Photo by Aaron Xuandi Wang / North By Northwestern
Photo by Aaron Xuandi Wang / North By Northwestern

Last winter, my high school friend, Yuqin, invited me to drop by her house. It was a little village in the periphery of Shanghai, more precisely, that she suggested I visit. The majority of upscale residential areas were located in the suburbs due to the soaring land prices in modern China, including the mansion complex in which Yuqin spent most of her life. One day, she became curious about her housemaid’s residence and followed her home on a whim— that’s how she discovered a decrepit village nearby, settled by a flock of migrant workers who served the neighboring households or worked at the factories.

It was rainy that day; the mud stained our shoes as we hopped on the trail with excitement. But when we reached the iron gate, she screeched and froze in her tracks. The cabin before us was naked and hollow, resembling an animal skeleton.

We soon realized that excavators had just conquered the village. Giant concrete slabs piled up on the wild grass, forming vast mountains. Rebars, exposed and twisted, lay scattered across the field, reaching in all directions. Yuqin climbed on top of the mountains and walked around in a daze, knowing all was too late. I sifted through the ruins, only able to find some distorted chair legs and a sagging sofa.

In China, it is easy to tear down a house. One day, you find the character “chai” (which means demolition) sloppily painted with red ink on the side of a building. The next day, the structure is gone, leaving nothing but some ashes behind. It’s what the government proudly insists to be “the Chinese efficiency.” No history recorded. No explanation required.

The world moves endlessly to be more organized and advanced, we were promised, and some things are meant to be erased. Yuqin and I wandered into the village’s community center. In a poster of President Xi, his mouth curved up and his right arm stretched outwards, reaffirming a better future. But as we strolled around the artificial lake, I spotted a discarded wooden boat and a sense of loss occurred to me. Where were the former residents? Where did they all go?

My anthropology professor said in Caribbean cultures, people believe their belongings contain fragments of their personalities. When they lose or give their possessions away, she explained, part of their souls will be lost in circulation. A merchant slaps a pot before bringing it to the market, a farmer feeds a goat with salt before sending it to a slaughterhouse. Severing the relationship with one’s belongings isn’t easy, she concluded, and it often demands sacrifice, even pain.

My whole life has been on the move, from my hometown Wenlin to Shanghai, and then to Chicago. When I was little, my house in Wenlin bordered a  Youth Center — an arched building shaped like a crescent, about three stories high. Every morning at 8 a.m. a bell rang, following a folk song about the secret to being a good child. I learned to ride my bike on the square there. In the summer, I lay on the ground as the ants marched in line, and I flooded them with water, watching them squirm until the puddle dried up.

The Youth Center was up for sale when I was 16. It was bought by my grandpa, a businessman who later turned it into a five-star hotel. I was traveling back and forth from Shanghai to Wenlin, and each time I went back home, the building looked entirely different. The whole demolition process appeared to me as a compressed slide show. First the walls were pulverized into chunks of bricks. Next the concrete was peeled from the rebars. Then they started building the high-rise, one layer atop another, as if the land was a buffet plate of a ravenous dinner greedily accumulating food.

My grandpa seemed to be pretty happy about the demolition. After all, the hotel erected on the site was magnificent compared to the crumbling Youth Center, its glassy surface shimmered like gold foil under the sun. Sometimes I wondered if he remembered the afternoon we rode the seesaw together, or the night when he fell and injured his back, after failing to notice the swing’s broken chain. They were tiny little things compared to his investment project, after all. But sometimes I felt part of my soul, as the Caribbeans believed, dissipated as the concrete was smashed into ashes, gone with the wind.

Last Thanksgiving, I traveled to Detroit with my friend Abby. The whole city was as empty as a prairie, tall grass infiltrating the gaps between blocks. Several houses were grey and burned, squeezed all over like recycled coke cans. Not far from where we stayed, a gruff old man named Tyree Guyton stood guarding his unpopulated neighborhood for decades. His house was decorated with splashy polka dots; he scavenged furniture, cars, and stuffed animals from what former residents left behind, reassembling them into a childish playground. His painted clocks were ubiquitous, all of which had hands pointing at 3, as if time had never passed, his neighbors never gone.

Maybe the Caribbean superstitions are right — they remember the truth that we forgot. The houses position our lives and histories, I believe, as they embody our memories and bear us infinitely into the past. The next time I need to move out of my house, I will slap the door and decide to extract all my soul.