“Yes, people are constructed by their material world, but often they are not themselves the agents behind that material world through which they must live” (Miller 2009: 84).
“The apocalyptic describes not just the spilling forth of the unseen, but also of the undifferentiated matter of the possible, of what could have been and was not, of what neither came to be nor what went away” (Williams 2011: 6).
While in Dalian last month I found myself with a free afternoon and decided to do what I enjoy most—walk the streets and see what I can discover. Upon mentioning this to my Chinese host, he responded that he knew exactly where I should go and dropped me off in Dalian’s gleaming Xinghai Square—the largest city square in the world. It offered a amusement park, and grand views of the new cityscape and coast. There were some interesting architectural features, but walking it was hell. The vast, concrete urban desertscape was created by an urban planner who wanted to create something for the eye and not for human feet.
Shortly after my host departed for a meeting, I looked on a local map, noted the part of town with older street names and began walking in that direction, wanting to leave Xinghai Square just as quickly as I could.
After nearly an hour traversing the distance from the new part of town to the old, I was just about to give up when I came upon some old neighborhoods that were in the process of being demolished. The scene was, in many ways, familiar for anyone who has spent time in urban China over the past few decades. Smaller one and two story single residences, some with very elaborate gardens were being demolished to make way for an encroaching shopping mall development. Narrow streets and modest brick and concrete structures plowed over for wide avenues, planned plantings and shops and restaurants.
Idiosyncratic, historic structures—bricolages of lived material culture—were being systematically erased in favor of a new urban plan. The material structures of the neighborhood were “being disappeared.” The historical neighborhood was being physically transmuted through the process of carefully planned catastrophe into memories. From the direction I approached, the contrast between the old neighborhood and the shiny steel-reinforced giants being erected just behind them could not have been starker.
Walking down the lanes I snapped some photos of the homes and had a short conversation with one of the owners. He confirmed what I had guessed—the homes were Japanese, built during the colonial occupation. They had very interesting architectural features—including some with what looked like German peaked roofs. The elaborate architectural features were all the more striking amid piles of rubble and trash. (Surprisingly, however, I did notice one home that looked like it had recently been renovated—complete with a new paint job and an expensive white Hummer parked outside. I will explain that in a bit.)
As the towering new high-rises that ringed the neighborhood began to cast long late afternoon shadows down onto the wreckage, I continued looking around. Some local residents looked on curiously while stray dogs and children ran around playing in the rubble.
A State of Emergency
Then I came upon something remarkable. A half demolished two-story structure covered in red and yellow banners with political slogans on them:
“Sing Red to Fight Darkness!”
“Listen to Chairman Mao!”
“Follow the Communist Party!”
“Harmonious Society! Long Live the People!”
“Social Harmony Attend to the Lives of the People!”
Pulling out my camera to snap a photo, I attracted the attention of a man on the second floor balcony. When I yelled up to him inquiring as to the significance of the banners, he responded with a waive and a gesture to come up the stairs. Another man joined us as he whisked me into a second floor room.
In contrast to the wreckage outside, the room was cozy and intimate—shelves crowded with knickknacks, curios and books with many objects and images hung on the walls. The center of the room was dominated by a large, low table covered in tea brewing paraphernalia, which ringed by chairs and a large overstuffed couch.
After a brief exchange of greetings the owner, Mr. Gao, lit up a cigarette, lit some incense, and began to brew some tea. He explained to me that he had lived in his home for the past thirty years and when the neighborhood was slated for demolition some years back he and a few nearby neighbors decided to stay and resist. The old Japanese neighborhood was comfortable, social and had historical value, he described. Even though its buildings didn’t get a high enough rating from the city government to be certified as historically protected, he and the others wanted to save their neighborhood.
The history of the neighborhood, as he described it, was the history of unique buildings with unique details and stories. “There is renqingwei here”—the “flavor” of a space that is inhabited by people who have relationships with one another. This contrasted with the “cold impersonal new buildings” that, he explained, are “being built with false historical references”—those buildings with faux-Greco statuary in styles imitating European opulence or with extravagant fountains and ornate gates. His neighborhood, has “actual, real history.” A history that is important to the local people living there.
The Dalian city government, however, didn’t recognize that significance when it decided to redevelop it and began to demolish it. Since the demolitions began in 2010, he and the others had held out—keeping their homes continually occupied. The neighbors made a pact to watch out and defend one another from encroachments on their homes. If the homes are ever discovered empty they could be summarily bulldozed.
The political banners hung from the front of his home that had attracted my attention from the street were an aspect of this defense—an effort at social commentary. Overt protest is illegal and would likely provide the police with an excuse to use force. So, Gao chose to publicly display a selection of the historical propaganda messages the Party itself has used. This included Mao era slogans about social equity, resisting abuse and defending the rights of the masses, as well as more recent slogans the Party uses to support its agenda and urban redevelopment schemes. In this way a Cultural Revolution era “Listen to Mao” finds a place right next to creating a “Harmonious Society.” The same could be said for the home across the street from him which has “baojia weiguo” (保家卫国, protect your home, defend the country) spray painted on the front of it.
Affixed to partially demolished buildings, in the middle of a neighborhood being leveled by city government mandate, the slogans were intended as mocking satire. “‘Listen to Mao’s words’ as the average people are removed from their homes!” “Where is your ‘harmony!'” One of his banners even has the phone number of the Public Security Bureau and encourages passersby to call them to “dispel evil” (除恶) in the event of trouble.
Of course, the whole neighborhood is in trouble.
Mr. Gao and his family had been visited by many people who had noticed the slogans. They were intended to attract attention to their plight (and for this reason they had no problem with my taking photos and posting them here.)
Their tactics of resistance, however, included not only the sardonically redeploying political slogans but also by engaging in the very interpersonal relationships that they claimed to be defending—creating renqing by drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and inviting guests into their home. The opposite of the disinterested, cool or fearful urban dweller when he saw me on the street, Mr. Gao enthusiastically invited me inside to sit for a while and talk.
Gao explained, however, that some other neighbors were angry with him for holding out—thinking he was a troublemaker seeking additional compensation for his home. Gao explained that he wasn’t like the gangster down the street who had, upon learning the neighborhood would be destroyed, actually bought a home and quickly renovated it to look nice so that he could get a better settlement from the government and make a profit. I told him I had seen the house with the expensive white Hummer parked outside.
He wasn’t holding out for a profit. He just wanted to stay in his home, in his neighborhood of thirty years. To do this he was, in effect, living in a constant state of emergency—enduring a four-year-long daily state of siege—defending what was left of his home from the city, developers, angry neighbors and gangs. He walked me around his home, detailing the countermeasures he had developed from available materials. This included a comprehensive security apparatus to protect himself and his family. In the back corner of his home was the command center—a computer screen with live CCTV feeds of the different cameras he had placed around the perimeter and inside stairwells of his home. Sitting at the computer he could see if anyone was approaching and take appropriate measures.
As we sat and talked for about an hour he went into some detail about the history of the neighborhood, its recent destruction and a pause in the demolition since the new President Xi Jinping took office. It was clear that the neighborhood had already been mortally wounded by the homes already destroyed and removed. Gao was uncertain what holding out could still mean when even his building had already been partially demolished around him.
An Omega Man
Conversing in Mr. Gao’s living room—a space under perpetual siege, complete with its own security apparatus—I thought of apocalypse. I thought about the many films I have seen where a ragtag group of survivors defend themselves from rampaging post-apocalypic hordes. TV shows where strangers huddle in demolished malls or abandonded homes to enjoy what edible luxuries they can scavenge from the ruins of modern society. Looking around, I realized that the everyday lives of Gao, his family and neighbors were not too different. I thought of Gao as one of those all-to-familiar end-of-the-world figures defending himself in a well-fortified home from the encroaching zombie masses. Modest Mr. Gao didn’t really cut a Hollywood figure. I considered the mild-mannered Charleton Heston in Omega Man (1971)—a film adaption of the novel I Am Legend or Bruce Dern’s more introverted character in Silent Running (1972). Interestingly, both of these films were made during the final years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)—the historical moment that Gao evoked through some of the banners he hung on his home.
Here was a man defending himself against everything—with no allies in the police or city government. His only defense against gangs, developers and police were a handful of close trusted friends, cobbled-together countermeasures and a string of CCTV cameras. Meanwhile he invited in curious passersby for tea, conversation and social connection.
Evan Calder Williams makes a useful distinction between a catastrophe and an apocalypse. The former, he describes as an “end without revelation” a destruction that cannot “point beyond itself” toward some other historical meaning. An apocalypse, however, “is an end with revelation, a ‘lifting of the veil'” (Williams 2011: 4-5).
Certainly Mr. Gao’s family is living a post-apocalyptic existence right in the middle of the “urban renewal” of modern China. This isn’t hyperbole or “ruin porn.” Gao’s plight and persistence for four years among the rubble of his neighborhood reveals something about the nature of China’s urban transformation. It is the “spilling forth” of the unseen and yet well-known. It is apocalyptic in the sense of an end, but also in the sense of revealing something meaningful about the nature of the “miracle” of China’s urban construction. The revelation that the vast new urban spaces have been built upon the other places—spaces that have been cleared by unknown and yet known means. In some ways it is like the consumer who has the sneaking suspicion someone might have been abused or exploited in the manufacture of their iPhone but “would rather not think about it.”
During the past few years the Western media has featured more than a few famous “nail houses” and yet the stories often take the form of blaming the residents for “not taking compensation” or “stubbornly” refusing to embrace the new.
Mr. Gao and his family were not being stubborn, they were making a statement about place—their home place. Through the careful textual deployment of past political slogans they attempted to hold the government responsible for not following through on its own moral claims—in spite of the sacrifices it continually asks from the common people. This could be the Maoist past—with its unrealized dreams of socialism or the present day where government calls for “social harmony” seem forced in a country with a larger budget for its internal police force than external army.
Like their neighbor across the street they were asking what kind of nation (国家, guojia, lit: “national home”) would ask its people to give up their homes while at the same time claim that defending their homes from those who would take them was a patriotic duty.
Of course, the poignant image of grand political slogans affixed to the rubble of their realization—the discordant promises of “harmony” and “long lives” amid a post-apocalyptic everyday existence evokes deeper more troubling associations.
From Liberator to Landlord?
It is a tragic historical irony that the revolutionary party that liberated China in the name of fighting the exploiting landlord class basically ended up itself becoming the landlord for the entire country. During the communist period the CCP appropriated private lands and socialized them under state control for public welfare. When the economic system was transformed from state socialism to market capitalism, however, the government never bothered to re-privatize land. While private home buying began its fevered appeal in the 1990s, the land on which homes sit belongs to the government. Sure families could lease it for fifty years or more, but what if the government decided it wanted the land for other uses?
The fact that the Party retained ownership of land when they turned capitalist has facilitated the tremendous speed and thoroughness of the urban transformation of China over the past twenty years. When one marvels at the “miraculous” pace of Chinese urban transformation—the fact that it was facilitated by total government eminent domain over all land is rarely remarked upon. City governments could quite literally sit down with bankers from state-owned banks, developers, city planners, party representatives and local police and draw up comprehensive plans for whole districts. The banks then provided the funding, the developers the private management while the local police make sure that the development happens “harmoniously.”
Government officials with a family members who work for real estate or development companies can play both sides and become both powerful and very rich. Is it any wonder that the list of China’s wealthiest is heavily populated with real estate moguls?
Things, however, look different from the perspective of those like Mr. Gao and his neighbors living in older homes on prime urban land. Residents are compensated a portion of the value of their homes—but are not compensated for the value of the land on which the home sits. Never mind that the new buildings being built on the land will be sold at an expensive premium based on their prime location.
It is important to realize that over the past two decades vast portions of nearly every major Chinese city have been demolished—completely and utterly razed to the ground (and often deep beneath it!) and then entirely rebuilt. Had this process happened all at once the devastation wrought upon China’s urban landscape could only be compared to an earthquake or war. Done slowly and methodically, however, the transformation has largely appeared orderly—belying its slow-motion violence of displacement and dispossession. Relationships upended, families displaced, community bonds fractured and historical memory lost. A portion of residents have even been left as economic refugees in their own country.
Simultaneously this process has created vast new reserves of value and has efficently transferred the wealth generated by that new value from one class of people to another—from urban residents to investors and new “middle class” home buyers. The former residents of many neighborhoods, divested of a substantial portion of the value of their homes and no longer able to afford homes in the urban neighborhoods where they once lived, often are left no choice but to disperse into suburban areas.
Of course, by 2014, this is old news. The disappearance of Beijing’s hutong neighborhoods are already the subject of aesthetic appreciation and nostalgic reflection—as if they were always already traditional “Old Beijing” and necessarily had to be destroyed. Portions have already been emptied of their original inhabitants, refurbished and touristically embalmed as heritage sites. This recent infographic provides an interesting summary.
Mr. Gao, his family and few neighbors are defending their homes with the only language left available to them—the communist rhetoric of the Party itself. As giant architectural structures press in upon what remains of their neighborhood Gao has cobbled together whatever remnants he can—including remnants of unrealized pasts—to resist. He holds up red communist slogans of the not-so-distant revolutionary past to evoke the difference between that rhetoric and his reality.
Just before the sun completely set, I finished my tea and thanked my hosts for their time and for sharing their situation with me. Leaving the comparative comfort of their home I walked back out onto what was left of their street. There were huge plies of demolished concrete rubble, bricks, broken glass, dumpsters overflowing with refuse and trash blowing everywhere. Some neighbors next door were milling around on the street smoking and chatting—clearly curious what I was doing emerging from one of the threatened homes.
As I made my way back to the sparkly new part of town with its shiny global brand stores and neon-lit K-TVs, I thought of Mr. Gao and his family in their post-apocalyptic home cum bunker getting ready for the approaching evening. CCTVs on. Countermeasures ready. Drinking tea, smoking and chatting into the night while the hordes begin to press in.
Long Live the People! Follow the Party! Listen to Chairman Mao!
Sing Red to Fight Darkness!
Very perceptive. I was lucky to spend several months in China in 1981. Simply can’t fathom the changes that have occurred since.
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