Florentia Village: Pastiche halfway between Beijing and Tianjin

IMG_5467IMG_5470Out along the high speed rail lines, somewhere between Beijing and Tianjin is the Italian themed outlet mall Florentia Village. The pastiche of Roman, Venetian, Florentine and Chinese styles, facades, walkways, and faces is replete with a miniature canal ride fit for a low budget Disneyland ride, a pizza chain, and Costa coffee. The stores are all name brands and luxury goods marked down for convincing consumption. The patrons stroll with bulging packages, paper and plastic bags that themselves have become mobile advertisements for Gucci, Tommy Hilfiger, Puma, and Omega. In the foreground is an attempt at misting the waters of Lethe over the shopping Chinese and occasional foreign denizen, to forget their troubles and their location; their worries will be put on hold by generating this ersatz holiday in Tuscany or Rome. It is another of China’s growing massive collections of the Other, the outside, the copied ruins and cathedrals, a riverside manse or an iconic tower. Here in Florentia village one doesn’t forget that they are in China, one is only reminded that China is a surreal place, where the cliche is still valid, that there are many Chinas and many of them are fake, or filled with fake things.

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IMG_5493IMG_5498But far in the distance a more real China is clearly visible, the soulless high rise apartments, built by migrant labor in a planned construction boom designed to appease a destabilizing labor surplus, extended to mostly state owned construction firms to hand out low paid work for China’s migrant working population. Here in the distance many of these apartments will remain vacant for years, but the shops of Florentia village are well stocked for now and nobody seemed eager to stare long outward, or inward, into China from Florentia.

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Last Week in Fujian

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Wonderland: Derelict Amusement

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Last week a few friends and I cycled out to Wonderland, an abandoned amusement park on the way to the Badaling Great Wall. Planned by the Thai property developers The Reignwood Group, this Disney World clone usurped farm land from the locals of Chenzhuang Village in Nankou Town, the Changping District of Beijing. Based on original plans this 120 acre doppelgänger of Disney Land, now aptly nicknamed the Creepiest Place on Earth, was never completed. Construction ground to a halt in 1998 when disputes between the Thai company, local officials, and farmers erupted over the value of the land. Attempts to restart the cacophony of construction again failed in 2008, in the building revelry of the Olympic Games. After that the site as grown into a static reminder, a ruined beast, of failed and rapid development in China.

IMG_5588IMG_5590In 2006, when I first visited china, I remember passing this ersatz Disney Land on my way to the overly touristic Badaling Great Wall. And I have passed it several times since, on my way out of Beijing through the Changping or Yanqing districts. The complex is an easy 32 kilometers (20 miles) from downtown Beijing on the Badaling Expressway but we decided to avoid this congested highway and made our way first due north through less serviced country roads and highways that took on a material and spiritual resemblance to a distant moon. At times sand storms roared past us as we cycled. Our circuitous route there and back added up; by the end of the day we clocked in at around 120 kilometers (75 miles). Was the journey worth the sweat and the grime? Wonderland, although it has been photographed and featured in the Atlantic, The Washington Post, and various other places, is still an attraction and an eerie oddity out toward the hills.

IMG_5600IMG_5605IMG_5624IMG_5627In the last few years farmers have returned to the soil that was once marked to house colorful rides and innocent saturnalia. As they have reclaimed the property they are at times brisk with explorers, finding it less a destination of ruinous explorers and photographers perhaps than the source of livelihood. As we wandered around several minders followed us closely and barked commands not to enter certain doors and structures. Despite the isolation, the abandonment, there is a kind of spirit still floating through the walls and earth, a spirit enlivened by the brusque and weathered farmers in black. Although at the time of our visit the planting had yet to resume fully from winter, there was activity buzzing in mall pockets of tillage and I can only envision the changed character of the site once the husks are removed and the land glows with production. We were never chased off by any angry farmers but others have reported such a treatment. Still, in the haze of pollution and the gusts of sand swept down from the Gobi, the ruins produce the feeling of post-apocalyptic agriculture.

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As the Fireworks Still Rumble

From the uneven dormitory courtyard of an old fireworks factory where I live, scattered paper remnants of the New Years will cluster for some time, vivid red and almost rufous with the dust. A charcoal frost accumulates bits of sand, the odd discarded cigarette and seed shell. The nighttime’s popping, multicolored war zone of a fête takes short rest breaks amid the drifting shadows of discarded revelry and gunpowder in the following days.

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Before the Visage of Angkor Thom

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Angkorian Tremens

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