I have been thinking about my hometown in Nankai District, Tianjin, China. I always think about Nankai when life gets hard.
Summer in Nankai was hot and dry. The school was usually hell. Biking from school to home on a breezy summer evening through Nankai district has saved me time after time. The trees on both sides of Hubin road have grown massive enough to merge with utility poles. Complex pole lines had plastic bottles hanging on top to deal with ceramic insulator shortages (Tucker, 2020). Red and yellow propaganda banners were hanging on the entrance of residential neighbourhoods. A kind granny sold homemade braised fish once in a while. I bought the new illegitimate rip-off yu-gi-oh sets to duel my best friend for the rest of the night. The sky was never blue, mostly yellow, occasionally green.
Everything is dirty, old, and broken, yet fresh and lively.
After moving to Warrang/Sydney, I realised that many things I liked in Nankai were not as pleasant as I believed. China’s extraordinary economic growth and urban development result in both increases in construction projects and urban population. Rapid policy changes, rising architectural complexes and widening social inequality have transformed Nankai (Jiang, 2021). I feel complicit and guilty having lived in Nankai, not knowing much at all.
However, before, I always liked the construction sites, the distant factories, the rising utility poles under a never clear sky. I played with friends on cement waste piles, searching for treasure. I touched the propaganda banners loving the texture and font style. I belong to the fragmented land.
Many artists have tried to represent the constant state of construction and demolition. Xu Zhen’s 2009 work ‘Calm’ is an installation that presents debris spread on the ground in a rectangular shape. Upon close observation, the entire ground of ruins slowly rise and fall, symbolising ‘breathing’. The broken debris embodies a state of calm for many of us. Even though we are unsure what might have been torn down and what would be built. He An’s 2012 installation ‘Who Is Alone Now Will Stay Alone Forever’ reimagines an abandoned factory in Shanghai. Concrete blocks, protruding steel bars, leftover oil spills and traces of machines have been rearranged to present a space that maintains its previous life through materials, shapes and smells (Jiang, 2021). As Ai Weiwei smashed the 2000-year-old urn in 1995, I see the changing Nankai that have left little to none recognisable (Green, 2016). What is considered destruction when we were born in destruction all alone?
On August 12, 2015, two massive explosions and fires occurred at the hazardous goods warehouse in Tianjin Port. It resulted in 173 deaths, 8 missing and many with long-term physical health conditions. The cause of the explosions was spontaneous combustion of unproperly stored nitro-cotton under hot weather (Liu & Wang, 2019). Social media and news journalist coverage of the event was censored. Around 9000 homes were damaged. Homeowners were paid a 1.3 times compensation that could not secure them a new home nearby due to rising house prices (Rudolph, 2015).
The following year, I left Nankai.
It is a privilege to be able to live in western Sydney. I got to go to the coolest parties, see the best performances and meet some of the kindest people. Sometimes when I’m minding Parramatta Artist Run Initiative, I wish I could just be in there forever. I suppose there is a natural connection between migrants and people of colour. However, I am saddened to learn that gentrification pushes people out of their original neighbourhoods and erases their cultural identities (Schieb, 2020). Maybe ironically, that is also why I felt more connected seeing western Sydney’s rapid construction and demolition. They all feel too familiar.
In an ethnic Korean high school in Japan, students performed a dance piece expressing their diasporic identity and longing for the homeland. They have used symbols such as the North Korean map and planes. They have negotiated a contradiction, the longing for North Korea without desiring to return. In the piece, North Korea is not a geopolitical place but rather a symbol of Korean identity. It is a ‘transnational affective longing’ (Bell, 2019). Similarly, my longing for Nankai was reimagined in a gaming version of reality. Chasing till sundown on a skateboard, the protagonist goes through the fragmented factories, utility poles, and propagandas. They realise longing through coming out of the character maze, trying to finish the last yu-gi-oh duel and return to the real world.
I think I was born into a factory
Exhausting fans blinding half the truth
Being told what to do
Doing what needs to be done
I climb on top of the chimney
Having a glimpse at a foreign land
Thinking I should go before they notice
I packed my tools, but they’ll be useless
I changed my name, but I’m still vicious
I take my pills, wherever I go to
Have I left you?
Or you have left me
Bell, M. (2019). Reimagining the homeland: Zainichi Koreans’ transnational longing for North Korea. The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 20(1), 22-41.
Green, S.U., (2016). The Case for Ai Weiwei, The Art Assignment, PBS Digital Studios. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMtsodcAsVU.
Jiang, J., (2021), The Art of Contemporary China (World of Art), Thames & Hudson.
Liu, P., & Wang, R. (2019). Public attitudes toward technological hazards after a technological disaster: Effects of the 2015 Tianjin Port explosion, Tianjin, China. Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal.
Rudolph, J., (2015). Tianjin Homeowners Tell of Compensation Pressure. China Digital Times. https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2015/09/tianjin-blast-homeowners-tell-of-pressure-to-accept-compensation/.
Schieb, C. (2020). Crackhouse: Presence and Absence of A Neighbourhood Monument, Framework.
Tucker, H., (2020), Can plastic bottle waste be used as a building insulator?, Quora, https://www.quora.com/Can-plastic-bottle-waste-be-used-as-a-building-insulator.