This article also appears on The Atlantic, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.
Type the word “Ordos” into Google and the results are rather uniform. “Ordos, China: A Modern Ghost Town,” reads one headline, from a 2010 Time Magazine photo essay. “Ordos: The Biggest Ghost Town in China,” reads another, from a 2012 BBC report.
Over the past decade, the city of Ordos — a sprawling desert metropolis 350 miles west of Beijing — has gained infamy as an emblem of over-zealous urbanization. According to a Bloomberg report, in 2010, as many as 90% of housing units constructed in the city’s Kangbashi New Area lay vacant.
But the reality of Ordos is more complicated, say Adam Smith and Song Ting, two documentary filmmakers who chronicle the new city’s birth in a film called “The Land of Many Palaces.”
Smith, who graduated from Stanford University’s Documentary Film program in 2012, has been visiting China for a decade, and is currently based in Beijing. He and Song Ting — who will graduate this spring from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts — are in the process of raising money for their film through a Kickstarter campaign.
Tea Leaf Nation caught up with Smith and Song to learn more about their project.
TLN: Ordos (at least the Kangabshi New Area) is frequently seen as a poster child for excessive Chinese infrastructure investment. Your trailer, however, seems to suggest that new residents are actually arriving. Can you give us a bit of background on Ordos? What prompted the new area, and what state is it in right now?
Smith: About 10 years ago, they discovered in Ordos one of the largest deposits of coal in China. When they started mining for it, they generated immense amounts of wealth, and the default thing to do in China if you generate enormous amount of money is to build. A lot of promotions within the local government are based upon tangible results — the building of a hospital, or a school, the appearance of success.
And so this was the case in Ordos. It was a grand plan to build this whole city — we’ve seen the plans. It’s still unfinished. As of now, they’ve only built around half of it. Originally, they intended to build capacity for one million residents. Right now, they’re at around 500,000.
Talking to people in Beijing, the only thing they really knew of Ordos [before the coal boom] was that it was a poor place, with a basic wool and textiles industry. So the city has gone from being one of the poorest areas of China to one of the wealthiest, in less than 10 years.
TLN: With all the negative attention that’s been directed to Ordos, has the local government — or local citizens — begun to see the new area as a failure? What incentives is the government providing to attract new residents?
Song: I don’t think that the government would admit [that Ordos] is a failure. They’re still trying hard to bring people in. The government has moved its officials into the new town, and they’ve also moved some of the city’s best schools into the new town, to try to bring in young people. So high school kids — they have to go to the new town for school now.
Smith: There’s a huge campaign underway to occupy the city. They’re basically giving people from the whole region — and Ordos is bigger than Switzerland — incentives to move to the city, or they’re forcing them either by moving schools, hospitals, or other public facilities into the new city.
Our initial reaction to that was — “Oh, that’s terrible, that’s social engineering” — but the villagers that we’ve spoken to are actually really happy about this. Basically they’ve gone from being pretty poor to being quite wealthy, and they’ve opened bank accounts, purchased villas, they’ve got money in the bank for the first time in their life — they’ve basically retired with this money that they’ve been given.
TLN: As the new area of Ordos booms, what’s happening to the older areas of the city?
Smith: The so-called “old city” of Ordos is called Dongsheng, and it has also blown up in size over the past ten years. There’s also a plan to connect Kangbashi (the new city) and Dongsheng to make a new mega-city. So when you take the drive between the two urban centers, which is around 40 minutes on a new highway they’ve built, you’ll see loads of new development, either finished or being built.
But despite [booming construction in Dongsheng], people are moving to Kangbashi too. When we first went there two years ago, the new city was actually quite empty. When you go there now, it is a lot livelier. It’s a mix of people: People who have been relocated from the greater Ordos region, people who have moved there from the old town — for whatever reason — and other people that are there who moved there in search of new economic opportunities, whether it’s migrant workers in the construction industry, or families from Beijing looking to live in a place with more space and less air pollution.
TLN: Tell us about some of the characters your film follows. Why did they come to Ordos, and how are they emblematic of the story of the city?
Song: One of the characters we follow is a young woman in her mid-twenties who’s teaching mostly elderly ex-farmers how to become urban citizens — how to open bank accounts, how to have “civilized” urban manners, how to organize their apartments. One of her main challenges is to figure out whether to continue working [in Kangbashi] in a job that’s kind of stretching the limits of her ability, or to leave and to live with her husband, who lives elsewhere.
Smith: And there’s another question she faces: Does she really believe that the farmers are better off in this new city? Does she really believe in this governmental dream that she’s involved in?
Because really what we’re interested in are the dreams of new China. Firstly, there’s a governmental dream — an overall dream that’s been invented centrally by the government — to create this new, modern, thriving city in a place that has no history of being urban at all. And then there’s a familial dream, which is represented by Xu Wen, a sheepherder who receives compensation from the government and moves into the new city with his family. Xu Wen is one of the people we meet who’s perfectly happy about moving to the new city. It seems like he’s had quite a difficult life making ends meet as a sheepherder, and I think he’s happy to retire.
And finally there’s a personal dream, which is represented in our film by a taxi driver who moves into the city with the hope of achieving success there. He’s been there almost a year now, and he hasn’t really moved forward in achieving his dream of becoming wealthy in the city by getting into the property business. He’s still a taxi driver. And he’s trying to decide, at the moment — should I carry on? Or should I move somewhere else? He’s actually thinking about moving back to Xinjiang, where he spent seven years.
TLN: How does what you’ve witnessed in Ordos match up with the “received wisdom” that the place is a ghost town? How do the stories you’ve heard complicate the broader story one typically finds in the international press?
Smith: To make the film, we had to get approval from the local propaganda department in Ordos, which ended up being a much simpler process than we’d thought. We went to the office, which was in this really big and intimidating building opposite the central plaza and went up to the office, knocked on the door, and we were almost expecting the guy behind the desk to say, “No — we’ve had too many negative reports about Ordos, we don’t want any more reports, especially from a filmmaker.” But in fact, it was the exact opposite. We were told, “We welcome filmmakers, artists, researchers, academics, whoever to come here and to document our city.”
The thing that has amazed me about Ordos is how optimistic people are there, and how hopeful they are. In the end, that’s the sense that we get — that despite challenges, people still really believe in this place, whether they have been relocated there by the government, whether they work for the government, or whether they have traveled there from another place to pursue new opportunities.
You can learn more about “The Land of Many Palaces” on the film’s Kickstarter page.