Ghost Cities of China: A Discussion with Wade Shepard Pt. 2
NOTE: This is Part 2 of a two-part interview. Read Part 1 here.
When Wade Shepard came to the Bookworm several months ago to talk about his new book, Ghost Cities of China (which is out now and available here) I got the chance to sit down with him and talk about his research and personal experiences. In Part 2 of the interview, we talk about Tianfu, the ghost city nearest to Chengdu, new urbanism, the construction worker inhabitants of ghost cities, and first person narrative journalism coming out of China.
Read our discussion below, which was edited for length and clarity.
Let’s talk about your personal experiences with these ghost cities. First of all, what kind of transportation do you use to get to these places?
Usually it depends on what stage of the development the new city or new town is at. Usually when a subway stop is open at the location, it’s basically like saying this place is open for business. Like, “we want people to come here now.” But there’s huge variations, because these are gigantic construction projects and there’s a long phase – you could call it the “ghost city phase” – in between the time this downtown area is built and a lot of commodity housing is built, and when it actually starts to be inhabited. So my experience was pretty variable, it depended on what stage the place I visited was at, but I got to a lot of these places via bicycle, which is a great way to get a view of these big, big, incomprehensively massive cities. Like, when you hear about a place like Changzhou in Jiangsu Province, it’s a place most people outside of China have never heard of before, adding on a district the size of Houston. That’s what we’re talking about here.
Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, started building the Zhengdong new distict in 2003. Starting off, it was about the size of San Francisco, now they’re expanding it to about 3 to 5 times that size.
Are there any locations that people living in Chengdu might want to know about?
There’s actually a really interesting development that I haven’t been able to get to yet, called Tianfu, which is actually a really neat-sounding eco-city. It’s being built to be a complete city in and of itself. A lot of the time developments are meant to act as satellite regions, hanging off the side of an existing urban area, or they’re filler spaces situated between two cities. Tianfu is really interesting because it’s this idealistic kind of macro plan to its design. It’s meant to be this eco-city – I mean there’s nothing ecological about building a new city, right? But what’s interesting about Meixihu, Tianfu, Tianjin, and the Singapore ecocities is that they’re shooting for this new urbanism, adding all these ecological ways of building a city, like using very nice-sounding renewable energy systems.
How well are they doing it?
They’re actually doing it. Now you have to figure in the marketing. Any kind of development with the “eco” label in China is getting massive amounts of government subsidies. They want to keep building cities, obviously, but they also want these places built in a more ecologically friendly way. Of course there’s nothing ecological about building a new city, but what’s being done – if you want to be idealistic about it and a little less cynical – is they are building a new model of urbanism that can be replicated elsewhere. If we look at a conventional Chinese city and consider that those buildings aren’t going to last 30 years, we’re talking about very very temporary places, what we’re seeing all over China in new areas, is pretty temporary because these cities are demolished and rebuild so quickly.
So say that they’re developing a new model of urbanism that can be used elsewhere, that takes some weight when you consider that in 15 years, a lot of buildings that were being built in like the early 2000s are going to be torn down again. A lot of “new areas” that were new areas are going to be redeveloped in 10 or 15 years. So this is potentially – I’m trying not to be cynical here – potentially a movement that can be replicated across the country or across the world for that matter. And the fact of the matter is there are very few countries around the world, maybe no other country, that can just go out into the countryside, clear it out, and say “We are going to build a new eco-city here.” And China can do it.
And they’re doing it en masse. There’s something like 300 new eco-cities either in the construction or planning stages across the country. So this is no small movement, it’s really the new urbanism.
All of these ghost cities have to have at least one kind of resident living in them, and that’s the construction workers. What kinds of interactions have you had with construction workers?
That’s actually one of the most interesting things. I did have a chapter on this but it got cut from the book, since the book needed to be within a certain number of words.
It takes a while to get to the stage of development where they’re actually ready to have people come and live in the city. During the construction, you have construction workers and students. But yeah, the construction workers are just sent out to this new outpost of progress, so a lot of times these new cities are like a new trading post in the jungles of Africa once was: there’s this real “frontier town” feel to them, everyone out there is from somewhere else, doing something that is a little risky since nobody really knows what’s going to happen to these places. But the construction workers are sent out there and live in their own camps and form their own microsocieties. It’s usually a pretty friendly community and I hung out with them for fun. They fed me and whatnot and were pretty curious about what I was doing. The thing about migrant workers that isn’t really understood too well is that they aren’t people who move around a ton; these are people that have been around these cities for five, six, seven years.
I was out in Nanhui, which is a new city 60 km outside of Shanghai. I was hanging out with some of the construction workers, some of those guys have been there for like 8 years, since the construction began. And these guys go home like once a year, maybe twice, and they essentially live in these cities that aren’t finished yet. The little communities have everything they need, granted the workers oftentimes live in dormitories or, if they’re available, urban villages, which is a village that’s been swallowed up by an urban entity that looks very much like a village. You can’t really tell the difference if you ride by.
So they’ll reappropriate these existing villages for their own residence?
What’s interesting is the people who have rights to this land [and have been displaced by construction] usually get an urban hukou, so they’ll move somewhere else in the city and then they will rent out these properties to incoming migrants. A lot of times these places will be mostly full of migrants from other parts of the country, so culturally-speaking it’s an interesting scene, especially when you consider these urban villages are not going to last. These are places that are in the belly – or, actually they’re a bit peripheral – they’re at least near the places where the migrant workers work, that looks and functions very much like a small village.
The construction workers that you’ve met, why do they take jobs building ghost cities instead of going to construction jobs in already-developed cities?
At the beginning of China’s economic boom period when they first started allowing migrant workers into cities, it was in the SEZs along the east, which were oftentimes very far away from where these people lived. And now, with China’s “Go West Movement” and building up the interior of the country, a lot of migrant workers can find jobs closer to home. You know, it’s not very hospitable terrain for a migrant worker in Shanghai. There’s this overall feeling that they’re unwelcome in these big developed cities, they’re very much outsiders. As I said, they’re living at these sites for years and years after they sign onto these projects. And actually, now, big cities like Beijing and Shanghai are having a difficult time finding manual laborers, trying to get people to come from the inner provinces all the way out to Shanghai to work, when there’s these new cities that are going up nearer to where they actually live.
What’s the infrastructure that crops up to accommodate these migrant workers?
It’s amazing, so you’ve got these migrant construction workers that come, then come the migrant fruit vendors. Now oftentimes they’ll all be from the same place, so you’ll go to a migrant worker camp in Shanghai and almost everybody will be from Anhui. So they’re all coming from the same village, one person goes and they call back to the friends, uncles, relatives, men and women. The working age population is migrating from villages in the outskirts to these places. And so you have this whole almost independent economy that builds up around these places. You’ll go down a street, a ragtag street that’s been set up next to the workers’ dormitories and there will be people selling phones, selling phone cards, selling clothes, food, and it has this real festive atmosphere. Like during lunchtime, everyone comes out and eats together. At night everyone is coming out and spending time together. So there’s this completely other society that’s created, ironically, by these ghost cities. It’s kind of neat.
So once you have people there making money, and the migrant workers are there, making money, though they send much of it back, they’re still an economically kinetic entity in a new city. So you see these little homegrown shops and industries cropping up, like radio shops and prostitution. It brings people in. It sounds weird, the migrant workers are brought in by the work, and other people come in to sell to the migrant workers. There’s nothing in the way of permanent infrastructure in place for these migrant workers, they all just live in corrugated shacks. A lot of the places they go shopping are just the back of a flatbed truck or a foldout table. There’s very little in the way of any kind of permanent infrastructure for them. Once the city is done being built, these little communities will disappear.
So where did you stay?
Sometimes I would just sleep in a tent. I did this for two and a half years. Sometimes, if a new development was being built just outside of a developed area I would stay in a hostel or hotel and just travel out during the day. But some of these places are way out there. Nanhui is about 60km from Shanghai. And granted there are hotels in most of them, because they’ve had engineers come in and build them, you have bigwigs and other people visiting the developments, so they do need some place for those folks to stay. Whether I would want to stay for a night at one of these places is one question, whether I would want my sign on the register that everyone who stays at one of those hotels has to that gets checked by the police every night. I never had a problem at any stage of this project, but that’s always in the back of your mind. If you sleep in a tent, nobody is going to question you, they just walk by and wonder what the hell you’re doing but that’s about it. It’s not like trespassing in someone else’s community – nobody would confront you about why you were there.
Is there a consistent mindset that the people who occupy these cities have, throughout China?
When you see a new city starts to enter the vitalization stage which means the stage that it’s becoming a place where people can actually live, because there’s this big delay between the time a city looks like a city and when a city can actual function as such, meaning it needs stores, hospitals, schools, etc. And developing that is a very, very slow process. But people who actually move out to these places have this frontier mentality, and I mean the people who actually move into these properties. It’s a very intentional move and a lot of the times it’s done as an escape from the inner city. Imagine how suburbanization in the USA played out: it’s a bunch of middle class people who want to get out of the city and live a more quaint and enjoyable existence.
So I’ve talked to a lot of the people who have actually moved out to these cities and they’re from all over the country. They seem very happy with it, as far as I can tell, which is the opposite of what I imagine most people would expect.
Do you have some of that frontier mentality yourself, embarking on this kind of project?
I grew up around real ghost cities, so no [laughs]. I grew up in the Rust Belt of the USA around Buffalo and Rochester New York and we have real ghost cities, especially around Buffalo you’ve got these factories that boomed because Buffalo used to be a major transportation hub along the Great Lakes, and the Great Lakes also provided a good place to dump waste from factories. Buffalo is actually a really interesting example, as a possible future example of what many of China’s new ghost cities can become. Buffalo is a planned city: it was built on a macro concept and at the time it was built it was a state of the art city. It was kind of like the Tianfu of the USA. And it was geographically out there, at the end of the Eerie Canal, a little bit off the map.
And it boomed, people from all over the country moved there. A lot of migrants would come up from the south and work at the factories and one of the big boomtowns of the north. At the start, it was very much like China’s new cities. Seeing what happened there, the place went bust, the factories left, they went to other places in the country where the labor is cheaper, they went to other countries. Environmental laws hurt growth there, telling facotires you can’t just dump your toxic waste in this lake anymore. It added to the cost of production and these places died.
Anyways, so growing up there as a kid, you could go out to the old factory towns of Buffalo and run around. There’s no one there. No cops. There’s really this sense of freedom out there that you can go out and just do what you want. And there was also this intellectual stimulation of asking the question “What happened here?” And it kind of stimulates your imagination.
And that is kind of similar with China’s ghost cities and you get to try to figure out Ok, what’s going on here? What’s this place going to become? You know what cities are, and you understand the physical form of what you are seeing, but there’s a lack of people, a lack of cars, emptiness, and this empty space is a really surreal experience and, speaking personally, especially from the perspective of traveling, it can be really fun. Especially when you really start digging in and trying to figure out what these places are and what they do. You just go out there and it really rattles your mind.
You seem to belong to a new class of China writer that takes an industry or a niche that is, in some ways, intensely personal to the writer, in order to indicate or reveal something about China’s economy, culture, or society. The writers that come to mind are Adam Minter using the scrap industry to illustrate the interconnectedness of global recycling habits and China’s economy, and James Fallows using the airline industry as a litmus test for China’s ability to be a well-rounded player in the world economy.
I don’t know if I could be put into the same group as Adam Minter, he’s awesome. The guy is incredible. What’s really interesting is Minter and I are the same age, and we can feel a lot of nostalgia here in China. He and I grew up in places that were booming at one time – he’s from Minnesota I think – and we can see a lot of things in China now that we experienced and saw as kids, only hyper inflated to the hundredth power. And also happening way faster. But yeah, you can see a lot of parallels in the USA in the 70s and 60s, you see this economy that’s rising and booming. Even before that, you see industry and factory towns booming up and also you see the building up of Western cities, and later on the Midwest and Middle America cities. And yeah, maybe we see that happening here in China and are drawn to it.
But yeah, there is this great group of China writers doing longform pieces that really amount to first person narrative journalism, which I just think should be called journalism. In the 60s it was called New Journalism and you had these guys like Rob McPhee who wrote journalism like a personal story, and a lot of writers who do this came to China. And of course one of the big names is Peter Hessler. You know Hessler went out and in River Town he just investigated what could be called the “random mundane.” Rolf Potts coined that term. It’s kind of like this new way of travel writing. You just really look into what’s going on around you, the little things that happen in the culture and you try to figure it out. You write as a central figure in the story and basically just create these works that would be called New Journalism.
But even though Hessler wrote about microcosms, his writing wasn’t as focused on a particular phenomenon or industry as much of this current China journalism is, and these particular topics China writers choose often seemed to be informed by their backgrounds.
I think you’re also talking about the kind of topic-based writing that’s coming out of China. And that’s interesting too. It’s kind of like academia. It’s like global academia: this network of individuals working together towards the advancement of human knowledge and everybody has their own little small area of expertise. They all have their topics. And that’s what’s really happening in the writing about China, because so much is being published about China right now. And the general stories, we’ve been flooded with them. We’ve been flooded with general tales about China that, now, if you want to get published – and what’s actually really needed – is people to break a specific topic down, spend years of their lives investigating certain aspects of the country, like James Fallows with the airlines industry, and writing about it in a way that the general public can digest it. And, if you’re Adam Minter, in a way that’s even enjoyable. Academics do a lot of similar work, but it can be hard to get through an academic publication. We’re not going to buy and read a research paper, but this frontline research from people who are going out, investigating, and writing about their investigations can turn out some pretty awesome work.
Join our discussion about ghost cities on the Chengdu Living forum or leave a comment below.