The Bangladeshi photographer Shadman Sahid finds, in the largest ghost town in China, a metaphor for the world’s leading economy.
In the eighteenth century, the Kings of Siam found an ingenious way of excluding a courtier they didn’t like.
They would present the offending socialite with a white elephant, a rare and unusual creature, one very difficult to make space for.
No-one would dare decline a gift from the King. And so the recipient would be lumbered with something they could not maintain. They would invariably be ruined by the cost of trying to keep the white elephant, and would then be forced to take their leave of the Kings’ circles.
Siam is now modern-day Thailand, but the idea of the white elephant has endured, entering our modern parlance.
Shadman Shahid, a documentary photographer born and raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and a graduate of the city’s revered Pathshala South Asian Media Academy photography course, used the term to describe a remarkable discovery in China; a “ghost-city” called Chenggong, designed for more than a 100,000 people but standing silent, unpopulated, empty but for tiny pockets of life.
“I was born and raised in a city where there are too many people and not enough buildings. In Chenggong, I found the opposite,” Shahid says.
“I wanted to tell a story of ambition, of trying to meet standards set by someone else,” Shahid says. “China’s powers went as far as to destroy their own identity to achieve that ambition. In the end, they acquired nothing but waste.”
China is now the world’s leading economy, and investment in infrastructure accounts for the largest proportion of China’s GDP.
The sheer scale of economic growth is head-spinning; the country is said to have built the equivalent of Rome every two months in the past decade.
Built between 2003 and 2005, just before the global financial crisis, Chenggong represents an over-extension of ambition.
Built along the shores of Dianchi Lake, Chenggong was meant to be a satellite city for the overspill of nearby Kunming, a metropolis of nearly six-and-a-half million people.
“In order to build this city, villages were demolished, people were forced to sell their lands and leave their homes,” he says.
It didn’t work out. Now, empty tower blocks loom over gigantic plazas dotted with promotional posters showing an idealised vision of life, if the city was ever to be populated. A stadium, shopping malls, a children’s creche, even an art gallery, stand unused. Caucasian faces smile out at you, as if Chenggong could offer the best of Western life.
“As I stepped out of the subway station I found these beautiful old buildings, half demolished and abandoned,” Shahid says. “As I traipsed around the ruins I found out uprooted lives. The place was filled with memories, old teddy bears, school yearbooks, posters of movie-stars on the wall and abandoned gods, among other things. It felt like a place destroyed by war or calamity.”
For his series White Elephant, Shahid photographed the few people who, often illegally, have made the ghost town there home. Some were originally moved from the historic villages that were raized for the development to be built.
Others have settled there of their own accord, now carving out a small life in the context of such large vacated spaces.
In their faces, the empty skyscrapers beyond, Sahid finds an analogy; images capable of encapsulating contemporary China.
“What is the end result of this sacrifice?” Shahid asks. “What has it all lead to? It’s waste, the byproduct of aspiration.
“I wanted to show the history and culture that was replaced,” he says. “The transition, the destruction, the rebuilding. And then the waste.”
See more of Shadman’s work here.