In his landmark study of urbanisation in mainland China, Painting the City Red: Chinese Cinema and the Urban Contract (Duke University Press, 2010), Yomi Braester chronicles the changing landscape of Beijing as the city find itself caught in the throes of the construction boom. In the acknowledgments, Braester recalls how he visited the hole-in-the-wall eatery that served his favourite cumin mutton, only to be handed a new business card by the waiter because the whole area was about to be redeveloped. I am currently based in Nanjing, the South-East former capital, which is also undergoing a structural make-over. My apartment is in Gulou district, an area that represents prime real estate as it comprises much of downtown and is close to the commercial centre of Xinjiekou. This week, I had a similar experience to Braester when going out for lunch and suddenly discovering that some of my usual haunts no longer exist, a change that had occurred seemingly overnight.
At this stage, parts of the redevelopment of the street behind my apartment almost have a post-apocalyptic quality. I jokingly referred to this photo as ‘Rubble Alley’ when posting it on Facebook, prompting an exchange with a friend about shooting a low-budget science fiction movie around the area with a student crew.
I wandered around the corner to eat lunch at one of my favourite Korean restaurants, a reasonably priced establishment that served excellent stone pot rice, only to find that it no longer exists. My wife and I had actually eaten here just one week earlier, which shows how quickly redevelopment occurs in China. Some examples of the former restaurant’s tasty menu can still be seen on the remaining structure.
Another eating place to be suddenly demolished was a very popular, if not particularly hygienic, establishment that was famous for its juicy dumplings, now sadly a shell of its former bustling self.
A few street stalls are still open at the end of the street, although they are hidden behind construction walls, and will presumably be gone soon.
With all the local places on the street being demolished, the only immediate options were the chains across the street: Paris Baguette and McDonald’s. Paris Baguette is a South Korean chain that has been expanding into mainland China for a few years now. Its faux-European selection is too sweet for my taste, while I don’t need to tell you about the menu at the Golden Arches. Feeling somewhat dazed from discovering that my favourite lunch places no longer exist, I changed my plans and went to the supermarket to pick up some snacks.
Even though China’s economy is reportedly experiencing a slow-down, urban regeneration continues at a rapid pace. Many scholars of urban studies have noted how such change is traumatic for local residents who no longer recognise their neighbourhoods, but it also impacts on foreigners, who have adopted certain spaces as part of our cultural assimilation.