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Lijiao, a Sewing Machine Riviera

August 29, 2012

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This is the unedited English translation of an article I wrote for Guangzhou News Express, published 8/29/2012

It’s not easy to find a village of factory workers in Guangzhou anymore. So many big factories are moving overseas or to other parts of China. The Pearl River Delta is no longer the sole producer of the world’s goods, and that means a culture is dying. Small factory towns are disappearing. Lijiao is one of the last villages in Guangzhou where every window of every shop has a sewing machine. Some of the small brick houses have stacks of wood outside for cooking.

It’s a village of small businesses, everything is family run. Tiny factories making plastic bags, shirts, clothes, toys, gift boxes. In the 1980s a village like this was very modern, not it’s old Guangzhou. This tiny area of Haizhu district is intersected with a quarry, but the water doesn’t move. It’s heavily polluted and a few remaining fishing boats collect garbage. One fishing boat is a restaurant. It’s a lovely riviera; imagine Suzhou with humming sewing machines on every corner.

Some people think a factory is a big building in the middle of nowhere, with hundreds of people standing in uniforms. These factories are just men and women wearing sandals and sewing clothes while watching TV and talking. Very busy but still very casual.

This is a culture that won’t be here in ten years. It’s like watching a final moment in history.

Not a big production, but just small work where people get paid per item rather than on salary. It’s one of the only places to see small businesses, all family run factories, family run markets and restaurants. No commercial business anywhere. Every so often small motorcycle will ride by with a stack of boxes. It’s small, and relaxing, but still a very busy place.

A few architectural features will hopefully be saved such as the river and the century old trees. The new developments are already selling, but they remain empty. This is a new trend.

With a housing bubble already burst, new developments stay empty. I walked across the highway and into a new building named “Riverside Mansions. The agent handed me a booklet and told me the apartments were 20,200 per square meter. I tried not to laugh. I realized that’s why the building was empty. That’s insane.

Villages of people, with over a hundred years of culture are replaced with no one. Just empty high rises with empty space.  This is the plan to put more “Green Space” in Haizhu District. That means destroy villages around Nanzhou road and build a new high rises along the river.

This past summer I listened to a lecture given by a member of Guangzhou’s Urban planning board about the extension of Guangzhou’s green space in Haizhu District. The first thing I thought about then were the villages around Nanzhou. Lijiao Village is already surrounded by several new developments, only new buildings are empty. Housing prices are too high so new buildings are filled with only a few people.

It’s a strange time where villages of people are replaced with empty buildings. It’s a replacement of people and culture with big empty buildings.

Though walking through the tiny streets of Lijiao it’s hard to tell the village is soon to be gone. There are no buildings marked 拆 just yet. There are a few worship halls,but they’re closed and not well kept. One was even boarded up with plaster. It’s almost like everyone is waiting to be asked to leave. I asked a few women sewing clothes how old the worship hall was and they told me they didn’t know but it was closed. Very friendly, they enjoyed talking and gossiping while the worked.

Only a few posters advertising a future shopping district and big red sign from the police assuring people that they no one will be forced out illegally and everyone will be paid what they’re owed. It’s unclear exactly what that means.

Most part time jobs are advertised in the next village over, Hojiao. It has more restaurants, more salons and generally a younger crowd. A large migrant community mingling with locals. A great mix of accents, and people moving from job to job. In front of the Hojiao shopping center a line of employers advertises work with small cardboard signs.

This village is just the same as it was when I visited it last year. It was also under threat of demolition, but the housing market has hit a wall with last years drop in sales. The result is villages like Lijiao, still thriving just as it has for decades. And empty building towering above with real estate agents who wait for rich people. Here is the warning posted on a big red sign that nothing illegal will occur when the village is destroyed. I suppose that’s meant to be comforting.

One thing that is certain, is that the new developments in Haizhu are empty, and factories in Lijiao are still working. It will be a shame to see it go. Right now while real estate agents are struggling to make commission, developers are going bankrupt. New developers are struggling to find wealthy buyers, but Lijiao village is doing just fine.

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