In Shenzhen’s oldest village, shades of old China survive

China’s development brought ‘unimaginable change’ to Shajing but efforts are now being made to preserve its culture.

China Shenzhen Shajin
The view across what was once the sleepy village of Shajin towards Dongguan, a major manufacturing centre in China. High rises have replaced the farmland and fish ponds that were common until the 1980s [Michael Standart/Al Jazeera]

Shajing, China – For more than 1,000 years little changed in the village of Shajing in southern China; its fortunes expanding and waning with each generation, harvest and typhoon. 

The Chen clan dominated the settlement, prospering from the oyster trade that thrived in rich waters of the Pearl River Delta, where dolphins could once be seen leaping within sight of the family’s ancestral hall. 

Farmers grew rice in the sandy soils and raised fish in large ponds that spread as far as 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) north into Dongguan, now a major manufacturing hub. 

A barracks for soldiers fighting the British in the Opium War appeared, later to become a barracks for conscripts conducting raids against the Japanese during World War II, and later still, storage for coffins. Now gone, the building is but a memory. 

As a little boy, Chen Peixin and his friends would dare themselves to go inside its cavernous interior. 

“That is one of my earliest memories, being scared of that place,” Chen Peixin, now 50, recalled. “There were some cats in there, their eyes glowing green, very spooky.” 

China village
A statue of Chen Menglong inside the clan hall in Shajin. Chen was hailed a hero for fighting against the Mongolians and the Chens in Shajing all consider themselves his descendants. [Zhong Yunfan/Al Jazeera]

Looking to Hong Kong

Even when the People’s Republic of China was founded 70 years ago, not much changed for Shajing.  People kept harvesting oysters and tending the fields, even as the communists forced them to hand over their farms to collective ownership, and the Chens were still there to provide guidance. 

In the years after the Communist Party victory and all the way into the late 70s, people drifted to Hong Kong just under 30 kilometres (17 miles) away.

About 20 percent are thought to have adopted the now semi-autonomous city as their permanent home

“It was a very poor area so a lot of people migrated to Hong Kong because there was work, the pay was so much better,” Chen Peixin said.

“But later, when it became Shenzhen and the locals could sell their land [as part of a collective ownership] these people could not come back and reap the benefits. It was the locals who stayed who eventually became rich.” 

The changes that eventually brought that wealth began four decades ago when China’s then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping launched a series of “special economic zones” in Guangdong province. The zones were a way to both pilot market reforms and provide a buffer to the rest of the mainland from what were seen as the more unseemly capitalist influences emanating from nearby Hong Kong and Taiwan. 

The most successful was Shenzhen, which transformed from a series of fishing villages into a major manufacturing area and one of China’s leading technology centres; home to 15 million people and some of China’s leading brands including Huawei and Tencent.

China Shenzhen
The 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China takes place on October 1. Beijing will put on a military parade and firework display, and cities around the country, including  Shenzhen, will hold their own light shows and other events. [Stringer/Reuters]

‘Unimaginable’ change

During Shenzhen’s first decade, Shajing remained largely untouched, but in the early 1990s manufacturers from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and elsewhere started to look for new areas to expand. 

Fish ponds were filled. Sandhills flattened. The Longjin River, running straight through Shajing and  navigable by small fishing boats, was blocked and cemented over. Land from the collective allotments of Shajing and its neighbouring villages was sold. 

Then the coast began to move.

First a kilometre from the Chen ancestral hall. Then another. Now it is about three or four kilometres away and the site of what will soon be the largest international convention centre in the world, which is being built over what was once open water. 

Factories popped up almost overnight, stretching north toward Dongguan. Migrants from inland provinces moved in – Sichuan, Hunan, Guangxi, Anhui, Fujian, Jiangxi – people who did not speak the area’s Cantonese dialect. 

China village
The courtyard of the main Chen ancestral hall. It is thought to be around 800 years old. [Michael Standaert/Al Jazeera]

“The change has been unimaginable,” said 48-year-old Chen Dongmao sitting under a banyan tree full of birdsong just outside the clan hall in what remains of the oldest parts of Shajing, now fully engulfed by Shenzhen.

“There has been so much change here that it is almost impossible to describe.” 

Off one side street is the Song Dynasty tomb of Chen Chaoju, buried in 1213, which at around 800 years old is one of the oldest remaining structures. The main ancestral hall – refurbished many times over the years – and a small pagoda that once sat next to the Longjin River, are around the same age. 

“There was only one road through here to Shenzhen [in 1983], a dirt road,” Chen Dongmao said. “There were two buses a day, like the old buses you may still see in a place like North Korea.” 

Now visitors to the area can find signs in both Chinese and English with brief descriptions of the hall or the residences of prominent figures. By scanning a QR code with their phones, they can access an online virtual tour. 

If they look to the background, they will see the 30-year-old buildings to house the manufacturing boom’s workers and beyond that, towering 30-storey residential complexes. Some are finished, others still under construction.

In the distance, next to the Shajing metro station, skeletons of concrete and steel left unfinished from almost a decade ago stand on prime real estate; a reminder to residents of local-boy-gone bad, Chen Yaodong, who started out as an imported scrap dealer, got into the drugs trade and became the boss for the Shenzhen branch of Hong Kong’s largest triad or organised crime group, Sun Yee On. 

Chen was prosecuted with more than 100 subordinates in 2012 and shipped off to faraway Tianjin in northeast China to serve a life sentence in a maximum-security prison. Few in the village want to speak about him out of fear of the remaining triads and the government. 

China village
Chen Zhirong holds the clan flag of the Chens. The clan will be flying flags to mark China’s National Day on October 1. [Zhong Yunfan/Al Jazeera]

Preserving culture

Shajing is still changing.

Manufacturing is moving out and technology moving in.

The village is at the centre of the global e-cigarette industry, and other companies are moving into the office buildings that have appeared along the metro line, which opened just over three years ago.  

Some of the more lacklustre buildings from the manufacturing boom are due for demolition and there are plans to transform the area between Shajing and the convention centre into a glitzy oceanside suburb.

Still, Chen Dongmao says the district government wants to preserve some of Shajing’s oldest buildings, mostly congregated in the streets around main Chen clan house. A museum has opened to celebrate the village’s oyster trade past. 

“In another 10 years the place will look totally different,” Chen Dongmao said of the plans. “We’re trying to preserve some of the culture. This area is the source of the culture of Shenzhen.”

That includes the lifelong hobby of Chen Zhirong, 83, the clan house’s superintendent, who proudly shows visitors around the main Chen family hall and other buildings nearby.

He unlocks a side door to display various brightly-coloured clan flags and several costumes for traditional Lion Dances, which are popular with new businesses looking to ward off evil and ensure good luck. 

“I won a gold medal for the Lion Dance at the first national games they had under New China,” Chen Zhirong said, recalling those fading memories of a tradition that he hopes will survive for future generations.

Source: Al Jazeera