I am a girl (yes, girls also engage in this strange subculture of « ruin exploration ») who loves to visit abandoned places in Chinese cities as a reversed though naturally connected experience of long-term field research in China. I don’t like climbing over dangerous fences, I prefer squeezing in, go under or through the fence somehow, like Shadowcat.
I started exploring abandoned places a long time ago in France. There is an old railway surrounding the inner city of Paris, called La Petite Ceinture (the little belt), which has been abandoned for decades and where I have been going many times. You can read my report about this lovely place here. But recently, La Petite Ceinture has been undergoing gentrification processes (the railway is transformed in gardens, divided into different sections, train tracks are being removed, etc.), so I went looking for more « underground » places, in the figurative sense as well as in the strict sense: I went to the unofficial Catacombs of Paris, more than 130 km of galleries right under the city (and more to the south). This place is not so much visited (even if it is quite well-known!), and is very interesting for its unique atmosphere and for its centuries of history. From there, I also went to abandoned places in the Paris suburb where nature has started to grow on the built environment like this old military fort located near the Versailles castle or a sanatorium in the forest. I still would not travel too far only to go urbexing even if I know that some sites in Italy, Japan, Belgium, and Taiwan are fascinating. About photography, I am not a professional photographer at all, I visit ruins because it’s a sensorial experience, in situation… I enjoy spending time exploring the places, understanding the space. Taking photos is mainly a way to document these places as they might disappear and to keep a good memory of the trips. There are already a lot of excellent photographers like Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, able to take pictures that reproduce atmospheres and processes of decay way better than I ever will.
Being back in 2015 after a long absence from China, I got extremely interested in abandoned places that I knew about in the past but never had the chance to visit. At the same time, I found the amazing BURBEX website by Brïn, really inspiring, which encouraged me to try « urbex » in China. He is a great teacher! Alexander Synaptic’s explorations in Taiwan (with excellent pictures!) are also one of my main sources of inspiration.
More generally, I think that urban exploration is a necessary complementary perspective on city evolution, and a really exciting hobby during my free time. I believe this practice is also part of my critical thinking philosophy. You learn about an abandoned place what you could not learn in books: the materiality of its structure, the atmosphere of decay it conveys. I like discovering the new silent part it plays in the city, by being a witness of the past or of what could have been and an anti-example of the present. In China, exploring ruins gives access not only to abandoned places, but also to architectural or symbolic abnormalities I call « dystopias ». Some buildings/areas were originally conceived as utopias (garden-cities or eco-cities), others were « heterotopias1 » (amusement parks, shopping malls, for example), and now after falling into decline or decay, they are true « dystopias »…
In any case, trespassing in abandoned places is justified when it is for the purpose of learning as well as a modest but real contribution to the redemocratization of public spaces in neoliberal cities. When a sign says « forbidden access », when walls hide a place, why should we obey, why should we respect a so-called « restricted property », and stay ignorant? Anyone can and should trespass as long as they respect the limits of privacy and are aware of the danger. Come on, start opening your eyes on the urban space. And next time, just jump the wall, and experience reality by yourself.
- to quote a term by Michel Foucault. If this notion interests you, you can read http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/foucault1.pdf ↩