Adventures in Urbanity

Reading Camus’ The Plague prompted me to really think about what draws me to urban places, specifically sprawling metropolises, where apartment blocks jostle for space with pylons, and power stations dominate the skyline like something out of a 20th century L.S. Lowry painting.

When people hear “South-East Asia” often the first thing that comes to most westerner’s minds is beaches, jungles and lush paddy fields. For me the last three years or so have really been a tale of intense urban landscapes, some more developed than others.

Last week I visited a place unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, nor am likely to see again. What is it, a paradise lost, a blueprint for future sustainable living, or the remnants of a calamity? I’ll let you be the judge.

I first heard about Luhe (六合) Development Zone in a Nanjing WeChat thread, and decided to investigate. It was a strange metro ride, about an hour out of downtown, via the subsidiary S8 metro line. Passing through a mess of suburbs which incorporated both residential areas and heavy industry, it became clear that this place was something unusual.

The road which I intended to walk down was not quite finished. I can say that with certainty as I saw workmen pouring out gravel, and just generally busying around a section of it where the current path simply stopped. An empty bus stop to my right, I continued to walk straight ahead, confident in the knowledge that I was walking in the only direction which showed any sign of civilian life.

After passing a massage spa with blacked-out windows I considered turning back. Several construction trucks were parked up nearby.

However, at that moment I saw a young couple suddenly turn in to one of the seemingly abandoned streets, and followed them, as they each held a large camera, the sort that you’d only bother to carry around with you if you were reasonably sure that either you’d find something interesting, or you deemed every aspect of your life so interesting that something would be worth photographing.

At first it appeared as if I had simply entered a holiday resort outside of peak season. The buildings were mainly shuttered, and a few vehicles drove around the perimeter of this vast estate. Most conspicuously, I saw very few people, who seemed to be passing through on their way to elsewhere.

Slowly it dawned on me that this place was really supposed to be different, a kind of new departure. Clearly the previous occupants hadn’t left in a hurry, unlike in a fire, flood, or plague, objects were not left strewn around. However, it was also obvious that the place was not always deserted, there had once been more life here, a children’s play park was testimony to this. I was reminded, suddenly, of an abandoned fairground that I’d seen in Latvia.

Depictions of famous western and Chinese artwork covered the sides of different buildings. Their colourful presence contrasted sharply with the grey of the sky and surrounding apartment blocks. It made for an odd look when combined with the leftover Chinese New Year decorations, and semi-derelict shops and restaurants.

That being said, trees flourished, and I heard more birdsong in that place than I’ve heard during my entire time in Nanjing. On one corner, a small convenience store did a roaring trade, clearly enjoying its monopoly on the surrounding area.

Perhaps the most eerie discovery of all was that of a small library, or perhaps a classroom. Empty chairs arranged neatly around empty tables, and almost-bare bookcases. Just outside this room was a giant iron cage.

Not quite the “steel house” of Max Weber’s nightmarish modernity, but still a striking structure. Inside the cage (it can only be described as such, for it resembled a giant birdcage or similar) was a miniature stone table and chairs, from which, it was possible to look into the hauntingly barren book-room.

Despite the birdsong, and the trees, I decided to leave the Development Zone shortly after the discovery of the cage.

“To some people these facts will seem quite natural; to others, on the contrary, improbable. But a chronicler cannot, after all, take account of such contradictions.”

  • Camus, The Plague pg.7

Note:

*In Mandarin Chinese, Liu He (六合) is an archaic noun referring to “the six directions” – the four cardinal compass points and then “up” and “down”. Other possible definitions include “the whole country”, “the universe” and “everything under the sun”.

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