Jinhua (金华) is a prefecture-level city in China’s Zhejiang Province. It counts population of 5.4 million in its administrative division, putting it roughly on par with the Atlanta metro area. In China scale however, it would generally be considered a third-tier city, with the second consisting of cities like larger, wealthier neighbor Hangzhou (pop. 8.7 million), and Shanghai and Beijing at the top rung. The city has a robust economy consisting primarily of processing and manufacturing industries.
Jinhua also happens to be where my wife spent her high school years and where the majority of her family still live. Thus, all of our visits to China bring us through Jinhua for at least a weekend or, as on our last trip, an extended stay. Though I was already familiar with parts of the city, on this trip I wanted to make special effort to explore new places, with an eye toward some of the public space themes I’m addressing in my work to make communities more walkable, livable and lovable. In this post, I’ll share what I found, as well as interesting perspectives from family members, in a composite “day in the life” of the city.
Rise and Shine
Our parents live on the south bank of the Wu River. 4AM jetlagged wakeups gave me plenty of opportunities to catch the sun rise over the central business district. Over the last several years, the city has invested in developing the space between the neighborhood and river into a public park with walking and cycling paths. Eventually, the opposite bank and the island in the middle will receive similar makeovers. The space on the south bank was already used by residents for just such purposes prior to the work. Many of the new paths actually reflect the original desire lines etched into the ground by thousands of footsteps.
The sunrise brings out walkers, runners, musicians, taijiquan practitioners, and many people just on the way to pickup the day’s groceries:
When we stay in Jinhua, all of the food we eat was either pulled out of the ground or had its head cut off that morning. Some things are still animate when we get them home, to the delight of the under 10 crowd. This is possible because of local open air and street markets that are dispersed around the city and generally within walking distance of residential neighborhoods. Ours is reached in 10 minutes on foot, by either the river walk or main street.
Have a look and listen:
What Makes a Home
This is the main entrance to our xiaoqu (小区), an urban form that doesn’t quite have a western equivalent, and is therefore difficult to translate. The blog The Fake China has a great primer post on the elements of xiaoqu. To summarize, it’s a space within a block that is primarily residential, though not entirely private, surrounded by walls but with multiple gates and entrances. You would not require a key or permission from the guard to enter. The multi-level housing buildings are arranged around common lanes and court yards, and there may be small vendors or shops on the ground level of some.
Our xiaoqu happens to have an elementary school just inside its wall. One of our cousins works here and has an arduous commute of 50 meters door to door.
Common spaces create natural gathering points for neighbors.
This convenience store offers food and sundry, but also a concierge-like service to find day labor for various personal and commercial needs.
No space is wasted. The communal planting beds are full of edibles.
This is our building.
Mei is supervising her grandfather.
High speed and normal rail will get you to Jinhua. Once there, buses and taxis will take you anywhere you need to go.
This bus terminal on the south side of the city allows you to transfer to longer distance buses to reach destinations farther away from the core and its periphery.
Scooters, both gas and electric powered, are also popular.
The main parts of the city have very generous pedestrian and cycling lanes. Unfortunately, some car drivers have gotten the idea that these are also meant to be service roads for them to bypass the main street or to park in front of businesses that abut the sidewalk (more on this problem below).
Several times while I was there, my father-in-law made comments about how rapid development and rising incomes have changed the character of Jinhua, and not all in good ways. One of the most glaring problems is what you see above and below. Baba says that even 20 years ago no one could really have imagined that there would be so many private cars running around the city. It just wasn’t the kind of thing that most people had the means to obtain. Few cars meant little need for parking lots. The consequence of which is that drivers (and the businesses they patronize) have essentially appropriated what should be the public sidewalk for private use, clogging it up with parked cars to the point that some blocks become impassable.
To the Village
Our parents are now in the core of the city, but lived out in the villages as children. My wife also spent time here as a child, when visiting her grandparents.
We made the trip (by bus) to visit her grandparents’ grave, which happened to end up in the middle of what is now a citrus grove. Sorry that my camera can’t record the smell for you.
Between home and the village, we passed through an outpost town, the last point where you’ll see modern infrastructure before turning over to open land and villages. What I loved was that, even this far away from the Jinhua center of gravity, it wasn’t difficult to find vibrant street life.
Tea House Culture
It wasn’t difficult to explain third place to my father-in-law, as China has something that epitomizes the concept in its teahouses (茶馆). Though plenty of places in the modern cities will fit the form, for this side project I wanted to see the real thing. Back to the village.
Back in Jinhua proper, I set about looking for examples of development that promotes walkable neighborhoods and lively streets. The first stop was Xinhua Street (新华街), a recently pedestrianized shopping district which runs parallel to Huixi Park in the central business district. The conversion of the street was so recent that Google Maps satellite images still show traffic, and walking around you can spot a few places that are still waiting for finishing touches.
As it was the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, things were on the quiet side. Activity picks up on evenings and weekends.
Xinhua Street is clean, shiny and cheerful, if lacking some of the grit and charm that make older parts of Chinese cities endearing. The large scale of everything comes off as intended to impress. It’s like a slice of the big city that was just dropped in place.
I couldn’t help but see that the much humbler neighborhood vendors and shops we found just a short walk away were much more attuned to the needs of most folks.
Integrating basic services such as food and grocery is what helps neighborhoods like this pass the popsicle test.
Back at home after multiple outings with Baba, I tried to ask family members where I should go to find more of the places that had active street life. I told them I wanted to see lots of people, shops and places to meet, eat, greet, etc. The response I got was great: “So, you mean a normal street?” My in-laws have spent time with us in the US, so they understand that in our suburbs and exurbs this kind of thing is something of an endangered species, if not completely missing. For everyone else, they were happy to oblige the foreigner who asked weird questions, even if they didn’t understand what I thought was so interesting about the place they live.
Around the world, it’s not uncommon to find a craft or cuisine that is associated with a specific place or region. China seems to take this to an extreme, with what appears to be almost every town having something that’s offered as a unique specialty. Jinhua is most known for its cured ham and these subing (crispy, baked bun with sweet or savory filling). The aroma from subing baking in kilns placed on the street is hard to pass by. Savvy marketing if ever there was.
In the west, creating public space often involves a fair amount of infrastructure, manicured landscape, etc. In China, all you need is a table and some chairs.
Baba and I made our way along the river walk after dinner one night, to make a circuit of several of the nearby night markets. Both the park and the streets vibrated with people moving to and fro, out for dinner, shopping or (like us) just to take in the scene. It was then that he really began to understand what I was getting at. “Every night this place is full of people. You don’t have this in America, right?” For Baba, South Orange NJ stands in for all of America, but the conclusion is unfortunately true for many of our communities, big and small. I happen to think our little transit village is a pretty nice place, but I have to concede that things get pretty quiet after 6pm. In a big city like New York, it’s easier to find neighborhoods that keep moving well after dark, but even there I often get the sense that these are more like destinations where you go to have fun before returning to your quiet residential block or apartment tower. In Jinhua, neighborhoods like this create their own integrated scene.
No matter the time of day, it seems there are always people out interacting with their environment and with each other. Markets are just one of many examples, and there are purely social activities as well. Taijiquan is popular both in early morning and late at night. In the evening, you’ll also encounter dancing and small groups singing pieces from local opera in Jinhua dialect.
The sense that a place is lively, noisy and rich with opportunities for social interaction is part of the Chinese concept of renao (热闹). Renao can spur excitement and good feelings toward a place and the activity in that place, precisely because of how busy and noisy it is. It’s a good word to describe most of what I’ve attempted to capture in these images and videos.
As in cities throughout China, Jinhua nurtures things like renao and other aspects of community identity by building or maintaining neighborhoods that support walking and cycling as preferred modes of transportation, and contain ample space for person to person interaction. The disconnect created by the emergence of cars (which both claim space and isolate people from each other) stands out in contrast, more so than it does in the US. My hope is that, in Jinhua and all around China, as people move up the income ladder they understand that the North American norm of car ownership and resultant car dependent communities is not the only model of development. The rest of the world can also learn a thing or two from China about how to make great communities. Renao is a good place to start.