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.
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.
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.
Once, a guy chased me while wildly swinging a bust of Chairman Mao. He didn’t want to beat me over the head with it; he simply wanted to sell it to me for 800 RMB. No matter how much I said “不要 bu yao,” he kept in hot pursuit, yelling about he’d drop the price. That went in 20 RMB increments. I really didn’t want it; I mean, I was downtown, and how would I get that thing home or just lug it around with me as I did other errands? It didn’t matter how much I didn’t want it; he was damned insistent. It wasn’t the first time this guy chased me, either. Other times, he waved posters of Zhou Enlai at me, as well as a wall tapestry of 10 prominent Red Army generals.
He wasn’t the first person to do this. In this part of downtown, I have been grabbed and pulled into shops with all sorts of junk paraded in front of my face. All of them had absurdly inflated prices. A comic book went for 200 RMB, and red and gold embossed Mao buttons went for 100 RMB. Some of those shopkeepers saw me as a clueless, rich foreigner that they could make easy cash off of. They were tripling their prices just at the mere sight of me.
And what can I say? I have a thing for junk and antique stores. However, as my Chinese abilities slowly improved from non existent to barely minimal, I actually learned how to haggle with these people. I also got it to a point where I don’t even have to say anything anymore. All I need to do is twist my face into a overacted grimace or scowl and wave my hand dismissively. Once these vendors realized I was no longer the goldmine they thought I was, I stopped getting chased or grabbed. Eventually, I settled on one antique merchant I trusted, and now I usually just go to him first.
So, where is this part of Changzhou? If you go to where the downtown central subway station is being built, you will find an antique market behind the Christian church. This would be Wenhuagong 文化宫. You can find everything from old communist propaganda to weathered books of nude photography, framed calligraphy, carved wood, and much more. This is an ideal place for stamp and currency collectors, too. There are two indoor markets with kiosks, but the main part is a small pedestrian street with shopfronts. Only, if you are going to go there for the first time, take a Chinese friend you are actually going to buy something. Otherwise, they will think you are a goldmine, too.