Tianning’s Hidden Waste Land

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What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock …

                     — T.S. Eliot, from The Waste Land

To quote a part of a poem is to usually take it out of the context of it’s greater meaning.  A quote usually works to build the aim of a larger text. But, in the history of literature, people have been taking quotes out of context all the time. It’s the way people try to understand the world; take somebody else’s beautiful language for which you have ascribed a different meaning. Shakespeare has often been abused this way. I’m pointing this out because I know full well the phenomenon, yet I do it all the time myself. The above words from Eliot ring in my mind a different meaning about Changzhou and other economic developments in China.

 

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Wastelands are not that hard to find here. It’s a fundamental part of urban development. Each new residential high rise cluster or shopping center used to be older buildings. Those structures where then knocked down into piles of bricks that were then carted away so that the foundations of new construction projects can be dug. So, that blasted pile bricks is just a normal step in an ongoing process.

I guess I find myself attracted to these places because I come from New Jersey — in specific, I lived in Asbury Park. New Jersey is a place in America where things get knocked down in the name of development, and then the funding dries up and you left with a ruin for many, many years. Take some of these pictures, and then imagine the Atlantic Ocean and a dirty, trash strewn beach nearby. That was Asbury Park for a long time.

As for China, what these wastelands look like depends on where in Changzhou your are standing. As I have mentioned before, the former Qishuyan district is currently the worst. It looks like a bomb hit many parts of it. What I found more interesting, lately, are some of the ones in city center part of Tianning. Some of these look like post apocalyptic settings, but they are mostly hidden away and sometimes hard to notice.

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Think about this: the busiest part of Changzhou’s city center, and Tianning District in particular, is the railway station. Hundreds of thousands of people pass through there everyday. The scenes of devastation in this post is merely one to two city blocks away. It’s mostly hidden behind buildings. I accidentally found this place because I was at the huge antique, furniture, and other goods market near the  downtown train station.

When it comes to historical preservation, I am hardly a fanatic. I believe it’s best to pick and choose some of these battles when they come up. The sad fact is not all old places can be saved. I choose a pragmatic view. Structural integrity is one issue, but historical value is another. Just because something is “old” doesn’t necessarily make it “antique.” I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a charlatan. This is why those lines from T.S. Eliot ring out in my brain.

There is shadow under this red rock …

From time to time, I have let the poetry nerd in me out. So bare with the quick explication. There are no “shadows” under rocks. If they are laying on the ground, the rock is touching dirt, and you need space for shadow to be cast. So, we can take “shadow” as having a little more of metaphorical meaning. In this case, I am choosing “ghosts.” Sometimes, when I talk about ghosts, I don’t mean that in a supernatural sense. Ghosts can be forlorn or forgotten memories, or memories that follow you around. These wastelands, whether they are in China or New Jersey, are where people once lived and worked. There are countless untold stories buried under these red rocks and shattered plaster.  Yes, some old neighborhoods cannot be saved; that is a pragmatic way of looking at it. The more idealistic perspective is that, under these red rocks, are the shadows of lives lived and times that have passed. These are ghosts that will be forgotten. That’s the sad part of looking at these places; they are more than discarded heaps of garbage.

 

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