Tag Archives: Ghost Cities

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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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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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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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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