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I arrived in China with many preconceptions, some of which I was aware of, others I was not.  While there, I tried to photograph anything that caught my eye, pretty much without regard to why, which resulted in my accumulating about 6,000 files  on my digital camera—about 1000 images a day—an exhausting heap of pictures to sort through.  But in the weeks since my trip, I’ve discovered that significant parts of what I saw were not what I thought they were.

Ribbon Cutting for Fenglin Gorge Path, Yun Tai Shan Geo Park, August 2011

One of the first issues, and one I still don’t understand, is why I was there.  A group of ten photographers were invited to come to China, most expenses paid, to participate in a forum and a tour of the Yun Tai Shan Mountain Park.  We were told that the topic of our forum was to be “place”, a word that has resonance in the US because of the work of Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, and Robert Adams—but the topic suddenly morphed into “photography and tourism”—a topic that none of our group were completely comfortable with.   We were also told that we would participate in discussions with Chinese photographers, but the only interactions we had that were translated were our formal talks, and the many toasts at the banquets.   In the end, I think we were there largely to prove to the Chinese public that with some promotion, including the use of photography, western tourists would come to the fine parks the Chinese were creating.  We were paraded in front of several small crowds, told where to stand so we would appear in their press photographs—models of the hordes of western tourists that would follow, once they saw our pictures.   Maybe they are right—the places we saw were beautiful—worth  visiting—and I could find hardly any decent photographs of the park on the web.

Well Known Photographers--Mike Torry and Jamey Stillings--We came, we saw, we photographed

But even though the places were beautiful—mountains towering over small mountain streams with waterfalls and reflecting pools—in retrospect, most of the waterfalls (not all) were actually dams—apparently made of concrete colored and textured to match the surrounding rock—something I think I was somewhat aware of when I was there—but very obvious when looking at the resulting photographs.   In a park booklet, a picture of the “digital control center” for the park showed a bunch of men looking at computer screens—something that seemed incredibly incongruous when I saw it, but now seems like it must have had to do with control of the water flow out of the dams and into the streams.

Walking bridge over artificial waterfall, Yun Tai Shan Park, China

The city of Zhengzhou was even more bizarre—the first night, on the ride from the airport to the hotel about midnight, after thirty hours of flying, I noticed that there were huge apartment complexes that seemed largely dark except for a handful of rooms that had single fluorescent ceiling lights in them—my sense was that the people in the buildings were too poor to pay for the electricity for any more light—

Zhengzhou apartment building, midnight

One of the first things we did as a group was a short tour around the city.  It was raining hard, but we went to the “new city”, a place of tall apartment buildings, wild modern architecture, wide streets—but almost no people.  At the time, we attributed the lack of people to the rain and the fact that it was Sunday.  There were also huge apartment complexes still under construction, so that part of the city seemed to be growing at a tremendous rate.  A few days later, I took a walk in the early morning to the new city—it was a little more than a mile from the hotel—to photograph the new city under construction.  I’ve been around construction sites—mornings are when workers arrive en-mass—along with cement trucks and deliveries of materials—but these sites had almost no activity, even between 7 and 8 in the morning.  It really didn’t make much sense, but I didn’t think too hard about it at the time.  The old parts of the city, full of small shops and street vendors selling vegetables, were vibrant and alive in the morning.

Zhengzhou, New City Apartment buildings

Arts Center, Zhengzhou, China, August 2011

Construction Site, Zhengzhou, China, August 2011

Vegetable sellers and construction site, Zhengzhou, China, August 2011

After returning home, I discovered a story on YouTube discussing the “Ghost Cities” in China, which discusses Zhengzhou as a place where massive neighborhoods have been constructed with almost no one living in them.  Some of the pictures in the story are of places we walked.    My sense in being there was that Zhengzhou was becoming like Hong Kong, where hundreds of large, tall apartment buildings house the middle class residents.   My first impression was wrong–it wasn’t the electricity the people couldn’t afford–it was the apartments.

Some of the changes in China are very real—the people seem much happier than they did the last time I visited six years ago—and some of the illusions they are working at creating seem harmless—the parks are beautiful, even if the waterfalls are not natural—but some of the illusions are more troubling—why create housing for a middle class when so few can afford to live in these places?   What kind of place are they creating?

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