Tag 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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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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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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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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These Were Not Autons

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1744737
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1744737

If you were to say, “Store window mannequins were running amok and shooting people in the street,” people might think you were a bit loony. For the most part, they would be right. But, it did happen a few times — on a TV show.  The Autons have been a part of Doctor Who going back 1970 when Jon Pertwee (the third doctor) faced off against them in the serial “Spearhead from Space.” Essentially, a disembodied consciousness is able to control plastic. As a result, shop window mannequins come to life and chaos ensues. These nasty Autons have returned to the show from time to time, but the good doctor always saved the day in the end.

I was daydreaming about this once, while wandering around a huge market in downtown Changzhou. Culture City 文化城 stands between the downtown train station and Hongmei Park. It consists of intersecting streets and large warehouses. One section is nothing but books, but other parts offer the type of display refrigerators you can find in bars and convenience shops.

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Most importantly, Culture City has a massive amount of furniture than can be found for a bargain. This is what had brought me here. A friend had recently moved, I went there to see if I could price a desk chair for them. Most of the furniture is indoors, and on the second floor of a warehouse. It almost seems endless. There are stacks of desks, chairs, book cases, empty retail modular shelving, and more. Oh, and yes, mannequins. There are lots and lots of faceless mannequins.

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Once I left the main corridors, I found myself roaming through narrow paths of between wood and particle board. Sometimes, it seems every time I rounded a tight corner, I came face to face with those smooth, naked, and genderless pieces of plastic. Sometimes there were crowds of them huddled together, other times, one would just be sitting cross-legged on shelving.  One “child” was armless while still wearing a bicycle helmet and a necklace. In a stranger juxtaposition, a bunch were lurking not that far from an antique Taoist shrine.

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Given that I have an extremely overactive imagination, I started laughing and trying to think of all the short story plot lines I could come up that included haunted mannequins. That’s when I remembered the Autons and Doctor Who. It just goes to show: no matter how silly the premise in science fiction and horror, somebody else has likely thought of it first.

So, with that in mind, I pushed the Autons and the good doctor from Gallifrey out of my mind. I resumed looking for a chair for my friend. Even with my extremely limited Chinese, I was able to get one seller to offer something wooden for as low as 50 RMB. Of course, that day I was just there to look and not buy.

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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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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.