Meet the Shanghai Residents Standing Up to China's Big Money
They’re staying in their homes as their neighbourhood crumbles around them.
A demolished building in Xintiandi
Xintiandi is one of Shanghai’s most affluent districts, but one entire block of the area will soon be razed to rubble. In fact, plenty of it already has been. There are still some buildings standing, but most of their doors and windows are bricked up, ready to be destroyed – the fluorescent orange uniforms of the demolition crew acting as the only splash of colour among all the sad greys and browns.
The block is one of many being knocked down across Shanghai, as old houses – mostly containing poor people and taking up valuable central city real estate – are levelled to make way for modern construction. The residents are given compensation and usually moved to newer houses in suburbia.
Many are pretty happy about upgrading from their poky hutches to places with working toilets. However, some members of the older generation – accustomed to cramped and basic conditions – are less pleased, valuing the communities they spent their lives in above power showers and shiny kitchen worktops.
A tiny percentage of these people remain in the blocks today, refusing to leave as buildings fall around them.
“Responses [to the demolition] can be mixed, because each family has different circumstances and reasons for wanting to stay or leave,” says author and photographer Sue Anne Tay, who documents Shanghai’s development on her website Shanghai Street Stories. “Some are happy to do it because the places are cramped and facilities are old. Others have been renting their houses out, and they earn money from relocation/demolition, and others already have an alternative housing set up. People who are less willing to leave are the older folk used to living in the area, and the poor, who can only afford alternative housing in the unfamiliar suburbs.”
Protesting is illegal in China without a permit. So, to voice their anger without incurring the wrath of police, some people here hang Chinese flags from their increasingly isolated houses and drape poignant, but technically apolitical, flags bearing messages along the lines of, “I love my country, I love my home.”
These vocal few are often left to deal with the brunt of hired thugs and demolition crew staff. One man I met, for instance, had installed security cameras throughout the alleys at his own expense to try and catch the alleged violence on film. Another was carrying a stun gun as he strolled to a friend’s house, saying he kept it as protection having been beaten up for refusing to give up his home.
Xintiandi at night
Compensation rules are incredibly complicated, with hukou (household registration record) information affecting rates. Some facing eviction have hastily built indoor walls to up their room count or moved in relatives to increase head counts. “I know a family who told their daughter to marry her boyfriend of six months and move him in so they could register him as living there,” one man told me.
Indeed, some who’ve stuck around have been accused of being motivated by money, of attempting to squeeze more compensation from redevelopers via campaigns of stubbornness. But, meeting the residents, I felt more a sense of injustice, not greed – all of them bound together in barely-bottled frustration. Here’s what four of them had to say.
Xue Jinshan, a 58-year-old salesperson for the Bao Steel company who moved into his current house in 1993 after being relocated from his previous home.
VICE: Why haven’t you accepted compensation and moved out?
Xue Jinshan: If I were to move to the house they want to give to me I would have to spend ten hours on the road every day to get to and back from work. The new place is in Songjiang district, but I work in Baoshan district [the two areas are on opposite sides of Shanghai].
The noise of buildings getting knocked down here must get pretty annoying.
Yes. I had two elderly people in this home, they couldn’t stand the demolition noise so I had to move them somewhere else. My son was taking the college entrance examinations last yearl I begged them to turn down the noise, but they didn’t.
How long will you hold out here?
I don’t know. It depends on them. Once they stick a red paper notice on your door you have to move within ten days. Then they start demolition, regardless of whether there are still people living inside.
Can you honestly not get a decent place with your compensation?
With 1.5 million Yuan [£147,000] I could only go to suburbs. But life is not convenient in suburbs. My mother and mother-in-law need to go to hospital often; here we have the Number Nine Hospital close by. A house is for people to live in, not for decoration. Better facilities mean nothing to me.
Could you find a new job nearer the suburbs?
I’ve worked at my job for over 40 years. Now, at my age, how can I find a new job? It’s impossible.
Does the violence reported in the area concern you?
I have only my life to lose. Whenever I think of that, I have no fear. There’s no one to depend on; I only rely on myself. I have this one life to fight against them. If death is the final result, so be it.
Has the crisis brought the remaining community closer?
No. They divided us. Some people give in for a house, some for a certain amount of money.
Ge Bao Ling, 58, is a former shop owner who moved to the area when he got married at 28. He ran a grocery store until it was torn down.
What kind of compensation were you offered for your house and shop?
Ge Bao Ling: They proposed to give me a new shop so I could maintain my livelihood. But they didn’t give me the shop. I resorted to court; my house was torn down during that period. The reply came from the State Council in April, but that might be a fake one.
What happened on the day the shop was taken?
They came on the 26th of December, 2013, at 1:30PM. They drove my wife and son out; my wife’s feet got injured. They started demolishing right away. My son has hepatitis B, so he can’t find another job; we relied on the shop. What they did was inhumane. I'm willing to move, but the shop put food on the table.
But you’ve kept fighting for a new shop?
I wrote to the Legal Affairs Office in Beijing – they said they were going to find me a shop. On the 17th of December they told me they’d found me one. I waited for them to come to me but they didn’t show up. On the 20th of December I got a notice; I went to all relevant departments in Shanghai but nobody intervened. On the 30th of December a police person came and told me that I had done nothing wrong and that they would solve my problem. But nothing happened after that. The goods in my shop all went missing.
Where are you living now?
I borrowed a house from my parents. It’s small and near to this area.
Will you buy a place to live with your housing compensation?
I haven’t got the compensation. I am still waiting.
Zuo Lian Ying, 60, is a retired cab driver who lived in the area for 30 years with her husband before her house was torn down.
Did you enjoy living here?
Zuo Lian Ying: Life was normal. It’s very convenient here, with hospitals nearby. I'm disabled. I have a certificate for that. I have problems with my eyes; I should be protected.
When were you evicted?
The demolition took place on the 18th of June. My husband was prepared to jump from the building [in protest]. At 6AM the next day they surrounded my house, just like the Japanese used to during wartime. After that people came in and started beating people up. I was injured on my arms, hands and feet. I’ve kept the clothes with bloodstains on them.
Where are you living now?
I’m homeless, so I stay at relatives’ houses. My stuff got lost in the demolition process; everything we had in the house is now missing. We were kicked out of our house without shoes on.
But you have been given compensation…
They offered 1.5 million Yuan (£147,000), but that's not enough even for a toilet.
Why not just buy a house in a cheaper area?
The nature of this demolition is commercial. They should negotiate a price with us. They only gave us 23,000 (£2,250) per square metre. Filthily huge profit margin.
Ms Gan, 26, works for a logistics company and lives with her family in a three-storey house with a courtyard. They have lived there for around 40 years and protested against eviction by hanging a China flag from their roof and playing music.
How did you feel when you heard your home was to be torn down?
Ms Gan: I was young, so I wasn't really against it. If the government wanted to improve our living conditions, I could accept that. But what distinguishes this neighbourhood from others is that the neighbours are friendly to each other. This makes me feel a little bit sad.
You don’t seem as angry as some residents. Why has your family not accepted relocation?
The nature of this is commercial. If I can't buy a house in a similar area with the price they offer, how do they expect me to accept it? Asking me to move to places that are so far away with insufficient and inconvenient transportation… what would I do if my mum or grandma required medical help?
How have you protested?
We played music from the house to voice our discontent. We were harassed many times. Later we dropped it because we were concerned it might evolve into something out of control. The police said that someone across the street complained. We asked them to measure the volume; after that they could come to us with evidence. Instead, they cut off our electricity. Now, our house will be torn down within one or two months.
Have you seen violence in the area?
People in the demolition company are like hooligans. If they can't fool you into moving they threaten you. Violence does happen. During forced demolitions they would deploy migrant workers to surround the houses to be torn down.
How do you feel about moving away?
I’m still talking frequently to my former neighbours. I have a good friend who was my neighbour; she was like my big sister. Our relationship goes deeper than many real siblings’. The night before she moved we had a long night of talking about shared memories. Sometimes when I'm brushing my teeth I can’t help but imagining how wonderful it would be if there hadn't been a plan to tear down the house. Our house is bright and fresh air can come in easily. Once there was a film shooting team who chose to film here. We have a very big balcony; sometimes in the summer we didn’t turn on the AC – we could sit on the balcony and feel the cool breeze.
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