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Film explores mixed bag of China's urbanization

Updated: 2015-03-13 13:00
By May Zhou in Houston (China Daily USA)

Ordos in China's Inner Mongolia was once dubbed the world's biggest ghost town by the Western mainstream media and cited as a prime example of China's busted housing bubble.

Filmmaker Adam Smith first saw a photo essay of the so-called Ghost City of Ordos in Time magazine in 2010. He was intrigued and took a trip there to see it for himself.

In the end, Smith learned that it was not the ill-conceived housing project the Western media had reported, but rather an urbanization testing ground by the central government to relocate rural populations.

China has announced a nationwide urbanization plan to move 250 million farmers from the countryside to cities in the next two decades. It would be the largest mass migration in human history.

Between 2012 and 2014, Smith and Chinese filmmaker Song Ting traveled to Kangbashi, a new district of Ordos, every couple of months to document the process. The result is the independent documentary film The Land of Many Palaces, which was screened on March 4 night at the Asia Society Texas Center.

"We realized that this is a really interesting story and spoke of China's push for urbanization all across the country," said Smith.

The film opens with half-constructed buildings standing on an empty field. Soon the scene shifts to their completed form: a shinny new town center larger than Tiananmen Square surrounded by modern buildings with no traffic congestion.

A government employee named Xiaomei shows elderly farmers how to use modern amenities such as a hot shower, gas stove, electric kettle and toilet.

Following Xiaomei, the film shows how government officials convince the farmers to move into the city, teaching them how to adapt to urban lifestyle, and how people are adjusting to the new living situation.

"There is a mixture of emotions in the new city: boredom, confusion and excitement," said Smith.

The film also shows that some farmers, including Xiaomei's own parents, cling to their traditional self-sufficient lifestyle - raising sheep and pigs, growing their own vegetables - and refuse to move into the city.

The relocation was not forced but rather intelligently persuaded, Smith explained. When village doctors and teachers were offered enticing relocation packages and made the decision to move, the rest followed. Only a few remained.

Most of relocated populations are elderly farmers aged 60 to 80 and young children. The younger adults had left years earlier to other big cities for better job opportunities, Smith said.

"The majority of relocated farmers we spoke to were 'accepting' of their new situation, as they've been lifted out of quite a hard life trying to farm in an arid region," he explained.

"What you have to keep in mind is that the older generations in China are used to cultural and social forces much larger than they can comprehend steering the direction of their lives. Depending on their age, they have lived through foreign occupation, the Great Leap Forward, famine, the Cultural Revolution, the reform years, and the economic rise of China. Now it's just another huge cultural shift that's not in their control, and so they just acceptit and try to make the best of it," Smith said in response to a question from the audience.

The film is done with an objective eye, neither critical nor favorable. Translation and background information are provided in subtitles.

"What we want to do is foster understanding of China's rapid change. China's urbanization involves enormously complicated issues," explained Smith.

According to Smith, the film has been screened a few times among small circles of elites in China and they are working to have the film screened there to the general public.

Originally from the UK and educated at Stanford University, Smith has worked for the China Central Academy of Fine Arts and the Chinese National Academy of Painting.

Smith's next project is about China's replica phenomenon: "I am shooting this summer, and it's about the replica of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in Hebei province, about two hours north of Beijing. It's not just the architecture they have replicated, they replicate the lifestyle too. Even though it's Chinese people living there, they dress up as cowboys and hang pictures of Ronald Reagan on the wall," said Smith.

 Film explores mixed bag of China's urbanization

A screen shot from The Land of Many Palaces shows the large scale town center of Kangbashi of Ordos. Photos by May Zhou / China Daily



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