Home > Buildings, China > China VII: historical (pyscho)geography of Dandong

China VII: historical (pyscho)geography of Dandong

Chinese places play tricks with time. Here in Dandong, the city’s footprint should reveal the traces of a multi-layered past. Even ten years ago, one could explore the town’s roots in a nest of streets and lanes stretching between the river and the low rocky hills that fringe the wide Yalu valley. They weren’t especially remarkable, but they had character: low-lying structures of grey tile, remainders of a thriving trading settlement, trade withKoreaand up the Yalu to the virgin forests of the far north-east. A few grand offices and residences were built by better-off merchants, two- or three- storey structures of real character dripping with primitively-rendered Classical details carved in hard granite. Five years ago you could still follow these lanes, lined now by colossal mounds of detritus where the old houses had been reduced to rubble; occasionally a half-shattered house reared up, being squatted by some resident who refused to move. Now even the street plan has gone, replaced instead by a new and regular grid along which great concrete blocks march with electric ferocity.Dandong’s roots have been ripped away. All that remains is a single customs building, restored within an inch of its life, and sitting at once unexpected and inaccessible in the middle of an estate of new high-rise blocks.

South from here, the Japanese laid out their own town in the earlier twentieth-century, a great grid of Manchukuo streets with the old town at one end and their new railway station at the other; this remains the city’s economic heart, and indeed it is this grid that has now been extended across the city: an ironic psychogeographic takeover, given that the Japanese practised a kind of apartheid between old and town and new, leaving scars that are still raw among the older generation here. Yet here, too, the pattern of history is now barely discernible, the demolition of the low, vaguely western-style villas and terraces that made up the town almost complete; indeed the grander infrastructure of the 1950s, illiberal monuments to proud Liberation, has itself been replaced by a succession of hotels and shopping centres that themselves trace the architectural story of China’s opening-up.

These age with astonishing speed, as if the very velocity ofChina’s development were speeding their decay. Blocks that seemed impossibly shiny and luxurious now look ancient and decrepit, their concrete skins lined by the stresses of raw development. Here is a mini-me of Hong Kong’s Henderson tower, its circular top an instantly recognisable early 80s form, copied in Shenzen and then in  countless other Chinese cities as the first marker of the Open Door: in the late 90s this still bore the traces of its former role as the beacon of the new city, with restaurants covered in baroque frescoes and a little-visited Friendship Store on the top floor. Now it is nothing more than a second-rank nest of tiny shops and franchises, paling into insignificance besides the malls and squares that seem to appear when your back is turned for a year or more. There’s a Tesco round the corner.

I’d begun to think that the rate of change here had plateaud, that the new junction I encountered yesterday, sweeping like concrete pasta over decrepit factories, shanty-like hovels and gated communities like, dressed up in strips of neon that shift colour every few seconds, making the roundabout into a Christmas tree, where just the dying gasps of this great wave of rebuilding. But no, in spite of having recreated the old one, an entirely new Dandong is going up a few miles south of here, a First World city of intimidating proportions already visible where even 18months ago there were only hoardings, cleared villages, abandoned land returning to scrub.  There’s a clockmaking college shaped like an enormous clock, a kind of nightmare collision of postmodernist folies-de-grandeure and constructivist imagistic architecture; there’s the new campus of the city’s best middle school, which will now become boarding.

All in all, it is impossible to find anything that one can be certain is older than a century or so here. That’s not suprising:Dandong’s heyday developed with the city’s trading status in the late C19. Even the battered steles that lie unused in one corner of the oldest temple here, the Buddhist nunnery at at Badakou, are not much more than a century old; a frustratingly hard to distinguish from as-yet-unerected new ones. The temple is said to have Ming roots, but I doubt anything survived the multiple rebuildings that are traditional in this wood-based architecture, let alone the decades that the temple spent after the closure of all places of worship, as a portion of a (itself in turn now closed) middle school. Perhaps the site itself, and the ramped earth platforms encased in stone on which the temple lies.

Of courseDandong’s premier attraction is itself a historic monument, the ‘Broken bridge’ bombed by the Americans to breakChina’s major bridgehead intoKoreaduring the war there. It stands as a monument to the permanent Cold War which traps people in the other side in a frozen 1950s Communist theocracy, and provides a permanent shock of contrast  between one side of the river and another. It’s a major attraction in its own right, with twisted metal at one end, Chinese, western and south Korean tourists gazing into the land beyond, and convoys of trade and aid moving across the unbombed bridge immediately adjacent to it. So is the Korean war memorial high on a ridge in the town, a permanent reminder plainly visible across the water of the human sacrifice made byChinaprior to the division of the Korean peninsula. More fluid histories are also visible around here: by a tributary of the Yalu a few miles north of the town are the Cyrillic-inscribed  obelisks and crosses of a memorial to the Russo-Japanese War of 1906; the Japanese equivalent is on a hill a little above it. There’s the enormous Gingerbread-Danish style embassy (Danish? Japanese? English? I’ve heard conflicting reports) now occupied by the army, plainly visible from the southern side of Jinjiang park. The Danes in general are one of the more unexpected influences round here: they brought Lutheranism, which packs out the Danish-built church; their hospital just about survives nearby; out of town a college is sited in a former Danish seminary. Then there’s the Ying Lo, the English house, one of the Empire’s British-dominated customs buildings, atop the hill at Langtou, south of the city on the way to New Dandong: it’s been requipped as a museum, and the village around it is worthy of preservation too, though it is not yet open. And best of all there is the so-called Great Wall, 10 miles or so north along the Yalu, which climbs vertiginously and memorably up a rocky outcrop and has suitably surreal/grim views intoNorth Koreafor those happy to pay a princely 60 yuan entrance. Everything here is utterly new, and the lack of any visible earthworks beyond it on the Chinese side is explained by the fact that this was never a Chinese frontier defence, let alone part of the Great Wall: it is an effectively rebranded (and utterly renewed) Korean fort. In China, the past is up for endless reinvention.

  1. April 23, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Fascinating stuff.
    Question: Is China rushing full speed into a modern hell-world?
    Will the country ever miss the history it seems to be destroying?

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