Outdoor Billiards in Shenzhen

In Baishizhou, five yuan will get you an hour of pool and a big bottle of strong beer. This is one of Shenzhen’s largest and liveliest urban villages. Pool is one of its favourite pasttimes.

The village is hard to navigate, with aimless roads and dark, foreboding alleyways, but I’ve come across a few outdoor pool halls in my wanderings there. My favourite is one that exists where an alley widens ever so slightly as it meets a larger street, a tributary joining its parent. It’s a simple operation, with a half-dozen tables and a beer cooler. The last time I went, with a few friends, the hours slipped by unexpectedly, and it was nearly 1am when we left, wandering back into streets that were only marginally quieter than when we arrived. Compared to Hong Kong, Shenzhen sleeps early, but this is not true of the villages — they stay awake all night.

Outdoor pool halls are typical of the informal use of space that characterizes urban villages. Part of it comes from the lack of private space — most village residents live in cramped, filthy tenements — but also class and culture. Urban villages are one step away from rural villages, and the people who live in them behave in many ways as if they were still in the country. There is none of the inhibition and empty sophistication that characterizes the master-planned, high-rise parts of Shenzhen, which are paradoxically less dense and less lively.

Nowhere is the contrast more evident than in the neighbourhood immediately adjacent to Baishizhou, the oddly-named Overseas Chinese Town, more commonly known as OCT or Huaqiaocheng. Starting in the late 1980s, OCT was developed from rural and industrial land into a luxury commercial, residential and cultural area. “The people who developed OCT were urban, educated, and well connected within the national government,” writes Mary Ann O’Donnell on Shenzhen Noted. There is lush greenery along every street. A former industrial area has been converted into an art and design district that is as pleasant and relaxing as Baishizhou is bustling and intimidating. This is the urban China that its leaders would like to see.

But there is little streetlife in OCT, little sense of community. Two weeks ago, after having a drink at Idutang, an arts space, bar and music venue, my girlfriend and I wandered the wrong way while trying to find a bank machine. We were only a mile from the outdoor pool of Baishizhou, but walked for fifteen minutes down streets that grew ever darker and ever quieter, passing only the occasional bicyclist and security guards who sat in little booths, watching CCTV footage.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday May 16 2010at 10:05 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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