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A Mao Zedong statue in the city center of Chengdu, China. The 30-meter statue, one of the few that are still displayed in so prominent a public space, was built after the third-century palace of the Shu Kingdom on that site was razed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Below the statue is an air raid shelter.  © Tong Lam

Goodbye, Chiang!

By Tong Lam

One of the most iconic scenes in the 2003 German tragicomedy film Goodbye, Lenin!, which depicts drastic changes in daily life in the former East Germany soon after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, is a gigantic Lenin statue being flown away by a helicopter over East Berlin. Indeed, the end of the Cold War has triggered a wave of historical reinterpretations. Godlike founders and paramount leaders of many former authoritarian states, once seen as national heroes and state guardians, were quickly recast as dictators and tyrants. The de-mytholigization of these personality cults led to the removal and even demolition of many of the publicly displayed big statues of former political and spiritual leaders.

Taiwan’s democratization in the last two decades of the twentieth century, itself driven by the changing local and global political landscapes, likewise resulted in the removal of the island’s numerous statues of Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) from schools, military bases, and public spaces. Although Chiang was the leader who led the Republic of China in fighting the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), he and the Nationalists had to flee to Taiwan in 1949 after being defeated by the Communists in a bitter civil war. During the Cold War, the Republic of China in Taiwan experienced rapid economic growth, similar to that of other U.S. client states in East Asia. Yet, despite its economic success (and also not unlike many other U.S. client states), Taiwanese politics under Chiang were oppressive and monolithic. So, when external pressures and internal reforms finally turned Taiwan into a vibrant democracy in the early 2000s, the island went through a period of “de-Chiang-Kai-shek-ification” and even de-sinicization. In particular, many of the Chiang statues were dismantled and removed during the first decade of the twenty-first century, when an opposition party came into power and the Nationalists lost their hold on Taiwan’s government. The process of removing the Chiang statues all over Taiwan was often highly contentious, triggering not just painful memories of violent political repression under the Nationalists, but also bitter identity politics between those who identified themselves as Taiwanese and those as Chinese.

Statues of Chiang Kai-shek in the Cihu Memorial Statue Park in Daxi, Taiwan. Of the more than 150 statues collected by the park, the overwhelming majority are statues of Chiang previously displayed in schools, military bases, government buildings, and public spaces. © Tong Lam

Statues of Chiang Kai-shek in the Cihu Memorial Statue Park in Daxi, Taiwan. Of the more than 150 statues collected by the park, the overwhelming majority are statues of Chiang previously displayed in schools, military bases, government buildings, and public spaces. © Tong Lam

Although there are still Chiang statues in some Taiwan universities and public spaces, those that had been removed and dismantled were collected and re-erected in a public park near Chiang’s final resting place in Daxi, Taoyuan County. These reassembled, repainted, and rearranged Chiang statues are often placed so that multiple statues are staring at each other in a humorous way. In this clever exercise of massaging history through public art, there are even a few statues of Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), the founder of the Republic who had handpicked Chiang as his successor, looking at Chiang from behind.

Interestingly enough, many tourists visiting the Cihu Memorial Statue Park where these Chiang statues are located are mainland Chinese tourists. One wonders what they are thinking when confronted with Taiwan’s complicated and entangled historical relationship with mainland China over the past few centuries. Some of these Chinese tourists no doubt think about the future fate of those oversized statues of the former Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) back home. Others perhaps pick up on the subtle desires for cultural and historical reconciliation within Taiwanese society that are embodied in this statue park.

A Mao Zedong statue in the city center of Chengdu, China. The 30-meter statue, one of the few that are still displayed in so prominent a public space, was built after the third-century palace of the Shu Kingdom on that site was razed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Below the statue is an air raid shelter.  © Tong Lam

A Mao Zedong statue in the city center of Chengdu, China. The 30-meter statue, one of the few that are still displayed in so prominent a public space, was built after the third-century palace of the Shu Kingdom on that site was razed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Below the statue is an air raid shelter. © Tong Lam

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, although the Chinese government is still occasionally erecting new Mao statues, many others have been quietly taken down from universities and outdoor spaces in recent years. The politics of museum-ifying the past and the big statues in China are certainly different from those of Taiwan. Nonetheless, one wonders whether China will one day donate some of its overstocked Mao statues to Taiwan, so that Mao and Chiang can quietly look at each other and create a new symbol of historical and political reconciliation.

A group of volunteers from a local NGO called I YOU SHE performing for elderly residents in a residential compound in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.  © Tong Lam

Grassroots NGOs

By Tong Lam

For many Chinese people, their exposure to the concept of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and their potential for civic action can be traced back to 1995, when Beijing hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women. In early September that year, thousands of international NGO delegates arrived in Beijing to discuss issues of equality, development, and peace, and the event was widely reported in China’s national media. However, NGOs actually have a relatively long history in China. As early as the beginning of the twentieth century, a number of foreign NGOs, such as private foundations and public health organizations, were already operating in China. Also, soon after it came to power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party began to organize semi-autonomous civic associations as part of its mass mobilization campaign. Although these were not NGOs in the narrow sense of the definition, they were the predecessors of the new “government-organized NGOs” (commonly known as GONGOs) that have emerged in recent years.

The idea of government-organized “grassroots” organizations may sound oxymoronic, but these newly emerged non-profit organizations represent an important mechanism for the government to gain popular support and claim political legitimacy. Not surprisingly, many of the GONGOs established in recent years are civic associations dealing with issues related to the business and professional communities. Meanwhile, an increasing number of international NGOs have also been allowed to operate in China.

Volunteers chatting with residents after their energetic and popular performance. I YOU SHE was originally a volunteer organization focusing on communal rebuilding after a massive earthquake hit Sichuan Province in 2008. Since then, the organization has evolved into a professional NGO with multiple offices in Chengdu. The organization frequently collaborates with the local government and has even received government grants for some of its projects, but also seeks to maintain its autonomous status and pursue its own agenda for community development.

Volunteers chatting with residents after their energetic and popular performance. I YOU SHE was originally a volunteer organization focusing on communal rebuilding after a massive earthquake hit Sichuan Province in 2008. Since then, the organization has evolved into a professional NGO with multiple offices in Chengdu. The organization frequently collaborates with the local government and has even received government grants for some of its projects, but also seeks to maintain its autonomous status and pursue its own agenda for community development. © Tong Lam

In addition to these GONGOs and foreign NGOs, there has also been a surge of real grassroots NGO growth in the past decade. For example, after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008, many of the private and spontaneous rescue and relief efforts soon cohered into professional organizations, and began to offer long-term recovery and mobilization programs, both in the disaster zones and beyond. Generally, these homegrown NGOs are small, local, and poorly funded. Many of them are keen on addressing urban middle-class concerns such as environmental protection, charity, cultural preservation, citizen participation, and community development. In short, their agendas are not incompatible with those of the government, and, by law, they have to be supervised by government agencies. Indeed, by playing a role in vital areas where traditional government-sponsored civic organizations have failed to serve meaningfully, these domestic NGOs help to maintain much-needed social and political stability. In a way, their existence is even consistent with the neoliberal trend of downloading the government’s responsibilities to the private sector.

Still, by cultivating citizens’ awareness of local affairs and establishing international links with foreign NGOs, grassroots Chinese NGOs are sometimes seen as competitors by local officials and even higher levels of the government. As such, Chinese NGOs often have an ambivalent relationship with the state. While it is not uncommon for them to receive funding for specific projects, it is also not unusual for them to run into government-placed obstacles in their work. In the long run, it remains to be seen how the government will interpret the kind of bottom-up social mobilization and citizen participation advocated by these domestic NGOs with mostly middle-class initiatives.

A group of volunteers from a local NGO called I YOU SHE performing for elderly residents in a residential compound in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.  © Tong Lam

A group of volunteers from a local NGO called I YOU SHE performing for elderly residents in a residential compound in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. © Tong Lam

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Abandoned Theme Parks

By Tong Lam

Since the 1990s, the Chinese government has begun to try to boost the domestic economy by encouraging citizens to spend more on non-essential items. As part of this initiative to forge a consumer society, the Saturday-Sunday two-day weekend was introduced in 1995. By the end of the decade, the government even began to rearrange weekends around major public holidays such as the Lunar New Year festival, Labor Day in May, and National Day in October so that weeklong holidays, commonly known as Golden Weeks, were created.

However, China’s rising middle class was still relatively small in the 1990s, and urban citizens did not have the resources to travel abroad. Even domestic tourism was often confined to travels within one’s own region. At the same time, after decades of living in a closed socialist economy, the Chinese desire for foreign things and experiences was stronger than ever before. Amusement parks featuring foreign cultures and buildings emerged as popular places for members of the middle class to go to spend their newly acquired wealth and increased leisure time.

In spite of the growing demand for theme-based entertainment, many attractions failed due to overdevelopment and overinvestment — itself a characteristic of capitalism. For example, investors once planned to build the largest amusement park in Asia, which was to be called “The Wonderland” and located on the outskirts of Beijing.

Since the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s, the Wonderland theme park near Beijing has been a roadside landmark for China’s overheated theme park industry. The theme park was “discovered” by social media a few years ago and became a popular local attraction for young and adventurous tourists, both locals and those from far away. It has since been demolished.

Because of the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, however, as well as land disputes between the developer and the local villagers, the park was never completed.  When the by then abandoned theme park was demolished in early 2013, the haunting, unfinished castle and other skeletal buildings stood as monuments of China’s first major encounter with global financial crises in the post-socialist era.

Meanwhile, even though many well-heeled Chinese consumers now flock to major foreign countries to shop, the appetite for theme-based entertainment among China’s steadily expanding middle class remains strong. In recent years, the theme park industry has become even more competitive. In addition to theme parks showcasing foreign cultures, there are also amusement venues that make use of characters and settings tied to ancient Chinese folklore, martial art fiction, video games, and so on.  In addition, the Disney Resort in Shanghai is set to open in 2015. Not surprisingly, the fast changing theme park scene has driven out many older, smaller theme park establishments left over from the previous era. The abandoned but once popular theme park at the edge of Chengdu in Sichuan Province is one such story.

A defunct but once highly popular theme park in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. As in many other major Chinese cities, the theme park industry in Chengdu has exploded in recent years with new venues opening almost every year.

Indeed, not unlike the newest theme parks, the ruins of old or unfinished theme parks also open an illuminating window onto China’s changing consumer desires, real estate market, and tourism trends.

Recommending readings:

Tong Lam. Abandoned Futures: A Journey to the Posthuman World. (Carpet Bombing Culture, 2013)

Bianca Bosker. Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China. (University of Hawaii Press, 2013)—recently reviewed in the LARB here.