Tianjin’s forsaken places – two months before demolition

I was blown away by my first time wandering through Tianjin’s condemned “south market” neighbourhoods (南市) yesterday, which will themselves be blown away in about two months. These are mostly what’s left of Tianjin’s hú tòngs (胡同) – the old-style network of communal courtyards and alleyways. They, along with the oldest apartment blocks, are being flattened before the Olympics. Much of it is already abandoned and reduced to rubble, but there are still many families living and operating businesses in the midst of it all. It was often hard for me to tell what was abandoned and what was still occupied. More than once I photographed what I thought was an abandoned courtyard only to discover families still living in it. I spent close to four hours wandering around in the claustrophobia-inducing maze of alleyways, talking with the people still living there and taking pictures.

Click here or click any of these photos to see the 南市 photo gallery.

The people were fantastic. Only one of the many I talked with seemed irritated that I was there, and she asked some pointed questions like “Why are you here looking at all this luàn qÄ« bā zāo?” (乱七八糟 – mess, chaos). But overall the residents were curious and talkative, and two separate older folks even offered from their own initiative to help me photograph stuff.

One resident invited me in to photograph what was left of her courtyard compound, which she with her husband and son had shared with twelve other families (the compound had spaces for sixteen). Now there are only two families left; even the pigeons in the rooftop pigeon coop are gone. In a condemned apartment building, an old man saw me taking photos and stuck his head over the second story railing to ask me what I was doing. After hearing my explanation he said, “Let me put a shirt on, I’ll be right down.” He tottered out with his cane gave me a little guided tour!

Everyone told the same story: in roughly two months, the entire place is getting flattened in preparation for the Olympics. Each family is given financial compensation so they can get a new place, but they all said it wasn’t enough (the Olympics are inflating housing prices, plus when you wipe thousands of dwellings off the market, prices go up). I asked people how they felt about it, or how they thought most people there felt about it. General consensus seemed to say that the young folks are happy to leave, but the old people are sad. My ‘tour guide’ said that some families had lived in this area for 200 or even 300 years. Everyone seemed to imply that, on the whole, this wasn’t a great place to live as far as facilities go; the plumbing is bad, and it’s crowded, dirty, and noisy.

This is Mr. WÇ” (on the left), my impromptu tour guide. He led me out of the cramped alleys to one of the main intersections and kept saying, “Nǐ suí biàn zhào! Suí biàn zhào!” (你随便照 – Take photos freely!) He said a couple years ago these streets were “especially rè nao” (特别热闹 – bustling with excitment), lined end-to-end with vendors and crowds so thick you “couldn’t hardly get a bike through.” Now it’s downright depressing. Piles of rubble and garbage line the roads and alleys, yet the odd tea house and restaurant still operate, even if the businesses next door are just gutted shells holding piles of brick and trash.

When people asked what I was doing there – and it was a little uncomfortable being a white guy with a camera in the middle of all that – I told them I’d heard that soon there wouldn’t be any more of these places in Tianjin, and that I thought these places had a lot of interesting history; a lot of people have grown up here. That explanation seemed to go over pretty well.

I hope to return soon. Mr. Wǔ says we can eat some 饺子 talk some more.

Two important words to know: you’ll see “拆” painted inside a circle on the buildings in many of the photos. It’s a verb for “break up; split open; destroy” and is part of the word 清拆 (demolition of buildings for a new project; literally “clean/pure destroy”). “铲平” is the word the residents used to describe what would happen to the area in about two months: “to flatten; to raze to the ground.”

See the 南市 photo gallery here.

7 thoughts on “Tianjin’s forsaken places – two months before demolition”

  1. I think I originally posted my comment in the wrong section so I’ll put it here….
    These pictures are amazing Joel. And these buildings don’t look any different than the ones in “To Live”. Where will these people move to when their homes are demolished?

  2. We asked everyone we chatted with where they plan to go. Only one person said they’d already found a place. Mr. Wu, my impromptu tour guide, has a short list of places he plans to go look at. He thinks he’ll be out in two weeks. The workers tearing down the homes next to the older couple who’d lived there for over 50 years said that people have until May 1st to get out. The government gives them some money, and they have to find their own place.

    (Comment wherever you want, there’s no wrong section.)

  3. Extremely interesting Joel. You are both in our thoughts often.
    Thank you for continuing to send these wonderful news letters. It helps us to understand the country so much better.

  4. It’s really great that you took the time to document this. I often wondered why Tianjin didn’t have places like this (I think I’ve seen one near Xigu Park, but that’s all). We’ve only been here two years, so we didn’t have a chance to see places like this. Thank you so much for taking the time (and being brave enough to be a foreigner with a camera in the midst of it – no matter how many times Chinese people take pictures of me, I don’t usually have the courage to take pictures of them).

  5. Haha, I do still have serious hangups about taking people’s pictures… SO many good shots I’ve missed out on because I just couldn’t bring myself to violate my oppressive Canadian social mores. :)

    Tianjin used to be famous for its super street markets. It also had a reputation as “China’s largest rural village” — just endless pingfang. There’s a joke about terr0r!sts coming to China to blow something up, but they return to the middle east without doing anything because the first place they went to was Tianjin, and from what they could see, it’d already been blown up!

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