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My Adventures at Gongyuanqian

Gongyuanqian is one of the most congested and busiest metro stations in Guangzhou connected with an underground shopping mall. Above ground there is a major development project which is seemingly frozen in time. People living in semi-demolished homes. Nothing going up or down, just a half finished demolition surrounded by high rises. The village is Shaomazhan, in the intersection of Beijing Street and Zhongshanwu Street. The photo I took is from a shopping mall across the street.

Some houses have holes knocked in the walls are filled with cardboard and plywood. The few people I spoke with shrugged their shoulders when I asked questions. 2012 will be remembered for semi-demolished villages. With a 40% drop in housing in 2011 developers are going bankrupt waiting for rich people who aren’t coming. Business insider and CNN have headlined as China’s housing bubble.  Half of shaomazhan village is destroyed while the other is not. A few houses away elderly couples playing mahjong. On the other side of the wall people are shopping.

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My purpose of the visit was to locate the original Chenliji Medicine Factory.  Earlier in the day I visited the Chenliji museum and wanted to see the original building site. The buildings have had numerous facelifts, but the street plan dates back to the Ming Dynasty. The style of the building in its place was intended to be a replica, only it’s hard to tell because it’s not a giant KFC.

A crowd of police were standing around a group of people sitting on benches holding up signs and wearing white t-shirts claiming that they were being cheated in a land dispute. The village they claimed to be from was Tao Mei. I had never heard of the village, I asked if it was near Guangzhou. It was further north in Chaozhou. I then asked if it was OK for me to take a picture of their T-Shirt, a young man agreed and as I raised the camera a cop waved his hand in front of the camera nearly blocking the photo. This is the white glove waving at the bottom of the photo. The T-Shirt reads “Tao Mei Villager.”

I asked what the problem was the police didn’t respond in words but asked me to leave with a waving motion of the hand. Like swatting a fly. As I turned to leave the woman reached in her bag and gave me several pieces of paper. I took them and walked away. Several officers were fallowing me. I turned and asked if the paper I was holding was important? I told the officer: she gave me a flier, is that illegal? (Ta gei wo chuen dan, shi fei fa de?) Again no verbal response. I handed a cop the papers and they went away. Now I was really curious.

I continued walking,  moments moments later a girl ran to catch up with me. She looked about eleven years old, whe handed me four hand typed sheets of paper. Then an elderly villager handed me two color photos printed from a web site. They papers indicated that in Meitao displacing villagers to build an illegal mine. Weather or not that was true, the Meitao villagers were not favored by Guangzhou police.

On the way back to the subway I saw a cop take a juicer from a juice vendor. I was able to make a video of the vendor asking for his juicer back and the officer leaving away in a van. The vendor was stuck pushing a wagon of oranges. I caught the end of the argument on video.

video: juice vendor and police

The heavy police presence reminded me about everything I started disliking New York. The police presence is really for the large number of scam artists.The area does have some fascinating characters. Many mutilated beggars with accents from all rural parts of the country perform begging routines and count their money with stubby arms. One guy balances a bicycle on his head with a large stick of bamboo. Amazing time to live where I live.


The Guangdong Folk Arts Museum and Long Yuan Xi Village

It’s a rare moment when a village is destroyed for the purpose of historic restoration. It’s happening right now in a village located next to Guangzhou’s Chen Clan Academy. The Chen Clan Academy is home to Guangdong Folk Art Museum, a reasonably priced museum that shows some of the best tile sculptures, wood carvings and one of the few protected Lingnan style buildings in the country. It’s one of the first protected cultural  landmarks in the  short history of the PRC.

The Chen family were not local to Guangzhou, but spread out over 72 counties in Guangdong and in 1888 pooled their resources to build an anchesteral hall completed in 1894. This hall has proven resilient enough to survive a revolution, civil war, world war, reform and even today’s era of rapid modernization.

This became the home of the Guangdong Folk Arts Museum in 1959, and during the cultural revolution it served as a printing factory. The wood carvings, ceramics, brick sculptures all depict Chinese myths and legions which contradict early values of the modern China. However, the red guards never laid a finger on this  place. The structure reflects the decadence of the Qing Dynasty and would be a prime target of Mao’s death of the four olds. The survival of the building is in it’s versatility.

Long Yuan Xi village does not have the same versatility as the Chen Clan Academy. Within the next year the Folk Arts Museum will begin a renovation and expand North to house several jade sculptures, this will be the demise of Long Yuan Xi village. Of course it’s not pleasant to see another village destroyed, but it’s great to see a development which isn’t high rise apartments or shopping  mall. How is it possible a neighborhood to be gentrified in the promotion of art and history?

The Museum’s Curator, Li Zhouqi is a member of Guangzhou’s municipal people’s congress. A lesson learned, instead of fighting the government it’s better to join the CCP and make positive changes within. The complex situation of destroying a village to enhance a museum coensides with Premier Wen Jiobao’s lip service to China’s cultural preservation. He was quoted by Macau Daily times as charging developers across the country as “Destroying the real and building up the fake” this past September.

The restoration of many historic districts in Guangzhou began two years ago during the preparations of the 2010 Asian Games. If we compare the Asian Games with the Shanghai Expo and the Beijing Olympics, Guangzhou has done a much better job capitalizing on it’s historical landmarks than Beijing or Shanghai. Such as the restoration of Shamien Island and Daling Village.

Right now a plaster wall separates the bus stop and already separates the village from the main street and once walking behind the village you can see many of the buildings which were literally split in half. I spoke with a family whose home will be destroyed, they are receiving adequate compensation for their property and are very proud of the quality of the Guangdong Folk Arts Museum has given to the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall.

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Some of the most amazing features of the Chen Clan Academy are not in it’s exhibits but the wood carvings, lime sculptures, and ceramics.

Glass Confetti, The Develpment of Pazhou Park.

If you want to know where glass bottles in Guangzhou meet their maker, take the 764 bus over the Pazhou Bridge and fallow the smell of burning plastic. Guangzhou is a city where you know your rent will increase when the air gets too clean.

Last year Pazhou village was filled with people. Now it’s a field of broken glass and smoke. This field of broken glass and remains of brick houses has a view brand new skyscrapers. The view is hideously beautiful. A must see for urban explorers.

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The restoration of the Pazhou Tower is a fallow up on a 1981 preservation project done by the Hong Kong History Museum. An extension of Guangdong Greenway will fallow around the Pazhou Park linking a bike path to University town. The renovations will be fantastic for anyone who likes to cycle or jog. At the moment Pazhou park is designated for glass and scrap metal recycling.

The assortments of bricks you’ll see in the photos are stubs of the former Pazhou village, which was occupied only last year. It’s like visiting the crater where the meteor landed killing the dinosaurs. It’s the smoking gun of urban renewal.

When you walk through wear good shoes because little pellets of glass will crunch under your feet. Also bring a dust mask because near by there is an over whelming smell of burning rubber and plastic. The are is undergoing a transformation so it’s like showing up to a dinner party when the cooks are dropping things and shouting at each other. Though the area seems deserted there is evidence of regular visitors. The tower steps  lead to a shrine where someone is continuously leaving offerings of food to religious deities.

Of course this won’t be an industrial junkyard forever. The entire region is in the hands of a Chicago architectural firm named Goettsch Partners. Click on this link to view the master plan. As always historical landmarks in Guangdong are completely random. An entire village can be removed making way for the ideas of American architects, while one single Ming Pagoda is designated as ‘historic.’

In two years tourists visit this pagoda they will talk about it being hundreds of years old, when it’s actually 31 years old, it was rebuilt in the approximate location, not nearly as old as Pazhou village. See it now, and don’t be afraid of the dog when you climb the steps. The 1981 paint job is chipping. Proof that history is an ongoing creative process which changes every generation.

The Last Village of Jida

looks like a 19Th Century Irish grange behind modern high rises

If anyone over 31 tells you they were born in Zhuhai, they are lying or just very confused. Zhuhai did not exist before 1980.

The city is comprised of former villages of Zhongshan city creating the second Special Economic Zone after Shenzhen. However, the villages within Zhuhai date back several hundred years. Such as NanPing, the home of Yung Wing. Hong Kong Court translator and Qing Dynasty diplomat who traveled to America and became the first Chinese graduate of Yale in 1854. Part of Nanping Village is now known as Hua Fa, literally translated as ‘development.’ Villages like this are disappearing. When villages disappear they are given new names by real estate companies,  which gives Chinese history a very long and scattered paper trail.

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Jida is one of the more expensive neighborhoods in Zhuhai, though most new highrises are located on the main streets like Shui Wan Lu and Jiu Zhou Lu. The side streets of Zhuhai are made up of industrial communities.

Zhuhai apartments are marketed to wealthy people who don’t like big cities. The selling points are clean air and low population. The value of an apartment depends on the view of the ocean. The villages that last the longest offer no ocean view, and sometimes take years to be destroyed. Villages in big cities like Guangzhou are destroyed quickly.

Jida’s Da Lau Chuen (local nickname, ‘big old village’) has been in a perpetual broken state for several years. I lived in Zhuhai in 2009 and remember when the demolition started. It hasn’t finished. This neighborhood is hard too hard to sell.

Three days ago I photographed this village and saw a child playing in a stairway of an abandoned building, I asked if his parents were around and he said they were just next door. They were. In fact, a majority of the village is still living all the rubble. Zhuhai is an expensive city, and this is a very affluent neighborhood.

Imagine being a child exploring the remains of your neighbors home, while rich people in surrounding high rises can watch you from their balconies.

I talked to one resident who’s home had been marked for demolition for several months, he hasn’t been given an actual date. People here have to be ready to leave at any given moment, keeping their fingers crossed for a large sum of cash from the government.

This village faces a field of weeds that have grown around the walls of partially demolished houses. Some of these homes are covered in weeds and look like a 19th century Irish grange.  Only 20 yards away from Jiuzhou Cheng shopping mall and the Zhuhai museum. Jida is decorated with high rises while people living in fields of rubble are the back yards of gated communities. Wrapping a semi-destroyed village in fancy apartments is like bleaching a decaying tooth.

It’s an amazing contrast. To see it, take the public bus, 3, 3A, or 40 and get off at Jida bus station. Walk through the parking lot on the north side of Shui Wan Lu.

Keep in mind that these remains are very expensive. Click on this link to see exactly how expensive.

Rubble Tourism

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This is a new writing project which is self explanatory, rubble tourism. Documenting rubble.

When built spaces are destroyed, preserved, or rebuilt it shows what that society views as important.

Most of my posts will show places where I live in Guangdong province. Two weeks ago I visited the city of Foshan and photographed the destruction of several Lingnan  style buildings. Most of those photos  are on my travel blog.

Right now cities are becoming ambiguous. If its possible to travel the world and see the same building, eat the same fast food, while speaking only one language, traveling become obsolete.

If not disappearing a better word is recycled. Materials that once served a purpose are smashed, they evolve into something else cities remain in a state of physical contortion.

Sometimes the destruction is widely protested b the community and developers, governments, and residents butt heads. Sometimes the destruction is welcome.

Many places have too many bad memories live for anyone to miss them. Some buildings only hold shame, and when the sledge hammers arrive the community feels a detox. Like the removal of a tumor.

The question that should be asked is how do people get the message that their culture is not worth preserving?

When I talk to people in many of these disappearing villages I get mixed reactions to what’s going on. Some people feel helpless against the nations race to modernize and lost in a futuristic world they don’t understand; while others see the destruction as a mark of success, pumped with adrenaline addicted to everything new. This will all be shown in my writing and photography.

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Dinner at Yangji Building Site

Two weeks ago I walked through the construction site near the Yangji subway and tried to get as many pictures as I could of  the remaining  structures.  A scale was set up to weigh the bricks, steel rods, and all other materials that would be sold  as scrap. I saw an assortment of bicycle parts and asked the boss if it was possible to make a junk bike for 100 RMB. The offer just wasn’t worth the effort.

The parts of homes being hauled away could transform into anything. Metal rods from a buildings frame could become a ten-thousand key chains. The gravel could even be turned into concrete that the new highrises could be made from the actual dust of these homes. When buildings are torn down they really just evolve.

The landscape of rubble has the backdrop of the skyline; very beautiful. Some homes are still untouched, some have been stripped of doors and windows, some are marked with spray paint

indicating that the owners had not signed contract. One home still had people inside, and a garden in the front with a trench was dug leading to an open sewer.

I asked the boss of the flea market which buildings still had people inside. He shrugged his shoulders and told me he wasn’t clear. It wasn’t really his business or mine for that matter. Out of curiosity I returned for pictures during the sunset but got there too late.

I saw a camp fire with several tables and chairs with a few moving silhouettes. A man was sitting in a chair while a woman was chopping vegetables. The man asked me to sit down. I told him I wanted information about the development and he told me everything. The concrete Soviet style buildings were mostly dust, two Lingnan style buildings were preserved for tourism, while some people had refused to leave remained in buildings and were in a stalemate with developers.

The remaining buildings were of mixed materials from wood, brick, tile, to clay were built over time by the owners. Even though these workers empathized with the people; even though it was their job to destroy their homes. One worker pointed out a stray cat mewing in the distance which returns every night looking for the family. Like an orphan.

I asked for a rough estimate of what people were getting for their property and they all said unanimously ‘30,000 RMB per square meter.’  I couldn’t believe it, and square meter was enough to buy a new car. This was word of mouth; true or not, that is a lot of money in any city in the world.  Though  people don’t like being told when to retire and when to move.

More people came out of the shadows and sat by the fire. I had no idea where they were coming from, it was too dark to see. The conversation got more elaborate and involved ten or twelve voices each politely taking their turn. I felt like I’d stumbled into a bizarre science fiction movie; only this was real, and everyone had a country accent wearing dusty sandals and il-fitting sport coats. A community labeled “migrant workers.”

They asked me questions about American politics. They were all well-informed referring to Libya, unemployment and weapon sales to Taiwan.  Information was referenced to their mobile phones. Men and women with limited bathing and heating options were much more savvy about the current events than my University students. The conversation moved to Chinese politics and  the general changes in the country.

They wanted to know about my home, New York. I didn’t know where to begin. They asked me if there was a similar process of demolishing old buildings and replacing them with high rises. I told them there were only developments happen slowly in America.  The fact that it’s taken more than ten years to rebuild the world trade center sight is just laughable. Americans love to argue, it’s part of our culture.In China there are very few rules and everyone wants money, so development happens quickly. Everything in China is new and fast, while everything in America is old and slow. I told them how much more efficient Guangzhou’s transportation is cheaper and more efficient than New York. They hadn’t even taken the subway yet, they came directly on a bus Guangxi Province. All big cities are built by people who can’t afford to live in them.

No one seemed to harbor animosity towards the people in Guangzhou. In this country, ‘rich and poor’ are synonymous with ‘urban and rural,’ the farmers work in the factories, build the buildings  and knock them down a generation later. Like most societies the people who keep the country moving are the  disenfranchised misfits.

This is the wood fire, surrounded by bricks from the building site. The pot was used to cook the food and to boil the water for washing.

They asked me to stay for dinner and I couldn’t refuse. I hid my excitement, I wanted to know more about their culture and their daily routine. I accepted the invitation and one of the women announced dinner was ready. Tables and chairs made from found objects appeard. The movements were choreographed. Shadows were moving like a scene change  in a Broadway play. I was ordered to grab a bowl and get in line. They challenged me to fill my rice bowl the to top but I was worried that everyone would have enough.

The table was a former book shelf turned on its side. From the writing on the wood it was a sandwich board sign in another life. Every object is recycled. The food was cooked over a wood fire enclosed with bricks from the building site. Two dishes were served in laundry basins. One chicken and one eel. The flavors were new to my palate.

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They told me it was a distinct flavors from the rural areas of Guangxi Province and that they were all Dong ethnic minority. One man made a point to tell me that China has 50+ ethnic minorities; he sounded almost like a museum tour guide. (Secretly, I wanted to ask why the ‘minorities’ of the country were working in fields and construction sites while the Han aristocracy controlled government and business.) I inquired more about the food.

They told me that the eel was flavored with a small black spice shaped like a pepper corn called a Zhongzi (emphasizing the ‘G’ in pronunciation) . One of the ladies who cooked pulled a small red bag out of her pocket and told me to eat one. tasted a bit salty with a numbing effect like chewing a clove. They told me that one kilo of the herb was  200 RMB. I shook my head in disbelief of the quality of the food I offered around a campfire. The chicken was sautéed in diced cilantro; this month the price of cilantro has doubled! I pointed this out and the conversation moved real estate law to the price of vegetables. The meal I was just served would cost a small fortune in any of the restaurants down the street. I was absolutely grateful.

The women did the cooking while the men drank baijo and chain smoked. Drinking punctuated dinner conversation. If there is an awkward silence or someone tells a joke that isn’t really funny they are forgiven with a request to drink like a military salute.  No one drinks alone, always eye contact with ritual. I hadn’t pounded baijo in a long time. I started slurring my words after the fourth glass and realized it was time for me to go.

They invited me to back another night, though there was no guarantee they would be working on the same project from one week to the next. Hence the label: “Migrant Workers.” I couldn’t understand the  amount of hospitality without wanting something in return, other than good conversation.

After three years in China I’ve grown jaded and callous from random idiots approaching me with their business cards, looking to practice their English or just get a picture taken with a white face. That’s why I moved to Guangzhou. I like a big city where no one celebrates mediocrity.  Some people need mountains and lakes to be reminded of a greater power, I need buildings and constant movement of people.

As I walked off the site they gave me directions of where to step to avoid being cut by random shards of metal.  I moved away from the fire and into the street lights and noticed my shoes were covered in dust. At the Yangi subway station I moshed my way into the overstuffed train like a 90’s rock show. Looking at the people trying not to make eye contact with each other, I thought everyone was just silly.

They were not people. The were cheap manufactured copies of people. They all had skin that had never seen the sun, they wore clothes with foreigners names: Gucci, Klein, Lauren. Walking commercials. Not humans. Their conversations were rehearsed. Emotions were learned from soap operas. I erupted in laughter. I wasn’t subtle. Too happy. I kept laughing.

Everyone backed away from me and stared.