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Artist Documents The Final Days Of A Chinese City
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Artist Documents The Final Days Of A Chinese City

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

In another part of southwest China, away from the quake zone, change has come quickly for the people of Kaixian. It's the last of the cities to be submerged by the enormous reservoir created by the Three Gorges Dam. The dam is the largest hydroelectric project in the world, and one of the most controversial.

Over the past decade, 1.3 million people have had to move to make way for the reservoir. The relocation of Kaixian's residents just wrapped up this summer. In the fall, when water levels behind the dam are raised one last time, the 2,000-year-old city will be underwater.

Back in March, NPR's Andrea Hsu visited the city to catch up with someone who is trying to document its last days.

ANDREA HSU: Back then, Kaixian was in fact two cities. There was the new city of Kaixian, whose 20-story apartment blocks, wide boulevards and concrete plazas were built from scratch over the last five years. Most of the city's 200,000-some residents had already moved there.

And then there was the old city of Kaixian - 15 minutes away by motorcycle, but world's away in look and feel. That's where I met up with Chen Zhong, a filmmaker and artist.

CHEN ZHONG: Be careful with the nails.

HSU: Chen Zhong and I are walking through a field of rubble, most of it concrete chunks, but also wooden planks with exposed nails, and the odd piece of furniture. The buildings that are still standing loom like ghosts. Their doors and windows have been removed, their balconies lie empty.

To me, the place looks like a war zone. Chen Zhong agrees. It's his fourth trip to Kaixian.

ZHONG: The first time was about two years ago, in the Chinese New Year. People were very happy to celebrate the Chinese New Year in the old city; people firing firecrackers and eating in restaurants. And six months later, you know, half of the city is moved out.

Now, this time I see, wow, you know, just a very few families still live there, very fast, very quick.

HSU: Chen Zhong is here documenting the final days of the old Kaixian through photos, video, and an art installation, a remnant of a wall that he and a few day laborers are covering with newspaper.

This project is a collaboration between Chen and another Chinese artist, Xie Xiaoze. Chen says the newspapers represent the role the media has played in promoting the Three Gorges Dam. They also serve as a record of events. Chen scans the headlines.

ZHONG: This is the Three Gorges (unintelligible) paper you see here - (speaking foreign language) - the first expulsion of the old state of Kaixian. Thirteen buildings is going to disappear.

HSU: He describes the newspaper-covered wall as a monument of sorts, something he'll photograph to help people remember.

ZHONG: Monuments actually have different forms. You know, in Washington, D.C. you have this Washington Monument, which is very sharp, poor(ph), and very beautiful looking. So this is also, I think, a monument, even though it's kind of very - what's that word - dilapilated?

HSU: Dilapidated?

ZHONG: Dilapidated, yeah. It has the symbol of something which is being destroyed, something that is uprooted.

HSU: Chen Zhong was born in 1968 at the height of the Cultural Revolution. His parents had been denounced as enemies of the state because their families had owned land. They gave their son the name Zhong, meaning loyalty, hoping to persuade others that they were in fact a good family.

Today, Chen Zhong says his apolitical. Like many Chinese, he's conflicted about the Three Gorges Dam. So much is being lost, he says, but at the same time China needs power.

As Chen gets back to work papering the wall, workmen all around him get back to tearing down the city. A couple men with sledgehammers perch perilously on the roof of a single-story structure and swing away until finally the concrete comes tumbling down.

Across the rubble field, another pair of men move stacks of salvaged concrete bricks onto a truck with a wooden pole they sling over their shoulders. The bricks are sold for about a penny apiece.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing in foreign language)

HSU: The men tell me singing makes the work more relaxing.

Man #3: (Singing in foreign language)

Man #2: (Singing in foreign language)

HSU: There are women out here, too, collecting the rebar that's strewn about in the rubble. The two to three-foot-long pieces of steel sell for about 15 cents a pound. Forty-three-year-old Jong Li Trin(ph) from hammering away at the bits of concrete stuck to the rebar to talk.

JONG LI TRIN: (Speaking foreign language)

HSU: We're so poor, she says. We have little land to farm these days. So we're just doing this to sustain ourselves, just to make a little bit of money.

LI TRIN: (Speaking foreign language)

HSU: Chen Zhong has spent weeks here, and still, the magnitude of it all seems to hit him anew.

ZHONG: We are standing somewhere that is going to be underwater. Right now, the earth under our feet is going to be underwater. We are standing somewhere under future water. That's really a weird feeling, right?

HSU: He says he plans to be in Kaixian the day the waters roll in later this year. Andrea Hsu, NPR News, in southwest China.

NORRIS: And you can see photos of Chen at work and find an audio slideshow of old Kaixian at our Web site, npr.org.

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