January 04 2015
Guangzhou, the industrial powerhouse of southern China, is nicknamed “Goat Town” after its foundation myth in which five goats descended from the heavens with rice stalks to save the people from starvation. The photographic series Goat Town is an investigation into the vast and consuming alterations being made to the city’s landscape. Using the backdrop of my family’s transition from a tiny, decrepit apartment into a sleek, uncluttered high-rise, the work is a look inside the city’s changing identity. As China continues to grow, Guangzhou’s own transitions are on trend with the country’s insatiable hunger for economic progress.
Will I recognize Guangzhou next time I see it?
Guangzhou is a difficult city for me to return to—lush in cultural heritage and familial obligations, yet harsh in its griminess and thick smog. I visited frequently when I was young; I attended my first funeral and my first wedding in Guangzhou. It was the place where my mother grew up, and where much of my family still lives. The Guangzhou of my mother’s childhood was impoverished to the point that mundane items like towels were cherished and kept indefinitely. During my childhood, Guangzhou was still poor, but rich in intimacy and familiarity thanks to a sense of community, no doubt helped by the close quarters. It felt like home.
When I visited in 2012, Guangzhou was filled with a strange energy as it struggled in midst of transition. The city was, and remains, at the cusp of dramatically altering its skyline through erecting generic simulacrums of traditional Chinese architecture and destroying older neighborhoods. Signs prescribing proper behavior filled the streets and covered fences. People smoked over no smoking signs inside restaurants.
Within my own family, the longtime home I resented, but still loved, became obsolete as my cousin bought a condo inside one of the new high-rises. With the gentrification, no longer could my cousin and I race down the alleyways to drink soy milk in glass bottles from a corner store; no longer could I find refuge from the busy streets in the neighborhood playgrounds. Instead, fences line the towering new blocks to keep residents in and the population out. The move from my cousin’s childhood home to a new place has brought my mother’s extended family into middle class luxury at the cost of not just their collection of archaic artefacts, but a rich history at the threshold of erasure.
What is home if it means losing part of your own history?