As our bus is rolling across Wuyuan, I find myself staring intently around me, consumed by confusion, discomfort and curiosity. There is something deeply unsettling about the town but I can’t figure out what it is.
Wuyuan is shiny and new, like a freshly minted coin . Wide open streets have two or three lanes in each direction. Bicycle, scooter and pedestrian lanes are paved with tiles. Five foot trees have been planted carefully everywhere, all of them are the same age, height and appearance. White and spotlessly clean four and five story buildings line the streets. There are banks and businesses, stores and restaurants. I see doors and windows, balconies and AC units. I see a few people walking the streets.
That’s it! There are not enough people. It’s a Saturday noon in a Chinese town; the streets should be packed with people hustling and bustling. Bicycles, scooters, mopeds, carts and other semi-motorized contraptions should be moving in all directions and honking noisily, friendly and warningly alike. Shops and stalls, cards and restaurants should be offering food. Chinese towns have become cleaner, but there should be some trash leisurely rolling around in the breeze. Where is a city’s olfactory duet, the smells of refuse and sewage?
The gleaming wide boulevards are as eerily perfect as they are eerily empty. Where are the thousands of small features and minor differences that make a town feel real? Wuyuan feels like a Hollywood movie set, not a city. I am expecting the street to turn into a California desert or a parking lot and a cameraman’s voice barking “Action!” If I pull a door knob, will the whole façade fall down to the street baring an empty space behind it?
We get out of the bus. The station is the most lifelike place in town we’ve seen so far. Here is food, refuse, sewage, dust, mud and people, all right. My pregnant darling performs her customarily stint in a public restroom – she pees and vomits at the same time. Still, the bus station feels emptier than it should be for a town this size. Half a dozen buses stand on a parking lot where at least fifty of them could fit. Half a dozen taxi drivers assault us enthusiastically but politely. We pick the least pushy guy and load into his car. As we get out of the station and start riding Wuyuan’s sterile streets, the feeling of unreality assaults me again.
We pass a blindingly white concrete bridge with an authentic Huizhou style colonnade; it is built out of aged wood with a corbel joinery roof and two entrance arches. Even the aged wood looks new and shining; it can’t be more than two or three years old.
As we approach the edges of the city, we see more construction. The perfect buildings of the city center give way to almost finished houses, then to empty concrete half assembled husks, and finally to leveled ground plots.
Yvonne asks our driver about the town and the guy starts laughing. The central government, he says, has encouraged the local authorities to build more and more. The governor had the whole city laid out and built from scratch over the last three years. Now they are having troubles finding people and businesses to move in. The town should have two hundred thousand residents, but it barely has a third of that number.
The driver’s words explain it, but I still feel bewildered. Most human settlements have been born inadvertently, slowly, noisily, dirty, bloody, and chaotically; they’ve been born human. Now, I witness a whole town being born coldly, precisely and lifeless, like in a science fiction novel or a Corbusier architecture textbook.
Finally, the city ends and we are back in the bucolic Chinese countryside. Still, we can’t get the image of a sterile shining city out of our minds. We have been traveling in China for a month and we’ve see a frenetic frenzy of construction everywhere. How many buildings are left waiting forlornly for their residents never to move in?