Guiyang History IV: The Oil Press Town, part II
It’s a bit hard to pick up a story after a long while, but as I have recently found myself to say - mei banfa (can’t help it). Life in the City sure is busy, with new things and chapters opening to me every week. It is only natural, too, that certain things come to the close, and I have to say goodbye to things or people I have always believed to be an inseparable part of the Guiyang landscape. In times like this it isn’t easy to get the right inspiration and sit down to writing, but I feel for the sake of all those things that are gone, and all those that have bid farewell, it is my duty to find time and keep on writing. I did not finish the story of the Oil Press Town (to be fair I have even been to busy to visit there in recent weeks), and I shall focus on it now.
We have finished our journey into the past of the Oil Press St. at the Memorial Arches. Built across the Ming and Qing Dynasty periods, it could be said that they were to become arches guarding the memories of the ages past - symbols of China that ceased to be to make place for the new era. It was in the days of the Republic that most of them were demolished, together with many other places of historical significance (among them: the city walls and great gates). Part of it surely was Guiyang’s imminent need for development and expansion, yet I feel the anti-Qing sentiments also played a huge role in the doubled efforts to get rid of everything that was “old” and “traditional”; we also need to bear in mind we’re talking about times of very little, or no history preservation awareness. Today, demolishing centuries old city gate seems like an act of barbarism, but it is certainly not how people felt about it back then, ushering a new era for the entire country. It was in the 20, during the times of the so called First Republic of China (1912-28), that Guizhou came under supervision of Zhou Xicheng, a commander of the republican army who had started his military career under the Qing reign. He proposed a number of reforms to rebuild Guiyang in a modern fashion and modernise the whole province, one of them being the decision to build a paved road leading east through the Oil Press Town, connecting Guizhou and Guanxi. Guidonglu (basically: East Guiyang/Guizhou Road) was never completed - Zhou passed away in 1933, by which time the whole country was yet again undergoing rapid political changes. However, it managed to connect Guiyang to the township of Yuping, not too far out from the Guanxi border. Therefore, we know that in the decade predating the Second World War the Oil Press Town could sport a relatively modern road - that cannot be said about the general state of the area - a maze of tiny alleys and thatched huts. Even now Guiyang might seem a bit underdeveloped compared to other parts of China, so try to imagine how it looked not that long ago at all - this sordid state continued until the second half of the 20th century, when the Revolution opened yet another new chapter in the street’s long history.
The construction of a New China had to be based on the premise of independence - not only political, but more importantly, an independence that’s a state of self-sufficiency when it comes to resources and production. Industrialisation efforts were not only doubled, but we can say tripled or quadrupled, and it was under such circumstances that starting from late 50s the Oil Press Town began its transformation into a quarter that would have its name written in Guiyang’s history forever - Guiyang Steel.
The southern part of the Oil Press Town (south of the main street, the area that is now under rapid housing development and has a brand new Guigang (Guiyang Steel) metro station, became the infamous steel mill, whilst the area north of the road was transformed into the worker’s residential quarters. Yes, it seems hard to believe now, but for decades the words Youzha Jie were the synonym of an industrial conglomerate. I managed to take a photo or two of what’s left (possibly?) of the great steel mill of Guiyang, but more and more of the old buildings are flagged for demolition - I fear in a year or two even I won’t recognise the area at all, something that has been happening to me way too often recently.
Year 1958 became written in the history of China as the time when the “Great Leap Forward” plan begun. An important part of it was the so called “Great Steel and Iron Plan” that commenced the same year and led to creation of hundreds of thousands workplaces in the heavy industry across the country. By October the first, a first heat of steel has left the Guiyang steel mill, becoming a symbolical beginning of a new chapter for the entire city.
Over the decades the steel mill has been expanded modernised numerous times, until the 2007 (not too long ago!) when it finally became a limited company. The scale of its output has been gradually decreasing since the 90s, however, as China become more aware of the environmental dangers caused by heavy industry and started taking steps to reduce the heavy pollution plaguing big parts of the country. Many newcomers might be completely unaware today, in 2021, that only two three decades ago Guizhou was an industrial pit in which steel production seemed like least of the people’s concerns - harmful elements such as mercury, sulphur or phosphorus were being processed in facilities all across the province, while mountains were being dug and drilled for coal and precious bauxite. The Nanming River in the centre of the City was a more close to a noxious slime gutter than to what is it now, and this is said by people around my age, remembering the Guiyang of the 90s from their childhood.
In this context it’s not surprising that the rise of the great Guiyang Steel Mill also give birth to what the locals called “the Two Dragons” plaguing the City. The Yellow Dragon - an everlasting smog of yellowish fumes hanging low above the city, originating nowhere else but at the mill itself; The Black Dragon, a stinky sludge flowing straight into the Nanming River, which is to blame for its sad state I’ve mentioned above.
Guiyang Steel does still exist. The company has moved all its Guiyang assets to Xiuwen County (20 miles or so north of here) by 2016, and has pledged to use modern environment protection technologies in all its facilities. However that worked out for Xiuwen, I don’t know, but Guiyang has been enjoying gradually improving fresh air for years now, and it seems the Oil Street Town is to become yet another concrete jungle of skyscrapers. Such is the price of progress, small comparing to the havoc wreaked upon the poor city by the two dragons.
Yet again I’ve run out of time writing about small things in length. I’d like to add a few words about the Yangming Market and the whole gai/jie story, but in truth I still haven’t finished investigating it properly, so I’m hoping the Oil Press Town can be a very special special piece, strutting about with not two, but three instalments to share! I find it really enjoyable to write about this one particular place, as it has always felt very close to my heart, and perhaps I simply don’t want to finish? What I’m thinking now is that I should try to pop in Xiuwen one day and see the state of the Steel Mill; who knows, maybe it would make a pretty short story one day.
PS: The cover photo is a block marked for demolition on Youzhajie, it's a photo from two months ago I think? I dare not go and see if it still stands.