China Sketches: Yixing Chemical Plant

Through the window tens of identical apartment buildings glowed pink. After curving down the bridge interchange and taking a number of lefts and rights, our cab pulled over. The train station would be already crowded even this early, but at the long distance bus station was quiet. There were empty seats on the bus we took to Yixing city.

In Yixing we bought bottles of sweet red tea and hard-boiled eggs. The women selling them, in addition to our change in RMB, gave us a few Hong Kong dollars in coins, her idea being that she’d never go there again but we might. My buddy, Pearl man, wanted to look at earthenware teapots, Yixing is famous for them. I could only look at so many teapots, so after an hour of going from store to store, I left him and headed for the hotel.

Tapped on the shoulder by something sharp I woke up. Pearl man had bought a scythe he said had been used in the fields during the Cultural Revolution. It would sell in America along with the posters he’d picked up: one featured a badly drawn Donald Duck playing with some Chinese kids, the other a portrait of Stalin looking malevolent. It was hard to find posters of Stalin in China in 2007. How Pearl man was going to get that scythe back to America I didn’t know but he was experienced in such matters.

That afternoon we went to a Chinese-Norwegian chemical plant to get shots for Pearl man’s ‘industrial scenes’ photo album. While he took photos of chemical brewing tanks, I stared into a murky pond just outside the gates searching for Blinkie the three-eyed fish. When I’d had enough of that, I went and inspected the administration building. It was box-like with external staircases exposed to the elements. The walls were covered with small white tiles better restricted to bathrooms. This plant in Yixing would look interesting in Pearl man’s photos…in the flesh the single chimney place was fairly unimpressive.

I liked big scale industrial sites like the Shougang steel factory on the outskirts of Beijing, once an employer hundreds of thousands – or the Bayer plant in Caojing, Shanghai, where thousands of engineers devoted their considerable grey matter to producing new kinds of plastic. Even the cement factories of Hualien in Taiwan had something as they contrasted with the green mountains and the sea. In New Zealand, the abandoned freezing works by the river in Patea was once my favourite industrial landscape. Then they got rid of those asbestos and heavy metal filled buildings, which had been holding down surrounding property prices. All that remains are concrete storehouses by the river, their windows covered in corrugated iron; gulls resting on the roofs. Derelict wooden jetties complete the picture.

New Zealand is a country of middling architecture. The casino in Auckland springs to mind as an offence, a red and green blimp with a needle sticking out the top. However, even our most maligned towns have pleasant wooden houses and modest neoclassical architecture. China’s block buildings, a communist legacy imported from the Soviet Union, have leaked well into the age of rampant capitalism; before those, there were the gates, walls, tombs, palaces and pagodas of imperial cities. In the twenty-first century some style has come back with the likes of the Jin Mao tower (a skyscraper with traditional Chinese characteristics) in Shanghai, and the CCTV headquarters in Beijing (a cubist pair of shorts, which I have never seen) – ambitious architecture for sure.

The Chinese idea of architectural continuity is biological – cells are always dividing and dying. None of the cells that made your body at ten years old are still with you. So it is with many thousand year old temples in China…they got smashed in the Cultural Revolution or burned down completely several times in their history. They rebuilt them with different planks and stones but they are still the same temples, still seen as ancient – just like you are old and your cells are new. If the World Trade Center twin towers had been in China they would have rebuilt them again immediately. Sinologist Simon Leys claimed that immortality lay with the builder not with the building itself. The idea of the building, the design was important – not the age of the materials that made it.

The European idea is more geological – there is a striving to make buildings with materials that will take millennia to erode. If a structure is destroyed once…it’s gone. WWII created a notable exception to this, as it forced a rebuild of much of Europe. The Europeans brought their ideas of material permanence to China, we can see the evidence on the bunds of Tianjin, Shanghai and Wuhan – banks, hotels and custom-houses built to last for eternity.

If I were Chinese I’d feel ambivalent about those European buildings constructed in the first half of the 20th century. Why weren’t they torn down in the Cultural Revolution, were they just too damn solid?  

Back in downtown Yixing we had a fantastic dinner of crab in Sichuan mala sauce for a fraction of the Shanghai price. Pearl man had more shopping in mind for the next day, he wanted me to come along. “Nah man you’ll be better off alone.” Early the next morning I headed for Shanghai. The traffic on the bus ride back was shocking, I should have got the train.

Photo: cement factory, Hualien, Taiwan, FE Beyer

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