The social landscape of China changes with the physical. Look for the hills to find the old communities and a way of life that doesn’t consist of driving a Porsche to Walmart.
To find the poor in China head for the nearest hill. This is a country that’s urbanizing faster and more extensively than has ever been exemplified in human history, and cities are swallowing up rural areas that were once far from their peripheries in colossal gulps of development.
Seemingly, the poor live in the hills here not out of preference or necessity but because the steep terrain appears to act as a barrier to development. The communities that were built on the sides of these physical inclines are often left untouched, as the uber-modern city flows around them like a river parting ways around a boulder. Luxury high-rises and villas, shopping malls and theme parks are built on flat land here, the developers have yet to look up — or when they do they only think of ways to demolish and relocate the mountains as they do to just about everything else that lies in their path.
The people living on steep gradients here are apparently not worth the hassle to relocate and their concrete and rebar hovels and communist-esque housing blocks are not occupying valuable enough real estate to bother demolishing. So now China has super rich, brand new housing complexes butting up against hills whose communities are often all that’s left of their respective city districts prior to the building and urbanization boom.
The hills that flank the south side of Xiamen rise right behind my door. They’ve been taunting me since I’ve arrived a few weeks ago, saying, “Stop writing about migration and ghost cities and moose knuckles and get up here.”
So I crossed over a highway and started ascending the ridge that divides the southern interior of Xiamen from the coast. Crossing a street and climbing 50 meters was enough to observe a stark change in my surroundings. In just a few steps I went from an ultra-expensive housing complex where people drive Porsches to a place were the people live in caged-in cubicles that look like dog crates piled up 15 high and 20 wide, as well as shoddily built single story brick and concrete hovels that bend and wind in tandem with the narrow road that snakes up the side of the hill.
This is one of the last remaining villages in this part of Xiamen, but it’s only a fraction of what it once was only a decade ago. Everything that was on flat land had either been rapidly redeveloped with new housing complexes and shopping malls or has been cleared for such in the near future. The hill itself acted as a protective wall that has kept the tide of development at bay, allowing a sliver of old Xiamen to be left in its wake.
The people here are different as well. They make eye contact with me as I walk by, they are open to chatting, they ask me where I’m going and where I’m from. In the newer housing complex below, where I’m staying, my neighbors don’t look at me, they don’t talk to me, and they pretty much pretend that I don’t exist. But it’s not just me, they treat everybody like this.
In the new housing complexes of China — the places where a scattered diaspora of people from all over the country and, for that matter, the world live — the residents go into their apartments to hide. When communities are left intact, such as when entire villages are relocated to the same place, the new apartment complexes can have a very neighborly feel, but when neighborhoods are filled with representatives from other geographical realms who speak different dialects and languages, that sense of community is far less apparent. The people in these places stomp-walk to and from their front doors with their eyes down and their blinders up. They don’t doddle in the outdoor common areas, they don’t talk with the strangers who live in immediate proximity to them, they just use their house as little more than a place of refuge.
I walked up into the hills looking for some trails to get into the wooded area that covers the top of the ridge. As I ascended, I cut down a side path and ended up at a small, slimy water trap. I kept walking and ended up back at the road that wound up the incline. There I found myself standing before a sign that said:
“Enhance vigilance guard against spy.”
It made me wonder how, exactly, someone should enhance such vigilance and who, exactly, should be guarded against as a spy? The fact that it was also translated into English made me wonder if I should be enhancing vigilance too. I photographed the sign and then felt a touch conspicuous. Was that spy-like behavior? Was someone going to guard against me? A car pulled up and began idling at my side. The people in it were staring at me, and for a second I thought they were going to get out and enhance some vigilance on my ass, but then it became apparent that they were far more interested in looking at the tattooing that covers my arms, hands, and neck than preserving national security.
So much for vigilance.
But I knew this meant one thing: I would be coming upon a military base soon. Signs like this are leftovers from another area, and are pretty much only used in military areas, but it was an astute reminder that not too long ago Xiamen was a heavily militarized zone — and in many ways it still is.
Xiamen was the final frontier of the Mao lead People’s Liberation Army’s assault on the Chiang Kai-Shek led Kuomingtang, or the Republic of China, which made it’s last stand a couple kilometers away on Kinmen island and Taiwan beyond. For 20 years both islands were essentially big military bases, with each side taking turns shelling the other with propaganda leaflets. One day Kinmen would fire upon Xiamen, the next day Xiamen would fire upon Kinmen. It was one of the most surreal, protracted, face-saving military standoffs in history. The PLA couldn’t defeat the Kuomingtang on Kinmen and Taiwan, and there was no way that the Kuomingtang was going to be able to recapture mainland China. So the two sides just stood on the shores of their respective islands for twenty years looking at each other.
Apparently, they eventually got bored. Though Kinmen is still a part of Taiwan, the military tension has simmered down to a lukewarm temperature. Once in a while there is a brief flair up, but for the most part Kinmen people freely travel to Xiamen and Xiamen people freely travel to Kinmen. On the ground on both sides, the once excessive militarization has become the stuff of museums and even when you see the soldiers today they seem more like stage props in a theater than anything threatening.
Though this can always change fast. If tensions ever did boil over between Taiwan and mainland China, Xiamen and Kinmen would again become the staging ground of the conflict — they are so close to each other that a bridge could be built between them.
So I was not surprised when my hike suddenly came to an end after I ascended to the top of the ridge and found myself at a gate guarded by soldiers. Two teenage boys with AKs stood outside of a little booth and nervously watched me approach. It wasn’t my impression that they looked nervous because they would soon need to maintain vigilance against an intruder, but because of the possibility that I would try to make them speak English or something. When I addressed them in Mandarin the tension deflated, and they politely explained that I could not continue my walk because they like to play army with their buddies on the other side of the hill.