DA LANG FEVER - INTI - International New Town Institute

Article by Linda Vlassenrood

Shenzhen is upgrading its industry. It results in empty factory buildings and in huge demographic changes within the migrant population. It implies a transition from a blue-collar to a white-collar society. The economic success of Shenzhen is based on cheap labor. Nonetheless, blue-collar migrants are considered to be both problematic and vulnerable. But do we really understand and therefore appreciate the economic and social value of the current generation of migrants in Shenzhen? Da Lang Fever is the story about the potential of a self-organizing migrant society in Da Lang Neighborhood. Da Lang Fever showcases the empowering nature of bottom up activities for migrant workers.

Da Lang is a migrant neighborhood of 500,000 people located in Longhua New District just outside the border of the former Special Economic Zone. Da Lang became an official sub district of Longhua in 2011. It had grown randomly until then and consists mainly of urban villages and factories. Like many other districts in Shenzhen, Da Lang wants to upgrade and modernize its manufacturing industry and urban infrastructure. Da Lang Fashion Valley in the north of Da Lang is one of the attempts to attract the creative industries, while road-widening projects should literally open up Da Lang. Despite all efforts, Da Lang still faces the absence of a cultural life for workers and a lack of public facilities.

Portrait music shop owner Lin Fangxi (Image: Xia Donghai)

Leisure patterns are rapidly changing in China. Especially the demands of the second-generation migrants differ from the previous generation of which most have returned to their hometowns: they come to the city to make money, but also to develop themselves, learn new skills and get better jobs. More than 50% of the migrants in Da Lang are between 20 and 29 years old. Born after 1980, they belong to the second generation of migrants in China. In Da Lang only 8,200 people are registered, which means that 491,800 of these migrants belong to the floating population; almost half of the population has arrived in Da Lang less then one year ago and roughly 25% stays between 4 to 5 years.

Portrait roller-skating shop owner Zheng Baojie (Image: Lin Fangxi)

The Da Lang government wants to create a more sustainable society by facilitating educational programs and leisure activities. The Da Lang Government and its department of cultural affairs in particular have been installing a cultural infrastructure in the past couple of years for volunteering organizations and individuals to step in. They subsidize a community service center with 17 full time workers that support 5 volunteer teams responsible for education and leisure activities. Xia Donghai has been the leader of one of those unions named Little Grass. He has extended the group of volunteers from just several people in 2007 to at least 3.000 members and friends nowadays. The volunteers organize different kinds of activities: they give directions in the metro, help elderly people, but also organize dancing and dumpling parties. The Da Lang Government is currently renovating the run-down Qian Zhen girls’ school (1891) as a place for educational purposes. It has also been organizing the “Da Lang Star” singing competition since 2010. It provides a stage for talented young people and music fans. In the past 4 years, more then 2,000 migrants have participated in the competition. The event is hugely popular in the district and many people gather for the 39 qualifying rounds and yearly finale with 12 participants. Local enterprises sponsor the event.

The Da Lang Government has been organizing the “Da Lang Star” singing competition since 2010. (Image: Da Lang Government)

The Labor Square plays a crucial role in these activities. The government built it in 2007 as an entertainment area for the local inhabitants. There are several parks and other squares in Da Lang, but the Labor Square is by far the biggest and most popular. Little Grass has its information station on the square and also the singing competition takes place here. A large television screen shows the news and television series. Public space is a relatively new urban concept in China simply because it was never part of the traditional Chinese city; public space only consisted of streets and their immediate surroundings. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the number of parks and squares indeed grew, but it was only after the opening up of the country in 1979 that public space became important. In a rapidly changing society, in which leisure, shopping and sport are becoming more and more important, it is logical that new needs are also being created in the area of the public domain.

The “Excellent” roller-skating team was founded by roller-skating shop owner Zheng Baojie in 2008. (Image: Ren Huacheng)

However, public space in general is increasingly fragmented as a result of the rapid process of urbanization. Besides, a clear distinction can be made between political public space and commercial public space. In the former case it is a question of enormous squares that were not designed as places to sojourn in. Commercial public space consists of shopping centers, restaurants and cafés. A large part of the population is immediately prevented from using these, for the simple reason that they cannot afford it. Undoubtedly the Labor Square fulfills another role since it truly functions as a meeting place and vibrant heart of the district, mainly because most people in Da Lang spend their leisure time outside their dormitories and shared apartments to escape from the crowdedness and noise.

The “Yang Taishan” performance team consists of young volunteering migrant workers from Da Lang. They sing and dance especially for young migrant workers on cultural events all over Da Lang District. (Image: Da Lang Government)

Every weekend and on nice summer evenings hundreds of people visit the square to mainly skate, dance and sing; others just relax and watch. Lin Fangxi (31 years old) and Zheng Baojie (23 years old) own a music store and a roller-skating store nearby. Lin graduated from the Technical University of Hunan with a bachelor degree in music education. He arrived in Shenzhen 5 years ago and first worked as a school music-teacher in Da Lang. Lin started his own music store “Star” 2 years ago and has been teaching ever since. He also organizes events and cultural performances. Zheng runs a roller-skating shop in Da Lang named “Excellent” since 2008. He also provides lessons and organizes different kinds of activities with his “Excellent” roller-skating team, like competitions and tours in the city. “Excellent” has over one thousand members now. Each month, members of the skating club cooperate with the volunteers of Little Grass to clean the Labor Square and help elderly people. Lin and Zheng play a fundamental role in organizing leisure activities on the square. They use their shops as a base for all kinds of activities. There is a close relationship with the local volunteers, but they operate independently. They offer a large social network through meetings, performances and competitions. They also educate by providing lessons. It enables the second generation of migrants to meet new people, extend their limited social network, broaden their work opportunities, improve their communication skills, gain more self-confidence and, last but not least, to have fun.

The Little Grass volunteer workers union currently has 3.000 members and friends. (Image: Da Lang Government)

Bottom-up activities are clearly flourishing in Da Lang due to a very open and dynamic culture. What circumstances are shaping these achievements? We can distinguish three important conditions that are often considered to be very problematic in Shenzhen: a floating population, a very young society, and a distant, but facilitating government. Shenzhen still implements a top-down urban strategy and consistently neglects and underestimates the current social capital. Shenzhen simply puts new hardware in place, which is the sum of infrastructure, buildings and industries, in order to establish urban and therefore economic growth. It hardly touches upon the question which existing social dynamics need to be accepted or improved in order to strengthen the city’s potential, let alone discussing the right socio-economic conditions that are necessary to successfully regenerate an existing neighborhood or to establish a new low-carbon city or creative park. Da Lang Fever shows that the encouraging and therefore emancipating attitude of the local government towards the second-generation migrants establishes new values that move beyond economic benefit alone: temporality and flexibility are considered to be valuable starting points and intrinsic to the current status of Da Lang as an intermediate stage. In Da Lang, stepping-stones are put in place for volunteering organizations and individuals to start empowering themselves and others. It catalysts further self-organization in which young entrepreneurs play a leading role.

A 16-year-old migrant girl (name unknown) working in one of the manufacturing factories in Da Lang. (Image: Maaike Zwart)

In answering the question, could the growing number of vacant industrial buildings similar to the Guangdong Float Glass Factory in Shenzhen play a role in providing urgently needed public facilities like the Labor Square, only one response seems suitable. It can, as long as the conditions for self-organization and empowerment are being cherished and facilitated, and profit not prevails. This will ultimately be the guiding principle for future recommendations and design proposals in Da Lang.

Originally published in: Volume, #39 2014

Da Lang Fever is curated by Linda Vlassenrood (International New Town Institute) in collaboration with the Da Lang Government. Da Lang Fever is the result of research initiated by INTI as part of the international research program New New Towns. Why we need to rethink the city of tomorrow today.

The New New Towns program is dedicated to improve the urban and social quality of eight exceptional New Towns in transition: Shenzhen (China), Chandigarh (India), Nairobi (Kenya), Cape Town (South Africa), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Alphaville (Brazil), Medellin (Colombia) and Almere (The Netherlands). These cities are experiencing fast urbanization and they face major urban planning issues. In Shenzhen, New New Towns focuses on the city’s urban renewal in relation to the existing landscape, industry and population. Which social, economic and environmental factors need to be improved in order to strengthen the city’s potential?

Partners in the research on Da Lang are the China Development Institute (supervisor: prof. Li Jinkui), Chinese University of Hong Kong (supervisor: associate prof. Doreen Liu), Delft University of Technology (supervisor: assistant prof. Qu Lei) and University of Amsterdam (supervisor: prof. Arnold Reijndorp). With special thanks to Fabian Koning and Maaike Zwart.

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