Where High Rises Grow from Rice Paddies

Chandeliers in Guzhen

Urbanphoto is pleased to welcome our newest contributor, Sam Massie, who is en route to Kunming, Yunnan, where he is starting a new job with a Chinese NGO. He will blog about urban spaces in southwestern China.

Ever wonder where chandeliers come from? The answer is usually Guzhen, a city in China’s Guangdong province that produces 60% of the world’s light fixtures. It isn’t just one or two factories; the entire city is devoted to the sale and production of lights. Riding a taxi through Guzhen, I passed block after block of eight-story buildings, the storefronts of which glittered with the light of thousand of lamps and chandeliers. As we pulled onto the highway, my cab driver remarked lazily: “This area was farmland three years ago.” I him whether he preferred living in the old countryside or the new city. He replied that he preferred living in the countryside because the air was less polluted, and because it was quieter.

The cab driver could have been talking about any town in the Pearl River Delta. This region, which includes the cities of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou, contains hundreds of specialized factory towns that churn out manufactured goods for export to every continent. Rapid growth in exports has in turn led to similarly rapid urbanization. But “urban growth” or “sprawl” don’t even begin to describe the scale of the change underway — it’s as though the entire Pearl River region is going from countryside to big-city overnight.

For the whole duration of the three-hour cab ride, I saw waves of pink-tile houses erupting from rice paddies, the concrete posts of unfinished highway overpasses looming overhead, and forests of 30-story high-rises sprouting near every intersection. This phenomenon is best described as in-situ urbanization: it occurs without center or direction, with no visible line between city and countryside, and no urban center driving outward expansion. Every village is sprouting high rises.

Guzhen bridge construction

Photographs alone, however, cannot convey the overall impression of riding through Guzhen. It consists of boring and inconspicuous elements: blank factory campuses, motorcycle repair sheds, shrimp ponds, construction sights, traffic jams, people on motorbikes. What is remarkable is the endless repetition of these elements, and the side-by-side juxtaposition of old and new, rural and urban. Traditional Chinese farmhouses and fields continue to exist side-by-side with new smokestacks and transmission-line towers. Still, despite their banality, all of these individual elements are converging into a larger organism. Satellite photos of the Pearl River Delta reveal a more or less continuous metropolis stretching from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, south to Zhuhai, encompassing more than 50 million people and producing a large fraction of China’s GDP. Coruscant, Trantor, the Los Angeles of Blade Runner — the megalopolis of science fiction is taking shape in southern China.

How should we view Guzhen and the megalopolis it is a part of? Does it represent the environmental holocaust of an entire landscape? Or should we see it is an engine of economic growth that is lifting millions of Chinese peasants out of poverty?

Guzhen scooters

This entry was written by Sam Massie , posted on Monday June 01 2009at 02:06 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Environment and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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