Journey to the South: Backwater Beijing Prepares for its Transformation

By Dominique Wong, additional reporting by Edoardo Donati Fogliazza, Yuka Hayashi and Lu Qinxin, September 29, 2018

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This feature is our September 2018 cover story. Check out the full issue in digital pdf form right here or in your browser here

People have been growing watermelons here since the Qing dynasty,” says 32-year-old Yun Liu with pride. 

Here in Panggezhuang, a rural village in Daxing district 36km from central Beijing, Yun’s family is watermelon royalty. 

He is the grandson of Song Baosen, founder of the Lao Song melon farm, which has won Daxing Watermelon Festival’s ‘China Watermelon and Muskmelon Contest’ 13 times (with 12 consecutive wins). The impressive streak earned Song the title ‘Watermelon King.’ A bronze statue of the 82-year old is displayed at the nearby China Museum of Watermelons. 

 Lao Song melon farm advertises its heritage (photo by Lu Qinxin)

The festival has drawn watermelon lovers from across China to the region every May since 1988. Heralding the arrival of watermelon season, the event is a vestige of the old Daxing, from before the area was upgraded from a county to an official district of Beijing in 2001. 

Inside a conference room, Yun offers us plates of deliciously sweet watermelon. We gawk at a floor-to-ceiling shelf heaving with awards, plus photos of the Song family posing with various members of China’s glitterati, including Mao Zedong’s daughter and a former Chinese foreign minister. 

Lao Song watermelon
Lao Song employee Yun Liu stands in front of awards his family’s watermelons have won

“We are known for our innovative planting methods,” Yun explains. “My grandfather pioneered a way of planting watermelons that would reduce the spread of bacteria. 

“Nowadays, our farm also focuses on tourism. Plus we want to add value to our watermelon, like with our Jing-A cooperation for example.” (The Songs’ watermelons feature in the craft brewery’s watermelon wheat beer.) 

“Panggezhuang has developed very quickly,” Yun says, noting the flashy high-rise apartments that have sprung up along the highway leading to the town. 

 The changes are thanks to the new Daxing airport, says Yun. In 2013, China’s government unveiled plans to build Beijing’s second international airport in Daxing. Located 20km south of the farm, the as-yet unnamed airport is due to open next October. It aims to take the pressure off Beijing Capital International Airport, with 100 million passengers per year. 

Yun has only been to the airport site once, last year. “I took a bus there. The area was very messy – [it’s just] a wasteland. But it’s under construction every day, 24-hours, non-stop.” 

The Songs are lucky. Altogether, 33 rural villages in Daxing will be affected by the airport construction, and 13 face demolition. More than 20,000 people will have to move, according to a report by Sina. Residents of the demolished areas will receive compensation for the relocation (the exact amount depends on factors such as the area and age of the buildings). 

“After the demolition, the villagers move into apartments and give up planting,” Yun says, before adding that he believes his family’s farm is safe from redevelopment. 

High-rise apartments under construction in Daxing

“Two good things will happen,” Yun says. “First, there will be a population increase. All kinds of workers will move near our farm to live and work. Also, people who fly in and out will pass by our area. Secondly: logistics. If we take our watermelons to Shunyi airport, our costs go up. The new airport will help us cut costs.” 

But others are skeptical. 

“I have no idea why the government chose to develop a new airport so far away from the city,” says Li Pengfei, an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at Queens College, City University of New York. Li has studied Daxing’s high-rise apartment construction over the years. “The Beijing planning committee’s basic idea for the city’s future, according to the Beijing Master Plan 2020-2035 [released last year], is to cap the population at 23 million. 

“But right now, it’s already at 23 million. So the [local government] has to either push people away or keep people away. And yet they’re constructing a new airport so far away from the city – the obvious consequence being that urban development will follow.” 

“The new airport will benefit us because all kinds of workers will move near our farm to live and work”

The new airport is set even further away from the center of Beijing than its counterpart in northern Shunyi district – it is almost two times the distance. Yet its location, smack on the border of Daxing and Langfang (a city in Hebei province) is strategic: the airport is in prime Jing-Jin-Ji position, an integration of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei that aims to bolster economic development. 

China Southern, China Eastern and Beijing Capital Airlines will all be based at the new airport, and after a Beijing-Xiongan intercity high-speed railway opens next year, the trip between Xiongan in Hebei and the new airport will be a swift 20 minutes. Announced with much fanfare last year, Xiongan New Area will serve as a development hub for Jing-Jin-Ji while ‘non-core’ functions of the capital are also expected to be moved there. Transport is considered crucial to making the plan work. 

READ MORE: Opening Date Announced for Beijing's Brand New Airport

Despite all the recent urban development, Daxing is perhaps best known for its jumble of warehouses, factories and urban villages, all of which have contributed to the area’s “bad reputation,” Li says. 


Qiyibainian Community stands in a former urban village site

Like Beijing’s other outlying districts, Daxing is full of urban villages. Straddling both the city’s outskirts and the downtown areas, they are characterized by poor infrastructure and living conditions. 

The densely packed, yet lively areas tend to attract lower-income residents, hence the “bad reputation.” 

Daxing’s urban villages fall between the South Third and Fifth Ring Roads. “It’s a very funny thing [about Daxing],” Li says. “It’s more urbanized [further out from the city center] between the South Fifth and Sixth Ring Roads.” 

The district made international headlines in November when a fire tore through a residential building in Xinjian, an urban village in Daxing, killing 19 people and injuring eight. The incident prompted a citywide crackdown on illegal and unsafe construction by local authorities, resulting in tens of thousands of residents, many of them poor migrants, being forced to leave their homes. Unable to afford higher rents, many returned to their hometowns. 

“Life here is good. We’d like to stay, but if the village gets demolished, we’ll return home to Hebei”

Yet urban villages persist. “It’s not easy to demolish them all because the environment is already well built-up. These are crowded... with tens of thousands of residents,” Li says. 

Lucheng, further north, is one of them. On the drive there, the high-rise skyline levels out and the roads seem dustier. We search the dining app Dianping for restaurant suggestions – the nearest highly-recommended joint is kilometers away. Compared to the city, Lucheng is a backwater – a fascinating microcosm that exists solely on its own. It’s a blistering hot day and, inside the village, we meet a shirtless Laobeijing resting in the shade. The resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, has lived in Lucheng for more than 50 years. “I grew up here,” he says. “This village holds all different kinds of people, including migrants and locals. It’s like a rural-urban continuum.” 

Lucheng urban village straddles the city's fringes and downtown areas 

 Lucheng residents carry about their business in the urban village

The man is a farmer, and says he makes about RMB200 a month. “The local government has taken my farmland back. They said they would demolish Lucheng several years ago, but they still haven’t. I heard the authorities would build apartments south of our village after the demolition.” Wan Yun moved to the village after she was married in 2014. “My husband and his family have worked here for a long time. We are originally from Henan,” she says. 

“When they first came, life was better here. The rent was cheaper and there were more people living here. But when the authorities said they would demolish the village several years ago, people moved out. If [our home gets] demolished we’ll go to Hebei. Life in Beijing is too hard, not because of the cost of living but because of all the restrictions for non-locals.” 

The main road is full of modest stores peddling an assortment of goods: Cheap smartphones, ironic slogan T-shirts and streetside sausage – all the essentials. The manager of a local clothing store, who gives her last name as Liang, also moved to Lucheng to join her husband. “I used to live in another urban village in Daxing, but it was demolished. Life here is good. We’d like to stay but if the village gets demolished, we’ll return home to Hebei.” 

“This village holds all different kinds of people, including migrants and locals. It’s like a rural-urban continuum” 

Relocated Daxing locals receive compensation, with the amount depending on the headcount of each household, a local real estate developer named Ba Kaiqin tells us. The trade is a plot of land for a small apartment. 

Further north in Daxing, the residents of Qiyibainian Community moved into their new apartments in 2010, after their urban village was destroyed to make way for development. 

During a visit to the community, one resident surnamed Chen tells us the place has barely changed over the past eight years. “The local government gave us a big discount on our apartment. The living standard has risen a little bit, but it’s useless. Our salary hasn’t increased and the [poor public] transportation is just as the same as before. The development here is not as good as the situation in the north of Daxing. In the past, the housing price here was RMB10,000 per square meter, but now it’s tripled. It’s a bit too expensive now.” 

Meanwhile, neighbor Chu is effusive about the changes. “The whole area has become better and better,” he says. “I rent this apartment for RMB5,000 per month.” It seems a little pricey considering how far away the place is from the city center, but Chu says it’s because “we’re near Xinfadi [Warehouse], so there are a lot of business people here.” 

 Xinfadi warehouse attracts buyers to the district

The migrants who used to live in Xinfadi moved to Lucheng, professor Li says. “Even though the local government is cracking down on urban villages, people will find a place and a price that suits them. For example, many migrants left Beijing after the fire [in Daxing] last year – but many also stayed.” 

The Beijing Municipal Commission of Development and Reform recently launched its three-year plan (2018-2020), which is an attempt “to better tackle the imbalance between the development of the north and south of the city.” The plan targets Yizhuang, a town in Daxing past the Fifth Ring Road that also goes by the name Beijing Economic and Technological Development Area, or E-Town. 

“Even though the local government is cracking down on urban villages, people will find a place and price that suits them”

Since its construction in 1992, the area, which was once farmland, has shifted from manufacturing to hosting the headquarters of companies like Coca-Cola and General Electric, and to its current focus on IT and robotics (Yizhuang hosted the World Robot Conference last year). 

The area itself is attractive, complete with large swaths of greenery and shiny new malls and office buildings. It looks like a perfectly nice slice of suburbia. 

“Have you heard of the saying, ‘Jingdong’s Yizhuang’?” Ba Kaiqin asks us over lunch at a newly opened Wagas. The real estate developer says the massive e-commerce company plans to spend RMB300 billion moving its operations to Yizhuang. 

 Shoppers self-check-out at JD’s ‘smart supermarket’ in Yizhuang

“[Jingdong] chose Yizhuang because it’s cheap. It’s mainly the result of cooperation between the company and the Yizhuang government. JD’s employees will receive special treatment such as free dorms in the neighborhood and free transportation.” 

The move will also benefit the area at large, Ba says. “Liu Qiangdong, the CEO of JD, is working with the local government to move some of the top-tier schools down here. Then, the value of the whole area will increase, attracting more companies and people.” 

Ba and his wife Zhang Tianyun moved to Yizhuang last year. After selling their apartment in Tuanjiehu, the savvy couple shifted south, where they had bought an apartment for RMB28,000 per square meter back in 2015 (the price has more than doubled in value since). 

The Yizhuang subway line, which opened in 2010, makes traveling within the E-Town easy. The problem is trying to get out of Yizhuang, Zhang says: “If you want to travel to other parts of the city, its very, very hard. 

“I taxi or drive to work in Guomao because taking the Yizhuang line isn’t very convenient. The traffic during rush hour is awful – it’s a disaster – because the lack of good public transport options in the area means that everyone else drives, too.” 

Commuters line up at the Rongjingdongjie stop on the Yizhuang line

Yizhuang is just as cut off from the rest of Daxing district itself. Aside from the Yizhuang line, just one other subway line serves the entire district, a whopping 1,012 square kilometer area – the ‘Daxing line,’ which is basically a continuation south of Line 4. 

Line 17 will soon run from areas like Tuanjiehu down to Yizhuang, but there are currently no plans for any lines to connect the different centers of Daxing, Zhang tells us. 

On the other hand, Yizhuang seems to have it all. Next to Wagas is a Starbucks Reserve, populated by customers sipping on specialty small-batch roasts for up to RMB70 a cup; a photography exhibition; and popular Beijing brewery NBeer’s latest outpost. 

Pangpang, the manager of NBeer’s new branch, tells us: “Business is not bad here. It’s improving as more of these offices open.” He gestures towards the tall buildings outside. “There are a lot of international companies in Yizhuang, so we get a mix of local and foreign customers.” 

Pangpang moved to the area indefinitely to support the opening of the brewery. “It’s quieter here,” he admits. “And harder to get into the city.” 

Along with Yizhuang and the new airport area, Daxing has another ‘center’ – Huangcun Town. Like the other two centers, Huangcun sits outside the South Fifth Ring Road. The urban-village-turned-district-government-area was developed in the early 2000s by developers from the city, followed by big-name groups like Vanke. “They constructed the ‘New Daxing,’” Professor Li says. “Unlike Yizhuang, there are no good jobs there, but the housing market is very lucrative.” 

The streets of Huangcun are clean, lined with modern-looking apartments and shopping malls. A local taxi driver, surnamed Huang, tells us that housing prices in the area have doubled since the subway line was built. “My niece works in town – she takes the subway. More than half of the people here work in Beijing. I would say job opportunities in Huangcun are OK, but there are more opportunities now, like in tourism and agriculture.” 

The Lao Song farm is already taking advantage of just that. In a greenhouse at the farm, tourists take photos beside an uncommonly large calabash hanging from the ceiling, and inside the reception area Yun proudly shows us the farm’s award-winning 300kg pumpkin. 

“Hold a phone up against it to show how big it is!” he says. 

It feels like the real Daxing, country roots and all.

[Images via Dominique Wong and Lu Qinxin]

This feature is our September 2018 cover story:


Check out the full issue in digital pdf form right here or in your browser here

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