The story appears on

Page A8-9

November 28, 2020

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

Hello! Is there anyone here? Empty buildings, lost dreams

GONE are the golden days of Yumen, a Gobi Desert city in Gansu Province on the old caravan route west.

As I walk along Jiefang Road, the city’s only main street, with just one traffic light, it is hard to imagine that this was once the richest place in northwestern China, blessed with black gold — petroleum.

Rows of dilapidated houses stand on large patches of desolate land. Packs of stray dogs scavenge through trash cans before returning to the shelters they have commandeered in an abandoned hospital, school and empty neighborhoods.

Yumen sits in a dry, harsh environment. In winter, the winds and freezing temperatures chill the bones. In summer, the place is like an oven. I am there in November.

As a 30-something urban dweller from Shanghai, I can sense the city’s more recent history in its old Soviet-Union style buildings. It now looks like the city, its architecture and residents are frozen in a time before the 1980s.

There are no taxis or buses to take me around the city, so I hoof it. I can easily walk around the whole place in a day. There are two hotels here but a lack of visitors to fill them.

In 2005, the city residents were relocated to the “new Yumen” about 70 kilometers away. Those who stayed are either too old or too poor to buy flats in the new town.

Yumen is like a broken old clock — its hands forever stopped in 2005.

Apart from the elderly, the only people on the street are oil workers in bright orange uniforms. They are everywhere — dining in a restaurant, smoking by the roadside, napping on park benches or riding on electric bikes.

China’s first oil well was drilled here in 1939. The wells here accounted for almost 90 percent of national oil production during the war against the Japanese invasion (1931-45).

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Yumen became known as the “cradle of China oil.” Besides its own oil extraction, the local industry provided the expertise and personnel training for an expanding national oil industry.

But exploitation on such a mass scale exhausted Yumen’s main oil reserves over about three decades. Oil production dropped from 1.4 million tons a year in 1959 to no more than 400,000 tons a year in the 1970s.

As oil reserves were discovered elsewhere in China, Yumen’s glory as a “treasure city” faded, and it ended up a dusty backwater with a population of about 20,000.

Jiefang Road leads to the Laojun Temple Oil Production Platform, where the country’s first oil well was drilled. It’s just a few steps away from the local temple. Several giant trepanning machines work the barren rocks to look for more oil. At the foot of a mountain is a row of caves that once accommodated oil workers.

One cave might resonate with every Chinese. It was the “home” of Wang Jinxi (1923-70), a local native who earned the title “iron man” after he jumped into a mud pit to prevent a blowout with his own body.

In the 1960s, the whole country was instructed to “learn from the iron man,” and Wang became a model worker and a socialist hero.

The caves are now all sealed.

Nearby the Hero Park, located at the southern edge of the city, was built in 1985. It now stands as a tribute to the memories of the oil workers.

Deep amid lush pines, the park was a paradise, of sorts, for the workers. Its former basketball court is now overrun with weeds. I could picture days gone by when people would gather in the park to hold sports competitions, festival celebrations and lantern shows. I could even envision them waving their red flags high in the air and shouting out political slogans of the era.

In a sense, Yumen represents an age of innocence, when people lived, ate, worked and struggled together and found value in group life dedicated to making contributions to the motherland. In Yumen, every man was an “iron man,” and that spirit still permeates the old city.

Youcheng Park, or “Park of the Oil City,” is probably the city’s only remaining functional park. It hosts a statue of Wang, standing high with a cotton-padded overcoat slung over his left shoulder and a pair of large pliers in his right hand. He gazes off in the distance — or perhaps the distant past.

The commemoration on the statue reads: “Comrade Wang made a great contribution to the oil industry. People won’t forget him.”

I see an oil worker sitting on a park bench, absorbed in his mobile phone. He might have had his lunch at a local restaurant reserved for workers. I try to get a meal there because it looks clean and decent, but a waitress blocks my way.

“Do you have a meal coupon?” she asks. “If not, you can’t be admitted here. I’m sorry.”

Opposite the restaurant, there is a big neighborhood of freshly painted residential buildings. But no one lives there.

“People have all left,” says a furniture shop owner surnamed Li.

Originally from the eastern coast province of Shandong, Li tells me he has been in Yumen for more than 30 years. When he arrived, the city was on its last years of prosperity. Today his shop, the only furniture store in town, is located on the third floor of Yumen Department Store, the city’s only shopping venue, built around 1990.

“But urban planning is better than before,” Li says ironically. “Old buildings have been painted, though no one is in them. They look new from outside at least.”

When real estate prices skyrocketed in China, housing prices in Yumen never rose.

“You can buy the best flat here for only 5,000 yuan,” Li says. “But who would live here?”

The busiest place of Yumen is the food market adjacent to the department store. Every evening, the locals crowd here to buy nuts, fruits, vegetables and local snacks. It is the only time when the city seems to come back to life, with the calls of vendors and the laughter of people.

Oil Workers’ Cinema is the only entertainment left in Yumen, but has been shut for renovation. Built in 1957, the cinema is a two-story, brick-and-wood building that once seated 1,140. In the old days, workers who couldn’t afford a ticket used to sneak in and keep a watchful eye out for the ticket inspector.

It was in this cinema that oil workers in such a remote area of China first became acquainted with movie blockbusters like “Little Soldier Zhang Ga,” “Minefield War” and “Shaolin Temple.”

The 1956 Expert Hall, about a kilometer from the Laojun Temple Oilfield, was once the accommodation for visiting dignitaries, researchers and oil experts from the then Soviet Union. More than 30 “foreign experts” lived in the building in the late 1950s.

The red-brick building had a 178-square-meter kitchen. Access is denied. I peek through the iron fence and see debris inside.

As I walk around the city, I ponder how Yumen can find its ways out of its current situation. Local authorities have tried to reinvent the city as a tourist destination. New tourist signboards were erected and old buildings freshly painted outside. Jiefang Road was swept clean and flanked by the red flags of the “City of Oil.” But this is no tourist mecca.

Residents still puzzle whether the city has a future.

“I’ve heard some chemical companies from Jiangsu Province will be relocating here in the next few years,” Li tells me, with more hope than belief. “Maybe Yumen will become a busy industrial city.”


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend