Category Archives: Ghost City

My Eulogy for Jack

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I once had a sandwich totally confuse and confound me. The menu called it a Reuben, and that brought all of these fond culinary memories of Jersey. For those who don’t know, this involves two slices of rye bread, corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and thousand island or Russian dressing. They are common in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and New York City delis. What I ate didn’t meet that description. Cheese and fried onions topped a minced steak patty. No rye bread either — just white toast.

This “not a Reuben” could have been found, once, at Jack’s Home in Wujin. When around, it stood halfway between College Town and Monkey King and Chocolate’s. I used to go there out of sheer laziness. It was the closest expat bar to the College Town area when you ride an eBike or take the B1. Now, its gone. Somebody gutted it and replaced it with a fruit store.

Jack’s death, I am told, is typical of a failing restaurant in China. Butts were not in chairs. Menu items routinely fell out of stock for long periods. Once, I ordered a hamburger there and was served a pork cutlet between two slices of bread. I ate it. It was okay, but it wasn’t a hamburger. Also, some of the menu items began to get spicier — like a fusion between Western and Chinese, but not in a good way. Moves like that are supposed to draw in Chinese  customers, but it more than likely just confuses them.  Jack’s isn’t the first restaurant in Changzhou to vanish, and it won’t be the last. That’s just nature of the hospitality business. However, somebody needs to tell TripAdvisor, by the way that this place is gone and forgotten.

Sylvia Plath and The Daddy Statue

Marble heavy, a bag full of God,

Ghastly statue with one gray toe

big as a Frisco seal

 

and a head in the freakish Atlantic

— Sylvia Plath

Plath’s work as a poet has always struck me. There is usually a knack for a surreal turn of a phrase. The above lines come from “Daddy,” where a the language — the rhymes and the melody of the words — sounds childish. The content, however, is more a grown woman’s voice contemplating killing her father. Or, in some aspects, wanting to kill the memory of her father.  Brutal themes like this carry mostly all the way through her collection Ariel.

I used to think of this poem, not because I have daddy issues like Plath’s, but more because of a sculpture that used to be in Downtown Changzhou. It used to be the Future City shopping center next door to the Injoy Mall. A year and a half ago, Future City used to be empty, desolate. None of the shops were leased. There were just statues of a fat dude playing golf. Turns out, the area wasn’t a ghostly bit of real estate. The area was still being developed. The shops there have been slowly filling in. As shopkeepers moved in, the statue I used to like to look at vanished.

It was of a nude woman playing a flute.  On her pedestal, she sat semi-cross legged. However, one leg dangled over the side of the pedestal. Surrealistically, the leg became longer and fatter. Her foot always sparked the memories of reading “Daddy.”  Sure, the foot had more than one toe, but it always reminded me of the “Ghastly statue” line.  Overtime, I used to imagine that this was the speaker, the woman in poem. She was playing beautiful sounding music, but she was still deformed. And that’s how I would describe most of Plath’s work. Beautiful, but deformed.

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A Ghost in the Valley of Retail Mountains

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This is an old post reposted from my personal blog. 

A few years ago, Changzhou was accused of being a ghost city by the China Youth Daily. Basically, the logic went this way: there were too many unoccupied residential and commercial construction developments. All of these highrises, one might argue, and not one lighted window at night. And with the breakneck speed of construction in Changzhou, could the local population actually support these new apartment blocks and shopping malls, or would they ultimately remain empty? Was Changzhou on the slippery slope towards becoming a lost metropolis like Ordos Kangbashi? To some Chinese folks and foreigners who live in Changzhou, this ghost city allegation is really a load of nonsense.

Even a veteran travel writer Wade Shepard seemed to think so, once he was researching his book Ghosts Cities of China. Since this allegation was made, many of the construction projects have filled in. For example, the Wujin district is now home to both a prospering Wanda Plaza and an Injoy Shopping mall. People are also slowly moving into the new housing estates, too. It’s hard to call a location a ghost town or city when you see people milling about and cars on the street – something the infamous city of Ordos Kangbashi allegedly doesn’t have. But, even that seems to to be changing.

Simply put, the landscape of Changzhou has vastly changed since 2012 and 2013, and it will continue to change. Construction in Wujin and other Changzhou districts is still seemingly on steroids. It seems like not a week goes by without something new opening or something old getting bulldozed. Yet, for all of this economic progress, this city along the Yangtze still has its share of ghosts. All of urban China does, and it will continue on this way for the foreseeable future. These ghosts are bleak, destitute spaces – once built to great fanfare, and then seemingly abandoned over the years once newer, bigger, shinier structures were erected.

 IMG_20151027_161936Yanghu Plaza阳湖广场 is one of these ghosts. Permit me this analogy. If the skyscrapers of Wanda and Injoy were mountains, Yanghu Plaza is a seemingly desolate valley between them. A person could walk from one mall to the other relatively quickly, but they would have to pass Yanghu. The area is actually vibrant with locally owned shops and snack bars. It’s a decidedly different place than the corporate centers nearby. Yet, once you step onto the plaza itself, activity nearly flatlines.

A huge building stands at the center of Yanghu. It consists of two towers connected by an enclosed walkway. Essentially, it looks like a big capital letter H. Such architecture is not uncommon in Changzhou. Changzhou’s main municipal governmental building also sports an H shape, for example. As for Yanghu Plaza in Hutang/Wujin, the building is empty. Many of the windows are missing. Essentially, it’s a derelict tenement. Nobody lives in this weird structure, nobody works there either. Three floors of open air retail space flank this huge H. About 5% of the shop spaces are used, and the rest is enclosed by metal pull-down gates. Some of the areas even have weeds and vegetation growing on the inside – that’s how long this area has been stripped down and largely abandoned. Yet, some people still individually use some of the interior. From time to time, I saw clothing on drying racks inside the building. Of course, I saw this through dirty, smudged windows. This isn’t an area I would feel remotely interested trespassing into.

IMG_20151027_162825As I walked through the shopping areas, I kept hearing dogs barking loudly. At first, I thought it came from a nearly empty pet shop with pooches in cages. Yet, the barking remained and grew slightly louder as I rounded the back structure. There, I found a canal and a weathered, old gazebo with flaking paint and finishing.  There, an old woman sat and eyeing me suspiciously. An old man had curled up on the bench beside her, snoring loudly. I saw some more open windows into the H-shaped building, and decided to go up for a closer look. Again, nothing. Yet, the sounding of dogs barking seemed louder now. I followed the wall and came to an open window. Open may not be the right word. It was still enclosed by a metal-pull down window and decrepit looking slabs of plywood. The interior of the room was dark and shadowy. The barking grew louder, as did sound of scratching of paws against concrete. A big black canine ran out of the shadows. I instantly took a few steps back. As soon as I had, the dog hit the plywood barrier with such force, it buckled and splintered. Then, the mutt stood on its hind legs and forced its nose and snarling mouth through an opening of pull-down gate. This is when I decided to walk away. I had parked my electric moped at the Injoy Mall. I figured it was time to go back, maybe get some coffee at Starbucks, and then go home.

Later, I poked around online for any clues about Yanghu Plaza. Was place ever once a vibrant shopping center? As per the norm, I didn’t find much. If the Google Translate version Yanghu’s Baidu Encyclopedia entry can be trusted, construction on this plaza started back in 2003. At the time, the H-building would have been an impressive feature in Wujin’s cityscape. Now, it’s easily dwarfed by the new Wanda Realm hotel tower behind it.  So, this plaza is more than ten years old, and now it’s a decrepit ruin. From what I have read on Chinese urban development, this is par for the course. Some construction projects are thrown up with developers knowing full well that it ill not survive a decade or two. Yanghu Plaza seems to fit nicely into this category Plus, more often than not, the bulldozers are owned by the people who built the structure. Actually, when I was there, I did see construction workers ripping up sidewalks. So, does this mean that Yanghu Plaza days are numbered? The Baidu Encyclopedia also mentions that there are already redevelopment plans, but no timeline was actually mentioned. Anyway, it’s old by contemporary Chinese standards. Demolition may not be imminent, but it’s likely going to happen. Could be this year, could be the next. Until then, it will remain a ghost in the shadow of things larger, newer, and brighter at night.

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