China Underground > Magazine > China Magazine > China Suburbia

China Suburbia

From Urban Villages to Ghost Cities

Snapshots of suburban life in Kunming’s urban villages.

China Suburbia is a photography project that explores and describes urban planning in Chinese cities and its consequences on the population. You may read it online following this link.

If you find some mistake or if you disagree, please leave a comment.

Table of Contents

Pictures by Matteo Damiani

Please click on the image to enlarge

Observation of the life in Kunming’s urban villages

China urbanization

With and later, from 2005 to 2012 we had the opportunity to witness an era of radical changes. In late 2005, we arrived at Aishilingeng Faguohuayuan condo, surrounded by the Luo Zhang urban village. Aishilingeng is located in northern Kunming, in the Panlongjiang district. The condo is named after the pretty town of Eislingen in Southern Germany. Faguohuayuan, in Chinese Mandarin, means French Garden. The use of European names is very common in China when you have to find a new name for an upscale neighborhood; the name should possibly summon an idea of luxury and sophistication. A reservoir of ideas from which to draw is the European Renaissance. In 2007, in front of Luo Zhang Cun, was built the Beichen Fortune Center, a high-end commercial center with cinemas, karaoke, fashion shops, etc.

China's urban village

Luo Zhang Cun, the urban village around Aishilingeng, consisted mainly of old multi-story houses decorated with dirty white tiles, the same buildings built all over the rest of China from the 80s to early 00s. In general, the quality of these buildings is very low, the hygienic conditions are poor. These kinds of old districts are difficult to control since developing into a myriad of narrow streets and alleyways that wind between the mainly illegal buildings. Landowners rent them to the city’s floating population, unable to afford an apartment in other areas of the city: urban villages have become the breeding grounds for social problems such as prostitution, child labor, crime, drug addiction, and alcoholism.

Chinese rural market

The district was inhabited by Yunnanese, people from Kunming, and people arriving from the neighboring provinces and countries, such as Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. They took menial jobs to support themselves and their families, and they lived in difficult conditions. Most of the population consisted of small artisans, shopkeepers, restaurateurs, hairdressers, construction workers, waiters, shop assistants, improvised pharmacists and doctors, masseuses, and prostitutes.

Chinese urban village

Villages like Luo Zhang Cun used to be located on the outskirts of the city. With the expansion of the city, farmlands formerly cultivated by the villagers were mandatorily purchased and turned into urban land by the government. Soon after their purchase, villages tend to be surrounded by rising skyscrapers. Though located in an urban area, they are still “rural”. Consequently, the villages become independent kingdoms, outside the laws and urban planning.

Life in a Chinese urban village
Kunming, once known as the city of the Eternal Spring, now it’s experiencing an era of transition. Many people still live in old, ruined houses, waiting for resettlement. This kind of situation happened many times in China. Every day, millions of square meters of old slums are torn down to make room for luxury condos and shopping malls. Although these neighborhoods are demolished, people try to lead a normal life. Urban villages, however, are notable for affording economic opportunity to newcomers to the city, and they are also among the liveliest areas in some cities.
Young Chinese people

Young Chinese people have no recollection of the recent Chinese past’s miseries. They spend their evenings drinking and fooling around in shaokaos, in makeshift bars and dance halls.

Hungry Ghost Festival in China

Despite the environment, residents were leading their lives normally: those pursuing their desires and passions, those looking to get rich at any cost, and those who had to fight to get through the day. A microcosm of stories and social relations.

china-suburbia-012-hungry ghost festival
Market in a China's urban village

Chinese urban villages are inhabited by the poor and transient, and they are associated with overcrowding, social problems, and squalor. They are intensely developed, heavily populated, and lack infrastructure.

china-suburbia-029-Chinese old man
china-suburbia-030-Chinese haidresser
china-suburbia-031-Chinese pool
china-suburbia-034-Chinese urban village

The fate of the urban villages

urbanization in China

From 1949 to 1982, the pace of urbanization in China was slow. Within the later four years, the urban population increased to 37 percent of the total population as a result of large numbers of surplus agricultural workers migrated to urban areas. The Chinese government ultimately aims to integrate about 70% of China’s population, about 900 million people, into cities by 2025. 300 million people living in rural areas will move into cities. Every year, fast urbanization will create at least 1 trillion yuan in investment opportunities in building public utilities in the cities such as waste treatment, heating, and water supply.

Chinese urban village
At first, the government had to arrange jobs and larger apartments in the city for these unskilled villagers to compensate them for their lost houses. Such inefficient planning was abandoned during the early period of China’s reforms.
urban planning in China

The standards of urban planning in China continue to extend as “corresponding plans are made in all cities”, most villages and towns with an aim to guide and facilitate land use and construction activities, whereas promoting economic and social development to enhance the living conditions of urban and rural areas.

china-suburbia-050-Chinese migrant worker
china-suburbia-053-Chinese workmen
china-suburbia-055-Chinese migrant workers

Building a New China

China's ghost town
China is growing hundred of new modern cities all over its territory: they are carefully designed, they are a marvel of urban planning and the government invested a huge amount of money in building them.
Rusty texture

The only problem is many of these new cities are totally empty. There are a number of factors why they are still in this condition. The first reason is that the original urban planning project forecasts to fill the apartments with people by the end of 2025. But this expectation does not take into account the fact many times the price for a square meter is too high for a standard Chinese family, forced to incur debts and loans to buy a house; sometimes cities are literally built where it’s no use. And many times the buildings were ready far too early: when the people will move in, most of the facilities and infrastructures will be already old. China’s new urban areas are being built for decades from now.

Chenggong New Town

Chenggong New Town is a satellite city located within the proximity of Kunming. It was planned as the future administrative and employment center for the Greater Kunming region and the first “Low-Carbon City” in the area. It was designed to house 1.5 million people, featuring a series of interconnected communities. The construction started in 2003. I visited Chenggong three or four times. The area is mostly abandoned, except for the huge market Luo Si Wan and the new University campus. The government from 2000 has tried to attract new residents to the area, but with no luck, despite the huge investment. In 2012 the population of the New Town was mostly composed of students, workers, and security guards. However, from 2004 to 2012 Chenggong was only a vast and dusty territory, a patchwork of separate urban hubs in various degrees of completion, interconnected by highways and large blocks. The city is not expected to be complete until 20 years after they begin construction. Only then we can speculate on its success.

China ghost town
china-suburbia-065-Chinese ghost town
china-suburbia-066-China ghost town
china-suburbia-067-Ghost towns in China
china-suburbia-068-Ghost town in China
china-suburbia-069-Chinese ghost town
CHina's housing market

The housing market remains a major driver of growth in China. Recently the trend is changed and in the first eight months of 2015, the volume of land sales nationwide fell 32.1% to 141.1 million square meters, according to the data issued by the National Bureau of Statistics. While a few years ago most of the land was purchased by land developers, now many sites went unsold during auctions. Consequently, construction starts should decline. While land sales are bright in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, in less-developed cities, known as third and fourth-tier cities, accounting for more than 60% of the country’s property market, the land sales were sluggish.

China urban areas

Land in the edges of urban areas is purchased by municipalities at a low rate, then it’s repurposed as urban, and is sold to land developers at the highest rate. The benefits for the investors are colossal. To make the fastest profit, a developer buys new urban construction land from local governments as soon as it’s made available. According to the law, the developers must build something on the newly purchased land almost immediately, despite the area’s lack of infrastructure, services, and population.


Topics: urban village concept, china slum city, urban village concept, urban village China, urban village phenomenon in China, China slums photo, Chinese ghost town photos, Chinese ghost towns

Post Author


China’s innovation economy a real estate bubble in disguise?

Slowing China home price rises add to doubts about economy


Enjoyed this post? Never miss out on future posts by following us

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.