James Whitlow Delano, photographer
February 17, 2005 10:02 AM   Subscribe

A Tale of Two Chinas, by photographer James Whitlow Delano. Whole swaths of cities have vanished, to be transformed with developments that have quickly made them look more like Houston, Qatar, or Singapore than the ancient China of our mind's eye. The old hutong, or alleyways, of Beijing that once formed a mosaic of passageways and the siheyuan, or walled courtyard houses, have been largely razed. The old brick rowhouses of Shanghai, are now being leveled and replaced by modern high-rises. Traditional marketplaces, residential neighborhoods, streets where medicine shops or bookstores bunched together, are now either gone or have been rouged up as tourist destinations, part of a new synthetic, virtual version of China's incredible past. The energy fueling this transformation bespeaks a powerful but often blind, unquestioning faith in an inchoate idea of progress that takes one's breath away, often literally. (Unrestrained growth has left China with the dubious honor of having 9 of the 10 most polluted cities in the world). Delano's new book is "Empire: Impressions from China". More inside.
posted by matteo (23 comments total)
Delano lives in Japan and has traveled extensively for projects in India, Philippines, Cambodia. He also shot stories about Japanese women and beauty, and the Tokyo homeless.

Delano explains that
"Immersing myself in a country means, for me, quietly wandering the backstreets of its cities, towns and villages. I find it is still possible to slip into a place or situation unnoticed - at least temporarily. Speed is everything. I must pass by quickly and quietly in order to capture the 'out of the corner of my eye' immediacy that I seek before I disturb the scene".
For camera geeks: Delano uses an old Leica M2 with a 35mm lens
posted by matteo at 10:10 AM on February 17, 2005

Well, this is getting bookmarked--nice post.
posted by y2karl at 10:13 AM on February 17, 2005

Amazing post.
posted by Mean Mr. Bucket at 10:28 AM on February 17, 2005

wrong link for the Tokyo homeless. the good one's here, sorry
posted by matteo at 10:32 AM on February 17, 2005

I spent about a month in China about 6 years ago, and the level of air pollution and contruction-related filth in Beijing was absolutely disgusting. The number of large construction cranes was amazing - never thought there could be so many of them in one place.

The oddest thing to a westerner is that outside of the cranes, there was very little in the way of modern equipment - most everything is done by hand, or with the help of some bamboo. The sight of bamboo scaffolding stretching more than 50 stories into the sky is amazing. Roads are built with lots of people, buckets and rags. Lawn mowers have been turned into pickup trucks, and bicycles carry staggering amounts of supplies.

Sad and amazing.
posted by gregariousrecluse at 10:40 AM on February 17, 2005

There's a good article in the recent Harpers called The City of Tomorrow: Searching for the future of architecture in Shanghai by Mark Kingwell.

Nice post, Matteo.
posted by shoepal at 10:44 AM on February 17, 2005

My wife and her sisters have control of a small apartment within walking distance of Tiananmen Square that is planned for replacement with new apartments. They don't see this as a bad thing, just progress. But then while not rich they are not the average Chinese. They are the first generation post Mao, well-educated working Chinese that are making the change to China. As noted the change is being driven by the super rich and the government to target the moneyed class or foreign investment.

Shenzen reminds me of Queens on a larger and denser scale with construction everywhere.

We have an apartment in Zhuhai. An area being promoted in Hong Kong and China as a vacation and retirement area and it connects directly to Macau. The population density is much less and most of the time there is little or no traffic. There is excellent public transportation. But, the level of construction is insane and this area will be as crowded as Shenzen within 10 years. The comments above about construction methods are right on still today. I stood in a window and watched the second floor of a new factory being built. The concrete truck would empty into a large wheelbarrow and 2 men would get a running start and push it up a narrow board ramp to get to the floor where they emptied and retuned down for more. What boggles the mind is not that this is the way it was being done but how much has been done.

China will be the country that impacts the world the most during the first half of this century. The Younger generation there now, I think, can be compared to my parents generation after WWII. After all many of the things being done in China now is no different than post war US. It’s just that they should know better when it comes to pollution and the environment.
posted by mss at 11:12 AM on February 17, 2005

one thing my SO has said (after living about 2 years in Beijing and Guilin) about the razing of the hutongs is that while westerners bemoan the loss of such picturesque dwellings and trappings of older china, they don't quite realize the reality of those families that live there. we're talking one or two rooms (and a courtyard shared with 4 other families) to an entire extended family; grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. sort of like living in a walk-in closet, with no privacy (sure, really beautiful, but cramped nonetheless). so unless the family being ejected goes to even worse housing, most chinese don't decry the loss of the hutong like the westerners do.

great find matteo!

on preview: what mss said.
posted by acid freaking on the kitty at 11:20 AM on February 17, 2005

Great post.
posted by geekyguy at 11:35 AM on February 17, 2005

Great post...dense and bookmark worthy. Yay!
posted by dejah420 at 12:34 PM on February 17, 2005

acid freaking on the kitty, I got the same feeling in Thailand. Everyone wants ModCons (and space!).
posted by shoepal at 1:33 PM on February 17, 2005

What acid freaking said about "picturesque dwellings." I was just reading about a guy in Jeddah who responded to a complaint about the destruction of the traditional limestone houses of the old quarter in almost the same words about the reality of living there. My antiquarian soul weeps over the demolition of the old neighborhoods of Paris by Haussmann, but when I think of what it must have been like to inhabit one of the tiny unventilated old rooms in the narrow, lightless streets of the Ile de la Cite or the area between the Louvre and the Carrousel, I can't regret it overmuch. And any Americans who bitch about "the raw, hell-bent energy that has been driving China's seemingly boundless craving for development" should immediately expire of irony overload.

Anyway, great post!

But, um, your "ancient China" link doesn't have any pictures of China that I can see.
posted by languagehat at 2:00 PM on February 17, 2005

Could you provide a link to a recent study supporting the assertion that China has the "dubious honor of having 9 of the 10 most polluted cities in the world"?

I've heard that claim quite a few times, but every time I try to track down the source, I find nothing quite so clear cut, just studies a decade out of date. Since I visited China last December, I find it easy to believe that Nanchang must be on that list somewhere. I just can't find the proof.

BTW, I went to a "rouged up hutong" in Beijing, and still went away feeling that it would be very difficult to live in those dwellings. Bathrooms were a brisk five minute walk away, as I recall.
posted by Invoke at 2:38 PM on February 17, 2005

For camera geeks: Delano uses an old Leica M2 with a 35mm lens

thanks for that, and for the link.
posted by blendor at 3:18 PM on February 17, 2005

Marvelous - thanks for taking the time to put this together, matteo!
posted by carter at 3:27 PM on February 17, 2005

My wife grew up in a hutong, and doesn't miss it. If you're in New England, there's a reconstructed hutong at the Peabody (MA) Essex museum. It's slightly upscale for the type, but very representative. Close-quarter living. The one at the museum has an indoor outhouse. The building was taken apart at its location in Southeastern China, then put back together in Peabody.

I'm put in mind of those who idealize the wooden three-deckers of Boston's blue-collar neighborhoods. I'd try to avoid living in one of those firetraps again.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:08 PM on February 17, 2005

I was in Shanghai in December, and can thoroughly recommend the experience. Very dynamic place, pregnant with possibilities. Good fun, too.
posted by Wolof at 5:33 PM on February 17, 2005

A friend of mine was recently offered a cushy job teaching at a university somewhere outside of Shanghai--I forget the name of the place. He had spent about 3 months in China before and liked the people, the food, the culture in general, but he turned the job down. The reason? Wait for it......too much pollution. He said the air quality was just horrible, and believed that just staying there one year would signifigantly increase his risk of getting cancer, as there are all manner of factories (natch) everywhere with little govt. oversight for saftey, environmental concerns, etc.

We may tsk tsk China now, but in 100 years I think they'll be the top dog. Growing pains are painful.
posted by zardoz at 6:23 PM on February 17, 2005

Ok, I should've written, "Growing pains are...well, painful."
posted by zardoz at 8:13 PM on February 17, 2005

Pictures from Zhuzhou, Hunan, China :D "Wherever you go in Zhuzhou there are parents and grandparents walking around with their kids. They really bundle the kids up, too, except for a huge hole in their pants so they can pee wherever." pure awesome!
posted by kliuless at 4:01 PM on February 18, 2005

Most young people in China are full of buzzwords like "modern" and "efficient" and "international". The government seems to be pushing this agenda as a sort of compensation for the past years where most people had little or nothing. They wised up and realized that if they wanted to stay in power they'd have to let people prosper.

The downside of this is that in order to raise the standard of living for the world's most populous nation, they have to make room for improvements. This is what is really depressing.

China is such a huge paradox. They are striving to be modern, but they have such a huge sense of pride in their history, even if they have to destroy some of it.
posted by taschenrechner at 9:30 PM on February 18, 2005

gregariousrecluse, I was there 10 years ago and noticed the same--bamboo scaffolding, etc. But I was there this past winter and have noticed that they have since gone towards much more modern methods--steel/iron scaffolding and what not.
posted by numble at 4:00 PM on February 19, 2005

Mark Leong's China Obscura
posted by matteo at 6:17 AM on February 25, 2005

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