Original article on www.vagabondjourney.com
TAIZHOU, Jiangsu, China – “Beijing has lots of preserved buildings, why can’t Taizhou?” Mrs. Zhang asked as we stood on the second floor outdoor patio of her home.
It was a moot point in her case, as her house now stands alone as an isolated island of old China in a sea of rubble. The ancient neighborhood of meandering alleyways and centuries-old grey brick homes that occupied this area for hundreds, if not thousands, of years had already been demolished, cleared away –effectively erased from the slate of modern China.
Now there is only one reminder that this ancient neighborhood ever existed at all, and that was the house I was standing on the second floor patio of. The building itself is a mixed-era agglomeration, having an old, 100+ year old grey brick section connected to a more modern, very well-kept three story home. The place was relatively large, containing 800 square meters of floor space, and once served as a small hotel. It too is on the chopping block of progress, and is set to be demolished — as soon as Mrs. Zhang and her family can be routed out.
The Zhang family, who can trace their lineage back to Taizhou for over three hundred years, have been living on this property for more than a century. Though their ancestors probably never could have anticipated the red banners that are now draped over the home protesting the impending demolition and “Where is the justice?” spray painted upon the outside of the old courtyard wall. They probably also could not have foreseen the day when their tight knit, closely packed community of hutong-like alleys, little shops, and streets full of neighbors would be smashed to rubble and cleared away to be replaced by an array of 30+ story luxury apartments.
As the last remaining “nail house” in this area, Mrs. Zhang and the 7 other family members who live with her go about their days in the middle of a construction zone. The house now conspicuously pokes up out of the middle of a large dirt field that has been cleared, flattened, and prepped for development. Backhoes and bulldozers are busy at work all around them and the developer has personnel monitoring the house day and night.
All of Mrs. Zhang’s neighbors have already been cleared out and relocated to apartments or temporarily to hotels, though some of them still hang around, continuing to use the ruins of their old community as a place to meet and commune with their former neighbors. The Zhang house has become a symbol of resistance to the rampant development and the wholesale destruction of traditional communities that has completely changed the face of Taizhou in a mere five years. It has also become a focal point for ongoing, low-intensity protests. A handful of previously evicted members of the neighbourhood return daily, and they have set up a little booth outside on the street to air their story to anyone passing by willing to listen. They say the demolition was illegal, that they were forcibly evicted, and that their homes were destroyed without their consent.
“Like thieves they did not wear their uniforms when they took the people away and destroyed their homes,” Mrs. Zhang explained. Other people who once lived in this village echoed the same story: they don’t know who the goon squad was that gave them the boot, but the assumption is that they were plain clothes chengguan. At any rate, they were acting under the orders of the local government.
For now, the Zhang’s ancestral home still sits in the shadow of a towering high-rise complex that sprouts up from the Wanda Plaza shopping mall across the street. This area is quickly being redeveloped to be the new commercial center of Taizhou’s Hailing district. The family was offered a touch over 2 million RMB ($322,000) for their 800 square meter home, which they say they have no interest in.
“My family has lived here for generations. We don’t want the money,” Mrs. Zhang explained, “We don’t want our house destroyed. We just want to live here.”
Dalian Wanda Group Corp., which owns the Wanda chain of cinemas and shopping malls, is headed by Wang Jianlin, the richest man in China. His company has bigger plans for what was once Mrs. Zhang’s community, and intends to build another forest of upper end high-rise apartments there to compliment the ones they already have on the other side of the street.
“Those apartments are like a cage, they’re just a cage,” Mrs. Zhang said as she pointed up to the characterless, standard issue towers that rose above us into the sky.
The Dalian Wanda Group is the corporation that’s currently building a $4.9 billion to $8.2 billion mega-entertainment center and the world’s largest film making enclave which is touted to be China’s version of Hollywood. So while China’s richest man was greeting Leonardo DiCaprio, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Nicole Kidman, and John Travolta in September, an ancient community was being reduced to rubble on his behalf in Taizhou.
I asked Mrs. Zhang what she would say to Wang Jianlin if given the opportunity, and she thought for a moment before responding:
“I would tell him that everybody has their own dream. Not everybody wants to live in an apartment. We don’t want to live in a cage.”
Though even Mrs. Zhang knew that this dream was unattainable. She knew that she and her family will soon be flushed out of their home and sent off to live in an apartment with the rest of the former residents of her now non-existent neighborhood. I asked her how much time she thinks she has left, to which she replied, “Maybe one day, maybe one month, maybe right now. We do not know.”