Scrolling through Chinasmack before it got shut down I came across an article on then well-known “dingziwu” (Nail house) in a Guangzhou City neighborhood named Yangjicun. Like so many other nail houses this one was filled with tenants who refused to be bought out by the government for less than the price of the apartment building and instead squatted while all around them neighboring buildings were torn down, water and electricity were cut off, and all reminders of city life were removed piece by piece. I’d been to see the area while a few buildings stood but of course the government eventually won and the nail house was demolished. One evening I went to take a look and indeed there was little beyond a vast sandbox big enough to squeeze in several football fields.
Now I live there.
(Photo credit to Nandu Wang)
（Photo credit to Yangcheng Baozhi)
In the four years since I saw that sandbox a glitzy new apartment complex has replaced it too fast for the dust to settle. I love my apartment with its brand new floors, counters and fixtures, and its conspicuous lack of cockroaches. But I have to say it’s with a surreal feeling that I ride the elevators up to the 20th floor (less than half the way up). I live where Guangzhou residents once lived now paying dramatically more than them, I’m sure. Around me apartments continue to be rented out by an increasingly foreign population and my quiet little neighborhood is becoming something else. There aren’t any Starbuckses around here. No McDonaldses, KFCs, or Pizza Huts. The closest thing to Western food you can find is “pizza restaurant” down the street where the primary topping is Chinglish. The midnight barbeque corner is still popular and getting more so. Yet, the road I walk to the subway – once near empty – is now full to the brim with Guangzhou fashionistas, promotors handing out fliers for the new local gym, expats all being led by the ear by real estate agents, and beggars trying to corner the new market with the latest scam. Today it’s a young teen wearing an old high school uniform with a flier pleading for school money. Her possessions are the clothes on her back, the piece of paper written with a pen she doesn’t have, and a cheap metal bowl. Call me cynical, but I expect the same girl on a different corner with an Erhu tomorrow.
In my years in China I’ve seen this phenomenon all too many times. One apartment’s main claim to fame was a 24 hour Tomatoes pizzeria which went from fully operational to concrete parking lot
over my 2-week holiday. Others were marked by exorbitant rent hikes every year which literally doubled the price in 3 years. I heard in University that China reinvested 1 yuan in every 5 back into infrastructure, which basically means that there is nowhere in any major city that you can escape the periodic grinds of jackhammers, buzz saws, and power sanders.
Former Tenant stands by the promotional poster showing what her home will become
(Photo Credit to Nandu Wang)
I don’t mourn the loss of the mom and pop noodle shops losing out to the major Changfen chains, or the dimishing percentage of Chinese people I brush shoulders with on the ride down to the street. But I do know that this place and time like all others in China is transient and will eventually be replaced by a different one. Nothing like a little encouragement to appreciate the present, I guess.
I wasn’t the first one to think this way either. Four apartments back I was still in the area and I remember running into a foreigner in my building. He didn’t strike me as the type to rough it and I figured him to be a fresh off the plane expat. Outwardly I was friendly as I asked him how long he’d been here, while inwardly I clenched my teeth at the backpacker who gave career laowais like me a bad name. “18 years,” he said with a tone I’d used too often myself – the tone that said, “I’ve been here hundreds of generations of Guangzhou neighborhoods before tourists like you arrived.”
I’ve wanted to think of myself as the original Guangzhou expat in every corner I’ve called home, but the foreigners thought the same about themselves before me, and those before them, and those before them, and before them? Before them the Chinese families shook their head at the 10 story buildings popping up everywhere, the high price of food bought in supermarkets now instead of the fresh markets before, and subway stations replacing the neighborhood shrines they’d go to play Mahjong at before the game parlors became popular.
I know my nostalgic whiney laowai lot and I don’t pretend I’m special. But I’m still gonna soak up every minute of this China moment like a cheesy iced-tea sipping, rocking chair sitting old timer on a porch – before it’s demolished and replaced by a shiny new one that is.
(Photo Credit to Nangfang Dushi Bao)