Posts Tagged ‘urban decay

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

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




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