The city of Ordos was catapulted to international attention in November 2009 when an Al Jazeera report depicted this subdivision of Inner Mongolia as a barely populated sprawl of looming buildings and ostentatious monuments that potentially signaled the failure of China’s unprecedented urban redevelopment initiatives. Ordos soon became the world’s most infamous ‘ghost city’, a term that, in this context, is used to describe a city that has died prematurely, with apartments empty, business premises unoccupied, and entire areas left unfinished, often with the construction cranes still standing alongside skeleton structures. The focus of the Al Jazeera report, and the flurry of follow-up pieces by such news services as Business Insider, Time Magazine, and The New York Times was specifically Kangbashi New Area, a subdivision of the city of Ordos which is located southwest of the old center of Ordos City. Such coverage made claims about Ordos that were almost immediately accepted as fact – nobody lives there, the streets are deserted, and that the city had been constructed with the sole aim of boosting China’s already staggering GDP to even greater heights.
However, more recent reports have presented a balanced view through an emphasis on the city’s residents rather than its complex financial structure. Ordos was one of the many ‘ghost cities’ that Wade Shepard visited to research his engrossing book Ghost Cities of China (Zed Books, 2015) and his take is less pessimistic. Shepard notes that the city has accumulated significant debt, but also points out that its coal industry ensures that it remains wealthy even as property prices spiral downwards. More importantly, he dispels some of the summaries of its ‘emptiness’ by providing sketches of its emerging communities comprised of Mongolians who have decided to urbanize and transplants seeking a better standard or living. Indeed, it is difficult to characterize Kangbashi as success or failure – it now has a population of 100,000, a third of the anticipated figure, but sufficient to suggest further growth if investment in the metropolis is maintained and more people can be encouraged to make the move.
The now common use of “Ordos” as shorthand for the ‘ghost cities’ phenomenon has come about because it makes for such a fascinating visual subject. The early reports of its emptiness lured readers with high quality photography of a city that defied human scale with its remote location making it an amalgamation of past, present, and future. There’s certainly a cinematic eeriness to the photography of Kangbashi New Area that fuels the ‘ghost city’ legend, especially when shots are taken from a distance, with the occasional glimpse of a pedestrian, a moving vehicle on an otherwise empty road, or wild animals running freely down the highway, suggesting a scene from a ‘last man on Earth’ narrative. Beyond this spectacle of potentially misguided economics lies something more interesting – the daily minutiae of such places, the stories of the person on the street or the driver of the car as their identities are reconfigured by engaging with an environment that has yet to define itself. Kangbashi New Area is so gargantuan that any attempt to pursue the human angle is always intertwined with commentary on its sheer scale, as Shepard found when he talked to businessmen at a food court and the manager of a tutoring service who provided him with a tour.
This dichotomy between individual and environment is further explored in ‘Diary of an Empty City’, a collection of paintings by Liu Xiaodong, and K.O., a short companion documentary directed by the artist’s frequent collaborator Yang Bo. Known for painting live on location, Liu was the subject of Jia Zhangke’s documentary Dong (2006) for which Jia was invited to film Liu as he painted shirtless laborers near the Three Gorges Dam. His paintings of Ordos – and the vignettes offered by Yang’s documentary – help to fill in the ‘emptiness’ of this paradoxical landscape by emphasizing attitudes and cultures in a state of transition. The vibrant color Liu uses to paint Mongolian farmers and laborers pays tribute to their strident devotion to indigenous identity, but his artworks also shows the city further encroaching on natural space.
Spending time in and around Kangbashi New Area has also brought Liu and Yang into contact with a myriad of reactions to urban development: some reject modernization in favour of a traditional ways, while others have embraced this gleaming incarnation of the vaguely defined ‘Chinese Dream’. There are also those who are poised at a crossroads, having made choices that make it difficult to go back, but now showing signs of regret that make it difficult to fully assimilate to a state-endorsed way of life.
K.O. is a mosaic comprised of four case studies of ethnic Mongolians in their late-twenties who live in or within the vicinity of Kangbashi New Area beginning with a farmer whose pursuit of the ideal life has taken him all around the world and back to his origins on the pastures. As he will do with each participant, Yang follows his daily routine, with the farmer expressing his views on an increasingly polarized society. He performs basic chores, tends to his herd, and prepares a traditional Mongolian meal, but as much as he stresses his lack of regard for modern society based on his experience of work and travel, his attitude has also been, at least in part, shaped by his engagement with Western concepts, with his use of language flitting between Chinese and English. His mockery of city dwellers that spend 2 million RMB to obtain a moderately sized apartment when he has the run of 300 hectares of inherited stems from ideas about status, ownership, and scale, as filtered through the localized hierarchies that were presumably instilled during his Mongolian upbringing. As much as the farmer stresses that he does not care for the modern world, he still seems to crave its acknowledgment of what he has out of frustration with how people care less about space or the quality of the view than with the prestige that comes with a fancy address. He also acknowledges that choosing a rural way of life has made it hard to find a girlfriend.
The reason for the farmer’s lack of a partner is touched on when Yang takes his camera into the city and encounters a young coffee shop employee who belongs to a generation that grew up at the onset of urbanization, meaning that the idea of living and working on the pastures is almost as alien to her as it is to the viewer. She exhibits a pragmatic approach – “The times are changing, and our mentality and lifestyle are changing with it” – while patrons of the bohemian establishment lounge around in casual clothing as they pass the afternoon over frothy beverages. Staying in the service industry, Yang next heads to a Mongolian restaurant where the proprietor is already on his third professional identity (he was first a policeman, then a musician) while still negotiating his relationship to his heritage. Dressed in traditional clothing, he serves up dishes that represent his culture but begins to cry as he bemoans the exploitation of the land for natural resources, insisting that, “If Mongolians lose their land and their livestock then they can no longer be called Mongolian.”
This gradual loss of identity is further illustrated by the final participant, a young man who while driving through the city explains that, although he is Mongolian, he cannot speak Mongolian. An ‘emptiness’ more troubling than a vacant office building is seen here as the young man spends much of his time getting drunk with his friends admitting that he begins to feel depressed if he does not at least go out every few days. The glitzy but hollow nightclubs and KTV rooms that his social circle likes to frequent lack any sense of excitement, though, and all concerned look like they are going through the motions of having a good time rather than truly enjoying themselves. This young man is the most fervent exponent of city living surveyed in K.O., although his definition of an urban lifestyle is based on a work in progress as Kangbashi New Area, while certainly modern in terms of structures, has yet to become a teeming metropolis.
A raucous closing song written by Liu juxtapose the initial pleasures and conveniences of modernity – “Hot water washes away the dust, and I sit naked drinking until I’m high/The toilet washes away the shit, so I don’t have to look at its disgusting colors anymore” – with the onset of nostalgia for an eradicated world. It plays over parting images of the city, which alternate between fixed frame and slow pans across its landscape that show that, no matter what its more urbanized inhabitants might say, they are not so far away from the pastures. Some of these shots feature classic ‘ghost city’ images that have almost become clichés already, such as a man taking a nap in the middle of a road and a street cleaner without a lot of work to do, but others capture a modicum of motion as this new metropolis staggers into life. Ultimately, as with any city, it will be the people that truly ‘make’ the place, and K.O. captures the citizens of Kangbashi New Area at an awkward, in-between stage that they will negotiate at their own pace, regardless of how much development capital is ploughed into accelerating the emergence of the new.