Gassed! Beijing’s Lethal Public Heating Grid(s)

Since late 2012 Beijing has acquired notoriety as the world’s most unbreathable capital city. Officially reported deathcounts and hospitalizations from malair asthmas are so high that statistics are constantly juggled to soften the blow to amour propre. But, on the flip side, the negative publicity has had a positive effect: much too long-delayed action to close down some if not all of the city’s hazemakers – its coal-fired electric power nexus – and replace them with natural gas has leaped ahead and already one is reading of a coal-free Metropolis not too far down the road.

But that gruesome greyblack shroud up-deposited from coal-burning is not the first encounter the city has faced with coal smog. Coal can be a much more direct killer: when it is burned to produce power and heat, one intermediate outproduct is “coal gas”, chiefly carbon monoxide, which is difficult to re-process into carbon dioxide except when purpose designed hi-temperature reactors and catalysts are designed into the system. Even in so-called “modern” US cities and suburbs, carbon-monoxide or methane – rich “town gas” gas is a remembered danger: the supplying gasworks were (are?) obliged to inject sulphur gases whose obnoxious smell substitutes for the legendary canary. In the older plants, not yet retrofitted with end-phase “gasification” (methanation), that miner’s nightmare – invisible toxic gas (meiqi zhongdu as a verb) – can be particularly dangerous when/where the steam-heat conducting pipes are undermaintained, since the steam itself can then easily become the container for carbon monoxide leaks to pass into housing units. That category of “death by public utility” seems to have been particularly problematic for those more fortunate immigrant laborers whose housing, (construction workers lacked this benefit) , was often a kind of afterthought – dormitories pegged onto the compound where their daytime labor was carried out. One such dormitory compound is the set for the film, “World”, (2004: dir. Jia Zhangke.).

The heat (steam) generated by such units is distributed via a closed grid of underground broad-diameter ducts mounted on the ceilings of halls and passageways, the heat being released in stages as the steam cools in flux.

Fig. 1 Steam-pipes from inside the “World” Theme Park’s sub-basement (adjacent to costume-changing Green room, where the cinematography begins with Xiaotao wandering in search of a bandaid 创可贴, “stick it over a wound” ).

film world underground heat ducts

In terms of energy capture efficiency, such systems are a great improvement over local coal-stoves. But they are a good deal more dangerous. When/where the steam-heat conducting pipes are undermaintained, raw coal gas often leaks into them, whence the steam itself can then easily become the container for carbon monoxide leaks to pass into housing units. That category of “death by public utility” ironically is a byproduct of relative privilege within the urban underclass: most construction workers [the bottom rung] live in self-constructed shantytowns that have no heating at all; they are thus almost homeless, waiting to be shunted to some other neighborhood once their current job is finished.

The subset of “non-resident” labor foregrounded in the film is, however, better off: it is housed in purpose built dormitories for Park workers. At the top end, the housing gets even more luxurious though available only to owners-investors: entrepreneurs profiting business-wise from The Park, summarized in/by the character of Liao Qun the show-costume seamstress, can if lucky find a housing unit apartment on the market as a kind of condominium, whose purchase not only translates into more commodious living but gives the owner a fat gain in capital return when resold. But since district heating comes with the ownership package, “condo” living can be just as dangerous as dorm living. Or at least equally exposed, since the municipality and not the owners’ collective handles the utilities, presumably with kickbacks in all directions.

It is the “dormitory” class however that lives closest to the razor’s edge. Heroine Xiaotao . … and off-and-on paramour Taisheng are its up-close representatives, and Tao’s too-often quoted recollection of spending her first days in Beijing on the threshold, getting used to a hard bed and no kang, no hot water, and making do with her plastic raincoat as a kind of tent-within-the-tentcity surrogate for “a room of her own”, keeps us aware of her peculiar class or social stratum: run-of-the-works para-artist (wenyiyuan) who will never be anything but an anonymous fixture, a klieg-lighted ghost in outrageous extotic dress.


Jia Zhangke’s award-winning “Shijie” (“World”) takes its name from a very loaded historical reference. The first ancestor is as ever a Shanghai [re]creation, a modernist (for then) take on the shopping arcade cum World’s Fair/Expo complex imported ultimately from Paris. [There is possibly a third line of heredity even predating the famous Shanghai World arcade: , though it is a forgotten one: the Beijing “newtown” of the 1910s, 新世界商场, (see, akin to Shanghai’s in that it doubled as an amusement park and as a planned open-ended larger shopping mall – in those times what we would call a “department store”, though there was no single owner or franchise subordinating the encased stores or even a linking thoroughfare running up the spine.

The second is the now long forgotten Curtainraising Pageant (kaimushi) for the Shanghai Fashion Expo of 2001 (?), the cultural-diplomatic event that first brought to prominence the choreographer then set-designers Wang Chaoge and Zhang Weiya. (A third lineage that possibly influenced the second is from the Shenzhen [Guangdong] SEZ which has mounted its own “world’s fair” on stage (in 1996 I think) as stage-spectacle “A Window on the World”, to capture “the world” for Chinese fabrics and garment exports as visual commodity: it was in fact from starlet Zhao Tao’s reminiscences of the experiences of her dance-school troupe’s year as a line-dancer in that “spectacle” that the film takes its material).

Layer on and layer over layer: the meaning turns on the cross-linguistic pun “[da]xiu” or 大秀 – or something like carnival spectacular, or “grand dazzle” as a performance (and advertising) tool, something almost instinctively inherited as tinsel remnant of the Greatest Show of All, East is Red (1964), whose “Dance of the Peoples'” finale keeps restaging itself more often than not in Mongol or Korean cliche (costume). Panoramax dance might be a better term, since the form thrives on the rotation of costumes, festishing material fabric in the manner of the French cabaret line-dance. It is a kind of peep-show, but in the version proposed by Zhang Jiake insists, meaningfully, on the “expo” connection: if the material is fluff and/or appearance only – and such it is doomed to be in the giant metaphor of the movie – then that is ironically fitting since worlds fairs are parades of exteriors or at most shopping malls in their original form, not meant for transaction but as catalogues for the presumptive but never forthcoming buyers, whose pleasure comes from possibility not culmination. Pace Benjamin!

As the now somewhat faded but never quite forgotten school of “Shanghai modern” -ist writers and their biographer(s) – Liu Na’ou/Mori Ogai and the peddlers of “sensation” – were so engrossed in or with. Baudelaire’s flaneurizers, their Japanese respondents of the 30s, Tanisazaki and of course Kawabata.

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