This is a translation of an originally Dutch article published in 2015.
It was no more than three parallel streets made of uneven asphalt full of potholes, where stagnant water cumulated on rainy days. Or maybe it was the wastewater that was thrown into the street from the restaurants and houses on either side? In the evening there was no street lighting and there was a serious risk of twisting your ankle in one of the pits. Or at the very least come home with wet shoes.
There were dozens of tiny restaurants, sometimes so small that the cook had to prepare noodles in a large pan outside on the street because of lack of space for a kitchen. Besides restaurants most other businesses were small shops with household items. Plastic buckets were displayed outside, as if trying to collect the wastewater.
In a side street an elderly man would display the clothes he was selling. I once bought a pair of shorts that started to fall apart after a week. Fruit and vegetables were sold in the same side street. At the very end was a large pile of garbage that grew during the day while the smell got progressively worse, especially on days when the mercury was approaching 40 degrees Celsius.
A few yards away, in the shadow of an apartment building, was a hidden sex shop and a hair salon. Since in China many prostitutes pose as hairdressers, I was never quite sure if people went there for a haircut or some other service behind the grubby curtain in the back.
In short, Zhao Jia Po Cun, as the village was called, was not an attractive neighbourhood at first glance. But it was one of my favourite places in Xi’an and I was sad to see it disappear from the map.
Villages within cities
A lot has been written about Beijing’s hutongs that were destroyed in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics and how difficult it is to find an authentic hutong in the capital these days. The commercialized Nanluogu Xiang that has become a tourist attraction is as far from a real hutong as you can imagine. Less is known about the villages within the cities that have been surrounded by new construction consisting of towering apartment complexes. Ten years ago, Xi’an had dozens of such villages, but most if not all of them have slowly disappeared, only to be replaced by more apartment buildings
The fact that Zhao Jia Po Cun, the urban village I was living next to, was one of my favourite places in Xi’an was partly because I still tasted the atmosphere here that I have experienced in so many other countries in Asia. Upon arrival in the country, the concrete jungles of China’s cities came as a shock to me at first, and the kind of villages hidden between the apartment buildings turned out to be a strange kind of refuge to another life in another time for me. I went there for lunch with my interpreters and colleagues; there were enough restaurants with a large variety of dishes to try something new every day. During the day, street vendors also set up their stalls selling the tastiest snacks until late in the evening.
Unlike the fast-food restaurants that are often located on the ground floor of the apartment buildings, you can bond with some restaurant owners in these villages. Take, for example, the woman who, whenever she saw me, smiled and called to me whether the laowai (foreigner) would come in for his favourite noodles.
Zhao Jia Po Cun was also the site of one of the warmest receptions I’ve had in China. As a foreigner in Xi’an, you quickly become acquainted with the rou jia mo, also known as the Chinese hamburger. The first time I ordered one from a small stall in the village, the owner refused to take my money. I thought I had not given him enough, so I handed him a larger banknote. But he kept shaking his head. When I finally understood he didn’t want me to pay at all he looked at me with a smile and after thinking for a moment he said, ‘Welcome to Xi’an!’
Houses in Zhao Jia Po Cun were two to five storeys high and if you looked closely, you could see that the top floor had sometimes been haphazardly constructed. According to a friend of mine, the residents had done this in anticipation of the inevitable demolition of the village. Apparently, they hoped to get better compensation with a higher number of floors. I often heard about the demolition of these kinds of villages, but I never considered that ‘my’ village would be on the list. One day, however, I was confronted with the harsh reality…
On my way to work I passed the southern entrance of the village. This morning something strange had happened. A van with a loudspeaker was parked at the entrance blaring out an announcement. A plastic inflatable arch, the kind you often saw at the grand opening of a new restaurant or shop, was placed in front of the entrance. Banners with Chinese texts were hung across the streets. There was a police presence and a remarkable number of men in grey uniforms with their berets tied on their shoulders were standing guard. I had no idea what was going on.
I had noticed how a few weeks earlier all the food stalls in the section of the village we called ‘snack street’ had disappeared. But that happened regularly when the local government for some reason held a temporary clean-up, like when VIPs came to visit the city. Usually everything went back to normal after a few days. But not this time…
When my interpreter and I walked to the eastern entrance of Zhao Jia Po Cun during lunch, I saw how the exact same spectacle was taking place there. Men in grey uniforms lined the shops. Many of those stores displayed ‘liquidation sale’ signs. My interpreter told me that the loudspeaker of the van announced in propaganda language that the village would be demolished to make way for a modern housing complex and that everybody was ‘happy with this progress’. The banners above the street claimed that the residents fully supported this decision by the government. It was obvious from the overall mood and the faces of the shopkeepers and restaurant owners that those texts were definitely not written by them. But because of the guards and the announcement from the loudspeaker that ‘turmoil and opposition will be punished’ everyone kept remarkably quiet.
When we passed the village in the evening, the uniforms were still there, as they were the next morning and the days after. They seemed bored of hanging around while the villagers continued to go about their daily business. After a few days they were no longer standing at ease but had gathered plastic chairs and even a discarded couch to slump on. For a while they seemed to be the only real change in scenery, but before long most of the shops were emptied and restaurants closed.
The following weeks a fence was erected around the village. Billboards announced that the new ‘Glorious Plaza’ would be built here. On the ground floor of one of the apartment buildings that enclosed Zhao Jia Po Cun, an office was established for the real estate company that was to sell the apartments of Glorious Plaza.
Most of the village residents left and the demolition of Zhao Jia Po Cun began. But like in many other places in China, some ‘nail houses’ of residents who refused to leave remained until they received better compensation from the government.
By the time I left Xi’an there was nothing left of the village. Where you could once find restaurants, the sex shop, hairdresser and plastic buckets, a large construction site could now be seen.
When I returned to Xi’an a year later, I visited the former location of Zhao Jia Po Cun. The skeletons of new apartment complexes could already be seen. Another year later, two years after I left, I returned and saw more apartment buildings had been erected. Where the village had once been, there now stood six enormous, nearly completed blocks of flats that would accommodate thousands of families.
Zhao Jia Po Cun is gone and some other villages in the shadows of apartment buildings where I once ate noodles have also disappeared. It is a sign of the rapid development in China. The living conditions of the former residents of Zhao Jia Po Cun will undoubtedly have improved if they were given a new apartment as compensation for the demolition of their old homes.
But with the disappearance of Zhao Jia Po Cun and other similar villages in Xi’an and other cities in China, a piece of culture and history is also lost. And the personal contact with the small entrepreneurs that once prepared a fantastic lunch for one euro is exchanged for the cold service by a teenager in the umpteenth branch of a Chinese fast-food chain. When they shove a tray with a rou jia mo towards me on the counter, hardly even glancing at me, I think back of the man who years before handed me a free ‘Chinese hamburger’ with the biggest smile you could imagine.
Watch the short video below to see how Zhao Jia Po Cun disappeared from Xi’an.