it also inspired me to write the poem, San Yuan Li. Folk ballad singer-songwriter Feng Songtao arranged the instrumentation for it in 1996 and subsequently recorded and published it. With a melancholic mantra of the Bob Dylan genre, it is a particularly fitting rendition of my poem that reflects on and pays homage to the realities of San Yuan Li.

Within this shadow eclipsed village, I can envision the abundant vitality of the people living in the lower social class. Only later did the hidden deficiencies gradually begin to surface and the conditions precipitously deteriorate; yet, even to this day, their vitality remains. Now, coming here for the first time as a community-based cinematography organisation, when we fix our camera lenses at the village to make a documentary archive of the extraordinary upheavals underlying Guangzhou's urbanisation, we are once again touched by the community’s exuberant spirit. Accordingly, in addition to filming its historic heritage, recording the peculiar appearance of its rental dwellings, and carrying out an critique of the effects of government policy on public administration, we also spent a great deal of time capturing village life at the street level. We have footage of many vivid facial expressions, reacquainting ourselves with that infectious energy we had experienced in the past.

The majority of team members taking part in the "San Yuan Li Project” are not full-time artists but rather, we are all members of our organisation, "U-thèque"; digital video enthusiasts and film, video or photography aficionados. Spending a total of nearly six months wandering around the city, particularly in San Yuan Li, we would fan out into the narrow alleyways, classical archways, ancestral temples, old joss houses, schools, elderly centres, restaurants, hair salons, second-hand shops, and private dwellings, freely taping or photographing at our pleasure anything or any personality that happened to draw our interest. We called ourselves “city flâneurs” in that we blended into the streets, mixing among merchants and workers going about their intricate mosaic of daily city routines; in the process, we became a part of the living vitality of the city.

Early in the twentieth century, when the first socialist megalopolises appeared, Dziga Vertov made the film, The Men with a Movie Camera, which takes one to all corners of the city of Moscow, immersing the audience in a deluge of life through the "Kino Eye" spontaneously chronicling the change of times in situ and showcasing an unrehearsed and impromptu documentary classic with great immediacy. His films subsequently found their way into European film and industry circles in the capitalist world, and were secretly screened by underground cinema groups. Vertov, along with his other fellow contemporary European documentary pioneers with an interest in cities, ushered in the earliest examples of documentaries of the "City Symphony" genre for audiences the world over.

Today, we are also utilising that same formula to film the city of Guangzhou, producing a city documentary in the style of an analytical poem. During the planning stage of this project, we decided to use an in-depth investigation concept, but in terms of the composition of the imagery in the actual filming, a free flowing uninhibited style is applied. Although we are a collective group, we nevertheless place a great deal of importance on artistic independence when dealing with the actual filmmaking. We organise our work in such a way by first agreeing on a general approach, and then granting full autonomy to the artists in executing his or her allotted assignments. The output is a compilation of impromptu visual impressions captured in situ as each team member strolled through the streets. We would hold weekly gatherings to discuss progress and the materials we had filmed. At the conclusion of the project, we had to get down to business to deal with editing approximately 60 hours of footage. In an effort to reassemble the heterogeneous city complexion into an integrated exposé with a more uniform tone, we converted all materials into black and white, so as to perfect a closer approximation of the feel and mantle of the early documentary genre so dear to our hearts.

We unambiguously acknowledge Dziga Vertov as our teacher and inspiration, but we are no longer holding in our hands the same movie cameras of his time but rather, we now equip ourselves with a much more individual type of instrument we call the digital video camera. The "San Yuan Li" film with this new tool is a documentary in the "City Symphony" genre, but instead of a mega-beauty panoramic city view, it chronicles the fragments of a Chinese city shattered by incessant waves of globalisation.

5 May, 2003

Translated from Chinese to English by Simon Young, Anglo-Chinese, Shenzhen
English Proofread by Madeleine Marie Slavick, Sixth Finger Press, Hong Kong

 

 

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