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Green lung: from garbage dump to Garden Expo

July 22, 2013

konjaku: “Li Chaogang said that in order to build the International  Garden Expo, Fengtai District had transformed a large garbage dump and landfill on the side of the Yongding River into  a garden of 513 hectares, with flowers blooming over three seasons and evergreens for the fourth season. Altogether they will plant 4,000,000 trees and shrubs of all types” (previous post).

Because of the efforts of an activist photographer named Wang Jiuliang, we have a description of the garbage dump referred to here. Between 2008 and 2010, Wang Jiuliang mapped out the garbage dumps around Beijing. To determine their location, he followed garbage dump trucks on his motorbike. He found a number of large scale dumps surrounding the city, which had never reported their existence to the authorities.

The garbage dump on the west side of Yongding River: it once was a “lost city”


Wang Jiuliang

There is a huge garbage dump, stretching across over 3000 meters, in which many types of people  manage to subsist, linked together by the interwoven economic functions they perform. This human tragi-comedy plays out close by, in the suburbs of the capital city. This is the site, in 2013, for the International Garden Expo.

1.At its peak, more than a thousand gleaners lived in a densely packed settlement, a large “lost city.”

number 1

2. Even though living in a garbage dump, it is still necessary to wash one’s hair. The water has to be brought in, and costs 2 yuan a container

number 2

3. As the women roast a duck which they raised themselves over a fire, everyone looks forward to dinner

number 3

Nanfang Weekly report 2010-06-25.

This garbage dump is situated on the west side of Beijing, on the Yongding river west bank, north of Lugou bridge (the Marco Polo bridge) and south of Yingshan. When I first came here in 2009, on an overcast day, standing in the middle, I could not see, looking out in any direction, to where the dump ended. As far as I could see there was garbage, and the gleaners’ simple and crude shacks. I felt disoriented and confused, as though I had come to a huge lost city.

Beginning in the 90s, from along the whole Yongding waterway a vast amount of sand and gravel was excavated to use as building materials in the city. This left large pits which subsequently were used as landfills for the garbage the city produced. For 10 years there was  frenzy of city construction and growth, and a frenzy of dumping garbage here. From nature the city took away resources, and instead of an equal exchange, in which the city would give back something worthwhile to the natural site, it  simply filled it in with its waste products.

4.As I stood on the edge looking down at the pit, I felt dizzy. But the gleaners were climbing energetically up and down the steep slope like mountain goats.

number 4

At one time, there were more than several thousand gleaners assembled here, peasants who had come from Sichuan, Anhui, Henan, and other places. They built shacks out of materials they gathered from the dump. In winter they gathered wood and built fires to keep warm, in summer they endured being burned by the scorching sun. Because there were no trees here, there was no shade to cool off in. But no matter the weather, every day buzzed with extraordinary activity. An unending stream of large trucks, in the 100s, came to dump their loads. The gleaners in the thousands waded through the cloud of dust covering the sky, rushing hurriedly to grab whatever they could. The women used hooks to grab smaller items, the men, bare to the waist, used sledgehammers to break concrete reinforced with steel bars. The adults had sweat dropping off of them like rain, the children ran about and played in the refuse. Small peddlers on the roadside sold greens and fruits, old women in the shacks lit fires to prepare meals.

5. Every day hundreds of trucks dump garbage into the pit left from extracting sand and gravel. Gleaners scramble down the steep slope looking for anything of value.

number 5

6. A girl who has lived in the garbage dump since she was young. She is covered all over with dirt, but the expression in her eyes is pure.

number 6

In the midst of the chaos, the rank of the people in the dump is clearly marked out. Holding the dominant position are people from Sichuan. The majority come from Wen’an province [in Hebei], they have regular spots at the top where they glean. Those from Anhui and Henan resemble guerilla fighters, they have to stay below those from Sichuan, and can only glean from their left-overs, therefore they are called “lower down in the hole.” There is a clear boundary between those “lower down in the hole” and those “at the top of the hole.” The Sichuan people own and control the shacks the people live in, those from Anhui and Henan have to rent rooms from them, the “bosses”, at 120 yuan a month.

The Sichuanese further determine what all the people do according to their rank. At the lowest rung are 5th level gleaners. For 100 yuan a month, they are given a contract to glean a designated area of 10 to 20 meters by a 4th level boss. A 4th level boss typically employs 4 or 5 gleaners, and takens 70% of the profit from their work, using this money to pay their “salaries” and, at the same time, to make a contract with the truck drivers to dump at their particular spot.  If no trucks were to dump there, there would be no income. Above them are 3rd level bosses, who have control over larger areas in the dump, of several hundred meters. These 3rd level bosses are not directly involved in the work, they are managers of the area under their jurisdiction. They drive sedan cars, dress well, and for the most part sit around all day playing mahjong. The second level bosses have control over the whole dump, they are directly under the big boss, who makes over 10 million yuan a year. The second level bosses, except for the times when they come to collect rents from the third level bosses, almost never appear at the dump. The big boss at the top gets 20 yuan for every truck that comes in to dump a load, which adds up yearly to a large sum.

Except for small number of bosses, those people who live in the lost city of the dump are poverty-stricken. If one of them manages to pick up a large section of a steel reinforcing bar, that is enough cause to be happy for a whole day. However, they are very close in friendship. Many are fellow villagers, or are related, and when something comes up, are always willing to do a favor for each other. For instance, if someone needs to build a home, which in this case means a simple, crude shack, everyone is willing to lend a hand; they don’t ask for the favor to be returned. Naturally, their work is quite dangerous. A woman from Henan was working down in the pit, and from above a rock came rolling down and smashed into her head, blood was pouring out. To be hospitalized would cost over 10,000 yuan, and the money was collected from her fellow villagers, 100 yuan from one, 200 yuan from another. There was an old man from Sichuan who died from being careless and tumbling down the pit. One time in a heavy rain, the slope caved in and buried two young people…

When I came here before I met a child with a serious congenital illness. Some kind-hearted people, when they saw the photos I took and understood the situation, took up a collection, afterwards the child had surgery at the Beijing Police Hospital. Although some take comfort in incidents like this, when all is said and done I am just a bystander. We cannot really enter into the lives of the people at the dump and fully understand them. They do not have high hopes that they will ever live in the city. Their only ambition is to be able to return to their hometown someday with a modest stash of money.

After I published my photos and made this site known to the world, the government immediately banned it. The sights shown above no longer exist. Some residents were forced to move away, others have had to return to their hometowns. I do not really know if my photographs were the impetus for all this to happen, but in my heart I feel uneasy.

At present, the pit is completely filled in, but the garbage remains underneath. The Beijing to Shijiazhuang [capital of Heibei] high speed railway will pass through here, on top of the buried garbage. In 2013 the International Garden Expo will be held here.

Editor Jiang Qi

The Garden Expo opened in May 2013. Visitors say it is quite large.(Click on images to see larger size)



Main exhibit hall with kaleidoscope wall and ceiling:


Yurt and model sheep:20130520025319701


Gateway to Hefei garden area




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