I’ve lived in Xichang, the capital of Sichuan’s Liangshan Yi Ethnic Prefecture, since 2018. I’ve always been drawn to the simple lifestyle it affords. Unlike the Old Towns of Dali and Lijiang (in neighbouring Yunnan Province), whose charm and tranquility were overwhelmed long ago by tourism and commerce, Xichang Old Town still belongs to, serves, and is served by locals. The small, shabby, decades-old stores; the slanting, vacant houses with classic architectural flourishes; local farmers selling fresh produce; neighbours and relatives hanging out on sidewalks chatting; children playing cards; old men playing Chinese chess or poker; the shoe-repair man; the sewing women; the one-dollar haircut…every aspect of life unfolds on the streets.
It was 2021 and I was a year into my 24 Hours: Xichang photography project when the government began renovating (tearing down) and rebuilding Old Town. By the end of November 2022, around sixty percent of the town’s core had been refurbished and re-designated as a commercial sector that government officials rented out to high-end restaurants, tea houses, and fashion boutiques. They also offered nationalized bookstores, brand name coffee shops, and privately-owned art galleries a period of “free rent,” which allowed wealthy investors and business owners to carve up the new development. Suddenly, a cup of coffee cost at least 30 kuai ($5) and few longtime residents could afford the inflated rent. It took around 18 months for the local flavour of Old Town to be nearly wiped clean.
Entire neighbourhoods were modernized and gentrified to accommodate shiny new shopping centres administered by local authorities who adhere not to the rules of a liberal economy, but rather to a form of social capitalism in which the economy is centralized and codified to the extent that there are established requirements and standards for everything, from store designs and decorations to signboard placement and annual economic performance.
24 Hours: Xichang is a documentation project that spans the three year period before, during, and after the transformation of Old Town, but the timing of the photographic series offers a parallel narrative in which the potential for unimpeded commercial development is accelerated and exacerbated by the pandemic. Xichang’s geographic location and manageable population meant that life remained relatively unrestricted during the pandemic, except for mask mandates and occasional lockdowns. According to a business who travelled often this past year, Xichang was considered to be “thriving compared with other large Chinese cities.”
Over the course of three anxious years, I have anchored myself in the 24 Hours project, examining the changes taking place in my chosen city and how I, too, had transformed during my time here as a transplant. Truths that I’ve uncovered about myself, I can’t express logically in words. For this I must count on the photographs themselves, although photos can contain harmony and contradiction, leading to various complex understandings.
Every discovery, observation, experience, thought, and sentiment is inspired by taking photographs; my life and the world around me become more expansive, wider, clearer. I go back and take photographs in Yushu, Qinghai; Liangshan, Sichuan; and Ruili, Yunnan again and again. There, on the peripheries of western China, I feel a nostalgia for the 1980s and my childhood return. So following instinct, I release these photos in a linear timeline. Instead of isolation, they can talk to each other. Their words are like the pigeons over the trees, the sound of wind in various seasons, and the fluctuation of the river.
By the time this article is published, the health code, the nucleic acid test, and the lockdown will all be realities of the past. The number of infections increases rapidly every day. Many people are buying the ridiculously expensive N95 masks and flu medicine. Many offer them for free to strangers. Some still go to public occasions after being diagnosed as positive. Some share all kinds of information about what medicine to take, when to take it, the cautions and warnings before and after the infection. Everyone shares the crisis. No one can be alone.
*All photographs included in the 24 Hours: Xichang Old Town series were shot between 5am on November 26th and 5am on November 27th, 2022.