Category Archives: Ghost City

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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Zombie Spongebob

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To an extent, I can say I have seen Spongebob Squarepants turn into a zombie, and I wouldn’t be lying. But first, let me back up and explain something. I have lived in Changzhou now since 2014. For my first two years here, I taught English at a vocational college. At this college, they had stone traffic blockers painted like famous cartoon characters. Angry Birds? Yes. Baymax? Totally. Doraemon? Many of him. Pikachu? Yup! And then, of course, Spongebob.

Years later, and the weather has not been kind to Spongebob. I have since moved on from that vocational college and have moved out of Wujin completely and am now in Xinbei. However, each time, I have returned to that college, Spongebob has beginning worse and worse. Does he still look a bit too chipper? Yes. Does he also look he walked off the set of The Walking Dead and like he wants you eat your brains? Also, yes.

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Return to Headless Buddha Alley

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If you were a Christian, imagine walking into an alley and finding a lot of headless statues of Jesus Christ. Now, nearby, imagine the Virgin Mary without arms. Also imagine also headless angels that are missing one of their two wings. Think of it as a small space filled with crippled iconography.  It would be a little off putting and creepy, right? Surreal? Like walking through a three-dimensional recreation of a Slayer CD cover? I am not even remotely Christian, and I would find myself peering over my shoulder from time to time. But then again, I have too much of an overactive imagination, and I have watched too many horror movies.

Still, something similar happened to be me in Changzhou, once. I was zipping down the road on my ebike in northeastern Wujin — the part closer to Jiangyin, Wuxi. I passed an alley that was filled with headless Buddhas and unfinished statues of louhans and some figures from Taoism. There was even a sitting, laughing Buddha covered with splintered wooden planks. I snapped a few pictures and moved on. I looked at all the businesses in the area, and I took photos of those, too. Turns out, the nearest was a water plant. I never found out who was responsible for the headless Buddhas.

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Upon a recent return visit, I was able to figure out a little more. First, some of the statues were gone, and some new ones had taken their place. And, some of them had remained the same. Like before, some of them unfinished. The poor laughing Buddha was still covered with scrap wood. This meant the place was active. These half finished sculptures were not abandoned derelicts. Somebody was responsible for them.

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I did, however, take a picture of one business I missed upon my earlier visit. Turns out, it was as I originally suspected. These disembodied religious figures actually do belong to a nearby workshop. You would think this would be a major industry given how many temples there are around the region — and that both Dalin and Bailong Temples are nearby. But, as one of my Chinese friends told me, it’s not as lucrative as I suspected. Once you make a religious statue, there is not much else to do. Temples only have a finite amount of space. Plus, regular maintenance may only be paint jobs once the color begins to fade in a few years.

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Knocked Off, Knocked Down History

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The fast pace of economic development in China does come with a real cost. It’s not all that hard to find evidence of this online in prominent newspapers like The Guardian. Alarmingly, it’s been reported that the last twenty years of economic expansion has lead to more cultural destruction than that of the Cultural Revolution.  In many ways, this can be seen directly in Changzhou. Simply put, there does not seem to be as much to see here than in an much larger cities like Shanghai and Nanjing. And some of the things that “look” historic have actually recently been built and have nothing to do with antiquity. The Yancheng historical development around the Wujin Museum and the Spring and Autumn Amusement Park fits as a prime example.

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In Changzhou, simply put, a person doesn’t have to go that far to see whole swaths of demolition prepping the way to some new construction project.  For example, you can find a statue of Chairman Mao in a shattered landscape. There is one place, however, that seemed rather telling. Along Laodong Road 劳动路 in Tianning, there is a demolished compound. A textile factory used to be there. But, as I wandered around the rubble, I found a stone historical preservation marker. To use a cliche, it stuck out like a sore thumb in a wasteland. It’s like a strange irony. What the marker denotes as historic has been rendered into rubble. The buildings remaining looked drab, gray, and dreary.

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Once I got off my bike and started walking around, history was hard to locate or find. And, I wasn’t in the mood to literally “dig it up.”  A lot of the remaining buildings looked structurally unsound. I peered into some of the derelict factory spaces, but I had enough sense to not actually enter them. Accidents can and do happen to people who are silly enough to go into construction or demolition zones. With that in mind, I left.

However, later, over a cup of coffee, I searched for the place on Baidu Maps. I even entered the marker’s keywords 大成三厂旧址, and according to my smartphone app, the place doesn’t exist. So, that leaves me with this question: will a replica of the original historical site will thrown up, or will the historical marker also be removed, making way for another shopping center or high rise residential complex?

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Weidun Museum Always Closed

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When it comes to China, there is always a lack of information in English. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do this blog — that at least somebody is explaining something in English. But, there are challenges that come with that. Take prehistoric Changzhou, for example. People have been living in this part of Jiangsu since the stone age. This is over 6000 years ago. However, if you google “Weidun” or “Weidun People” or “Weidun China,” the results are less than meager.

I’ve been trying this because there is the Weidun Relics Park over in the former district of Qishuyan. The park has a museum dedicated to the Weidun civilization, but the problem is this. It’s closed. It’s been closed every time I went there. This is even back in 2014 — the time before having an eBike and I randomly found it by jumping onto a bus and taking it to its terminal point. I had no clue where was going at the time. As for this musuem, It doesn’t matter the time of day or the day of the week. It’s always closed. And that’s a shame. The internet can’t tell me much about the Weidun people, and the only thing that can seems to be a few displays in the Changzhou Museum.

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A Church in a Wasteland

IMG_20160601_202043[1]To put it bluntly, parts of the former Qishuyan district look like somebody dropped a bomb on it. Take a wrong turn, and all of sudden you are surrounded by rubble. There are a number of old buildings where only some shattered grey walls remain, and people around them scavenge for bricks and bits of scrap.

Of course, this just the beginning of urban redevelopment. Many parts of the former Qishuyan district look really old and decripit. My guess is that it was shuffled into Wujin for the same reason why Jintan ceased being an independent city: accelerate development at a faster pace. That’s just a guess. I could totally be wrong about Qishuyan.

It’s there, however, that I found another weird juxtaposition. Over near Metro, there’s a statue of Chairman Mao that’s surrounded by something similar. It’s like everything but Mao met the wrecking ball. In the former Qishuyan, I found a Christian Church much in the same situation. Everything around it was destroyed, and that leads me to assume that it’s being perserved and things will be build around it.

When I found this place, it was in the middle of a working day. There was no way for me to tell whether people actually attend services here. Cars were parked outside of it, but that could for the foreman and the construction workers excavating a huge hole nearby. Unlike other wastelands in Changzhou, this one actually had heavy construction equipment beginning to create the foundation of something. However, I do not know what that something is.

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Nevermind The Gorilla

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Construction changes everything in Changzhou very quickly, but nothing has been more of a disruptive change than the ongoing subway / metro / underground construction. For those who don’t know, this project is slated for completion in a couple of years. It’s not going away anytime soon. Last I heard, Line 1 will be done in 2019, and Line 2 will be coming in 2020. Hundreds of expats, business execs, and English teachers will likely have passed through Changzhou by the time this ultimate urban convenience will be finished.

One of the biggest casualties has been Wenhuagong 文化宫 aka “Culture Palace” downtown and near Hongmei Park 红梅公园. Downtown’s Christian Church is nearby, as is a Confucian Temple and the antique / collector’s market. Right now, the the square is surrounded by construction barriers, and during the day, you hear lots of excavators and heavy industrial machines hard at work.

When I first came to Changzhou in 2014, it looked like a largely empty city square. with a few benches, a water fountain that was never really turned on, and a Chinese flag flapping in the breeze. It was a deceptive sight. The bustle of Cultural Palace was completely subterranean. Changzhou has a number of sunken retail spaces. These are underpasses beneath the streets. Downtown has them, Xinbei has them, and to weaker extent, so does Hutang in Wujin.

The one beneath Wenhuagong / Cultural Palace seemed particularly labyrinthine at first. Even during the day, this place seemed dark with splashy neon advertising boutique shopping. There was even in McDonald’s down there. There was also a circular — but sunken one level down — outdoor food court.    And then, everything changed seemingly overnight.

One Saturday morning, I tried going to the McDonald’s for a Sausage Egg McMuffin; the fast food joint was dark with a bicycle D-lock on the door. . But, then again, that wasn’t the only thing that was a little off putting. Not only had all the shops been vacated, but somebody smashed all the windows, and shards of glass littered the floor. Honestly, I wondered if some sort of riot had erupted that led to mass looting. The place looked that destroyed. A week later, access to the underground shopping area had been completely sealed off.

Many months later, I learned this had all been part of the planned subway construction. Wenhuagong / Culture Palace will be the underground’s downtown central station. It will be were Lines 1 and 2 will intersect and where commuters will interchange. When it’s completed, the place will be likely be flashier, modern, and high tech as ever. Still, it will never be what it once was, and that’s not a complaint. It’s just an observation. Nothing will ever be what it once was. I also do not have many photos of what the place used to be. I just have a picture of a pissed off gorilla guarding a door at the bottom of set of stairs. Again, another part of Changzhou has faded into oblivion in the name of urban development. And honestly, like before, that’s not a complaint either. It’s just an observation.

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This is an old photo. Currently, Culture Palace / Wenhuagong / 文化宫 looks even more like an excavated construction pit.

 

Bellahaus Presumed Dead

A Collection Notice?
A Collection Notice?

It’s hard to know the full story of how and why a restaurant goes out of business. From the point of view of a customer, you show up one day and the doors are locked and the place is dark. In Changzhou, this has happened numerous times: Aria, Jack’s Home, Bros Wings, and more. It seems people can now add Bellahaus to that list.

A friend of mine reported this to me the other day. Although I had some issues with the place, I largely liked Bellahaus and ate there frequently on Saturday afternoons. It was a place I often introduced friends to, because when it came down to it, I did like the food there and I wanted the place to succeed. And the times I did eat there, I saw a number of others in there, too. It seemed they were attracting customers. So, I went to go see the door for myself. I had already eaten lunch, but I had other business downtown and it was just a stop on the way. Sure enough, the place was locked with what looked like a collections notice pasted to the door.

In retrospect, maybe the signs of slipping were already there and I fully didn’t notice. Bellahaus didn’t have the problems or shortages that a place like Jack’s Home in Wujin had. However, two things began to happen regularly. When Bellahaus opened, service was prompt and swift. Towards the end, it seemly took forever to get something as simple as a salad. Portions also routinely fluctuated. One week, a friend would be served a large salmon salad, and the next, she would get something smaller. Side dishes to standard menu items also seemed to become randomized. One week, it would be grilled veggies and the next would be a simple lettuce salad. Week after that? Nothing.

There are rumors that the owners or the management will move on and start someplace new. But, then again, those are just unsubstantiated rumors. All I can go off is what I see. One of my favorite restaurants downtown– despite it’s flaws — is now gone. Time for me to find a replacement for my standard Saturday lunch.

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A Wasteland Revisited

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Recently, I returned to one of Changzhou’s wastelands, but this time, it was more by accident. I was trying to ride my bike out west for the afternoon. I was on my way to Zouqu in Wujin’s western arm. However, I always in the habit of trying new shortcuts on a whim, and sometimes those shortcuts pan out. Other times, I end up in a strange place.

On this occasion, I ended up by the Chairman Mao statue near the Metro supermarket. This place is odd because you have one of China’s founding fathers juxtaposed with barren land and shattered red bricks. As it turns out, the wasteland near that statue looks more extensive and post apocalyptic than at first glance. There is a road that bypasses the statue and goes into only what I can assume “once was” a neighborhood. I had seen those road the last time I was there, but I didn’t ride down it because twilight was quickly fading into night.

When I returned, the sun shone overhead and I now knew I could safely cut through the area. It was hard not to think of a weird science fiction film. An armless, naked female mannequin stood on a red pedestal. She leaned against a dirty white wall with corroded stains.  Further up the road, it looked like a field of rubble and debris — as if a bomb had been dropped and the place was being cleaned up afterwards. The strangest thing, perhaps, was the people. You can still see people living here, selling things, and playing with their children.

Again, this isn’t the first time I have seen a scene like this in Changzhou. It probably will not be the last, either. It’s likely an ongoing thing in contemporary China. Destroy the old; build the new. In a few years, this wasteland will probably not be here. It will likely be replaced by a new high-rise housing development, a park, or shopping center.IMG_20160512_212604

Mao in a Wasteland

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The yellow crane is gone, who knows whither?
Only this tower remains a haunt for visitors.

–Mao Zedong, from Yellow Crane Tower

Some people, especially foreigners in The Middle Kingdom, do not know that Mao Zedong once wrote poetry. Whether that poetry was quality or not is not for me to say. I don’t have much to judge it against when it comes to Chinese verse. I know little bit of Li Bai, Du Fu, and Su Shi (Su Dongpo), and that’s about it. It should also be noted that I know these writers in translation, not in their native language. The two above lines strike me for another reason.

They remind me of a local irony in Changzhou. In the northern end of Zhonglou District and the border with Xinbei, you can find a large statue of Mao Zedong. It is basically close to the shipping / offloading area behind the Metro supermarket. He is in a visionary stance with one arm held aloft to the sky — as if to hail people or the sweep of history and the future to come. You see this a lot with the statues of monumental leaders.

IMG_20160505_151920How he is standing is not the irony. Nor is how unnaturally long his arm looks. It’s what surrounds him; it looks like a wasteland. On one side, footpaths twist around mounds of earth, grass, and garbage. The farther you walk into this field, the more you secretly planted crops of vegetables.  If you retrace your steps back and cross Mao’s plaza, you find a different sort of wasteland. Some sort of building or buildings used to stand here. My guess would be factories or some sort of industrial site. Smashed bricks and building materials smother the ground. When I was there, a few guys with a truck picked through the refuse — as if looking for whole bricks to reuse elsewhere. Some of the still-standing buildings are also abandoned.

This gets me back to Mao’s Yellow Crane Tower poem. Of course, he wasn’t writing about Changzhou those many decades ago. Yes, I am taking these lines out of context. But these two lines remind me of the eerie sort of ambiance here. “The yellow crane is gone.” Here, yes, I heard no sounds of birds. You could here the crackle, however, of a few smoldering piles of trash.  As for the second line, the “tower” and the “haunt” is Mao himself.  And the only reason to go to this desolate place is to see him — to be a “visitor.”IMG_20160505_151944