Foreign Dust,Industrialization and a market in Tangshan

In the end of the 19th Century, having realized how lag behind China had become, the Qing government decided to develop its industries. Cement, naturally, was in great demand. Yet, no one could produce it in the country. All was imported, which explained why cement was then called yang hui – foreign dust.

In 1989, under the direct supervision of General Li Hongzhang, known in the west for his pro-modernity stance, Tangshan Cement Factory was established with imported facilities from Germany. Long being deserted, the factory has been turned into a museum of some sort, in a half-hearted fashion. The original Hans Kunther gear drives are on display and the factory buildings are labled – I am amazed that they survived the major earth quake in 1976, which killed more than a quarter of million people and most of the buildings in the city, some 150 km southeast of Beijing.

There’s also a half-hearted effort to turn the factory into a ‘creative park’, the one similar to 798 in the capital. There are some pizza restaurants, beer gardens and a new but empty tourist center. But the place is far from vibrant.

What is really lively is the so-called ‘antique market’ every Sunday. I’ve never seen such a market with such bizarre combinations: you can get cheap nylon shirts; or shoes made with ‘real leather from Inner Mongolia’, 35 yuan per pair; in the bright sunlight, sex toys compete for attention with shining Chairman Mao badges; on top of newspapers, industrial wares sit uncomfortably next to boxes of traditional medicine. And you can buy old family albums and bundles of old letters and postcards or caged birds!

I was thrilled to find some pressure gauges: for ten years when I worked at my rocket factory, my job was to test them and fix them. I bought one for 15 yuan, an outstanding souvenir from my own industrial days. Indeed, my factory was another product of China’s modernization drive in the end of Qing Dynasty, led by General Li.

A trip down the memory lane.


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