Not so long ago I had the privilege to stay in DragonTown. In the city of Cheng Du, one of the most interesting cities in China, there was one neighbourhood which was really unusual. The ‘modernisation’ which had been progressing at breakneck speed over the last twenty years was becoming extreme in this city. The old hutong-style buildings which were single story traditional living quarters with lots of shared facilities and a community atmosphere were being bulldozed on a daily basis. The occupants were not given any choice in the matter and were forced to move to distant suburbs to live in bleak high and low rises. This particular area called Dragontown was known for it’s tightly knit community, its inexpensive and very social cafe scene and its emphasis on cultural life, and the natives decided they were not going to be moved out easily. They decided just to stay.
The construction workers moved in with bulldozers, the first thing they did was to destroy the main road which ran through the ‘hood. This would make it impossible for it to function as a community since no car or even a hand cart could pass along this road of sand and rubble. The workers then proceeded in their demolition duties. However at five o clock the workers ended their days work and then the community members would emerge and set up their businesses, cafes, social centres, shops restaurants among all the debris and chaos that the demolition had left. It became a celebrated cause across the city. People would come from all parts of town and stay all night in the street terraces drinking and making music, or discussing politics, culture, art. Surrounded by a wasteland of chaos.
In the morning the demolition teams would return to find tables and chairs set up in the sand where the street used to be, some clients still there as the sun rose, some asleep at the tables after a night of social revelry, great food and great company. The demolition continued throughout the day and then at night the locals would re-emerge and rebuild their neighbourhood again.
I had arrived in Cheng Du quite randomly on my way between performances in Yunnan province and Beijing. There was one beautiful hotel in Dragon Town, the Dragon Inn. But nobody wanted to stay there. Not foreign visitors, not Chinese tourists. Because it was encircled by rubble. It was not accessible for transport. The neighbourhood was ‘ugly’. But I liked the neighbourhood, especially at night time when you could sit for hours beneath the red lanterns, nursing a green tea, listen to people singing and playing old songs. Sometimes I joined in with the music. Tunes from the Sichuan opera or ‘silk and bamboo’ classics. And in the morning I would go to sleep in my hotel where I had the best room in the house. I was the only guest.
I was only supposed to spend one night in Cheng Du but stayed for almost two weeks. Made lots of friends there. When I left, the taxi couldn’t negotiate the street to pick me up, so the local children carried all my baggage the twenty minute walk back into the ‘civilised’ world.