Over the last decade, the cities of south China have begun to swap factory smoke for skyscrapers. Glittering buildings have gone up, one after the other, much to the undisguised envy of many in the West. But what happens to those buildings after the cameras have gone home?
Guangzhou, China’s megacity of factories and bulldozers, is a curious case. It does not normally go in for nostalgia. Neighborhoods vanish to make way for new factories, malls, apartments. The future is cherished here.
But Guangzhou has also been getting into the landmarks game: a massive, shimmering new museum – designed by a starry Western architect – opened in 2010, and it now sits next to Zaha Hadid’s Opera House in the heart of the new city. Critics lined up to admire both.
But just two years on, and Hadid’s majestic Opera House is looking decidedly the worse for the wear – its reptilian skin mottled and chipped by the climate, its curves patrolled by skaters instead of theatre-goers, most evenings. A gigantic Pizza Hut has set up shop inside, next to the reflecting pool. Around the corner, by the main entrance, sits a disreputable looking KFC.
The Guangdong Museum has likewise changed, since writers lined up to admire it. Its high windows are now mostly covered with thick faded velvet curtains. Little light gets in. Some of its collections are still glorious: a tiger-shaped oven, massive bronze bells, incredible carved wood.
Then there are the ironies: a reconstructed traditional house sits in front of a wall-sized photograph of one of the old neighbourhoods of Guangzhou – low-rise, narrow alleys and steep tiled roofs. Old people stop to look, for a while. Neighbourhoods like that, of course, have almost all vanished – bulldozed to make way for this museum, and its exhibition honoring the places it replaced. From the roof of the new-old house, a CCTV camera peers down.
The collections tell one story rigorously: of Guangzhou’s manifest destiny – of a history built on business sense and trade, culminating in the city’s present-day wealth and power. It is very neat (apart from when the absences become too, too conspicuous), but it is the kind of nostalgia which keeps the present much closer than the past.