“To Improve the Environment”: Urban Renewal in China (and an ode to Mo Jia Jie)

Before

After

Don’t criticize my attachment to Xining’s Mo Jia Jie Market 莫家街市场. That’s all I have to say by way of introduction…

The Chinese city is a perpetually changing work in progress. You eat at a hotpot restaurant one night, and, looking forward to returning in the future, walk by one week later to find it has been demolished. Small forests of skyscrapers rise from formerly barren land; trunks of steel and concrete spiraling inorganically, without any ethereality whatsoever, into the air. Mudwalled courtyard houses are mercilessly knocked aside, entire communities relocated into impersonal apartment blocks, to make way for new streets to improve traffic circulation. Elderly inhabitants sit passively, watching the endlessly continuous process of creative destruction (or is it destructive creation?) that is the Chinese city.

The result is half construction site, half richly diverse-a-la-Jane-Jacobs urban experience, and half (to give a nod to Cartalk’s “three halves”) utter confusion. There is no permanence or sanctity; it is the epitome of the dynamic striving rootlessness that marks the self-consciously modern. The fact that something exists, or has existed in the past, has no significance; these are replaced by the sincere yet aimless search for possibilities.

I’ve been thinking about urbanism and built environments since my visit to Xining this past weekend, which – since my move to Rebgong this fall – in some ways has stayed the same and in some ways has changed beyond recognition. I spent most of this past Saturday on a leisurely wander through Xining, a Black Saturday of market-hopping for various unavailable-in-Rebgong goods. Last year, these urban excursions were a weekly occurrence; I would hit my favorite street markets and explore new alleyways and neighborhoods I hadn’t visited in the past. With my wanderings on Saturday, I wanted to recapture the experience of an urban wander, an experience which my current small-town home (despite all of its strong points) cannot provide.

Two new developments in Xining’s urban landscape put my mind (and emotions) into overdrive. The first was a new development behind the famous Beijing Hualian in western Xining (near Xinning Square), a fake-old network of pedestrian streets incongruously nestled below flashy new apartment towers and littered with fashionable chain stores and restaurants. “International Business Street”, as it was called, looked like something out of Chengdu, Beijing, or even Shanghai; it stood out from Xining’s urban landscape because of the comprehensiveness of its design, its total control over the environment. Nothing was out of place, nothing was out of control. There were no stray street vendors, no misaligned or misspelled signs, not even any stray animals or pieces of trash. Everything was rigidly structured into a falsely complete aura of luxurious oldness, at once appealing to popular nostalgia for tradition (in this case, for a human-scaled urban environment) and the more modern (for western China) concern for splashy and extroverted visual appeal (here present in the architecture and in the fashionable boutiques). I didn’t know what to make of this half-finished complex, except that it certainly marked a new era in the city’s pretensions to cosmopolitanism. I was shocked more than anything by this development’s self-conscious fanciness, its obsession with internationalism, its desire to transcend Xining’s urban context. Whatever it turns out to be, it certainly stands out from the environment of creative destruction which surrounds it; and so it will until coming before the wrecking ball to make way for a future pretension, a future creation of wish

Part of the new International Business Street development

.

International Business Street was the genesis of my recent thoughts on Xining’s urban design. But it was another urban development that really got me emotional.

Xining’s Mo Jia Jie market is gone.

Not completely. Some vendors still hang around the strangely wide and empty street. A couple of lonely kebab stands sell to a much-diminished crowd. And the other vendors, in fact, are still around; the majority have been moved inside the bottom two floors of a massive new luxury department building. A maze of clear-plastic stalls separated by orange plastic seats, this new low-ceilinged market is sterilized, washed of every trace of dirt, character, and interest; literally contained inside an impossibly incongruous structure.

For some context: Mo Jia Jie was Xining’s best street market. From early morning to late at night, the place was constantly packed with thousands of shoppers buying everything from vegetables to nuts to fish and meat to bread to the best street food imaginable. The street was a riot of sensations; as you walked, your nose was assaulted by the cumined intensity of the barbecued kebabs, before recoiling from carcasses of raw meat and then joyously awakening to the smells of fresh breads and oily sesame balls, freshly baked pastries and roasting spiced potatoes, frying “burritos” and MSG-laden noodles. The riot of colors on the signs attracted your attention (“Princess Greedy” was a memorable milkshake stop), but more unavoidable (to momentarily ignore the food) were the people of the market, vendors, purple-faced, shouting prices to shoppers in increasingly vociferous competitions for attention (repeated daily, admission free); vendors’ children wandering wide-eyed down the rows of food, staring up confusedly at the forest of legs stretching skywards from their eyes; students after school, laughing and joking relievedly as they try to forget their endless days of lessons, the looming college entrance exam, the pressure; shoppers, fashionable to beggarly, mixing in the all-encompassing hotpot of commerce, into which everything is haphazardly thrown, then inseparably mixed together irrespective of the ingredients differences, until the basic truths of similarity are revealed. In short, Mo Jia Jie was one of the more marvelous concoctions of humanity and its creations imaginable, an overwhelming and overwhelmingly insatiable feast of sensation impossible to quench, vanquish, or finish.

night at the market (before)

entrance to the market (before)

Upon arriving at the formerly bustling mouth of the street, I stood in shock as I stared at the newly barren urban landscape. Gone was variety, life, emotion, sensation; they had been replaced by disinterest and what the Chinese call 冷清 lengqing – a word representing all that is cold and lifeless. I asked the remaining vendors what had happened.

“The market is still around,” said a young woman selling unidentifiable balls-on-a-stick. “It’s around the corner in the big new building.”

“Why did they move it?” I ask.

“Why do you think?” she said. “They want to improve the traffic flow. They want cars to be able to use the street so they can make the traffic less bad in this area.”

“But is this street really that important?” I asked. “Isn’t the economic importance of the market more than that gained by the few minutes saved by improving traffic?”

“No, of course not!” she said, giving me a look that said “you idiot! Didn’t you understand the implications of what I said? Of course not, you’re a foreigner.”

But she didn’t say that. “It’s all part of their campaign to improve the city environment,” she said. “That’s why they moved the market.”

“What do you think about the new situation?” I asked.

This time, I got a narrow edge of smile creeping from her deep dimples towards the center of her mouth; it was quickly suppressed into an impenetrable impassiveness. “I think the situation before was better,” she said. “We all do. The new market isn’t great. But what can we do?”

remains

where did the market go?

I had the same conversation with eight vendors, both on the old street and inside the lifeless new market. All regretted the change; shoppers felt the same. Despite the chaos and the occasional inconvenience caused by cars attempting to pass, the old market had a spirit – a real life. The sterile new market, and the skeletal street of the old, could only offer sentimental remembrances and anemic imitations. Changes happen, but for the vendors and shoppers at Mo Jia Jie it seemed like the heart of their city, and of their lives – a heart almost human in its constancy, reliability, and beating force.

And I mourn the loss of this heart as well. Friends have commented on my fixation with this market, and many have wondered at the depth of my unhappiness at this change in Xining’s urban landscape – a change which, after all, is not so different from the multitude of other changes that affect the city daily. After all, the vendors (and the food) are still there – there being only one block away.

But there’s something to be said for environment. Environment is not something that can be totally controlled, as in International Business Street, or transported whole to new surroundings, or consciously formed and shaped to be something it isn’t; successful urban environments are created organically, in random accretions that develop spontaneously rather than forcedly. Life and heart are not things that can be forced; they are things that grow from nothing into eventual fruition. As such, for Mo Jia Jie, the food is still there, but the place – and its life –  no longer exists.

to end on a happier note, here is Xining's climbing wall, where I spent a great saturday afternoon

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2 Responses to “To Improve the Environment”: Urban Renewal in China (and an ode to Mo Jia Jie)

  1. sarah says:

    holy crap! i had no idea about the market! arghhhhhh
    Also, i’m curious about where exactly this international business street is.

  2. ibuibulai says:

    whoa! that’s nuts (if not overly surprising). i enjoyed Mo Jia Jie during Xining visits. We have a few new developments in Zhongdian similar to int’l biz st too….and equally disconcertingly bizarre.

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