Hiker Diary – Episode 3

This is Buke’s third take on letting you see Shenyang through a different lens. Today’s episode is about a small gem in our very midst – Shenyang’s Workers’ Village. But let him tell you in his own words…

People tend to side with the powerful. In Chinese we call it ‘holding the big legs’. Shortly after arriving at Xiamen University years ago, I attended a so-called Hometown Fellows Party for the first time and was introduced to a lot of students who were from Shenyang like me. Surprised by their number, I suddenly felt less homesick. However, before the party ended, I realized that only five of them were really from Shenyang, while others hailed from Xinmin (very suburban Shenyang), Fushun (neighboring suburban Shenyang), or even Haicheng (totally nothing to do with Shenyang).

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Where the “Shenyangers” in Xiamen were actually from

Incidentally, I also found that two ‘Dalian’ guys were actually from Zhuanghe (half-way between Dalian and Dandong, maybe a little closer to Dandong). In my later university years, I realized this kind of thing happened even worse to those from Beijing. People from the entire Hebei Province all said they were Beijingers, even some from the northern part of Henan Province tried to make people believe the capital was where they were actually from. The 2022 Winter Olympics are called the Beijing Winter Olympics, but they will in fact be held in Zhangjiakou, around 200km north of Beijing. This sort oft hing does not only happen in China. When I was in Reading University, England, I heard people claim to be Oxford students on multiple occasions, because Reading University was originally established as an extension of Oxford University in the late 1800s. Holding the big legs seems quite a universal thing, which is understandable. People all want to be respected.

When we Shenyangers try hard to look for something to be proud of, for some legs to hold, we should turn to our own parents. They had a solid reason to feel proud, and were enormously respected nationwide. Because, once upon a time, Shenyang was China’s biggest leg to hold. We all heard about Shenyang’s many nicknames, Eastern Ruhr, China’s First Son, Mother China’s Breasts, but do we know why? Because when China was established as a new country on the ruins of what came before, the war had consumed most of it. At that key moment, in all of China, Shenyang had the strongest industrial infrastructure, the most comprehensive industrial categories, and the biggest population of skilled workers. Simply speaking, Shenyang had everything. People bustled, machines roared, and Shenyang produced, day and night, to equip the whole country with means of production, and help other places build up their own abilities. Shenyang people were deeply appreciated and respected by the whole country. As every group has a core, of Shenyang people the proudest ones were the workers, and of the workers, it was the ones who lived in Workers’ Village.

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View of a street inside Workers’ Village with its typical architecture

And where is Workers’ Village? The area used to be a vegetable field. In 1952, when Chairman Mao instructed ‘to improve workers’ living standard based on progress of production’, the Workers’ Village was born. By 1957, it became a conglomerate of about 150 residential buildings with 3 floors and red bricks on a piece land 700,000m3 big. These buildings, by adopting Soviet Union designs, had been dubbed with quite a funny name born of Northeastern wit. They were called potted ridge-roof buildings, or Pots in short. At that time, only people with extraordinary identities or skills were allocated to live in the Pots. They were factory officials, model workers, senior skilled workers, and intellectuals. Basically, they were the elite of the elites.

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Potted Ridge-Roof Buildings by Soviet Union design 

One can easily imagine a typical Village picture in that roaring age. Among these red Pots, there very sporadic schools, kindergartens, grocers, restaurants, photo studios, medical stations, grain shops, post offices, and savings banks. In every yard encircled by Pots, the plants grew riotously, people entertained beside flower beds at whose center usually stood a communist style statue, and children played on slides and swings. The simple-minded villagers went to work every day in similar clothes, with exactly the same smiles and passions. In the evening, they came back home to this big village family. Life was so beautiful. Communism seemed already around the corner.

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Grannies playing cards

Today wandering in the old Village area, occasionally and luckily, we can still see some Pots, disconnected from each other. But their number has dramatically decreased. Now, tall modern apartment buildings dominate the Village’s landscape. Nonetheless, every time a Pot building appears, the clock of my heart chunks as if it goes back to that age. The remaining Pots have turned dark red. Their façade incomplete, covered by communist slogans faded in color but ever powerful in content. Around the building’s corner, there is always a window of a tiny shop, behind it always a middle-aged lady with saggy breasts selling local beers. The bicycle shed is even darker inside, no idea how people find their bikes. Old people are everywhere, under trees, in corridors, some with canes, and some on wheels. They were the biggest legs in old times. Don’t forget the rusted slides, whose new function is being a hanger for bed sheets. In flower beds, there are still the statues of chubby children or vibrant teenagers, dirty and cracked.

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Frolicking cherubs, a tad past their prime

Outside the yards and along the streets, bicycles lean on every wall and pole, and some of them are White Mountains, a Shenyang brand. Never mind that the factory which made them was already closed down in the Cretaceous period. Villagers are highly recognizable, in cheap and casual clothes. They behave in the typical Shenyang way, and talk in the most mundane language, having the indescribable power to instantly shorten the distance between speaker and listener.

I just love to walk in the old Village area. It makes me feel simple and unsophisticated, and calms me down. I believe all Shenyangers have something in common in our characters shaped by the zeitgeist of this city through the ages. Here in Workers Village, you can find the very basic Shenyang character: straight, simple, warm-hearted, considerate, with a low sense of self-interest. Meanwhile, on the other hand: dependent, big-talking, extreme, edgy, and with a low sense of regulations.

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The new face of Workers’ Village, not so different from the rest of the city

Workers’ Village is an epitome of Shenyang, going through a dramatic change and calling for resurrection. In the west, blocks of new buildings were built in recent years. They are called New Workers’ Village, and their residents are all relocated from the old one. I talked to some if they missed the old Village, and none of them really did. After all, although still very dear, the old Village was in such poor repair. Those still living in it all look forward to receiving a relocation arrangement from the government. The relocation is ongoing. Just last summer, several Pots were dismantled along Zangong Street.

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Dismantling of some Pot Buildings in the Village on July 7, 2015

Perhaps sooner or later the whole Village will disappear, maybe even villagers’ behavioral patterns and philosophy of living. Workers’ Village might eventually transform into a symbol, sealed on a page of Shenyang and Chinese history.

How to find the remaining Workers’ Village?

  • In Tiexi District, between No.10 Road and No.12 Road
  • Go westward, but no more than to Zhonggong Street. There are only a few pots to be found that far west.
  • Doesn’t matter if you know nothing about Potted Ridge-Roofs. Just look for 3-floored and dark red buildings heavily populated by grandpas and grandmas. I hope you find the Village and see some aged heroes. But not necessarily to hold their legs. It’s not the 1950s any more. Plus, they might fall and break them. Or a hip.

Extra tip: Bring your ID. In case you happen to see the Workers Village Museum (I’ll do it in another episode), don’t hesitate and just go in.

We hope you liked Buke’s description of Workers’ Village. If so, share the post with your loved (and liked) ones. You could also use your free time during Golden Week to check out this or one of the other locations Buke has introduced so far. And follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, WeChat and our blog for frequent updates from Landing East.

written by Buke Wang

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