People’s Republic of Tear-That-Down

Our apartment is generally a quiet place. On any given night, you may hear water rushing through the pipes in the wall next to our bed. You may hear the mysterious plik-plik sound of our upstairs neighbor methodically dropping thumb tacks onto her floor from a great height (or so it seems).

You may also hear, without warning, a thunderous cacophony of dynamited concrete, metal and glass – the unmistakable sound of another building collapsing as our neighborhood is destroyed-and-rebuilt around us.

There is a pun among foreigners that China should be called 拆那 (pronounced “chai-na”), which literally means “tear that down”, given the rate at which its cities and towns are being ripped apart and redeveloped. Before coming to China, I thought this must be a hyped-up story: no place could possibly be changing its face so quickly. But I am not exaggerating when I tell you that, in the seven months that I have lived here, several square-block areas just around our apartment have been torn down, had scaffolding go up, had welding and cement-pouring occur all day and night, and then been magically unveiled as a shiny new shopping center or karaoke palace or what have you.

One Wednesday night in September I walked past an anonymous 3-story construction site near my apartment. That Friday night when I passed by again it was a brightly lit Dairy Queen with a line of people out the door. As if it had always been there.

Today I followed my usual path down a little street near our place on the way to work and realized that all of the shops lining it – places selling clothes, cheap needlepoint artwork, odds and ends – had been closed for a week. This means that within the next couple of months the blocks surrounding it will be leveled. No community meetings are held to discuss it (the very idea makes me laugh out loud!). No signs go up explaining this in advance, except for this one:

The spray-painted character next to this man is “chai”, meaning that this structure is soon to be torn down. The sign of the chai is all over Kunming; a dizzying array of foreboding graffiti promising imminent destruction.

The chai photos above were taken in mid-December. This is what that area looks like now:

Photo courtesy of RP

While this process is going on all over Kunming (and all over China), it is particularly noticeable in our neighborhood because, as I think I have mentioned, we live in what might be called “Downtown Kunming”; an area of office buildings and an increasing number of fancy shops and malls selling goods at prices that no one around here can possibly afford.

The government’s plan for this neighborhood is perfectly clear: this area is to resemble the downtowns of other cities in The New Asia; a shopping mecca, a place for tourists filled with Western or Western-style goods, a shiny facade of cheerful economic growth, a place where you cannot possibly say that the Chinese government is ill-intentioned. This isn’t a place that executes more people than the rest of the world combined! This is a place where you can eat KFC while surfing the internet wirelessly and buying Louis Vuitton!

It was not always this way in Kunming. My understanding is that 10 years ago this neighborhood looked much like the rest of Kunming, with a mix of small shops, restaurants, small apartment buildings and tangled residential warrens left over from a still earlier era of urban development.

The process of converting this from an average neighborhood to a glittering palace of Chinese-style capitalism that Kunming is desperately hoping will be mistaken for Hong Kong has been swift, although the writing (or the chai, as it were) has been on the wall for years. When RP and I were in Kunming three and a half years ago, the old Muslim quarter of the city was already being torn down. It is now erased, snuffed out by the foot print of half-empty shopping malls, save for a few Hui restaurants, a couple of Muslim bakeries, and a leftover Hui population who look distinctly out of place wandering among the Disney stores and Calvin Klein outlets (an impression that I’m pretty sure is intentional).

The last vestige of this earlier era in our neighborhood, the Bird and Flower Market, is now in its final days. An area that was once home to average Kunming residents, with a lively full-time market, was allowed to crumble into uninhabitability so that the government could swoop in and say that the shopping malls they are now building on top of it were really the only humane thing to do. The population of the area was relocated to parts of the city unknown, and the shops bricked over and replaced with sanitary food chains.

A soon-to-be-replaced building

The malls that have opened in this area in the past few months are like a caricature of Chinese-iness in a Western city; a Baby Gap or a Crate and Barrel below, but look at the Oriental pagoda-like accents on the floors above! It’s still China if it’s an American burger joint that serves spring rolls too!

I will leave you to look through the photos of this destruction below, but there are a few things to bear in mind while you look at them: first, what is my giant problem this development?! Surely it is the right of Chinese cities to develop as they see fit – fair enough. But there is nothing magical or inevitable about such reimagining of neighborhoods; these are massive redevelopment projects dictated by the government to sanitize these neighborhoods and get money out of what they have deemed to be the city’s prime real estate. This means, in the most classic fashion, turning this from a place where average people lived, worked and purchased goods into a place for the monied, and (hope against hope!) for foreigners to come see what a clean and friendly place China is.

On that note, another issue I have with this: the kind of development that this and all Chinese urban development entails is one from which the only conclusion to be drawn is that China does not have its own sense of an indigenous modernity. That is to say, the process of making things look modern in China is a process of making them look Western: Western design, Western goods, endless rip-offs of Western ideas. And in case you should think this is a new story in China, let me tell you that this is exactly the same process that was beginning to happen in China before the founding of the Republic in 1949 began the process of turning China, yet again, inwards.

It is this feeling that China has no memory that is played out again and again as it redevelops its neighborhoods and cities. Although Chinese people love to parrot the old canard about its 5,000 years of glorious unbroken history, you will be hard pressed to find this history in evidence in most of the country, and certainly in a city like this one. I firmly believe that, before the government realized that the Great Wall could be a foreign tourist attraction, they would have bulldozed it if they’d had the resources.

Walking around Kunming, you can see in progress the work of erasing the memory of the city bit by bit – a memory that itself goes back only perhaps a couple of decades when the last round of erasure occurred. And here’s the rub: this process will be effective because what is being created is not ugly, only inoffensive. What’s more, the open, carefully curated spaces where Westerners and early adopters can drink cappuccino and look out at the cityscape are, admittedly, attractive and familiar – and so confidently complete in their design that the memory of what was in their place only weeks or months before simply disappears. As if the city that existed before your current glass of imported red wine were being revealed as only a myth.

RP and I have a morbid 50 RMB bet going on the block of apartments across from us: he’s betting it will be torn down before we’re married this coming summer; I think it’s got some fight in it yet. Anyone want in?

Click photo below to view full album. I will add pictures to this album in the near future, so check back for more.

Photo courtesy of RP