Tianjin’s forsaken places – Part III

The four of us sat outside at a Starbucks patio table with crumbling 南市 on our left and a new plastic tourist trap to our right, enjoying bourgeois status-symbol drinks and discussing the previous two hours we’d just spent walking around the half-demolished neighbourhoods and talking to the people still living there. That felt more than a little weird. It’s bizarre to step across the street from all that right to an upscale tourist centre Starbucks, but that’s China. Trying to figure your place in this kind of scene and what it all means… this world is a gong show.

Much of what I’d seen in my first visit was reduced to rubble. Back-hoes were active, tearing down walls here and there, and so were little kids, playing ball in street. We talked to more people. The old couple who said they weren’t going invited us in to sit down and chat. One of their sons was there. This couple is one of three families still left in this compound, which the neighbours said was over 200 years old. They raised three children here, with 20 square metres to their name. Turns out they’re trying to negotiate a better deal. They were offered 4000元 per square metre ($583), which sounds alright, but not when you’ve only got 20 square metres and you’re looking to buy in Tianjin’s inflated housing market. Everything’s been turned into brick piles except for the three still-occupied houses. Some old propaganda signage on the outer wall of their compound says, “Think scientifically, establish a new atmosphere” (means: don’t be superstitious).

People are taking everything of value, like roofing beams, and hauling it away on trucks, three-wheel pedal carts, or big Chinese wheel barrows. I’ve never seen this many bricks all in one place. China has to be the brick capital of the world.

The verb guǎn (管) means to take care of; to manage; to control; to be in charge of. It’s also what Nánshì is infamously remembered for lacking. Before Liberation (1949), part of Nánshì was called “Three No-guǎn” (三不管). Exactly how it got this name is apparently up for debate, but neither option is flattering. One explanation says the three “no-guǎn“‘s were: (1) no one to manage where people bury the dead, (2) no one to manage the fighting, and (3) no one to manage the cheating and kidnapping. The other explanation points to three governments who refused to take responsibility for it. Sandwiched between foreign concession areas and Chinese-governed territory, the foreign concession administrations couldn’t agree on who had jurisdiction and the Chinese government of the day wouldn’t step in. It was an ungoverned no man’s land, a haven for organized crime and “black societies” (黑社会), famous for its exotic street performers (卖艺的人) and entertainment offerings. Violence, prostitution, and theft were no strangers. I have yet to find a Tianjiner, university student or retiree, who hasn’t heard of “Nánshì Sānbùguǎn.”

There seemed to be two distinct styles here: low-rise apartment buildings that that the residents said were built after the disastrous Tangshan earthquake (1976), and typical one-story Chinese semi-communal homes.

I ran up an abandoned, older two-story wooden building and nicked an old abacus from the piles of junk. Someone’d made cooking fuel by rolling coal dust into black baseball-size balls. There were some wanted posters for a murderer, and one family’s screen door had a Noah’s Ark themed towel as the screen: “the animals went in two by two.”

These photos were taken on 08 April 5-6. The 南市 gallery has been updated once again!

These last few photos were taken by our friend, Beth, a physio-therapist from the States volunteering with our NGO’s disabled children’s project.

View the ever-expanding 南市 gallery here.

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