Shangri-La

Where China’s future and past collide


As China expands, so do its cities. Within them, a definitive divide is forming at the growing urban frontier. The shifting lines of urban rubble essentially mark the physical border between old and new China.

Photographer Alnis Stakle is fascinated by this divide. He traveled to the coastal cities of Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Shenzhen and Guangzhou to document the apocalyptic landscapes where the new wastes and old ways of life are to be replaced by gleaming towers and commerce. It’s an interstitial space that’s quite literally being chewed up by China’s monster economy.

The series is called Shangri-La — named after the mythical valley, a mountain-rimmed promised land. His images ironically portray a rubble-laden, liminal ruin lined not by mountains but by massive skyscrapers.

“I’ve always been drawn to urban territories on the edge of natural and urban environment, in a limbo between development and deterioration,” Stakle says. “The verge is rich in sociopolitical and artistic messages, but I feel there is something more to it — something that makes it a tangible manifestation of survival instincts from the depth of our unconscious.”

China is ascendant, posing direct competition with the US economy for the first time in modern history and moving toward a dominant position on the global stage. Part of its plan for the next ten years involves a massive urban renewal project to better connect and increase the capacity of its cities.

The factories and construction work have already brought hundreds of millions of people in from the surrounding countryside. Projections for the country’s urban regions — which alone already out-populate the entire United States — reckon that over a billion people will occupy them within the next twenty years.

Those living in the cities fall under “hukou,” a de-facto class designation that regulates access to services including education and health care. This is being revamped along with the cities themselves, meaning the opportunities and culture of urban areas is set to transform along with their demographics and skylines.

Explaining why he chose to approach this topic with his camera, Stakle says, “Every city serves basic human needs — it is warm and safe, it provides a home and a sense of community. Today, however, cities have turned into infinite agglomerations wherein the social and architectural constructions also create disorder, alienation and loneliness.”

Stakle describes his approach as a meditative one. The areas he photographs are not chosen or presented as precise representations of the urban renaissance. Instead, they’re his way of making sense of a phenomenon that is essentially too big to comprehend. Nevertheless, they are places that many outside of them don’t regularly see.

In addition to the slow pace of life that still survives there, the places Stakle photographed are often construction sites that are strictly off-limits. Doing his research during the day, he set out at night to shoot. This created an eerie tone in the photos, but also made it easier to find his way around.

He navigated closely guarded checkpoints through myriad passageways using holes cut into fences—holes made by workers and locals not willing to take the roundabout pathways that mark the sites’ “official” entrances. Using no maps Stakle traversed the surreal rubble until he got the shots he wanted, eventually finding his way to a train to take him back to his hotel.

“I regard photography as something approaching as a ritual,” he says. “I choose to focus on the state of transformed consciousness that is achieved when I find myself all alone, at night, in a potentially dangerous place, where reality becomes blurred and starts to resemble a theatrical production.”

The photos show the apocalyptic wasteland that presages renewal and advancement. They’re a document of the strange limbo that these places occupy before the transformation is fully realized.

Within the next 20 years the communities and cultures in these areas will evolve or move on, and few, if any, will remember what once stood at the foundations of the massive commercial and residential superstructures that will expand to a size of ten Manhattans. Stakle’s pictures may be some of the only evidence it ever existed at all.

“I have lived in the USSR and experienced socialism, collectivization and censure first-hand,” Stakle says. “Subsequently, I have witnessed the ambiguousness of Western capitalism and democracy in the post-Soviet space. This dual experience has left me with a peculiar aftertaste in the aftermath of my visit to China. On the one hand, I recognize the conventionally condemning attitude of the West with its emphasis on violation of human rights and environmental pollution in China … At the same time, I was positively impressed by the sheer speed and scale of China’s economic growth as well as by its absolute liveliness.”

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