While thought of as a southern China phenomenon, “urban villages” can be found in most Chinese cities, including Xi’an.  Enclaves of informality, urban villages are remnants of actual villages that were enveloped by urban expansion as cities moved outward into farms over the last 30 years of China’s rapid economic growth.  Because of the difference in legal status between villages (owned collectively by villagers) and urban land (owned directly by the state), the government found it hard to demolish these villages and left them largely alone.  The original residents, once farmers, now make most of their income renting out their properties to migrant workers, who often cannot find a cheap housing anywhere else in the city.  In Bali Village, only 3,000 of the more than 60,000 residents in an area of about 1.5 square kilometers are “permanent residents” with legal status.  The rest are temporary migrants with no legal status in Xi’an.

This is a density of about 40,000 residents/sq. kilometer, a measure that is higher than the average density of Mumbai, the world’s most dense city.  The city has plans to raze most of these slums and relocate residents to “formal” resettlement housing.

While some residents are eager to move to newer housing, they say the loss of communities like this one will make it harder for migrant workers to find affordable housing.  Only permanent residents of the village will be given resettlement housing; everyone else will be on their own.

Bali village shrine

Shrine-keeper in Bali Village’s only shrine


“The Noodle Queen” as dubbed by fellow vendors. She has been cooking here for 10 years, and is considered to be the best of her peers.


This couple is from Weinan, a city outside Xi’an that is also the ancestral village of China’s Xi Jinping, China’s current president. They hope his term will bring benefits to their home, and they may have to return home when the village is demolished this year. They have been here for 17 years.


View of the main street of Bali Village from a rooftop



They accommodate a diverse group of people


As their name suggests, such communities actually began as rural villages. You can see evidence of this at the right, the brick wall remaining from the original structure. But many one-storied courtyards were originally replaced with towering flats of cheap rooms for migrant workers


A bustling street in Xi’an’s Xiaozhai Village, on the eastern outskirts of town


Xiaozhai Village Market


Market of cold food items in Xiaozhai


Bali Village Vegetable Market


The Night Market of Bali Village


View from the rooftops of Bali Village


刀烧面 noodle maker in Xiaozhai village


Bali Village’s main street is alive with the colors of fruit and people


Hallway in one of Bali Village’s dormitory buildings, home to many young migrant workers and students


The roof of one building is taken over by clothes and informal gardens


This man lives over the night market and cuts fresh noodles for the chefs below