Life in Hong Kong’s Birthplace

The layers of irony in Nantou can be hard to appreciate. Here is a town that reigned supreme over the surrounding lands for hundreds of years; when China lost the first Opium Wars, it was here that British emissaries met Chinese officials to claim the nearby island of Hong Kong.

Later, as a result of Hong Kong’s prosperity as a British colony, the Kowloon-Canton Railway was built, bypassing Nantou and passing instead through the nearby town of Shenzhen. Nantou faded into obscurity. In the 1980s, after Shenzhen was declared a free-market Special Economic Zone, it was absorbed into the city’s urban sprawl. By the early 2000s, it had become just another urban village packed with migrants from every corner of rural China.

But Nantou was still littered with historic buildings dating back to its days as the economic and political capital of the surrounding prefecture, so Shenzhen’s officials decided to build a history museum and restore some of the old landmarks, which included the yamen where Hong Kong was signed away, temples, clan houses and 600-year-old fortifications. Unfortunately, nobody was interested, so the restored buildings were boarded up.

Now they’ve been re-absorbed back into the frenzied life of a Shenzhen urban village. The ancient town gates now shelter vegetable hawkers and haphazardly-placed Chinese altars. The yamen’s front entrance provides a convenient open space for a sugar cane vendor and a woman selling pamphlets on zodiac fortunes. Ancient houses are now convenience stores run by families from far-away provinces.

I first visited Nantou with Mary Ann O’Donnell, who has lived in Shenzhen for 15 years and has witnessed Nantou’s transformation from backwater to tourist destination to backwater again. She took me through the town and explained the most fascinating parts of its history, like how the Nationalists hung banners in the town exhorting its inhabitants to speak the national language and avoid the evils of Cantonese.

Like all urban villages, and unlike the recently-developed parts of Shenzhen, Nantou has grown organically. Its ancient streets are narrow and bisected by even narrower alleys. Houses have been built and rebuilt by successive generations of owners. Some are hundreds of years old; others date from the Nationalist era; others still were built just a few years ago. Houses have gotten progressively taller over the years as their owners have built them to accommodate the migrants who flock to Shenzhen. The newest ones resemble modern versions of the tenement buildings that dominate New York’s Lower East Side.

Three weeks ago, I visited Nantou for a second time. Some of the people I met (thanks to my girlfriend Laine and our friend Mary, who did most of the talking) included a used furniture vendor from Hubei, a woman who moved to Shenzhen from a town on the Russian border and a crazy Cantonese man who was house-sitting for someone he said had moved to Hong Kong. Read more in the slideshow above.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday March 21 2010at 11:03 pm , filed under Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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