Wandering Chinese Alleys

Last Tuesday I was back in the alleys, this time in a couple of urban villages (read slum communities) I’d not been to before – LuJiang (鹭江) and Guitian (桂田) villages.  I was struck by a couple of things, and I’m gonna mention them in relation to the photographs that show the things I saw on the day…

1. Mini Sweat Shops

Chinese Sweat Shoppette?

The first thing that really hit me that day was a realisation that my image of production in China being confined to gigantic factories filled with thousands of workers on crazy 18-hour shifts is not entirely accurate.  While that image is a part of the picture, many of the things made in China, particularly clothing, are made or finished in small private “mini-sweat shops” which often double as the workers’ residence.  In many of the urban villages I’ve visited, the whole community is alive with activity, with virtually every home doubling as a tiny production house sewing shirts/punching belt holes/stitching sequins onto dresses etc.

Home or Factory?

What you see in the picture above is a typical scene in many of Guangzhou’s urban villages. By day, it’s a mini factory with workers busy sewing garments at the tables “downstairs”, and by night it’s a home for the workers – in this case a migrant worker couple – to sleep in. Note the TV set up for convenient viewing from the bed at the top of the ladder and the fan above the bed for the ultimate in comfort. The kitchen and bathroom is the area you can see through the doorway at the rear. The whole home occupies an area of about 12 m³.

2. One Child Policy?


I once read that migrant workers in Chinese cities are 13 times more likely than local urban residents to disregard the one child policy and have multiple children.  It’s impossible to substantiate such claims when children born in this situation often live hidden from officials without any documentation of their existence.  Without a birth certificate or any official documents, it is impossible for them to participate in mainstream Chinese society in the same way as “legal” citizens, including attending school.  While the more affluent can obtain documents by bribing officials, that’s something most of these migrant workers are not in a position to do.

Thankfully it seems most of the kids that live in the urban villages I’ve visited are attending school, but there is no denying there appears to be a much higher birth rate in the urban villages than more affluent parts of Guangzhou.  I’ve seen many of them playing with their siblings, so they still appear to be living in a grey area of Chinese society.


Urban village kids

I should point out that the as paid childcare is out of reach financially for most migrant workers in Guangzhou, it is not uncommon for mothers to share babysitting duties as in the above picture.  Unfortunately, however, as money is extremely tight and most children’s grandparents are still living hundreds or thousands of kilometres away in China’s rural areas, many parents are forced to take their children to work with them.  It’s not uncommon for a mother to be working at a sewing machine or electric press, simultaneously nursing a child in her lap or in a sling on her back – not particularly safe for child or mother.  The factories and workshops also become the playground for toddlers while their parents work (refer to the first photo in my post Recycle this for another example).

Working mothers

The mothers in the image above are sewing sequins onto tops, and the image below shows a typical workshop in Guitian community, complete with children.


This picture of life in the alleys is fairly consistent throughout Guangzhou’s urban villages, but on this particular trip I came across something quite unexpected.  As I turned a corner I saw a young child in a miniature convertible speeding towards me.  I looked up and saw his father steering the car with a remote control.  Considering the financial situation for most residents in these communities, along with their crazy work hours (when would they have so much time to causally wander the alleyways “driving” their kids around like that?), this sight was rather out of place.  I still really don’t understand what was going on – I figured it’d be kinda intrusive asking the guy why he’s not working and how he got the money for such a luxurious toy.

Family drive

3. Conditions in the urban villages vary greatly

Over the last few years, I’ve visited many urban villages throughout Guangzhou – Guitian Cun, Yuan Cun, Tan Cun, Xian Cun, Yangji Cun, Ruibao Cun, Lujiang Cun, Chebei Cun etc – and the role the local community administration plays in determining the condition of the alleyways has become quite clear.  The local government paints a very bleak picture of the situation in Guangzhou’s urban villages, with images of rat infestations, flooding and generally poor conditions, along with reports of fire hazard, poor sanitation and illegal activities.  I had assumed after visiting some villages that these claims were greatly exaggerated and mostly an attempt to justify their demolition of such communities to build luxury high rise apartment complexes and office blocks, but over time it became clear that for some villages, the claims ring true.


In many alleyways in Lujiang community, piles of garbage, including rotting food and used feminine hygiene products sat in the heat of the Guangzhou day directly outside residences and workshops.  Residents simply walked around or jumped over them to make their way to where they were going.  The obvious sanitation issues were only a part of the hazard.  Fabric offcuts were thrown out of factory windows into the alleyway below, some of which caught on overhead electrical cables and air conditioning ducts, creating a strong risk of fire (see the image below).  With the building density in these communities, any such fires would quickly escalate into a tragic situation.


It has become clear to me, however, that this is not the situation in every such community.  Although the cleaners may not be quite as vigilant as the “cleaners” in my post Surveillance and Cover-up in China, many of the urban villages in Guangzhou are kept in quite good condition thanks to an extremely hardworking staff of street cleaners, and perhaps a greater level of awareness on matters of sanitation.  Although they will never be desirable locations, good management can make these alleyways much more liveable for local residents.

A good example of this is actually right across the road from Lujiang village in Guitian village.  The sanitation is clearly much better, and even the local residents seem to take more pride in the community’s environment (aesthetically, at least).  In the picture below, the lady in the purple top is painting over the stamps and spray painted advertisements that have been left on her door and wall.  Unlike others who have resigned to accepting that as soon as they paint over it, the perpetrators will simply return and repost, this woman regularly refreshes the face of her residence.  The fumes are not so great for passers by, though!


So that’s some of the key things that went through my mind as I wandered the alleyways last Tuesday.  Sometimes people ask me why I keep going back to the urban villages.  I think a large part of it is that apart from the empathy I feel for the local residents (I would be in the same position had I been born in China – I can only thank my government’s welfare system for my ability to change my situation from childhood until now), every trip to the alleys brings new discoveries.  I feel like I’m exploring new territory, because although many have gone through these communities, few truly take the time to actually look around them and to process what they see.  I try to be objective and note the good and the bad, and not become clouded by my own biases (ie Chinese government and rich people: bad, poor migrant workers: good), and often it’s those preformed ideas that are challenged on my trips.  That’s what I really like about it – not so much the discovery of new places, but the discovery of new ideas and views – a deeper understanding of people’s stories.

I’ll leave you with a few other images from the day that are not really related to anything much, but that give a deeper sense of what you’d see if you wandered through these communities yourself.

Chinese Emperor

I loved the way this guy seemed to have the air of an emperor lazing on his royal purple “throne” near the entrance to Lujiang urban village.

Afternoon nap

A tricycle driver takes an afternoon nap.


Humidity is an issue in most homes within the urban villages due to poor air circulation and limited sunlight, along with inadequate drainage throughout the area. Residents often air their shoes outside during the day for the limited time sunlight actually reaches inside.

Guard dog

Not sure how much of a guard dog this one is. There are many small factories like this one inside some of Guangzhou’s urban villages, and Lujiang and Guitian communities’ residents generally all work in this kind of industry.


A rare moment of direct sunlight in the alleys.

If you have any questions, comments or something to add, please feel free to leave a comment here!