Outside the northern window of my dining room I can see a tiny hamlet, “Xin Zhuang” (Village Xin), the last remaining suburban village in this neighborhood that hasn’t been turned into million dollar apartments.
I’m separated from Xin Zhuang by one street, but my world seem separated from theirs by thirty years of economic development. The houses in Xin Zhuang are wobbly red brick structures patched up with bits cement here and there. There is no indoor heating nor toilets. Stray dogs run wild with bare-butt children playing in the dirt. The villagers of Xin Zhuang ride their bicycles to my building every morning to drive cars, clean houses and walk dogs.
This morning, instead of reporting to work most of the villagers stood around the edges of Xin Zhuang watching. They were watching a small yellow bulldozer and a handful of khaki-uniformed men, the demolition crew, take down some illegal structures. In the three weeks that I was gone visiting Singapore and Hong Kong, some enterprising villagers built gleaming blue and white additions adjacent to or on top of their wobbly brick houses. They are technically illegal constructions, but in China everyone engages in a hundred illegal activities from the time they wake up to the time that they leave work. The word “illegal” just means that only the unlucky ones get caught.
I’ve seen the iconic photographs of lonely protestors standing amidst rubble and machinery. I’ve read about old neighborhoods disappearing overnight to make room for legal structures – shopping malls and private residences. But I’ve never seen it happening live and so close to me.
What is it like to stand by as your neighbor’s house is torn down, wondering if yours is next? What if it is your house, what do you do then? Sigh with resignation, cry with anger or put up a struggle? And what does the man driving the bulldozer, who probably just take his day’s wages and go home to a suburban village similar to the one he’s tearing down, feel?
The villagers stood around silently watching, waiting to see what will happen. The bulldozer easily ran over one blue and white room. It crunched on top of it and crushed the whole pile flat. It then stopped in front of another blue and white house. The khaki-clad men formed a ring outside the door. There might be a dispute but I couldn’t see clearly.
I made my morning toast and sat by the window. I also watched.
After a while, a couple walked out of the house and climbed onto the blue roof. Would they make their stance there? Would there be a fight? Is she bending down to pick up a brick to throw at the demolition crew?
I saw the woman, dressed in a hand-sewn cotton-quilted jacket, like the ones my grandmother made for me when I was little, pick up some wires and gingerly walk around the roof. Slowly, she and her husband dismantled a satellite dish, wrapped it under arm and descended from the roof.