At this point, it’s hard to be surprised by the signs — and the photos — of China’s rapid expansion. The country of over 1.3 billion people has seen its GDP grow by an average of 10 percent every year since the late ‘70s, and plenty of images demonstrating the ascendance of the PRC— from the insane growth of Shanghai to the omnipresent haze of industry — swell to the surfacing constantly. But most of us see this all from a distance. Witnessing in-person the skyscrapers popping up like weeds, is something altogether more profound.
Over dozens of visits to the central Chinese city of Chongqing, photographer Tim Franco documented the emergence of a modernized global culture out of a largely rural culture. The series, called Metamorpolis, is now available as a book.
One of five designated National Central Cities, Chongqing is being groomed to serve as an economic and cultural hub in Central China.
Based in Shanghai, Franco chose to document the signs of Chinese urban expansion in Chongqing because he wanted a less familiar example than the megacity he calls home.
“After two or three years I really realized the change in the city — not only a small thing here or there, I could see the big picture in entire districts,” Franco says. “I was amazed by it, and decided that’s the place I want to do it.”
Metamorpolis straddles about five years of development in Chongqing. In Franco’s photographs, we see half-completed superstructures that recur in later in the portfolio as shots of completed bridges and buildings.
In Franco’s images, all shot with a Hasselblad rangefinder, the gritty aesthetic of the film complements the not-so-subtly dystopian visage of Chongqing, suffused in the now-familiar grey haze of Chinese industry.
Row after row of skyscrapers make for a grid-work of concrete set against bridges and overpasses. The lifestyles of farmers and urbanites, their worlds forced into collision, blend into a portrait of life in a city and its population both hard at work redefining themselves.
Terminology is a little tricky here. Chongqing the province has some 30 million people, while Chongqing the urban center is home to somewhere closer to six or seven million. That’s still a lot of people, though it hardly qualifies as the “biggest city in the world”, as it’s often described.
As the city rapidly develops its infrastructure in pursuit of a development plan for its three regions — its northeast and southeast wings, and the so-called “One-Hour Development Circle” that encompasses the central city — the rural way of life is getting swept along with it. An inversion of the rural-to-urban population ratio is all part of the plan.
“[The Chinese government] just thinks, ‘It might take time, some people are going to struggle, but, fuck it, let’s do it, and people will adapt in time’,” says Franco. “They take away the farms from the farmer, and instead they give them an apartment in a high-rise inside the city or on the outskirts of the city.”
“The authorities are kind of telling them ‘This is your new life, now you have to adapt’,” posits Franco. “They end up finding themselves doing the only thing they know how to do, and just start farming wherever they can — on the side of construction sites, everywhere theres a bit earth, they just go there and take a few square meters and start growing vegetables, mostly just to get food for their own families, and if they can grow a bit more they just sell the rest at local markets.”
Century-old houses and historical districts of the city are being steadily chewed away to make room for high density offices and apartments. The city seems to fall in line with common futurist visions of urban centers that have been supercharged by economic development.
When Franco first landed, the 40-minute trip from the airport to the city center was mostly farmland. Now, he says, it’s mostly factories, primarily for producing cars. A rich history of organized crime in Chongqing — a major part of Franco’s interest in the place — adds a somewhat sinister political undertone to the photographs.
Each image depicts old meeting new in dramatic fashion — straw-hatted farmers growing vegetables in the shadows of skyscrapers, transportation networks built to move people to and from the various sectors of a massive circuit board of a city, all set in a green valley that adds even more contrast to the scene.
There has yet to emerge a distinctly Chongqing-ian youth culture in arts or nightlife, which is something city planners hope the city will soon develop.
Like the less-than-gleaming visions of sci-fi we’re all used to, it might look intriguing from a distance, but real life in this place can be confusing and challenging.
“It’s in between mountains and a river, so the city really feels like a 3D city where you always travel horizontally and vertically, you kind of lose your sense of reality,” says Franco. “At the end of the day, it’s a pretty depressing place. There’s a lot of green, but the green looks grey because of the pollution and the smog.”
“There are a few parks and temples around the city, and it’s pretty easy to get to some beautiful nature around the city,” says Franco, “but inside the city it’s really hard to find a peaceful place and find a coffee.”
Franco estimates he’s visited the city some 40 times at this point. In his earliest trips, the focus was on the immediate ‘wow-factor’ inherent in the city’s growth and appearance.
Gradually his emphasis shifted to the families, the people struggling to catch up with the urbanization that demands they adapt.
Now that he’s spent more than half a decade photographing the place, Franco says he’ll probably continue visiting Chongqing but on a more limited basis. Shanghai, where he owns a photo business, is home.
Metamorpolis offers us a slice of life in a place few of us will ever visit, but which is on track to become one of the most relevant urban provinces in China’s inexorable push toward expansion.