Category Archives: Ghost City

Not as Gourmet as the Name Suggests

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There are places throughout Changzhou that make me scratch my head and wonder what they were like in their heyday — you know, if and when they were ever used for their potential. It seems that when new retail and commercial spaces are built, business doesn’t grow into them. Simply, businesses move from the old places to the new. As a result, some places look derelict.  The Nationwide Bridge Gourmet Plaza 怀德桥休闲美食广场 in Zhonglou seems to be one of those places.

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It’s a sunken food court just across The Grand Canal from downtown’s Injoy Plaza. It’s where the B1 BRT route crosses over the bridge and turns towards a Wujin trajectory. For years, I passed this place on the bus and my ebike. I thought it was deserted. Recently, I indulged my curiosity and walked down and took a look around the place.

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Despite some appearances, the place is not completely dead. In many respects, it reminds me of some of the old retail areas in Wujin: mostly abandoned, but a few shops still hanging around to give the space some semblance of life.

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A few pictures up, you can see the outdoor area. It’s an-open-air circle. Some of the storefronts are dusty and locked, and others are open. As the English name suggests, the business here is food. There are some busy kitchens here. That seemed very odd, because for all the food being prepared, there really wasn’t any diners sitting around eating. Turns out, there is a perfectly plausible explanation.

I got caught up with walking around some of the more dark and spooky back corridors here. However, after being around this area for like 20 minutes, I realized that was foot traffic into and out of this place. No, not diners. Meituan and and other delivery app drivers.

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This area obviously existed before Wechat and delivery apps came into prominence. If I had to guess, this sunken plaza was not originally envisioned as a potential hub for take-out kitchens. There is a huge gated housing estate nearby. This likely was a much busier food court than what it currently is. Obviously, those days seem far long gone, now.

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Don Chicken R.I.P.

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When you are an American expat abroad, your perspectives of food change with the things you experience first hand. This is natural — you get exposed to things you normally wouldn’t see back in The States. For example, Americans like to think we own fried chicken, that we created it, and we do it best. It’s just not debatable. In fact, I would challenge somebody to walk into a dive bar in Georgia, Mississippi, or Appalachia where people have been drinking all night; tell those guys that Koreans can do fried chicken just as well as their grandmothers. It’s not going to end well.

But the truth is: chicken is a robust part of Korean culinary culture — at least internationally, and especially internationally in China. Yeah, KFC is a fried chicken phenomenon in China, but so are the Korean versions of that fast food staple. It’s more than that, actually. There is a Korean chain throughout China that focused more on baking chicken then frying it, and it was pretty damn awesome. I am speaking, of course, about Don Chicken.

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Don Chicken did a few dishes really well. One was baked chicken and cheese. It was beautiful simplicity — you had baked chicken smothered in cheese. That’s it. That’s all. The chicken was so tender and so juicy. Only, it seems a lot of people, myself included, didn’t seem to fully latch onto Don Chicken’s Xinbei presence. It was on a side street near Wanda Plaza and Hohai University. The place now looks like this.

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At first glance, this can be a gut and remodel situation. A lot of Starbucks went through that over the last year. Monkey King in Wujin went through that a few years ago. Only, this really does not look like that. Look at the marquee. The name Don Chicken has been removed. Trully, though, I am at a loss about why this place could not put butts into seats behind tables. It’s in between Wanda and a university. The foot traffic here is fairly large. However, every time I went here, the tables were constantly empty. If it can’t get traffic in this location, I am hard pressed to say where in Changzhou it could.

And now, it seems gone.

Alas, Poor Pinocchio

Apparently, the word for killing or murdering kangaroos is macropocide. When they were living, if you were to take a hatchet to Ezra Pound, William Carlos William, Wallace Stevens, or any other modernist, you would be committing modernicide. Poultry? Poultrycide. I didn’t make any of these up. I ran into them while looking for an appropriate –cide word for when somebody kills a cartoon character. Toonicide? Animanicide? Those two I did make up just now, as they weren’t on the list of words I was just looking at. Why would I even care if such a word existed? Well, it would be to describe something slightly surreal I saw at Xinbei Wanda.  But, first, consider this picture.

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To be fair, there was always something a little creepy about Pinocchio over on Xinbei Wanda’s pedestrian street. I think it was the eyes. Yes, definitely the eyes when paired with that smile of his. Still, if this statue looked a little creepy, that still doesn’t compare to this in terms of creepiness ….

 

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Between Nothing and Something

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Searching for history in Changzhou can lead to amazing finds like a tiny museum dedicated dragons and another dedicated to cigarettes, and sometimes it’s downright quixotic. Searching for the Dacheng #3 Factory historical site was one of those quixotic searches. I first noticed this place from across the canal. I saw a historical marker and some traditional-looking roof lines, and curiosity ensnared me. I actually spent a month or two looking how to get to this place. Finding it actually meant riding my bike down random narrow alleys.

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This is basically a poor neighborhood, so the sight of a tall white dude on an ebike garnered weird looks. “Why is he here?” I have grown immune to it. In fact, I just smile, wave, and say 你好!That usually generates enough good will that people smile back. That especially helps when I had to get off my bike and do some searching on foot. A genuine smile, I have learned, can go miles while you do not have adequate Chinese skills. I still have no doubt some of the locals are still thinking, “What the hell is this weirdo doing in this obscure part of Changzhou?”

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If you have roamed around Changzhou long enough, you will find that people will actively seek out every bit of space possible to garden and grow vegetables. It doesn’t matter how tiny the plot. Eventually, I found the historical site that had alluded me for a month or two.

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Yeah, it was a little bit overgrown. The historical marker was still intact.

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So, I mentioned the word “quixotic” earlier. So, what is was useless and silly about this search? What was the windmill I was tilting at? Remember the sign says “protected” for “historical and cultural value at the provincial level.” Yeah, right. This is what the place looks like behind the wall.

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Believe me, stuff like this is so normal in Changzhou. It’s the one of the many signs of a city rapidly changing. Like or not, Changzhou is undergoing a rapid transformation and metamorphosis. Right now, that means a lot of rubble, everywhere. But sometimes, idle wanderings lead to things you don’t expect.

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Apparently, in the back alleys next to a canal, I found a grave site. The two huge stone boxes are caskets. Lots of people were buried in them. The signage did not say if they were local, or if these things were simply moved here because there was open space and it was convenient. Honestly, in China, you can never tell, especially if you are a foreigner trying to figure out a local culture that is not in your native language. From the signage, I eventually that two important people were among the interred.  They were 白埈 Bái jùn and 样淑 Yàng shū. I was told these two guys were important in Changzhou. Funny, thing, Baidu searches go nowhere. I can’t find anything on who they are. So, these stone caskets will linger in my mind until I can understand the story behind them. In short, the search to understand China continues. I always will.

 

An Elegy for a Building

Memory, with the hand of a giantess
You lead life like a horse by the reins,
You will tell me about those who lived
In this body before it was mine.

–Nikolay Gumilyov

Downtown Changzhou has one less building now. Currently, subway construction has long been underway where Wenhuagong / Culture Square used to be. The demolished place was a huge, unsightly yellow building that housed a few shops, a Pujing Hotel, a Spa Massage Place, Global Kids International English, and a few other things. There was a massive food court behind the building. All of it is gone now. While it is always poignant to lose a place you had a personal connection to, stuff like this is normal when a city is growing. So, this is not criticism, per se. It’s just an opportunity to remember the past. Plus, instead of explicating the poetic lines from Gumilyov and extrapolating it onto Changzhou, I thought it just be best to let those four lines and a few pictures do all the talking right now. All of these images are mine, with the exception of three screen captures I took from videos that went viral on Wechat.

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Pictures as Addresses

Petersburg! I still have the addresses
Where I can call on the speech of the dead.

–Osip Mandelstam

The above lines come from a poem entitled Leningrad, and it can be taken as an elegy. The dark imagery is suggesting that Mandelstam is critical of the Soviet legacy he finds in a city he deeply loved. It’s also evident, that as somebody else has pointed out, that the yearning voice is crying out for St. Petersburg, the older name, and the one that was restored in the 1990s. It’s certainly not pining away for Leningrad.

Yet, Mandelstam’s words here actually reminds me of Changzhou for a very specific reason. Generally, the older you get, the more you can summon the voices of the dead. By that, I don’t mean by holding a seance or doing hocus pocus black magic. Ghosts are memories of things, people, and places that have gone away for good. Simply having memories can be ways of summoning the dead. I was reminded of Mendelstam recently while going through my photo archive. I found these three pictures…

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This was a largely abandoned food street near Wenhaugong in downtown Changzhou. It was behind a large yellow building that had a hotel and was home to a number of businesses — an English language training center for kids being one of them. While these pictures certainly look bleak, this area was once a busy food court called 大排档 Dà páidàng. This area is where I tried duck blood soup and few other “new to me” Chinese dishes that were delicious. That building / food court now looks like this…

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You can usually tell when a building is slated for demolition. I used to go inside this building all the time. A friend of mine runs the earlier mentioned language training center that used to be on the sixth floor. Three years ago, the insides of the place used to be almost fancy. Then, it’s like people stopped caring. Lights would not be replaced. Renovations stopped.  Peeling wall paper wouldn’t be replaced. TV equipment would be stripped out, and so on and so on. They likely knew this place was slated for demolition.

In a sense, it makes sense that this building would be torn down. After all, across the street is where a new, modern subway station is being constructed. This hub will be the central station as it’s going to be the interchange of the future two lines. It seems logical that there would be new, and modern buildings around what will become a new city center with the focus shifting away from Nandajie. Yet, it’s not the decrepit building that reminded me of Mandelstam’s lines. It’s the very concept of old photos. In a way, they can be a sort of example of the “addresses” he writes of.

Alleged Aliens, Cats, or Ghosts in Xinbei?

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If there is one things many Americans love to watch on TV, it’s documentaries about UFO sightings and conspiracy theories about alien visitation. The History Channel even has that and gets all Erich Von Daniken in probing ancient history and art for alleged ET references. The show is called Ancient Aliens and it has the habit of saying the most outlandish and absurd things by phrasing them as questions. For example: “Were the ancient Hindu gods actually astronauts from another world?” That’s not an actual quote, but something I made up that channels the spirit of the show. And trust me, that TV program has likely said something very similar.

One of the show’s frequent contributors has a hair style so bad, it rivals the current American president as the worst ever in human history. This contributor is also the subject of rampant social media memes in American social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.  I will admit that watching this stuff about UFO’s is a guilty pleasure that I actually share with my dad. I don’t believe any of it, but I find the far-fetched “possibility” entertaining to consider. Then again, my dad and I are science fiction nerds. Of course we like looking at strange things. But, I found myself pondering extra terrestrials in Xinbei, and I let my brain wander into Ancient Aliens question mode.  This is why.

One night recently, I left my ebike at a bar that will not be named. At the time, it was raining and didn’t want to ride back and get drenched. The next morning, I walked to retrieve it and I noticed some strange art on the back of some of the buildings. This is on a backstreet that runs north-to-south parallel to Tongjiang Road in Xinbei. I saw some weird-but-simplistic artwork painted dark grey on light grey brick. While the front of the building has shop fronts and none of this, back the structure is largely derelict and empty. Parts of the building look like they are being currently gutted.

I couldn’t decide whether I was looking at aliens, cats, or ghosts. For the rest of my stroll, I gleefully puzzled out this nonsense and what it meant. Give me some leeway; it was a fun distraction from walking in cold and drizzle. I also developed my own theory. But, allow me to mimic the intellectual slight of hand Ancient Aliens uses. Could it be that these weird images are actually related to an after-school arts education center in the building? 

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Something Shitty

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Nandajie used to have a toilet themed restaurant. The seats were actually commodes, and there was fecal related imagery all over the walls, by the cashier, and on the cheap hoodies the employees wore — in cartoonish ways, of course. There wasn’t anything too graphic about it all. I know this sounds utterly bizarre and surreal. However, these types of restaurants are common in China. There is even a multi-city chain of them. Downtown Changzhou had more than one at one point. Then, the one at the Zhonglou Injoy went away. Now, Nandajie has lost its own toilet themed restaurant. It was on the third floor.

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I don’t know exactly when this happened. I only ate there once and only once. Recently, I was wandering around Nandajie as a way to kill some time. I passed the place, and it looked absolutely gutted. Yeah, there are still urinals on the wall, but there was a lot of trash laying around.

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And, a lot of the toilets are still there — as well as the sinks shaped like buttocks.  But it seems most of the BBQ tables were stripped out — along with the a lot of the other kitchen hardware. Pretty much, anything that would be remotely salvagable and used in another restaurant is basically gone. The only clue I found as to what happened to this place was on the door.

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Only, this was not a clue at all. I showed this picture to a Chinese friend, and she told me it was a gas notice. Somebody wanted to do an inspection, and since nobody was there, they slapped this on the door. The date says December of 2016, Also, I walked around Nandajie’s third floor, and counted two other such notices on doors. Those places were also derelict and abandoned. This is not a case like Bellahaus, where it closed and a bill collector had slapped a letter on the door.

The best theory I have, however is this. Forgive the crappy pun, but this place was a little shitty. Trust me, as I said earlier, I ate there once. The food quality was terrible, and they oil they used on the BBQ tables gave off a burning smell that got into your clothes and hair. The low quality ingredients made my stomach feel weird afterwards. So, in many ways, I am not sad to see it go.

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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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The Weirdest Place in Changzhou

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Wujin is not the same as when I first came to Changzhou in 2014. Yes, there are places that have been slowly filling in over the years, but out of all of Changzhou, the Hutang part of Wujin seems the most ghostly, at times. By that, I don’t mean that spirits of the dead and departed are drifting around. I mean it sometimes seems that this is the part of the city that has the most abandoned or yet-to-be-filled places at times. There are parts of the district that absolutely feel like it belongs in a ghost town.

One of these places is the TV Tower in Wujin. It’s next to Xintiandi Park, and both Jagerwirt and Kaffa are not that far away. This used to be a vibrant place, Hutang locals have told me. The top of the tower had a restaurant, and a subterranean shopping mall extended below that. There used to be a market for glasses here, a supermarket, and even a bunch of shops catering to the wedding industry. Even more, there was a parking level even deeper than that. All of that is largely abandoned now.

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A year and a half ago, I used to go here often. This was towards the end of my two-year stay in the College Town. There was just something about the place that seemed a little haunting. A person could walk around, and the silence was either deafening or interrupted by the squabbling of the birds nesting in the tower’s underside. But then, there were some truly eerie things down here.

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Lots of birds call this part of the tower home.

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For example, a lot of abandoned children’s rides. Many of these were stacked upon each other and gathered layers of dust. These wide-eyed faces looked a little creepy when they were in broad daylight. Stow them in some forgotten corridor in the dark, and they look even more odd and out of place. However, that’s not the most off-putting thing about here. If you go down a service corridor, you end up confronted by something that seems out of place.

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This picture of children is next to an elevator. The dim light overhead flickers and gives this an even stranger ambiance. Add to this that most of the children’s faces are quite somber. I sent the above pictures to a Chinese friend asking for a translation, and she told me it was a class photo for a private dance school. But even when you to this quiet bit weirdness into account, this end up becoming even more surreal.

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At times, I would come down here and find old, dried bits of meat hanging from the doors. These usually had even knife marks from somebody slicing off chunks. So, that means that somebody had been steadily eating these. And it wasn’t just one random piece of meat. At one point, this place had two hanging from abandoned shop doors. That’s not all of it. One night, I came down here, and I saw an old man and a young woman singing karaoke in an empty room that had disco lights. Nobody else was with them.

I am a man that does believe in ghosts, but I don’t fully believe in the supernatural. I am a secular agnostic, after all. All that means is that I am not convinced religiously of anything, and I am open minded enough for a spirited discussion. To me, ghosts are metaphors for the things that have gone wrong in one’s life: loved ones who have died, long term relationships that have gone really bad, meaningful friendships that have fallen apart, and so on. Ghosts live in your memory more than anywhere else. So, there are perfectly rational explanations for all of the creepiness I have found beneath Wujin’s TV Tower. However, once I consider the total sum of the experience, I still have to conclude that walking through the place can feel a bit odd.

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