The sprawling suburban neighborhood in Beijing is getting a facelift to raise living standards. Xin Wen reports.
The region to the north of Beijing's Fifth Ring Road is dominated by Tiantongyuan, an enormous neighborhood reputed to be the largest residential area in Asia that houses approximately 700,000 people.
The area, which is home to more than 3 percent of the city's population, mainly migrant workers, is nicknamed "Sleeper Town" because a lack of amenities and entertainment facilities mean most of the residents only go there to rest.
Located at the end of subway line 5, a major route connecting the downtown to the northern suburbs, Tiantongyuan attracted its huge population as a result of its low property prices and relatively convenient location.
However, its dilapidated condition is a major headache for the city and the area faces a host of problems, including a lack of infrastructure, both social and industrial, allied to heavy traffic congestion.
Priced at 2,650 yuan per square meter in 1999, Tiantongyuan was built to provide affordable housing. Nearly 20 years later, property prices in the community have risen more than fourteenfold to 38,000 yuan ($5,600) per sq m.
Covering 480,000 sq m, Tiantongyuan includes five major communities with 18 subdistricts that were built in 2000. In the first three years of the century, the population quickly rose to more than 100,000.
The family of Beijing native Du Bo moved to Tiantongyuan in 2005 because at 5,600 yuan per sq m the area was still relatively cheap.
"Our old home in Haidian district was scheduled for urgent demolition, so we had to find another place to live," the 26-year-old said.
Though the family would have preferred an apartment in the downtown, Du's parents could not afford to move to such an expensive area. The urgency of the situation meant the family of four, which included his grandfather, had no alternative but to move to the 120-sq-m, three-bedroom apartment in Tiantongyuan.
"Dirty" and "chaotic" were Du's first impressions of the neighborhood. Unlicensed traders blocked the roads, meaning people could not park their cars, and feral cats and dogs often appeared on the streets. As a result, some people simply bought apartments to rent to tenants.
Du said he has heard that in a building near his tower block, one bedroom can accommodate eight people. "It's like a dormitory at college," he said.
Despite the deterioration in conditions, the abundance of apartments and relatively low prices continue to attract young and first-time buyers, as well as tenants. Speaking in a range of accents, a substantial number of residents squeeze into buses and the subway every morning and head to work.
Chen Mo is one of them. After studying in the capital for seven years, he chose to settle in the city after graduation. In 2001, he took a job with State Grid Corp, the national electricity generator.
Initially, Chen rented an apartment in Huilongguan, a crowded community in Changping district, 10 kilometers west of Tiantongyuan's center, that was well-known for its affordable property.
Served by subway line 13, Changping's relative ease of access to public transportation attracted Chen, so he decided to buy an apartment there in 2010.
After months of research, he discovered that he could buy an apartment of more than 100 sq m in Huilongguan for 30,000 yuan per sq m, which would only be enough for a home of 50 to 60 sq m in other parts of the city.
"Property prices doubled in Huilongguan in just six months, so I made the down payment in 2011 without any hesitation," he said.
Many others followed suit, so a dense population and heavy traffic congestion quickly became the community's default setting. However, without any industry to provide jobs and with few high-quality schools, many people chose to leave once they had made enough money.
Chen and Du are now also considering leaving.
Chen was single when he bought his apartment, but since marrying and starting a family, the 38-year-old has moved twice within the community.
To avoid the morning rush hour, Chen has to get up before 6 am every day and catch the subway to Xicheng district, in the west of the city, before 7 am. His wife, Zhu Zhu, who also works in Xicheng but drives to her job, has to get up at 5 am to avoid traffic congestion.
The 35-year-old said that when she was pregnant and underwent prenatal examinations, the drive to the hospital usually took an hour.
"However, if I encountered a traffic jam, I had to endure a three-hour round trip," she said.
Regular access to medical services is still a problem. Though the community has six high-quality hospitals and 30 health clinics, Zhu said she doesn't trust the quality of service, so if her son falls ill she takes him to the downtown for treatment.
Before buying his apartment, Chen didn't realize that Changping lacked high-quality schools.
He is now considering renting an apartment in the downtown when his son, now 3, is old enough to attend primary school.
Du has other considerations. Last year, the situation in Tiantongyuan became so bad that he decided to look for a new home in a different neighborhood. He is still looking. "I am still searching for an affordable apartment," said the financial sector management trainee.
To eradicate the problems in the capital's suburb in August, the Beijing government launched a three-year, 20-billion-yuan action plan focusing on 97 projects.
However, having since consulted with 17 commissions and bureaus, the aim is now to work on more than 100 projects.
Cai Qi, Party secretary of Beijing, said the city's urban planners should look at ways of implementing Tiantongyuan's original functions to improve living standards and provide better, happier homes.
The plan is part of a citywide campaign to build the capital into a world-class city in accordance with the Beijing Overall Urban Development Plan published in October 2017. It will run until 2030.
Li Ding, associate professor at the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University of China, has studied Huilongguan for more than five years.
He said the upgrade is badly needed, so the action plan should have been formulated earlier. Moreover, as the lack of major infrastructure is not an issue residents can tackle, the local government must assume the responsibility.
"Most Huilongguan residents are highly educated, so their demand for educational and cultural facilities is much higher," Li said.
Since renovation work began at a 19-hectare sports and cultural park in Huilongguan, Li has noticed changes in the community.
"Some old sports facilities have been demolished and the park has been divided into four zones to provide a modern facility," he said.
According to the Beijing Municipal Development and Reform Commission, there are plans to build six kindergartens as well as three primary and two secondary schools to satisfy residents' needs.
A younger generation of residents－80 percent of them tenants and many of them migrant workers－now occupies Tiantongyuan.
At weekends, a number of community centers on one street in Huilongguan are filled with people. One of the most popular centers is a children's library called "Happy Book Kid", whose owner, Wang Yanping, has lived in the community for more than 10 years.
As a migrant worker for more than 20 years, the 40-year-old said she always wanted a settled place of her own so she could get to know more people and gain a sense of belonging.
She established the library at the end of 2013 with the aim of providing a range of books that children could read and study after school.
At weekends, the library is packed as parents bring their children to participate in a range of activities, including drama performances, poetry recitals and handicraft classes.
"If just one kid becomes interested in reading, I will have made a contribution to their life," Wang said.
"A rising number of families treat the library as a place to gather, and they love being here."
Li, the professor, is a regular visitor, and he and his wife often bring their 3-year-old daughter to participate in the activities. He has also established a discussion group in Huilongguan in the hope of using people's input to build a better area.
"Everyone has an idea of the kind of life they want to live, and to live in a better community is everyone's dream," he said.
In an interview with 21st Century Business Herald, Tian Zaiwei, CEO of Shuntiantong Co, the company overseeing Tiantongyuan's redevelopment, said the neighborhood covers the same area as many medium-sized cities overseas. That means there is still a long way to go, because construction and improvement of a city can often take decades or even 100 years.
After 20 years, Tiantongyuan has slowly filled its developmental gaps, and despite the lack of infrastructure, the congestion and dense population, it remains an area that many people consider when looking to buy property.