“Tuut, tuut,tuut”, the repetitive drone of destruction continues day and night. From my office window I can see the enormous metal teeth of the orange prehistoric monsters as they gnaw away at the bricks and mortar of what was once “my village”. (see blog November 2011) Their appetite is insatiable. In just over two months they have virtually demolished the entire area. The carcasses of a few houses and shops remain, picked clean by scavengers, waiting patiently for the inevitable.
Gone are the narrow, winding streets bustling with life and colour. Gone are my favourite street food stalls of bang-bang mien and tofu. Gone are the fruit and vegetable carts selling what was freshly in season – ginger, dates, melons, walnuts and a variety of teas. Gone are the children busy with their homework on make-shift tables or playing up and down the alleys. Gone are the hundreds of families who lived and worked there.
It all happened with surprising speed. I returned from my Yunnan trip and asked what the blaring loud speakers were saying, hour after hour. Apparently it was the police announcing the closure of the village and informing the public at large that protests were illegal and that the villagers were all in agreement with the order to obliterate their livelihoods.We were assured that they would be compensated and re housed. Guards were posted at all the entrances to the village and looked so menacing that I didn’t dare to take any photos at street level. I have no idea where all the people went, but within a week or two they had cleared out all their belongings, stripped the buildings of any valuable materials and disappeared into thin air.
The whole area has of course been bought by a property developer who will turn it into a huge residential campus similar to so many other construction projects up and down this vast country. I can envisage it in a few years time with ten to twenty identical high rise apartments clustered around some artificial water features and gardens. Xi’an’s skyline is filled with giant cranes and half finished tower blocks. Since the 1990s, when the construction of housing and offices took off big time, millions of old homes and buildings have been demolished and tens of millions of people have been forcibly removed from their homes to make way for construction projects. There is big money in real estate and in some cities, the prices of apartments are comparable to top-end properties in New York. Most state owned giants and even some CP newspapers have real-estate subsidiaries. The building frenzy does not seem to have subsided, despite fears of the bubble bursting. The recent woes of Western countries has not deterred local government from borrowing money and using “creative” accountancy to hide the true nature of the debt. In 2010 China used 8 times as much cement as the world’s second largest consumer, India. It also leads the world in its consumption of steel and other industrial materials by a wide margin.
It is a difficult dilemma and one I’m glad I don’t have to solve. Where do people live? About 13 to 21 million people migrate from rural areas to the cities each year and they need to live somewhere but the construction bonanza has changed the very social and economic fabric of Chinese society. On a personal level, it has changed the area where I have lived since I came to Xi’an. I no longer have cheap, convenient places to shop and eat. I no longer sit and watch the vitality of street life being played out in front of me. The soul has gone out of the place.
Today is Ghosts’ Day here in China, the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar. It’s when the deceased ancestors are believed to be visiting the living. I gaze down at the site of the village now from my office and there they are, hundreds of them, floating around the rubble and dust, completely disorientated. They are looking for the empty chairs usually placed for them to sit on and the specially prepared food. One or two hover by a partially destroyed house revealing the inner walls of a once private bedroom.
“Is this where we used to live?” I hear them ask the orange monsters. But they have no regard for decency or sentiment. They have no past memories and nothing must get in their way. There is a commotion down there. Someone must have alerted the guards and they come charging in, wielding their batons and shouting, threatening and ugly. None of the ghosts dare to defy them and they sadly waft over the village for the last time and take their leave.
To view the photos that go with this blog, click the link.