The balancing act of retaining the old, embracing the new

Transforming rural villages doesn't have to mean relocating residents or destroying local charm. The face-lift in Zhangma Village is testament to tasteful, even arty modernization.
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Zhangma Village has been cited as "one of the most beautiful and ecological villages" in the nationwide "Beautiful Village" project.

White-walled homes with black-tiled roofs amid a landscape of rice fields, sluggish waterways and muddy footpaths. Elderly residents idling their time and children running about while parents work in fields or have moved to cities for work.

That is the stereotyped picture of rural areas of China. But is it true? For Zhangma Village in suburban Shanghai’s Qingpu District, the answer is yes and no.

On the one-hour drive to this westernmost district of Shanghai, I saw a shepherd tending six sheep grazing on the narrow, grassy verge, a truck carrying hundreds of chickens to market and egrets resting in a paddy field. The scenery was verdant and peaceful.

Located in the southernmost part of the Zhujiajiao Town, Zhangma Village has been cited as “one of the most beautiful and ecological villages” in the nationwide “Beautiful Village” project.

The changing face of rural Shanghai always amazes local villagers.

“I was born and raised in the village,” says 74-year-old Sun Yaozuo. “Being a resident here used to mean inferior status because it was such an economically backward place. The terrain is low-lying, and thus not many crops grow here but rice and cress.”

According to Sun, a local idiom goes: “No matter whether there is food to eat or not, villagers anticipate Spring Festival; no matter whether there are clothes to wear of not, villagers look forward to wedding ceremonies.”

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Sun Yaozuo, 74, was born and grew up in Zhangma Village.

Sun adds, “In my childhood, all the money earned was spent on fertilizer. I once asked my parents to buy me some new clothes, but they said they had to worry about food first. Nowadays, I no longer need to worry about food or clothing. I feel like every day is Spring Festival or a wedding ceremony.”

Having already moved from the village to the town, Sun has rented his house to the Ourland Culture Development Corp in return for a monthly 2,500 yuan (US$362.32). That, coupled with his pension of 6,000 yuan, makes him wealthy in his eyes.

“I could not have dreamed of such a tremendous transformation of my life,” he says.

Perhaps to show me his utter happiness, Sun sang a farm song in the local dialect. Such songs were created by farmers to alleviate the drudgery of work in the fields. The tunes are bright, the lyrics uplifting.

Sun is an “inheritor” of Qingpu field songs, which he often presents as part of a chorus in public events.

The roads of the village are paved and level. No muddy byways here. The cottages have the traditional black-tiled roofs and whitewash exteriors, but they are clean and tidy. The paddy field looks like a carpet of green. It’s now called the “frog-rice field” because frogs are used to keep insect pests in check and raise soil nutrients.

Like other “hollowed-out” villages, the elderly still comprise the largest bloc of residents in Zhangma, but I also encountered some incomers in their 20s who work and live here.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Zhangma has retained the elements of a traditional Chinese village, with black-tiled roofs and whitewash exteriors.

Ti Gong

A senior resident of Zhangma Village walks her dog in the neighborhood.

“I would prefer to call myself a village resident rather than a director of marketing,” says Helen Song, who was born in 1989 and is in charge of marketing for Ourland Culture Development Corp.

“At the beginning, I came here as a visitor with entrepreneurial ambitions. Unexpectedly, I gained more valuable things on the way. Country life has opened up new horizons and reduced my stress in peaceful surroundings,” she says.

Song quit her job in a state-owned enterprise in downtown and, along with three colleagues, established the renovation project in Zhangma. She has now lived here for two years.

The program rented some 40 houses from local villagers and transformed them into a log canoe club, guesthouses, a bistro, a restaurant, a grocery store, a laundry, a flower shop and a store selling original design products.

“The houses are scattered over the village, but the stream connects them all, which is why we created the log canoe club,” Song says. “Members can make their own log canoes and paddle them along the stream. It’s a great way to spend leisure time.”

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The village has a club for paddlers of log canoes.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Retaining the original look of the village was a guiding principle of the renovation, she says. That explains why the exteriors of all cottages look the same. However, each interior is totally different, though they all retain a natural, simple environment.

“The houses are equipped with soundproof windows and thick thermal-protective coating, so they are environmentally friendly,” Song explains. “Each house cost about 200,000 yuan to renovate.”

One guesthouse is themed in paper art, with dozens of pages torn from popular novels pasted on the walls. Some of the creative works are on sale there.

The bistro is decorated with pine planks arranged in geometric patterns. A small, old sampan filled with a variety of snacks sits in the grocery store, along with a Chinese traditional cooking stove. The prices of goods are affordable for the villagers.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

A farmhouse-turned-guesthouse features paper art.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

A bistro is decorated with pine planks arranged in geometric patterns. 

The Time-Fragment Laundry was designed by a 23-year-old village native named Wu Fan. Intriguingly, it’s located in his grandmother’s house, where he lived until he was 6. Before being leased to Song’s team for 10 years, the house had been empty since the death of his grandfather.

“One day, my grandmother telephoned me saying a group of ‘artists’ had come by, asking to rent her house,” Wu says. “I was curious about what was going on, so I returned to the village and met the team. At the time, I was working on a filmmaking crew in downtown Shanghai. Eventually I decided my job was too stressful, so I quit and came back to work in the village.”

Apart from washing clothes, patrons of the laundry have books to read or films to watch while waiting through all the machine cycles.

For Wu, renovating the house for public use was an exciting experience. Since his childhood memories of the place run deep, he tried to retain as many old elements as possible. For example, the original wooden beams were kept, and the traditional fangsheng pattern that symbolizes auspiciousness was used to decorate the facade. The pattern has evolved to become the logo of Zhangma now.

“I was a bit upset when the builder pulled down the wall with graffiti I painted as a child,” Wu says. “But my grandmother was very happy with the new look of the house.”

Wu regards himself as a villager as well as a designer. The dual identity allows him to respect local customs while creating spaces or things to appeal to a broader audience.

He says he has no plans to leave the village and that he enjoys being the “crazy” creator of interesting or odd gadgets.

“Don’t laugh,” he implores me.

Ti Gong

Village native Wu Fan (second from right), 23, and his young team

Ti Gong

According to Song, there are around 30 core members in her team, and the majority of them were born after 1990. They are a disparate group of interesting people from all backgrounds, including a 25-year-old carpenter who was a “nobody” in a furniture company and wanted to do something more creative, and a 22-year-old girl from northern China who dreams of becoming a beauty blogger.

Perhaps the richest reward of rural village renovation is the changing attitudes of people. Fewer residents want to leave in search of greener pastures, and many who have left want to return.

“I have rented out our house for three years,” says Sun. “My son tells me I shouldn’t renew the lease when it comes due because the environment of the village has become so good that he wants us to return.”

I found the transformation of this village very encouraging, especially since many rural renovation projects mean current residents are relocated and much rehabilitation destroys the original charm of countryside locales.

The result in Zhangma Village is down to Song and her team. They are dedicated to retaining the original appearance of village and to improving the lifestyle of villagers.

Of the 73 staff members involved in the project, 49 are villagers who work at cooks, cleaners and waiters. Local farmers supply the restaurant with vegetables, with surpluses sold to visitors.

“We always greet villagers with a smile,” Wu says. “If they have problems, we try to help them. For example, our carpenter helped an elderly man repair a wooden window frame a few days ago. The arrival of young people in an old village gives it new life and energy.”

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Those who want to have rural experience can stay in the recreational vehicles here.

According to Zhu Huigen, Party secretary of Zhangma Village, 117 residents here are 80 years or older. For them, a nursing home is under construction in the village now, which will allow them to rent out their houses for extra money if they so choose, he says.

Zhangma’s renaissance attracts many visitors. Its Xunmeng Park is filled with sunflowers, lavender and roses. Recreational vehicles are available in the park for visitors to stay overnight. During the three-day Dragon Boat Festival in June this year, more than 30,000 people visited the park.

Visitors can also pick local fruit, take strolls through nearby woodland and do some bird watching. For urbanites, it’s a perfect escape from the rat race.

“Chatting under the stars, falling asleep to the chirping of insects — this is a lifestyle that is simple, tranquil and relaxed,” says Song. “I plan to stay here another 10 years.”

If you go:

Take Metro Line 17 to the Zhujiajiao Station and get out at Exit 2. Then take Zhujiajiao Bus No. 3 to the Shentai Road Zhangma Village stop.

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