Inside Beijing are hundreds of urban villages. Originally farming villages, now engulfed by urban expansion, they persist due to China's segregated urban-rural property system. Inhabitants are often still classed as peasants, despite being inside the city. Since most have had their agricultural land requisitioned for urban construction, they instead build multiple extensions to their houses to rent to rural migrants seeking cheap accommodation. In some cases, village populations have increased tenfold as migrants have flooded in, causing cramped conditions and overloading village infrastructure. Urban villages have in recent years emerged as key sites of ideological and political contestation. For local officials and planners envisioning gleaming world cities brimming with advanced technology and highly skilled workers, these are dirty and backward “urban cancers,” enclaves of the “low-end population,” and obstacles to their visions of the city as embodiment of global modernity. An opposing set of scholars and policy makers view these villages as essential to city life, channels for low-cost labor to service urban elites, and gateways to modernity for those formerly excluded. Within the urban villages, groups of migrant-activists defy the statist vision of the city. Through cultural performances and visual representations, they struggle to promote an urban modernity in which they are included as active participants. This article explores how Beijing's urban villages constitute a key site of ideological contestation over what the city should be, and whom urban life is for.