- Ella Eagle-Davis
“The strong sense of culture that pervades Herbal Heaven is clear as soon as you step inside. The cobbled stone walls and solid wooden fences show the beauty of returning to the basics… product offcuts and waste items are given a new lease of life.”
This glowing review is of a branch of Chinese leather product brand Herbal Heaven (食草堂). The shop and workspace, one of the many sites owned by this fashion brand, forms part of a self-styled “art village ” (艺术小镇) that has come to typify recent efforts to combine leisure, tourism, shopping, and experiences of industry into unique industrial-cultural parks across northern China. The park has been proclaimed as the new ‘place-to-be’ for urban residents desperate to escape the oppressive haze of the city, a marketing trend in line with China’s recent shift in rhetoric towards criticising the largely unregulated growth of the Reform and Opening Up era, and pivoting towards ‘high-quality development’. Modelled on similar projects such as the Beijing 798 art zone (北京798艺术园区), the heart of the zone and the projects that inhabit it seems to be regenerating and repurposing the landscape around them for the enjoyment of the tourist. However, behind this glossy exterior of cultural tourism exists a tension - retail companies investing in these spaces are tapping into local craft traditions to create often wonderful products, but at what expense for the local employees and their artistic practices?
Locating narrative tensions in China’s ‘cement towns’ (水泥小镇)
The location of Herbal Heaven within a designated industrial-cultural zone mirrors its mission to transform and repurpose. The zone has been built in the skeleton of a former factory area in the district of Luquan (鹿泉), known for its former cement factories which have been converted into a myriad of restaurants, galleries and art stores. Indeed, Luquan district, one of the eight districts of prefecture-level northern city Shijiazhuang, has a long industrial history as one of the foremost hubs of cement production in the Jing-Jin-Ji metropolitan region. Situated in Hebei province in Northern China, the area has played a vital role in Chinese industrial development in regards to cement, steel, pharmaceuticals, and textiles. However, crackdowns on polluting industries by the Hebei provincial government due to the signal change from Beijing have seen many of its factories face closure. Now, many of Luquan’s inhabitants are being forced to reckon with uncertain futures.
Now, as Luquan tries to make the transition to leisure destination, it faces a tension between its conception as an “art village” (艺术小镇) and its roots as a “cement village” (水泥小镇). This reflects a sharp difference in tone between the tourism and media outlets who promote the transition, and the previous factory workers who now bear witness to the sight of their former workplaces being re-appropriated. This tension represents a microcosm of the wider issues surrounding the delicate balancing act between environmental protection and economic growth in China - a tension which often sees culture and art, as well as the bodies of factory workers, miners, and those who formed the backbone of China’s meteoric economic rise co-opted as sites for discussion and debate in commercial and artistic circles.
A beacon of leisure and culture in Shijiazhuang
In the tourist-haven version of Luquan, nature, leisure, and industrial infrastructure seemingly exist in harmony, “as if a magnificent picture of modern manufacturing is reflected in the eyes of the visitors,” according to one review.
Tourists are positioned as visitors there to relax and connect with Luquan’s past as they traverse the workshops, watching employees at work crafting sculptures, paintings, and fashionable accessories. Educational content relating to the old industries neatly papers over the rupture between the industrial past and the modern leisure economy. In reference to the China Cement Living Museum, the review writes that it will “turn your impression of the cement industry upside down, update your perceptions of modern cement enterprises, and provide an experience of the civilisation and brilliance of China’s manufacturing industry.”
Ostensibly, the artistic experience in Luquan is tied to its place in China’s wider industrial history; even the spaces that these workshops and shops inhabit are constant visual reminders of Luquan’s ‘past’, with renovated factory facilities and equipment forming artistic installations. These corrugated temples to a past era seem like a natural, even inevitable, progression for the industries that once populated them, a smooth glide up the value chain.
However, Luquan’s transition to a tourist haven cannot be considered entirely premeditated, nor smooth. In September 2013, the influential Air Pollution Action Plan was released in China in response to the perceived threat to health posed by atmospheric particulate matter, or PM2.5. Luquan’s polluting industries were at the forefront of this ‘airpocolypse’ and framed as a significant contributing factor to Shijiazhuang’s national reputation as one of the most polluted cities in China. Announcements from Hebei provincial city followed, with a five-year action plan aiming to dismantle 15 million metric tons of cement production capacity by 2017. The province’s battle against air pollution was deemed one of the toughest across China; although many of the cement plants met national standards, they were nevertheless forced to close to adhere to provincial goals. One outcome of this was the move by local authorities to encourage both previous factory owners and new entrepreneurs to invest in businesses in these newly abandoned spaces.
For many, the sacrifice was worth it. The move to close the factories has been praised for visibly improving the surrounding environment and encouraging investment into local arts and culture. For others, however, for whom the repercussions of air pollution were not so easily resolved, the closures signify unprecedented threats to their livelihoods.
Sick bodies and empty tummies
Often lost within media narratives of Luquan’s up-and-coming tourist industry, the factory workers who lost their jobs in the aftermath of this transformation are undoubtedly the losers in this battle against air pollution. Interviews with locals have revealed how many not only lost their jobs, but are still unable to find work years on. The number of job-seekers rose so exponentially that local companies had to enforce age limits for employment, often at as young as thirty-five. Unemployment has led to wider disruptions to daily life in Lunquan. Transport and catering businesses have been affected, and some inhabitants struggle to afford food. The ironic dichotomy of Lunquan today is crystal clear in rising cement prices locally: whilst old workplaces are transformed into gentrified cultural hubs, families who have worked with cement for decades now cannot afford to buy the four or five tonnes needed to build their homes.
For the tourist onlooker, the lines between industry and leisure in these spaces are blurred in a harmless, novel way. But the same cannot be said of the people of Luquan, who often find traversing this boundary difficult. It remains unclear whether these new businesses have the capacity to take on these ex-factory workers, whose lives have played out under the haze (霾) of the manufacturing chain. Lack of training provision for the unemployed has meant that some people struggle to access the new industry Luquan district is orienting towards.
Meanwhile, re-employment is further complicated by the disastrous effects working in polluting industries can have on health, both physical and mental. Long-term exposure to PM2.5 can lead to countless harmful health conditions, including heart disease, lung cancer, pneumonia, strokes, and type 2 diabetes. The most common amongst inhabitants of Shijiazhuang is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a respiratory disease which can be a major cause of long-term disability if untreated. The enleisured body represented by blossoming cultural life and the sick body are thus brought into juxtaposition, as ex-factory workers struggle to complete basic activities such as walking, talking, or taking care of themselves.
There has been push-back against this co-optation of local cultural industries. The ‘sick body’ of Chinese industrial workers as a metaphor has particularly gained relevance in wider Chinese poetic, cinematic and musiking efforts. It indicates a movement within Chinese artistic circles to counter gentrification of cultural production and instead give voice to those left by the wayside. Many works of art from the area and the wider national context can be seen reflecting on the country’s meteoric economic rise and its subsequent effects on the minds and bodies of those who realised this economic success. Leisure and disease are inherently tied in the work of Shijiazhuang alternative rock quartet Omnipotent Youth Society, for example. Their song A Night at a Remote Temple highlights this complex contrast; it tells the story of “millions of people stained by mud,” with oxymorons such as “Bohai real estate, Taihang cement” linking the damaged, besmirched bodies of workers in cement towns such as Luquan - where Taihang cement is produced - with the booming industries in Bohai, one of China’s coastal cities. A more localised artistic effort can be found in miner-poet Chen Nanxi’s works, which lend a voice to experiences of miners in Shaanxi and laments the physical and emotional strain of the work: “My lowly family is far at the foot of Mount Shang,” he writes in one poem. “They are sick, their bodies covered in dust.”
In short, industrial pollution is tightly intertwined with every aspect of people’s daily lives, affecting their work, their education, leisure, and the way they navigate the landscape around them. Although air pollution levels may be improving, the bodies of ex-factory workers who were on the frontlines of China’s severe pollution problems still bear the marks of environmental decay. This dynamic inevitably permeates the local government’s mission to transition almost half a million inhabitants from cement production to culture and tourism industries, as well as local and national artistic efforts to articulate this transition.
The tourist versus the inhabitant- locating a middle ground?
However, economic development interests and ecological protection are not mutually exclusive. Are there perhaps aspects of Luquan’s ongoing transition that could highlight potential ways ecological regulation could serve urban growth by keeping spaces ‘clean and green’ whilst promoting ‘high-quality development’?
Furthermore, there are cases of these local businesses attempting to include local people in this mission of regeneration. Herbal Heaven, for example, makes an effort to employ local women and unleash their inner talents in arts and crafts. An interview with an employee, Qi Huahua, revealed that the conditions at the workshop were significantly better than those in the factory, and the women received sufficient training. Maybe this model of industrial-cultural tourism will find success in these Chinese ‘cement towns’. For now, however, an inevitable tension still remains between the inevitable gentrification promoted by local governments and the lived realities of many ex-factory workers in Luquan.