拆: Journey to a Non-Place

How do you travel to your demolished hometown?

In the afterword to Little Gods, the Chinese-American author Meng Jin talks about her trips through the winding Shanghai longtang, her birthplace that remains hazy in her memories and was demolished for development in 2010. A longtang is an old, narrow alleyway in Shanghai around which multiple residential houses line up and face each other. It is both a physical lane and the small community of people that it creates. When Jin visited her childhood longtang after many years, she found that the neighborhood was undergoing an all-around urbanization. Jin noticed that the buildings that were about to be demolished were marked with either 拆 [chāi] or [kōng], meaning “to dismantle” and “empty.” She also learned that her old longtang was already gone and a shopping mall would be constructed on the spot.

Jin made several trips to her Shanghai hometown over the years. Each time she witnessed her old neighborhood disappearing bit by bit until it became a non-place. “Now when I imagine Shanghai, I long for no fixed image,” said Jin after her last trip.

Presence and non-presence intermingle in 拆. Though the place still stands, the planned absence spills into what happens around and in it. The blueprint for an industrial complex is overlayed on a longtang whose walls and ongoing lives one can still touch. The place exists and so do the lives in it, yet they are viewed as nearly non-existent. 拆 is a place pronounced a non-place. It is also a non-place that claims to be a place. Are these, then, two versions of the same place? Or are they different places? Was the longtang a distinct place for each of Meng Jin’s visits? Does that also make each of her journeys distinct?

拆 (to dismantle) is a place pronounced a non-place. It is also a non-place that claims to be a place.

A conventional journey assumes a specific destination at a specific point in time. But the strange double nature of 拆 makes it nearly impossible to pin down such an endpoint. To exactly where and when does one travel? Is it the tangible place inherited from the past or is it its absence in the future? How does one even differentiate the two when technically they are enmeshed in the same place? Because the endpoint is unclear, a journey toward 拆 cannot be linear. Such a journey is closer to movement than travel, where how replaces where. “I long for no fixed image,” said Meng Jin. This is to accept that a solid destination in a single point in time does not exist in a journey to 拆. This is also to accept both disorienting and liberating movements that 拆 triggers, where the attachment to the palpable past crosses with the nervous possibilities of the future absence. Meng Jin’s Little Gods and Night Bus, a graphic novel by the Chinese cartoonist Zuo Ma, inhabit this uncertain realm. On what awaits a traveler to 拆, however, Little Gods and Night Bus have very different things to say.

If the author Meng Jin has made peace with 拆 in her life, her characters have not. A brilliant Chinese physicist Su Lan and her Chinese American daughter Liya struggle with the 拆-marked places in their lives. Su Lan, who grew up in a poverty-stricken mountain farming town, treats her shameful past as completely demolished in order to seek a new foundation in life. Su Lan’s fervor for this demolition is achingly extreme because it never quite succeeds. Despite her struggle, the 拆 in her past—the mountain village, a rented room in Shanghai where she raises her infant daughter without her husband— infects her future with its presence. Every time Su Lan detects the residues of the past in her surroundings, she abandons it for another. The process repeats.

Someone who doesn’t want to leave any trace of the past certainly would not talk about how one has unmade that past. Understandably, the story of Su Lan’s frustrating cycle is mediated by different voices, including her daughter Liya and Zhu Wen, an elderly woman who helps Su Lan raise Liya in their shared house in a Shanghai longtang. Without Su Lan’s own voice to thread together each version, every narrator has their own memory of her—a distant immigrant mother discontented with the myopic academia that cannot follow her genius; a struggling single mother whose physical beauty and intelligence are otherworldly. Each Su Lan exists in each narrator’s time and place, where the other versions of her are unknown. Yet as the narratives progress, all narrators detect the presence of another Su Lan, one that Su Lan wanted to obliterate. Which version is true Su Lan?—this is a wasted question that haunts everyone, including Su Lan herself.

What the narrators don’t realize is that they are the ones who remind Su Lan of the futility of her effort to demolish the past. “You look like someone I’ve always known,” is what Zhu Wen remembers as Su Lan’s first words on their first encounter. Su Lan had just finished painting all six sides of the room white with what Zhu Wen calls “ferocious but controlled movements.” Su Lan looks refreshed, “blank” and “new” like the white room, bearing no trace of old life.

Until she turns to face Zhu Wen. Zhu Wen grew up in a poor rural village where she was considered useless due to her ugliness and physical disability which made her unfit for fieldwork. Now, the old woman lives alone in a longtang house, refusing to relocate for an urbanization project. Zhu Wen embodies what Su Lan thought was successfully erased about herself—rural upbringing, the “monstruous” resentment she bore for her mother and grandmother—, everything she has “always known.” This is the vision that confronts Su Lan, when she has just painted an absent slate for the future. It is a sinking recognition—no matter how “ferociously” she tries to erase it, the past lets her know of its presence, standing behind her, waiting for her to turn around.

No matter how “ferociously” you try to erase a place in your past, it lets you know of its presence.

“How could you keep your history from infecting the child?” Su Lan says to Zhu Wen when she found out that she was pregnant with her daughter Liya. She couldn’t. Whenever Liya infuriates her beyond being able to respond in English, Su Lan’s “history” would burst forth as the rural Chinese dialect that she dropped when trying to pick up Beijing Mandarin. “The sound was physical, meant to be used as a weapon,” says Liya. “I did not recognize my mother then, it was as if the sound had found another chamber of resonance.” Liya sees a glimpse of a “stranger” in this moment—a glimpse of Su Lan in a Chinese mountain village in a time that she did not even know existed.  

The physical origin of such a “stranger” is what Liya decides to seek after Su Lan’s unceremonious death. The “plain and bare” room where Su Lan died ignites Liya’s lifelong frustration at living in the perpetual state of a rootless future where she was denied a concrete past to build her identity upon. For as long as Liya could remember, Su Lan moved them around from house to house, area to area, before any place became home. She never knew about her birthplace (she later learns that she wasn’t born in Shanghai), her mother’s past, and her father. So, when Liya sets off to China relying on a single line of a Shanghai address that she happened to find, she has a single objective—undoing her mother’s “tracelessness” by uncovering the place that keeps the traces of their past. And for a while, Liya does find it. Until she doesn’t.

What Liya finds in the 拆-marked Shanghai house is not exactly the trace of life left by Su Lan, but its imitation. For fifteen years, Zhu Wen has been taking fervent care to keep the house in the version of the past that is most dear to her. With every opportunity, Zhu Wen fights any signs of absence that creep into her 拆-marked longtang, whether it’s a government surveyor or a ghost who seeks an empty abode. Zhu Wen reorganizes the couple’s old room to make it look “livable” only for Su Lan. She empties the closet and refills it only with Su Lan’s clothes. She moves the chairs around regularly so that dust doesn’t settle. With Zhu Wen’s careful staging, the room looks plausibly lived in. This is the place that Liya walks in and rummages through, believing that she has found a place that her mother missed in her demolition. Liya, being so eager to take any fragment of the past that looks solid, never questions the semblance of presence in the room. That the room is already marked to be demolished is carefully concealed. Liya continues her travels with a false hope. And she witnesses it shattering at every stop.

The rest of Liya’s journey is mainly a disappointment at coming to a non-place where she hoped for a presence. Liya’s birth certificate found under the bed (the only thing that Zhu Wen did not think to rearrange) says that she was born in Beijing in 1989, despite “Shanghai, 1988” on her American passport. So what Liya believed to be the only concrete trace of her past, her birthplace, turned out to be a non-place. Would Beijing be any different? Maybe, maybe not. Feeling disoriented at the unexpected absence, Liya momentarily dreams of being “trapped en route, forever,” for “transit [is] a space free of decision: a relief.”

If you can’t accept that the past can be “traceless,” your journey toward 拆 can only end in dejection.

Still, unable to accept that the past is in fact “traceless,” Liya continues on her journey with dejection. Through a series of accidental encounters, she travels to her grandmother’s remote mountain village house where Su Lan grew up. In one drowsy moment on the bus, however, someone takes Liya’s backpack which has her passport, her birth certificate, and Su Lan’s ashes in a cardboard box that she carried all the way from the US. What Liya wanted was to reconnect Su Lan from the future, even in the form of ashes, to the place of her past. Then she would have made her mother’s life tangible inside that village house which her mother “ferociously” erased. Then she would have found herself a longed-for history that started in this still-standing house. Without Su Lan’s presence, this village house means nothing, a non-place. Liya arrives at yet another non-place, and this time, with a stark absence from the future.  

拆 doesn’t let one detach the residues of the past from the obliteration of the future. And Little Gods pensively records Su Lan and Liya’s attempts at such detachment, which run in opposite directions yet equally end in dejection.

Night Bus, on the other hand, accepts 拆 as it is. Instead of driving away what’s left of the past or chasing the blank state of the future, Night Bus inhabits the place where the two aspects meet and merge, 拆 in its entirety. One can hardly tell at what point in time the 拆-marked place in Night Bus exists, if it is the same place at all. Sometimes, memories unfold of how the place used to be. In others, the same place in the past looks completely different, otherworldly. And inserted in between these visions is a barren view of the ongoing demolition in the present that will last into the future. Yet rather than triggering a sense of loss or shame for outdatedness, the unseemly traces of the past and the coming absence fire an active imagination of what the place can be. Night Bus doesn’t try to clean up the messiness of 拆 but embraces it. The novel lets itself drift in multiple versions of 拆 that collide and mix spontaneously.

Night Bus lets itself drift in multiple versions of 拆 that collide and mix spontaneously.

The 拆-marked place in Night Bus is a rural Chinese neighborhood swept by urbanization, where Xiao Jun, a struggling artist and Zuo Ma’s persona, and his grandmother suffers from dementia, are from. While the eleven chapters of the novel feature the same neighborhood, there is a jumble of images of how this countryside used to look, how it looks now, and how it could look. These imaginative manifestations leap from one to another in anything but a chronological manner. The pair of glasses on the grandmother’s face would transport one from her past as a young woman to the present where everything deteriorates along with her memories. The empty field, flattened by demolition, suddenly shifts to a scene of the town booming with alien sightings where the younger version of the grandmother and a teenaged Xiao Jun meet.

Everyday perception of the flow of time and the physicality of place are dismantled. What the readers get is a dizzying mishmash of the possible manifestations of 拆, each one imagined to the extreme, showing the curious potency of 拆 that pushes beyond linear time, physical place, and also the mournfulness that such conditions bear.

Mournfulness is a natural and familiar reaction to the loss of a place dear to one’s memory. Zuo Ma himself is not an exception, as he says in the postscript: “Only when it became impossible to return there [Ma’s country hometown] did my memories of it become precious.” The night bus that used to connect his hometown to the city was discontinued while Ma was working on the book. By the time he finished it, his hometown had disappeared completely. Ma acknowledges his nostalgia through Xiao Jun’s recording hands, photographing and sketching the rural landscape giving way to absence—the kind of “fixed image” that Liya chased.

Yet Ma understands that his recording cannot fight off the crumbling of his hometown or the mournfulness caused by it. Unlike Liya who is thrown into perceptual paralysis, the physical and emotional void prompts Ma to revisit his neighborhood. He finds himself in an entirely different place that triggers sensations and thoughts which mobilize rather than stall his imagination of the place. The two chapters entitled “Walking Alone” and “A Walk” bookend Night Bus. “A Walk” is a version of “Walking Alone” redrawn years after the original was finished and after his hometown ceased to be. In both, Xiao Jun, who is visiting his grandmother, walks around the unpaved paths and fields of the neighborhood. However, his sentiment in “Walking Alone” is noticeably more melancholic than in “A Walk” as the titles suggest. “A Walk,” on the other hand, is more self-conscious of that very melancholy. Take, for one, the two renditions of the same scene where Xiao Jun takes photographs of the neighborhood.

The page from “Walking Alone” is fully occupied with Xiao Jun’s recording, the action itself enlarged in the two wide panels. The page configuration highlights the crumbling view of the neighborhood and enfolds Jun in it, who can’t do anything except passively take photos. The same gesture in “A Walk” is broken down into four small panels from several viewpoints, observing and objectifying that desire for “fixed images.” The loss happening in the landscape is less significant here, being pushed to the background of a smaller panel. Holding on to the remnants from the past is no longer a preoccupation. Instead, what’s prompted is continuous walking or tracing of the uncertainties lying in the landscape, whether far on the horizon or a nearby small bush.

A future emptiness can be liberating, as can the remains of the past. They are not necessarily the detritus that litters the present. Those remains enliven, rather than haunt, the countryside. The country in the past, where the dementia-stricken grandmother is supposedly trapped, is not residual but generative of a different vision of the place. Ma’s artistic and intellectual creativity truly shines here as he connects the grandmother’s old and young selves with the country at each point in time. The eponymous chapter “Night Bus,” the longest in the book, mixes the bespectacled young grandmother’s night bus ride down to her hometown, the grown-up Xiao Jun’s journey to the same place where the old grandmother stays, and the images of the place with Jun as a boy. Not one version overshadows the others. Each version unfolds with a similar weight in both proportion and visual attention. The versions meet, connect, and transition from one to another often unexpectedly. Anything can prompt a movement—a pair of glasses, a beetle, or an elevator.

As the young grandmother steps into an elevator cubicle to find the night bus terminal, another cubicle opens to let in Xiao Jun and his younger brother as kids. All of them are heading toward their country house, distant in time yet existing literally side by side in these panels. A slim gutter—a non-presence in comics, meant to be not read— is the only space between their respective destinations, each of which is flourishing in either an otherworldly or serene way.

In the climactic moment of the chapter, and arguably of the entire book, the countryside in its multiple times combines to become its most expansive manifestation. The young grandmother arrives to find that her small town is thriving as a tourist destination for alien landings. However lightheartedly fantastical this alien tourism may sound, it is the absence from the future somberly speaking back. “It feels like aliens have come to claim the earth,” muses Zuo Ma on the last page watching the glaring construction lights of the high-rises built on the site of his hometown. But the bulldozing “alien” lights also stimulate a rebellious imagination. All the 拆-marked houses, now alien landing points, literally stand up together. At night, the houses rise and march on top of elephants, leading the residents who are in alien costumes and balancing on balls. The young grandmother watches this spectacular parade filling the once (or future) bare streets. This is also the same countryside that young Xiao Jun’s brothers drop in as they follow a fleeing beetle through the forest. The town’s picturesque view in Jun’s young years crosses with the festive one from an imaginative time where the past and the future join. The result is an enigmatic and liberating vision of the countryside which encompasses what’s still present, what’s gone, and what’s inspired from that void.

The houses marked with 拆, rising and marching on top of elephants
(image source: From Night Bus page 203. Copyright Zuo Ma, translation copyright Orion Martin. Used with permission from Drawn & Quarterly)

The remains of the past and the absence from the future can inspire you to imagine how this place could be.

It might seem counterintuitive that the apparently obsolete past or the overwhelming prospect of absence in the future can be generative of a new vision. Zuo Ma adds a clever touch to illustrate just that and what such concern might be missing. Right after the fantastic parade of the 拆s, the scene shifts to the present with the old grandmother at her house and the adult Xiao Jun visiting her.

It is the old grandmother, not the disillusioned adult Xiao Jun, who can move around the different versions of the countryside
(image source: From Night Bus page 226-27. Copyright Zuo Ma, translation copyright Orion Martin. Used with permission from Drawn & Quarterly)

The old grandmother, presumably witnessing the glorious parade, tells Jun of the figures standing in the other room. To Jun, this is a sad indication of her senility and hallucination. But by transitioning to the present country home from the parade, Ma shows that it is Jun, not the grandmother, who is stuck in the past. If Jun, mortified by the coming demolition, cannot “see” the potential of such absence or what still remains, the grandmother, who is free from that anxiety, can. Her slackening hold of linear time better equips her to move freely among the countryside(s) dispersed in multiple times.

What’s also notable is that the countryside that the grandmother sees now is not illustrated. It might simply be an indication of Jun’s blindness. But then, what if the grandmother is looking at a countryside that Jun, the readers, or even Zuo Ma have seen so far? What if she is inhabiting yet another version of her hometown that the limited pages of a book couldn’t contain? The countryside represented in Night Bus could just be a random few among countless.

In Night Bus, things from the past, present, and future can make endless combinations of 拆. If Night Bus seems “not only fantastic but diffuse,” it is because these permutations cannot be anything but diffuse. 拆 in Night Bus is not bound by a single spacetime and therefore defies linear order. With its numerous possible manifestations, 拆 can be disorienting and potentially frightening. And, for the same reason, 拆 can be liberating.

Little Gods and Night Bus showed me how slippery the nature of 拆 is, a present yet absent place. It is a tangible absence, no matter how illogical that sounds. While writing, I was often torn between using either sensuous or abstract language. Neither seemed to capture the weird duality of 拆. When I gravitated toward the tactile, I sounded nostalgic and obsessed with the past. I have heard this before. If I focused on the abstract, I sounded evasive like someone haunted by the past. I don’t want to talk about this. I felt trapped in a place and a time that is not present.

Perhaps it was from this sense of entrapment that both Meng Jin and Zuo Ma wanted to free themselves. The frustrating state that wouldn’t let them inhabit a place in the present in its entirety with all its ambiguities. They might have realized that chasing only a presence or an absence would never let them out of a mental void. So instead, they made an apparently absurd attempt at living in presence and absence at once. Little Gods and Night Bus are the records of the equally absurd potential of 拆 that such an attempt opens up, whose multiplicity can barely be contained in a book.

Work Cited

Jacobs, Rita D. “Night Bus by Zuo Ma,” World Literature Today vol. 96 no. 2, Mar 2022. https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2022/march/night-bus-zuo-ma.

Jin, Meng. Little Gods. Custom House, 2020.

Ma, Zuo. Night Bus. trans. Orion Martin. Drawn & Quarterly, 2021.

Cover image credit: photo by Gabriele Quaglia on Flickr

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