Break into the Kowloon Walled City of Wuhan — Hua An Li
Post-Pandemic City Observation 01
The first time I heard of Hua’anli, I thought it was an old Hankow Lifen (traditional residential buildings in Wuhan) like Kunhouli and Taixingli. As a matter of fact, Hua’anli is the most densely populated urban village in Wuhan, with over 2,000 private houses in only 1.08 square kilometers. At its peak, the number of residents reached 100,000, mostly migrant workers who are “Hankow drifters”. It is also known as Wuhan’s version of the Kowloon Walled City of Hong Kong.
At the end of the film “The Wild Goose Lake”, the scene of Liu Aiai who is hiding in a textile workshop from Zhou Zenong being sexually assaulted by Mr.Yan on a coin-operated self-service washing machine is set in Hua’anli.
Although it is only one kilometer from Hankow Railway Station,
many Wuhan locals have never heard of it.
On a muggy August afternoon, I broke into this walled area.
Individual Project, Rapid Response,
2020, Project Duration: 3 days,
Documentary Photography, Site Writing,
Post-pandemic City Observation Project
Two railway tracks cut Hua’anli apart from the city, with only two culverts for access.
The passage is enveloped in a faint and mysterious green light,
which is shimmering in the crevices,
leaving me curious like the fisherman of Wuling (*who was drawn by the peach blossom land*)
Yet the world at the other end of the culverts is not the Peach Blossom Land.
黑色电线交缠成一捆，粗壮如巨蟒，在头顶 Z字 形游走。
Black wires intertwine into a bundle that looks as thick as pythons,
and wander in a ‘zigzag’ pattern overhead.
The delivery boys at Hua’anli never go into the buildings to find the exact doors, but only “meet” with their clients at street kiosks or fast-food shops
— which sounds like a black-market transaction.
“It’s too complicated to figure out the door numbers.”
There were once many garment factories in Hua’anli,
most of which have moved to North of Hankow in recent years.
A delivery boy posted a blog recalling how he went to Hu’anli to deliver food and discovered a garment factory above the vegetable market.
There was no sign outside the building,
so you couldn’t even tell until you walked in.
Hua’anli was originally called Five Villages of Fuxing,
and then the name was changed in a year even the old residents can’t remember.
The population now is less than half of its peak of 100,000.
According to a news report on security regulation,
more than 30,000 migrant workers now still live in Hua’anli.
You can hear people from across the country talking with various accents.
When a group of people gather together and chat happily in an incomprehensible dialect,
it is highly likely they are fellow-townsman who all migrate to Wuhan to work.
If the group are speaking Wuhan dialects,
there is a big chance that are local landlords who own dozens of houses.
Bathhouses, ten-yuan fast haircuts, coin-operated self-service washing machines ...
the long-extinct lifestyles anywhere else have been retained in Hua’anli.
Bags of empty beer bottles are returned, being stacked in front of the kiosks.
Many migrant Hanko drifters in Hua’anli live a life travelling between two points – work and home. They work during the day and go back to their rented houses at night.
“A place to live is all I need,
while the high-rise buildings and the fancy shopping malls have nothing to do with me.”
Walking into Hua’anli, my friend and I felt quite uneasy in an area with close-set police offices and cameras. There was rumor saying that in the past fugitives liked to hide here. The iconic sign at the intersection “Welcome to Hua’anli Community” were eye-catching with its large-size characters, next to which in small print it reads: You have entered an all-domain electronically monitored community where crimes will be cracked down upon.
The bare-chested man on an electric bike slowed down and stopped suddenly in front of us, said to us in a hurry, “need to rent a room?”, and then whizzed past us when he didn’t get any response. My friend, who “broke into the walled community” with me, silently stuffed our camera into our backpack to keep a low profile. In my head, I was picturing the scene of gangsters smashing a camera in anger.
Entering the community from Evergreen 2nd Road, you would find that the road was flanked by a hundred-metre-long stretch of stalls under a canopy. Fruits and vegetables were cheaper here than elsewhere in Wuhan, and the stallholders were laid back resting in their deck chairs. But when they saw someone approaching, they would straighten up to promote their watermelons. My friend and I gradually become more relaxed, feeling that Hua’anli was not as scary as expected. It was much like visiting a farmers’ market when we were kids, an experience that we were quite familiar with.
At the end of the market, there were people queuing in front of Zhengxin Chicken Steak, the only one that could be called a ‘brand’ shop. On the left and right to the shop were divided by a fork road, leading to the two culverts respectively.
A friend of mine whose family is in the garment business recalls his experience during a high school summer vacation ten years ago, when he went to a garment factory for fabric in Hua’anli and rode his electric bike through the culvert for numerous times, feeling that ‘half of his life was gone’. The slope underneath the train tracks was very steep, while the dark and damp culvert dripped water of an unknown source. He said, “We didn’t even know it was called Hua’anli, as we all called it the place down the lane next to the Evergreen Park.
It is said that long lines of cars trying to pass through the culverts have to wait for dozens of minutes during peak commuting hours, which is quite a spectacular scene.
You have to pass through the culvert to see the real Hua’anli.
There is little vegetation here. The buildings are so close to each other that you can shake hands with your neighbor in the next building standing by the window. That’s why they are called “handshaking buildings”. The cramped space is squeezed to the limit, and when it cannot sprawl horizontally, it grows vertically. Looking from above, Hua’anli looks like a blue water drop, with the color blue being the roofs of the lately built container houses.
Many of the walls here have been painted with the color of fresh mint green, perhaps because of the lack of greenery. If they weren’t fully covered by ad leaflets, they would probably be online trending walls of Wuhan. Housekeeper urgently wanted, 100-yuan single room for rent, Missing elderly, Magical shot curing all STDs... the most basic surviving needs overlap on the ad leaflets stuck to the poles and walls, peeling off gradually and being covered with new ones.
“Need to rent a room? “ This was the question we were asked for three or four times along our way. When we were about to walk through Hua’anli, an Ayi (middled-aged woman) came up close to us. “My room is right next to this one, and it has an independent bathroom.” She looked nice, and I was quite curious about what would a room with a rent of only 300 yuan like, so I decided to go with her to have a look.
Ayi pulled out a bunch of keys and felt her way up the dimly lit staircase. We came to the third floor, pushed open a door and was greeted by the damp air and musty smell.
The room, which was bigger than expected, had a bed, a wardrobe and other simple furniture, a spacious pass way, an electric water heater in the bathroom, cigarette burns on the floor left by the previous tenant, and a layer of oil and then a layer of dust above the surface of everything, as if it was impossible to rinse them off.
Ayi’s family was on Yindun Road near the railway station, but she usually lived in Hua’anli, taking care of her houses. She said that the electricity, water and security here were better than before, and the rent was really cheap. I couldn’t stand the pungent musty smell after staying there for one minute and left the room.
I went down to the ground floor and saw a half-buried garment factory with a familiar sewing machine across the street. It looked quite similar to the set of the film “The Wild Goose Lake”. When Ayi heard my friend and I talking curiously about the film, she got excited suddenly and said, “Are you talking about the film starring Hu Ge? It was set here!“”
She asked me how to whatch the film and if I could send a link to her. She displayed a mild sense of pride when she mentioned the summer of 2018 when the road below her house was closed and she spent her night leaning over the window watching Hu Ge. She invited me to the vacant shop on the ground floor to cool down in front of an electric fan, rolled out the bamboo mat for summer, greeted her guests, and began chatting with us idly.
In 2002, she bought two plots of land from the village with more than 30,000 yuan, which covered an area of more than 200 square meters, on which she built two private houses, with five floors in one house and four units on each floor. All of them had been rent except for three rooms. The rental prices for houses in Hua’anli was the highest in 2014, when a single room could be rented for 600 yuan. The price now was only 300 yuan, and getting lower and lower, because many people had left, “at least one third of them after the outbreak of the Covid-19.”
There were many garment factories in Hua’anli before, most of which had workshops, warehouses and accommodation in one building, which posed great fire hazard. The buildings were blackened into a dark and dusky color by the steams that were used to iron garments and the smoke from the furnaces. People lived nearby were afraid to open their windows. Nowadays, most of the garment factories had moved to the North of Hankow. From the corners and facades of the buildings branched out a few thin exhaust pipes, exhausting steams from a small number of garment factories that had not moved.
There had long been rumors of the demolition of Hua’anli, but nothing had been decided yet. Ayi seems promised, “the Subway Line 12 is decided to be constructed very soon, so the demolition is only a matter of time.”
02年，她花三万多元从村里买了两块地，一共200多平，自己盖了两栋私房，五层楼，每层四户，现在还剩三间没租出去。14年，华安里的房子最好租，单间可以租到 600 元，现在只能租 300，阿姨说，人越来越少，「疫情后我感觉又少了 1/3。」
On our way back from Hua’anli, our mobile phones went dead, and we lost our navigation.
We drove into a blind alley, where we met an older lady who passed by and whispered to us “the exit is in that way” as she struggled forward holding two large bags in her hands, showing us to follow her.
In big cities, very few people offer to give directions to the lost, as people have to mind their own steps, paying little attention to the difficulties encountered by those around them.
I came into Hua’anli with my personal bias, feeling intimidated by rumors of gangsters and outlaws, afraid of meeting “the rude and unreasonable people” living here. As a matter of fact, people living here enjoy a very simple life. The neighbors are close to each other; the female street cleaners can enjoy the cool in the shops and chat with the owners, resembling countryside scenes in the distant past of China.
The residents here are generally tolerant of our camera, except for the community workers who are relatively more vigilant. The first day of shooting went smoothly, but when we went back the next day, people with red armbands took us to the office for inquiry and two men ‘escorted’ us out of Hua’anli.
So unfortunately, I didn’t get the opportunity to take photos of the long line of cars waiting to pass through the culverts at the evening rush hour, and Hua’anli after nightfall.
In the evening, I sent a link to a pirated copy of “The Wild Goose Lake” to the Ayi who showed me the house. She finished watching the film and asked me on WeChat, “was Hua’anli that bad?”
Ayi seemed to be a bit disappointed at the film, perhaps because she felt that Hua’anli was uglified in the film.
She said, “It’s not that bad here, and it is definitely not a gangland.”
- The End.
. Xiaotong, F., Hamilton, G., & Zheng, W. (1992). From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press. [http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pn6km]
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