Archive for the 'The Fading Vestige' Category

30
Aug
10

Echoes and the crunch of broken glass

What is the appeal of an abandoned building?

A common question posed by every other person who happens to be squatting or doing brisk recycling scrap business, to me when I come snooping around. They sniff at the building, then at my camera, and scratch their heads. These are the friendly ones. The hostile ones literally chase you out, they tend to be the ones that have the most to hide: their status, their business, their families.

My answer is it depends.

The mood has to be right: The people, disinterested enough to leave you alone. Each floor seems to unveil something different, not just the view outside. There is the matter of the right music on Ipod. I sometimes like Explosions in the Sky, Bach’s Partitas for Violin No.2, Bob Dylan and even Guns and Roses. Music that complements the gravitas of the situation at hand. Heck, have you ever mounted narrow staircases with no banisters to Lady Gaga? Exhilarating.

The environment and atmosphere: The air and garbage has to be dry enough so any stench would not be so overwhelming that your hands are preoccupied shooting rather than covering your nose. A sun-drenched room is the best, where rays bounce off walls and broken mirrors on the floor.

The foundations have to be steady: Concrete floors are safe, though one has to watch for cave-ins; spots where soft cardboard is piled deceptively high that when you step in, the bottom is actually compost paper and your foot sinks right in. Wooden floors are tricky. Very tricky. I tried it in a large mostly-abandoned European house in Hongkou before, where half the wooden floor was sunken in. Each creak of the rotting wood gave me heart palpitations.

Common sense dictates that you wear shoes, not slippers. I once stepped into a trio of fluorescent light bulbs which exploded under my slipper sole. My screams reverberated through the floor as the glass bits flew into my feet, it took me 10 minutes to extricate myself. 

The potential spectacular view: It may not be the Vue Bar on Hyatt on the Bund, Glamour Bar or New Heights off the Bund strip. But you can always be surprised. With the sweet spot, you could stand there for hours alone with your thoughts, the quiet air punctuated by the occasional blare of the tanker on Huangpu River. In this case, the view of Pudong skyline, like some far away land and era, from this abandoned building will not exist in a few years. Unforunately, urban development will throw up more buildings near the river front, obscuring any view for unfortunate tenants living further behind.

Finally, the stories of chance encounters: Sometimes, squatters, recyclers or neighbors may tell you the history of the building and the neighborhood. This particular building used to be the Shanghai Yaming Lighting Company, established in 1923 and was the first lamp manufacturing enterprise in China. It subsequently created a joint-venture with Holland’s Philips Lighting. The factory subsequently closed and became a hotel. Yet, the outline of where the company name used to be on the building front is still visible.

When I was there, a simply-dressed woman in her 60s, carrying an umbrella, was staring at the building, lost in her own thoughts. It turned out that she had worked in the factory assembling light bulbs before the Cultural Revolution. She was then in her 20s. She later became a teacher and is now retired. In a matter of months, she will be emigrating to America to join her son and husband, both at Ivy League colleges in Boston. “I heard this building was going to be torn down,” she sighed wistfully, “I thought I come for one last look before I leave China.” 

July 2010

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22
Jun
10

Small town Shanghai: Who’s left?

You don’t have to wander too far from Shanghai to find interesting small towns, that is, ones that have not converted into tourist villages of Disneyland proportions.

An hour-long bus ride from Longyang metro stop (龙阳地铁站) on Line 2, deep into Pudong (浦东), we found ourselves in the town of Dayuan (大团镇) in Nanhui (南汇).

Towns in China have developed with a banal similarity common in suburbia America. The same fading welcome signboards, the same layout of buildings, shops and houses populate next to the highway – all of it, engulfed in swirling road dust. There is nothing particularly outstanding about Dayuan town but there was plenty to explore once you push into the interior.

The dynamic of urban and suburban sprawl applies aptly when you compare metropolitan Shanghai and suburban towns like Dayuan. In the town’s older neighborhoods, you see a mix of elderly and children with a conspicuous absence of the robust working age group of 18 to 25. The young and mobile have migrated to the metropolitan cities in search of more interesting work and that bit of excitement.

The elderly living in Dayuan tend to have lived in Shanghai for a long time, some migrating from the city center to the outskirts. They while their time away playing cards or chess, drinking tea, cleaning and strolling on the grounds. They live modestly, sometimes growing their own food, diligently recycling what they can into an accoutrement of knick-knacks like dried leaves as broom bristles or using plastic bottles to store loose grain.

A 15 minute walk off the highway where we were dropped off, we found ourselves in a leafy lane hugged by old houses, new shop fronts and the occasional factory space.

In one of the small lanes, we found an old man making old-style cloth shoes in his living room. He measured pieces of paper on cloth, used glue of his own concoction – entirely organic – and glued the layers together and eventually sewed them by hand and machine. 88 years old, he lived in Shanghai his whole life. His living room was stacked high with rubber soles, scraps of cloth and paper. And while his movements were slow and deliberate, he was still alert and humorous, indulging us in great detail of his craft.

In another old-style Jiangnan (江南) house with curbed rooftips, which once served as a sock production unit decades ago, I found a husband and wife couple quietly snipping away stray threads off bags of socks. When asked if they were still in the business of producing socks, they laughed. No no, the wife said, we just get paid a bit of money to clean up loose ends and pack them before they get shipped out. Their relatives continue the socks production business but at a real factory.

As are most small towns, everyone is friendlier and warmer. Come sit down and have a cup of tea, indulge in a tale or two about the history of their lives or the town.  An old man sang and played his erhu (二胡) for us while another showed us his shockingly large collection of junk electronics harking back to the 60s.

There was no better way to spend the day, under leafy trees in the summer sun. And if you collect stories like me, be it large cities or small towns, the stories are always entertaining yet meaningful.

June 2010

17
Jun
10

A Photographer’s Eviction from the house on Yulin Road

From a distance, the row of European-styled houses stood out along Yulin Lu (榆林路) in Hongkou district (虹口区)– burning brick red against squat shop houses and gleaming condominiums. The place has been designated as a heritage site, according to a plaque that hung outside, which offered little beyond a perfunctory description of “simplified classical style … garden residences” built in 1927.

Inside, more than half the rooms had been abandoned because the wood on the walls and floor had rotted. Signs of previous occupation were rare, save for the occasional celebrity or government poster, and drawings in what was once a children’s nursery. There were also several expired eviction letters taped to doors.

Yet there were persistent stragglers living there, evidenced by dried fish and laundry hanging in the hallways.

On the occasions that I have entered the premise unencumbered, residents left me alone. Once, an old man stared at me blankly from his window above before closing it.

One visit was marked by a dramatic eviction of our own. Exploring the cavernous empty rooms with 2 other photographers (one of whom was 席子 Xi Zi interviewed here), we split up to document the various wings.

I was teetering in a corner of a room whose floor had caved in when I heard aggressive shouting. Peering out of the side of the window, I saw a security guard shoving my friends across the courtyard while they resisted and pleaded to complete some shots. Volumes were raised in a staccato of Shanghainese as arms pushed and pulled. Some residents stared at the drama with little interest.

I crouched back against the wall, clutching my tripod to my chest as my heart beat wildly.  I was determined to finish shooting the abandoned rooms and as long as they didn’t know I existed, I had some time.

I moved swiftly but quietly from one room to another, careful to stay clear of the windows lest I be seen. Just as I hear the main gate slam shut against my friends, I heard someone shout from above,

“There’s still one more! A girl! Find her!”

I froze against the window then surveyed the situation. A resident and guard began striding to the various houses while shouting to their informer, “Where? What floor?!”

After a few jerky shots, I packed up my equipment hoping to find another exit. Barely steps away from the door, I slammed right into one of the guards. We stared, shocked and wide-eyed, at each other. Without thinking, I gave him a bright smile and shook his hand,

“Happy new year, sir! So sorry to bother you. Are you having a good day? So sorry to bother you! Thanks and goodbye.”

I sped walk toward the main gate, while the guards just stood there scratching his head. My friends looked equally confused at my grinning face, and we moved on to another house.

January 2010

08
Jun
10

Walling the site

I stood completely disoriented in a vast track of demolished land running along Gongping Lu (公平路) and Tangshan Lu (唐山路).

I was retracing an old longtang neighborhood but found myself circling back to the same parking lot. It was common for flattened neighborhoods to be converted into parking spaces at RMB10 an hour, a temporary albeit profitable solution to utilize fallowed concrete spaces prior to actual construction 

Shoddy looking walls were often erected around construction sites to contain the dust and from prying eyes.

The wall surrounding this plot of land was almost complete, save for a gaping hole in the north end.

There, I found some men coating the wall with a fresh slab of concrete. From Subei (苏北), short for northern Jiangsu, they often worked 7 days a week. “Otherwise, how do you get this?” a worker said to me with a glint in his eye, motioning money with his finger tips.

It turned out that their main jobs were to build temporary walls for construction sites. In fact, they were responsible for much of the walling of major sites in Hongkou for the past year. 

Currently, they were preparing the site that will soon house one of many metro stops along Shanghai’s 12th subway line, steadily making the city’s subway system one of the largest in the world. I had earlier documented the demolition of another neighborhood for a separate Line 12 stop last year.

I squatted with the workers under the beating sun, watching them paint deft strokes of concrete while puffing away on cheap cigarettes. It was hard not to notice their leathery skins which were dark and shiny from hours under the sun. After sharing some waxberries (杨梅) I had on hand, I departed, leaving them to earn another day’s wages.

June 2010

14
May
10

Shanghai’s scrapers

The other day, a woman fell out of the sky and missed me by an inch.

You think I’m making this up?

I was hurriedly striding along the pavement when suddenly, a middle-aged peasant woman from above pounced in front of me and instinctively grabbed me for balance. I did the same but she fell to the ground anyway.

I cursed irrately, my heart still racing from the shock. Was this just a bad accident or was I an unsuspecting support stoop? Bad enough I have to deal with tourists who stop in the middle of human traffic to gawk at the Pearl Tower, and the occasional shovers with nary an apology to be heard. Now, falling human bodies?

The peasant woman had long greasy hair tied neatly in a pony tail and wore a clashing outfit of a red office jacket and jeans, paired with dusty heels. She brushed herself off without a word. That was when I noticed a pile of scrap metal scattered on the floor. I realized she had scaled the wall of a construction site to pick scrap metal for sale. Where profits were concerned, it was a mine field.

Suddenly, I heard a loud clang followed by a thunderous bellow.

Another scraper had thrown a large piece of scrap over the wall without even looking. It barely missed another pedestrian, who was so angry he began hurling verbal abuse at the pair of them. Clearly used to this (disturbingly), they merely picked up their wares and walked away.

I notice them everday now, hanging outside the construction site, occassionally in mid-climb. I’ve stopped walking on that side of the street. Lest more falling metal and women rain on my way home.

The photo above was taken in March 2010 of scrapers in Dongjiadu.

For more stories and news on China’s scrapping industry, I heartily recommend you check out Adam Minter’s work.

22
Apr
10

Retrospect: No longer their city

I received a text message recently I thought note worthy.

It was from this old man in his 60s who was living in Hongkou, a site along Haimen Lu (海门路) I had visited since September 2009. I had documented the process of the longtang’s demise, as its footprint faded from live houses, to a half-demolished mess and finally, unrecognizable flat land.

The old man had wrtten, “New house is nice but far from Shanghai. Life is different. Take care, young miss.”

From the beginning, he was reluctant to share with me where he was moving to although I knew some of his neighbors had scattered to Pudong and Baoshan. He had no interest in a follow up but was pleased with the portrait I had given him.

The photo above was taken in September 2009 in the same neighborhood, of his neighbor, of the midget-like man who lived in a self-built house made of rubble and scrap.

When I asked him if he was going to relocate, he merely said, “Sure. I have to find another space. Any space. At the end of the day, this is not my city.”

September 2009

29
Mar
10

Work’s Momentum

In their hands, these workers carried bricks that once made up houses that are now no more, in neighborhoods that the next generation will have no idea once existed.

Their prerogative is only to deconstruct and construct. This side of history, by no fault of theirs, has nothing to do with them.

Taken west of Shangchuan Huiguan (商船会馆), a former temple and lone structure in a vast ocean of concrete rubble. Even children who played amidst what was left over of the neighborhood, are not likely to recall what it used to be.

March 2010




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