I want to tell you about the changes to the city I had talked about last time.
Four years ago the apartment building being built across from campus wasn’t there. Four years ago everything around the campus was fields and farms. Four years ago the roads out to the college weren’t even paved. Though it’s already crumbling, the college I work at is only 10 years old. Now there are factories and industrial parks all around campus and more going up in every direction. Down the road there are ten more apartment towers going up. No one is living in them yet and at night they look like a huge row of black obelisks.
The high-speed train station, where I catch the subway into the city, didn’t exist four years ago.
I’ve learned a lot of this talking to the other foreign teacher who came back to finish out the school year.
I live at the North edge of the city, but not for long, the city is pushing out. The fields are being cut into huge lots and walled up for future development.
Xi’an is surrounded by a series of concentric ring roads; it can take an hour to go from one end of the city to the other end on one of the outer rings. A few weeks ago I took a bus from campus, taking one of the rings, making my way into the heart of the city, and it all looks the same out here: Construction. More factories, more shopping malls, more apartment towers. At one point I saw twenty identical apartment towers being built in two rows.
Much has been made of China's ‘ghost cities’, Ordos is an extreme example, but building so much makes sense. In the last decade China has seen a huge explosion of the middle class, millions of people are moving in from the countryside to the cities, the country is in the midst of a massive migration. There needs to be more places to live in the cities. A lot more. There are definitely hundreds if not a few thousand new apartment buildings going up in Xi’an.
My Starbucks (I am now a person with a Starbucks… which is located in the same shopping mall as my Wal-Mart) is in an area called Fung Chung Wu Lu. Four years ago there was nothing there, now it’s full of office buildings, apartments, and shopping malls. The construction in this area is not slowing down either. Every day migrant workers from the countryside gather corner down the street from Starbucks waiting for work. These men and women, all middle aged or older, sit on the street with paintbrushes and tools, dressed in everyday clothes, waiting for someone to drive up and hand them a hardhat to give them some simple but backbreaking job. The younger generations walk by with designer clothes, and shopping bags, drinking coffee, and talking on their smart phones.
But not all this growth is pushing the city out; old parts of the city are torn down to make way for new buildings. There are parts of Xi’an which my students call ‘villages in the city’, streets and alleys with old houses and shops, which feel like you have walked into ‘old China’. These places are making way for more apartments, more shopping malls. Beijing is famous for these alleys, called ‘hutongs’, which have existed for hundreds of years and are disappearing as well.
While Portland wrings it’s hands as it figures out what it is becoming, Xi’an only marches forwards to some glorious imagined future. Or if it is second guessing itself, I cannot see as an outsider. I wonder if the infrastructure will be able to handle a million more apartments switching on their power and water. I wonder if the roads can handle a million more cars. I wonder if they’ll put up another power plant. There is a coal power plant ten miles from my school; I pass it on the way to the airport. They are building apartment buildings right next to it. As the weather gets warmer here the air quality seems to be going down, I take allergy pills when I go into the city because the pollution upsets my sinuses.
Sometimes I walk by finished apartments with empty units and luxury shopping malls with stores but no customers. What if the people don’t come? What if the housing markets collapses like it did back in America? What if the economy slows down and people can’t afford to move to the city? Has anyone decided that there is a limit to how much growth Xi’an needs? It’s familiar in a way, the sense of a nation pushing forward, chasing the idea of what it might be, unable or unwilling to stop itself.