One of the extraordinary side-effects of China's modern development is the "urban village" phenomenon. It refers to parcels of collectively-owned farmland that have been enclosed by the sprawl of rapidly-urbanising areas, becoming villages in the middle of the city (城中村, chengzhongcun). Although most prevalent in the southern megalopolises of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, there are also numerous village-like communities up north in Beijing.

One example is Huashiying (化石营), also known as Guandongdian (关东店), located just inside the 3rd ring road's eastern section, near the Central Business District (CBD). Passing through its rough back alleys, one can't help but be perplexed (and a bit charmed) by its existence. Half of the village was demolished some years back, but a substantial portion remains and does not appear marked for demolition any time soon.

I first stumbled across this "rural" corner of Beijing in 2018, when it looked like this.

It clearly doesn't seem like a place you'd expect to find in Beijing's downtown CBD. But despite looking rather shabby, the community had in fact just been given a "facelift" of new paving and grey painted walls. The photos of previous visitors, such as Beijing-based historian Jeremiah Jenne, and photographer David Littlefield, show it used to look even rougher.

Credit: David Littlefield

During my 2018 visit, I recall a man, seemingly unhappy with my photo taking, threw a bucket of waste water (and a nasty look) in my direction, prompting me to leave. I didn't dare return for the next few years, but since working in the CBD last year, I've been curious to find out what has become of Huashiying.

To my surprise, the village still stands and looks much like it did before, resembling a rural hamlet in the provinces, rather than the downtown of China's capital.

Populated by a mix of former factory employees and transient migrant labourers, the living spaces are cramped, and laundry is hung out to dry in the streets.

Sidewalk sofas offer a nice spot for a nap.

One thing that seems to have very recently changed is the addition of metal gates at the entrances to the community.

These are supposedly to prevent cars entering and enable access for emergency vehicles, part of a practice of "gated-style management" (封闭式管理) that has become more common in Beijing compounds over recent years, even before the pandemic.

While the once-ubiquitous food carts and wagons can no longer enter, petty traders continue to operate from fixed points inside the village. Just inside the northwest gate is this repairman's workstation, once found on every Beijing street corner, but now increasingly hard to find.

For haircuts in Huashiying, there are several barbershops to choose from.

This one's makeshift  sign advertises "flattops and skinheads".

Or you can get groomed outside on the street, like this gentleman.

Stores selling clothes, food and other necessities also operate, laying most of their wares outside.

Notice how many of the shops sell through their windows and doorways, the result of a citywide campaign several years ago to seal up storefronts deemed too large.

One restaurant, this skewer joint, is still in business, located down a dead-end alleyway.

Apart from this basic selection of stores and eateries, the residents of Huashiying live without many basic amenities. One of the most striking things is the presence of open drains running down each alley.

Since most of the houses do not have built-in bathrooms, these drains are not primarily for sewage, but for summer rains and waste water from household cleaning.

The only toilets are in shared bathrooms.

Hygiene workers come periodically to hose them down and suck out the sewage.

With coal burning banned some years ago, Huashiying residents rely on electricity for their winter heating.

But chaotic wiring is a fire hazard in the village's cramped spaces.

While some alleys are kept tidy, others are cluttered with flammable objects and battery-powered scooters, despite notices instructing residents to keep them clear.

On the main thoroughfare, a "propaganda board" displays notices about disease control, Chinese New Year, fire prevention and and other topical issues.

As I've wandered through this "urban village", the question on my mind is how such a poor, run-down place can exist so close to an area of extreme wealth. The disparity is epitomized by the looming presence of one of Beijing's most luxurious hotels.

Huashiying lies in close proximity to the Rosewood Hotel and other shiny monuments to money, like the World Financial Center and Fortune Plaza.

The contrasts become even starker at night, as the bright lights of the CBD towers can be seen twinkling above the village's dingy alleys.

With few street lights, the lamps of shops and street traders illuminate the main thoroughfare.

As I passed by recently, this person was burning joss paper, as is customary around traditional festivals in China.

At night, the darkest area in Huashiying is the part that has already been cleared and which has only recently begun to be developed.

Many believe it is a matter of when not if the rest of the village meets the same fate, but I sense this is unlikely to happen soon, thanks to unattractively-high land prices and an excess of commercial space in the CBD.

One resident told me he had heard of no such plans, and so for now at least, village life in downtown Beijing continues.