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

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But display/show/spectacle share one weakness or vulnerability: either economically or ecologically they are superstructures, built upon and/or OVER something, a hidden dependence.

What comes to mind first of course is casual labor, the bid-down almost unremunerated, room-and-board+just a bit more in cash seasonal or “immigrant” male laborers. That surplus is more or less non-portable: the needs of daily life with just a few celebratory extras chew it up. Or certainly so for the nameless, literally faceless men who move almost in chain gangs, uniformed in what one presumes to be standard issue for construction workers employed on (but not by) the Park (we never see the middlemen so identified, though they seem to have a Hong Kong connection of sorts, as for example the middle-aged male who fast-talks (or tries to) Xiaotao into a “Paris weekend” of sorts who expects the place to have hypnotic appeal. (It doesn’t). But these few fat cats are out of sight: the rare glimpse of an attempt at accumulation (thence escape) is painted in tragic terms, as the straightlaced new boy, still unclued, “Little Sister”, whose postmortem (suicide) inventory consists only of IOUs of trivial dimension (why is he saving them? to be debt free is pure fantasy).

There is a deeper taint: though it perhaps needs a Chinese sentience to catch it, the “boys” – including “Little Sister” – are sons of the Chinese Appalachia, the Fenyang district of Shanxi province, home of dir. Zhang himself, where shuffling coal from pithead to railhead is a lifetime career, though (again we are not told so…) it is a dying industry as The “new” environmentally self-conscious People’s Republic is now – with the advent of the 21st century – committing to reducing coal’s share of the energy pie in response to the global “expo”‘s pressure to cutback GHG emissions.

Women alone seem to have a chance at escape, though by gender (gendered career) rather than by climbing the corporate ladder either in or around the mines or in the Park. The example of success is singular but is in deep focus: it (she) is a standalone, given name Liao Qun 廖群 q 裙, “skirt” , a daughter of Wenzhou in Zhejiang, a maritime adventurer’s nest from medieval times when it wore a Moslem guise. Though dir. Zhang is no Weberian or Marxist, he has a keen eye for this kind of para-or sub-regionality,

Liao Qun, we are instructed from an overheard conversation, is an abbreviation for the “fast” lane in Deng Xiaoping’s Chinese capitalism, the subcontractor boss who works on Chinese client orders for knock-offs of what we would call fashion “accessories” [as opposed to high fashion), the ersatz Gucci and Versace handbags or sweaters still very much for sale in/from Chinatown street stalls that no amount of label copyright can interrupt, since there is never a counterfeit label, only an exact duplication from a fashion magazine (she calls them shizhuang shu) culled from a tabletop in her studio. Her keen eye and seamstress’s skill (qiao) allow her to supervise the reproductions as they are made, the workforce made of of presumably fellow Wenzhou garment workers (mostly male) whom we see at work at the foottreadle on the ground floor of her atelier. She of course either owns or subleases the space, which allows her to run this putting out operation on an inshop basis. We see no clients of course, but they would be wholesale buyers placing small orders modelled after the fashion ads. But they would not be fat cats: part of the unfinished narrative entails her travelling with a make-do security guard back to Taiyuan, Shanxi, where one such client has failed or been unable to pay, something that probably happen(s) often given the rapid obsolescence of petit fashion style. [A foreshortened glimpse of a possible client or distributor occurs in “Platform”, when an ambitious Fenyang native, Zhang Jun, escorts his sweetheart to a “Wenzhou Hair Salon” 温州烫发发廊 for a perm in the Wenzhou “style”, whatever that is; I would guess that such low-market knock-offs are marketed at such places by the more-or-less absentee proprietress – not shown.]

In short a kind of almost black market impex entrepreneur. If she is top-rung in the subcontractor capitalist ladder, it is appropriate that her life is without scruple, and that her story closes or vanishes with the news that she has gotten a visa for Paris, to rejoin her long-fled husband in Paris’s Chinatown (Belleville) where he had long ago made his way with no job or visa. Likewise in her entrepreneurial amorality: on the trip to Taiyuan driven by Xiaotao’s boyfriend, Taishang, she launches a seduction maneuver that at some point pays off momentarily, and thus (when reconstructed by Xiaotao for cell-phone messages) which becomes the prompt for talk of suicide. Though not culminated, however much we expect that outcome.


“Paris in the Suburbs of Beijing”

Film W Paris in BeijingSuburb 22 06 interstittial

Paris is as mentioned a referential anchor to/for the Eiffel Tower of the 1889 World’s Fair, a 1/3 size duplicate of which lies at the traffic hub of the (actual) World Park, thus connecting back to the 1991 plan for what was in fact a substitute Tiananmen Plaza to demonstrate an “open” New China. But there is another descriptor: the “Paris” of the park story is established in a second, imaginary venue misleadingly tagged as “in a Beijing suburb”. The Chinese is more explicit: the park is re-installed in Daxing 北京大兴区, an exurb administratively separate from Beijing’s core, which has been on the drawing boards since the time the film was scripted or probably just before. This makes the space a doppelganger or second take on/of the Park itself, which lies squarely within Beijing city limits. (Film, 22:06).

This give us a second Paris-fantasy, whose relationship to the actual fantasy is mysterious. It is very hard to know what Jia Zhangke has/(d) in mind in this second guessing, harder still since like most of his metaphors (and animations) he fails to elaborate or even repeat – we are being toyed with. Daxing the “new city” is much too big to encode one single meaning, and always has been. It was a kind of open plan for the guided development in fragments of what was originally a separate county (xian), bounding the city to the south and east. A plan that keeps morphing and collapsing in on itself: Daxing still has no name recognition. The only project that has sustained government attention and funding is the “Second”(Sometimes Third) Beijing International Airport, but the target date of completion (now 2017) is too far down the road to know whether the film’s reference is ironic or quixotic, though it will soon require the evacuation and destruction of a handful of “original” (rural) communities, something that surely stirs the director’s feelings since the Three Gorges Dam took its toll on his native Fengyang, or is so presented in Platform. His feelings about the mystique of (cheap) air travel teasing the possibility of global travel are summarized trenchantly in the metaphor of the decommissioned jetliner “parked” as an exhibit in The Park.

The plot detail is perhaps annoyingly complicated, but what happens at the climax is a kind of conte morale in its own right. The agent of punishment (if that is the word) for residential wealth shows up in the gloom of an early winter morning, when the camera locks in on a nightmarish public-utility complex – from its ramps we can be sure it uses coal; from context we can deduce that it is the facility that supplies heat to the residential complex where Qun has settled.

It is a dangerous, vengeful sort of amenity, since the pipeworks that link the central furnace to the housing complex are – one is to assume – in a state of terrible undermaintenance, dogged by leaks and broken valves, and (extra context) the subject of constant complaints about steam not getting through. (Note the pipe freezing malfunction highlighted in this recent update on “central steam” in Wuhan…. Beijing’s district heating is even more intricate and expensive). If there is more to it still, it would be that the evil-looking furnace singled out by the cameras is adjunct to the Amusement Park itself, a not uncommon arrangement since tourist-attractive sites [work places] seem to have pride of place in the assigning of dedicated “central” (pan-complex) heating. Not just that: the landlords (!) are stingy: there is no running hot water from the tap in the collective wash-room…)

Brrh its cold

So it is again as victims of a mismanaged coal economy that the dis spirited pair almost meet their death. Such is the “warmth” that supports the miniature world expo whose name gives name to the film itself.

(This cross-narrative of Shenzhen and Beijing is not entirely successful, since Shenzhen – not Beijing – is where where the garment trade and its theatre nests, but where coal (by the early 2000s – was already, like wintertime heat, a very marginal part of the infrastructure, and the workforce, mainly female assembly line and garment-finishing piece workers at the time our heroine spent her year there, has no connection with the Shanxi coal-blight)

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