Tag Archives: Urban Development

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.

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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Changzhou vs. Asbury Park

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Note: I am still in New Jersey, which is why there is a string of comparative travel posts.

At first glance, it might be insane to compare Changzhou with Asbury Park. One is a 4 million plus industrial metropolitan center in China, and they other really is a city in name only on the Jersey Shore. Asbury Park gets its “city” tag more as a municipal label than as an actual urban center.

There are many substantial and superficial differences. Asbury is next to an ocean, and Changzhou is along the Yangtze River. Monmouth County and most of New Jersey in general does not have air problems, and there are hardly any factories around here. People hardly treat Changzhou as a tourist destination, and beach goers flock to Asbury Park every summer.

If you look deeper, though, there is one important similarity. It’s ongoing development. In Changzhou, something new is always being built and is under construction, and Asbury Park often feels the same way. Both when I lived here and now when I return every summer to see family, there also seems to be new condos under construction. A lot of them look the same. In Changzhou, there is always those brown cookie cutter residential high rises being thrown up.

Asbury Park has been under redevelopment for years. It used to be a swanky destination for the wealthy 80 or so years ago. Then, it slowly fell into disrepair. Race riots broke out in 1970, and much of the town burned. From there, the place descended into severe urban blight that it almost never recovered from. Take the most decrepit looking parts of Newark or New York City, and put it next to the Atlantic Ocean. That’s what the area looked like. One sarcastic bit of grafitti boasted: “Asbury Park: Where the debris meets the sea.” Sometimes, debris even floated in from the sea. It it’s worst, garbage covered the sandy beach. In the 1980s and 1990s, the whole town looked like a shooting locations for a post apocalyptic science fiction movie. Crime and drugs were also rampant. Often, people drove through Asbury with locked doors.

When I moved to this place in 2004, walking out the door meant you possibly might have to contend with drug dealers and prostitutes. I once met a woman who fit both descriptions. However, people other than myself and my wife at the time were trickling in. The LGBT community, like it has in other parts of America, had moved in where renovating the town one house at a time. From there, real estate values have gone up and down, but Asbury has been on a recovery trajectory ever since.

However, when I walk through here, now, I am oddly reminded of Changzhou sometimes. For all of the speedy economic development, you can still find empty, derelict spaces in districts like Wujin — even in the prospering uptown of Xinbei in the greater Wanda area. It’s the same in Asbury. For every new condo development, there are still blighted and boarded over areas. It’s especially true the farther you get away from the beach and cross the train tracks.

You could also say there is one thing in Changzhou that always reminded me of Asbury Park. When I moved to Wujin in 2014, I saw the skeleton of a high rise. It was unfinished, and it stood on the 2 and 302 bus routes along Heping / Changwu Road. Two and a half years have passed, and no further construction has occurred. Something similar has happened in Asbury Park. There used to be something called C8. It was a project that never went beyond a steel framework. It became abandoned, and it became a fenced in tower of rust for a long time. This became a sore point for many of the old and more recently arrived locals. People cheered when it eventually became demolished. Once the rubble was cleared, another construction project took its place. And then, ironically, the real estate market in Asbury flatlined again. Construction halted, and now there is new and different failed real estate project there.

The similarities between Changzhou and Asbury Park essentially start and stop there. The Jersey town only has a limited number of spaces to develop. In theory, the construction projects will come to an end. In Changzhou and China in general, it will likely never end. Something is always getting bulldozed to make room for somethng else.

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Unfinished construction where the infamous C8 rusted ruin used to stand.