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The Nail City

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posted by Pawel Bienkowski alias PawelBienkowski on Wednesday 16th of October 2013 08:14:40 AM!/index A Chinese woman drying clothes on a pile of rubble of what used to be a home,Xian Cun, Guangzhou,China "The Nail City" by my talented friend Eric Gonzalez- Payne The ladder shivered in the unrelenting wind. I turned around, and looked down. Bad idea. Dozens of stories below, small cars inched by like tiny ants fulfilling the meaning of their lives. My fingers bit into the steel, and I wrapped my arms around the ladder. Rust snowed down as I headed up. One hand at a time, I stayed steady, stayed calm, remembered to breathe, and tried not to look down again. My feet kissed the soot covered rooftop as my shaky legs readjusted. The soft hum of wind whispered gently, the other sounds, were finally absent. No traffic, no voices, no noise of society or of nature. Coming to the rooftops in China, became my way to get away, to be alone in a city of millions. I’ve lived in and visited cites all over the world, New York, Paris, Istanbul, Bangkok, and many others, but only in China have I found that almost all rooftops are unguarded, and unlocked. I’ve come up to many rooftops, to look around, to see the city, and to know the city better. Up above it all, I always let my eyes bounce around, ping pong balls exploring the city. The Golden and azure skyscrapers; the 20 story boxed apartments; the towering construction sites with swinging cranes, exposed steel skeletons and balls of energy glowing as steel welds together; mega malls, neatly laid out parks, and wide boulevards all big enough to fit the never ending torrent of new people. The sights of new China are easy to see from any rooftop, but also the old China is still there. Identical, short, white apartment blocks all stained by red tears of rust; tiny brick villages who’s path through is an amazing complex labyrinth that all locals can easily solve; crude sidewalks made busy by rickshaws and motorbikes; and street markets busier than any mall. I expected to see the same sights as usual, and visit a few of them afterword’s. But today my eyes landed on something unfathomable, unexplainable, new. With my mind focused on what I had just seen and not on falling to my death, the climb down went stress free. Back in the apartment, I asked my host about what I had seen. His eyes rose, as if thinking of how to explain it to me. “It’s a city of nail houses” He explained. Everyone has been ordered to leave. Some have left, and the empty homes were torn down, but most, haven’t left. “When were they told to leave?” “Four years ago”. “Four years ago! That’s not a very serious order is it?” “It is, they just won’t leave, because they are greedy and want more money.” I nodded slowly as my mind went back to the roof top. Tall, gleaming blue and black, yellow and orange skyscrapers rose into the sky and stood guard around a tiny gray village. Some of the buildings were whole, some cut in pieces, their ruins scattered over the ground. A forgotten past enclosed by a new future. There was something more going on in the Nail city, people don’t choose to live in an area that looks like a war zone if they have a choice. It had to be far more then greed keeping them there. “Let’s go see for ourselves.” “Go inside?” “Yes.” “No, it’s dangerous.” “Why?” “Because” his eyes searched the roof of his mind for a reason, and found one, “because it’s full of poor people.” “Good. The best people, the sweetest people, the most inviting people, the most giving people, are not rich, they are poor. Let’s go.” His mouth said nothing, but his eyes blurted out everything as they fell guiltily from his feet. Like a thousand thorns stabbed in the side of lion, the nail city buried itself into the ribs of Guangzhou. I went inside, my friend trailing along. We wandered past buildings tumbled like dominos, stories collapsed onto one another, and markets teaming with vendors selling phones and clothes, food and drinks. We passed by homes full of laughing children and relaxing grandparents and former homes with the windows torn out leaving gaping wounds and buildings lacerated open, whole walls removed leaving the dead innards exposed. Through the market, the homes, and the ruins, we followed makeshift paths built by careful hands and heavy feet. The path lead the way, up stairs made of former walls and floors, over mountains of sunbathed rubble where laundry hung out to dry, through moldy abandoned homes and down streets thick with fallen stones. In the center of one of the markets, stood a short community center in traditional Chinese style. Grey brick walls, thick wooden doors, a shin-high threshold, and a clay shingled roof decorated with dragons. My eyes stopped on the crimson poster that flanked it, running from the roof of a dead building down five floors. It shouted ‘Everyone will get a new house in your new village’. Nail City RuinsInside the communal home, a group of grannies played cards, flicking their wrists, sending cards sailing to the table. Occasionally one shouted that she won, and they started over. They greeted us as we came in, and continued to play, adding that “we would be playing with money, but no one has any.” I spoke with them, asking them why they hadn’t left, and the women took turns speaking, adding in their thoughts, wishes and trauma. They told me how this village was theirs that their roots were here, how they grown up here, how their ancestors had lived here and how they hoped their grandchildren would live here. They told me that four years ago they were ordered to leave, and offered a lump sum payment, which the village leader had embezzled, so they had never seen any over it. They had also been offered a meager monthly stipend help them make rent for an apartment elsewhere. The women laughed at this idea “A dog can’t even find a place on the street to sleep for that much. No one can leave this place and not be homeless.” As the card game winded down, a woman, half submerged into shadows beckoned us over. Her silver hair glowed in the weak light of dusk. She introduced herself as Nai Nai and spoke with us until closing time, telling us to come back again, and she would tell us everything we want to know. Before we left we snapped photos and promised to bring her hard copied next time. With lunch still settling in our bellies I came back to the nail city with my friend. We headed into the biggest market where the orders for eviction pasted on walls, were as bold as the noon sun, but completely invisible as people passed them by, headed to work, headed to eat, or headed to spend time with their friends in the open spaces created in the ruins of the old world. They walked through this post-apocalyptic landscape where fruit vendors sold from cleaved buildings, and rusted rebar ran into the sky, casting soft bars of shade over the women as they fan themselves in the sunlight. I sat down beside Nai Nai, decades of precision showed as she sculpted a perfect work of art, an origami bowl of gold. She tossed it into a trash bag half full of them “What are you doing Nai Nai?” She looked at me, her pupils dilating. She nodded recognition but kept staring. A minute went by before she realized that I knew little of her culture. She nodded “these are for my parents, and their parents, I’m sending these to them.” In much of East Asia people fold paper, to create symbols, symbols of silver and gold, houses and phones, cloth and cars, then they ignite these effulges and the fire and smoke carry them up to their ancestors. It’s fun to do, its tradition, and while I don’t think my ancestors receive the paper gifts, I enjoy sharing culture and community. Women sat beside Nai Nai, folding golden papers with perfect timing, organic machines evolved from practice. Their gray hair swinging rhythmically. “Nai Nai, when can we speak?” “Where are my photos, you said you would bring a copy”. “Oh, sorry, I forgot.” She handed me a piece of paper “fold”. I took the paper. I watched, her fingers sliding over it, folding the corners, folding in halves, in thirds. I copied, my fingers racing to keep up, rushing through the motions. She took her flat folded paper and blew into it. It ballooned up, a three dimensional symbol of prosperity. I blew into mine. Like a snake, my paper hissed back. I blew again, stronger than before, the paper growled back in resistance. She snatched it from me, dissected it, and with surgical precision healed the grievous wounds I had created. She handed it back to me. “Try again.” I blew into it. It popped up and eYED_5393xpanded into the beautiful figure it should be. I tossed it into the growing pile. Nai Nai handed me another one. I folded it into a simple work of art that would trill any child. She accepted it and threw in into the pile. “Again.” I folded and folded, one after another, learning without speaking her tradition, her life her culture. The trash bag grew, and when it could fit no more they tied it up, put it aside and opened a new one. My hands tired, but I folded more. I ignoring Nai Nai’s pattern’s, her history, her culture, and drew from my own. Halves, edges, deep creases, years of experience flowing from my hands. I handed it to Nai Nai. She took it, and held it into the sunlight, the sunlight skipping off the golden wings “What is it?” “An airplane”. I said as I took it. I jetted it vertically into the air. It sliced up and floated back down. “Why would your ancestors need an airplane?” Left without words, but much to ask I sat silently as she devoured my plane transforming the wings and body into the standard golden bowl and tossed it into the bag. “If you want to speak with me about life here, we can do it in my home tomorrow.” I nodded. “See you tomorrow” “Don’t forget my photos.” Our feet moved like feathers into the alley. The guards slept, their eyelids weighed down by heavy bottles of bye-joe, Chinese rice whisky. We passed into the squeezeway, the narrow thoroughfare in the nail city. A pale grayness invaded everything: asphalt, walls, floors, stairs, windows, all snuck out from a black and white movie. Hard walls came in close as soft wood covered open manholes. The raw smell of life, of humanity, saturated the humid air. A hard right, into a building, past a couch, a chairs, the scattered remnants of someone’s living room. A stiff hand with an old marker had written 入口 “entrance” over the white flaking wall. Like fired cannons we exploded up the concrete stairs, over hand-sized rubble and debris, around lonely bricks and shattered glass. First, second, third. My legs pounded and the floors passed. Fourth, fifth, sixth. My friend, Vee, followed, his camera bouncing, his legs in unison with mine. We burst from the shadows as the noon sun splashed green grasses over the rooftop. I took a deep breath and with steady feet stepped up onto the concrete railing. Pebbles skidded off into the deep darkness of the alleyway. They fell, knocked against brick window ledges, shattered then bounced to the street six stories below. A deep breath. I readied, a predator sure of his target. My teeth clinched, my talons ready. My muscles tensed, my tendons loaded. I pounced, leaping the distance. Time froze. Through the air, six stories above, nothing below, no strings attached, just energy, velocity, gravity, and predator instincts. YED_5201I landed on the window frame, the bricks squealed as my weight caught them. I stepped down into the room, a post-apocalyptic world, fallen doors, smashed mirrors, once white cement walls now plagued with black spots and exposed bricks. An empty window framed a portrait of disaster. Outside, hard beams of light ripped through the skyline and highlighted the remnants of World War Three below. Once tall buildings and family homes, now mountains of rubble, moss and grass piled stories high. Other buildings still stood, lacerated with deep gashes, revealing bed rooms, bathrooms and the mangled skeletons of rusted rebar. Among the chaos, untouched buildings with empty window frames, the old metal frames ripped out and recycled, the buildings left naked and bare. Wooden stairs cried as our heavy boots beat them, knocking their splintered tears to the floor. We emerged from the grim depths and took deep breaths of cleanish air. Vee passed me, racing toward the next building. His feet hit the wall, and hammered their way up. He leapt, his body rising, his arms out, his fingers latched onto the ledge above. He pulled himself up, and I followed. The wind stroked its fingers through my hair. On the roof of the nail city, the ruins stood out. Desecrated homes, and collapsing towers of a forgotten world. Around us, around the ruins in all directions, stood central Guangzhou. 50, 60, 70 story tall skyscrapers banded together to form a naked wall of sunlight and glass. Like jackals, they encircled us, and waited for the kill. YED_5628A hungry gap waited between us and the next rooftop. My fingernails bit into my palms as my eyes fell 7 stories below and smashed into the dark waters. An ancient lake murdered with rubble, human waste, and toxins. Dead and dying, it waited for us. We glance at each other. “Ready?” Vee called out. “Always ready,” I shouted as pistons drove adrenalin into my body. My legs exploded and moved the earth as I rocked across. I crashed down on soft pillows grass. The black lake came at a new angle. Fishing poles and starving stomachs filled a tiny peninsula. A man jerked his pole back and threw up his arms in celebration. Meat tonight! Behind them, two yellow umbrellas and a blue tarp, fruit vendors and a butcher, society and life or something close to it. The market snaked through streets, down alleyways and overflowed onto ruins. People rested on abandoned couches, men played cards on abandoned tables and women folded paper gifts for their gods in abandoned buildings. Vee landed, rolling through the grass. He sprung up and we ran: hopping, hurdling, and jumping, from one rooftop, another and another. The buildings leaned in close, as if greeting one another, leaving only small, safe gaps. We slowed. “I hate this next part.” Vee said as his eyes scanned for a safe landing spot. YED_4469a “Just go to the same place as last time” I said as I stepped onto the thin wall. One foot in front of another. My arms out, my body firm and stable. I walked forward, balancing. I looked down into the roofless rooms. Scarred by fire, charred in ash, covered in broken glass. I found it, and jumped to the story below. My knees buckled, my boots moaned and the building bellowed in laughter. Dust boiled up around us as Vee landed, enveloping us with black baby powder. On the balcony the hardy smell of freshly cut greenery wafted over. Nai Nai looked up from trimming her rooftop garden. Warm, crinkly eyes boxed by gray hair. A jungle flooded the rooftop around her: miniature orange trees, pots of vegetables, and neat rows of Chinese traditional herbs. Behind her, standing out against her ivory hair, the red flag of resistance whipped the air. The red flag rose from her building, and the next and the next. Each building, armed with strong windows, aged curtains, tough families, and ambient life. These were the people of the nail city. We followed Nai Nai to her single bedroom apartment that she shared with two other women. The tables, chairs, benches, everything, bare and clean to the point of gleaming. Across the room her roommate lit a portable stove, the fire arced like a rainbow. “Nai Nai are you ready talk with us?” I asked. “I’m always ready, but where are my photos?” I stretched out a half moon smile. I pulled out a set of photos that we had taken last time and handed them to her. She looked over them with a growing smile. “Don’t worry Nai Nai, I’ll give you the next set of photos on time!” “Nai Nai, some people tell me you stay here because you are greedy and want more money. Is that true?” She looked around her apartment. Her eyes focusing on the few things that she and her roommates owned. “Sure, I want more money, if I have to leave, I want enough money to rent a home. I have nowhere else to go, I have no family, no one to take care of me. If I don’t get more money, enough money to pay rent? “No family?” The fire in Nai Nai’s eyes burned out. She looked around at her roommates, they all wore frowns. “No, we came of age during the cultural revolution. Life was very hard and so many men were tired, weak and busy, they didn’t have time for wives and we never found anyone, we never married, so now we have no children or grandchildren.” “Nai Nai, what will happen if they try to evict you?” Her nostrils spread and her eyes snapped shut. “For four years they have been trying and we always win. For 74 years I have lived here, I farmed rice here, I was here when the communists came, I was here when they built small buildings, built medium buildings and built those buildings.” She turned her face toward the window and mocked spiting at the skyscrapers. “They took my farm to build those, they aren’t taking my home too. We have 700 families here, these are our homes, this is our life, and we will fight again and again if we have too, we cannot lose our homes, we have nowhere to go.” Tears threatened the corner of her eyes. I waited, a smile inched back onto her face. Nai Nai and everyone in the nail city were as fragile as ashes but as dangerous as fire. They would fight if they had too, but they would lose, they knew that, everyone knew that. But I had to ask. “Nai Nai, what happens if they do evict you, what will happen to you?” A fireball of fury erupted. Her dirty fingernails shredded the air, as her voice shrilled. “They can’t evict us, they only give me a pension of 300 RMB a month, I have no family, I have nowhere to go. This is my home. If they send me on the streets I’ll die on the streets.” She choked the air. “If they come in, if they try to evict me then I will fight them. They can kill me, it’s better than to die on the street.” Her roommate nodded, keeping her eyes on her stew. “We have nowhere to go, we have no choice. If we go, we die.”

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