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Lost in Beijing: Forgotten wastelands of China’s capital

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Beijing is a shiny metropolis, but below the gleaming skyscrapers and busy thoroughfares are desolate amusement parks and abandoned neighborhoods, remnants of a different place, reminders of a recently forgotten past.

The Homko Club had everything a wealthy Chinese businessman could want. Inside a gated compound, the Grecian-style members’ club offered residents a chance to unwind in exclusive comfort, with a fully equipped gym, swimming pool with jacuzzi, steam rooms and sauna, bar, billiards, mahjong, massage and — although home was literally just a stone’s throw away — the convenience of private bedrooms, in which the weary member would find succor with a personal masseuse in secluded comfort.

Despite amenities fit for an ancient emperor — or, perhaps, a mid-level provincial official — membership at the Homko remains at an all-time low of zero. In the 25-meter swimming pool, mounds of concrete rise from the frozen surface. The bar is bereft of bottles; no sighs will ever be heard from its bedrooms, because the Homko has long been abandoned to the elements. It is as if the apocalypse had happened to the Chinese Brady Bunch.

The story of what happened here, and the dozens of grandiose houses around it, remains a mystery to this day. But now, half a decade after all life left this luxury location, perhaps the truth is beginning to emerge about a project that began over a decade ago, before the Olympics, back when borderline-hazardous air in the capital was considered normal. Housing developments were beginning to spring up on the edges of town, providing some blue-sky respite from the smoggy center. It was then that villas by the Beichen Group, a Beijing-based realtor also known as Beijing North Star, were built just north of the Summer Palace, the decadent imperial retreat where emperors of old would seek cooling retreat from the seasonal heat.

It is afterwards, though, that the story becomes unclear. The development had the bad luck to impinge on government plans to remake the surrounding area — a tangle of overgrown pastures and forest, home to only homeless and drug addicts — into the beautified area now known as the Olympic Forest Park. The expensive compound was marked for demolition, and served as the temporary offices of the park’s management, yet oddly remained standing long after.

Controversy finally blew up around the villas in December, instigated by an anonymous netizen almost as shady as the scandal he claims to have uncovered. The whole area is illegally owned by the Red Cross Society of China, according to a Weibo user calling himself Mengzi Mencius. His post spread quickly, forcing the much–beleaguered charity to issue a brief statement denying the Red Cross owned any property at the park, and adding that the allegations were being investigated. Olympic Park representatives said the villas lack any property deeds and are currently under their management.

“Now the Red Cross is hiring its own people to investigate itself, there’s probably never gonna be a way to find out [the truth],” scoffed Mencius, who claims to be CEO of a dating website called 7SOYO. Specializing in exposing corruption in the charity sector, Mencius is one of a growing number of “people’s supervisionary activists,” citizen journalists who interpret Xi Jinping’s reformist rhetoric as an anti-corruption call to arms.

But Mencius reckons the case is murkier and more dangerous than at first suggested. “Even you [foreign media] won’t dare to investigate it,” he warned in an email interview. The Red Cross uses the same accountancy firm as Faye Wong’s Smile Angel Foundation charity. Zhongwei, a two-room, seven-employee outfit in Tuanjiehu, is an usually small accounting operation, considering the amounts of money involved with both organizations. “To protect my source,” Mencius said, “I can’t release more proof, [but if the Red Cross investigation] differs from the facts, I’ll be providing more materials until the truth comes out.”

However, he adds, the story goes further than the mere quotidian misuse of public funds: “The water is deep and there are bigger parties involved.”

It is a common-enough tale here — wealth and corruption, demolition, and development — yet one far from the usual reports of flashy skyscrapers, foreign architects, and five-star hotels. There are dozens of similar premises in the capital, some iconic, others embryonic, where industry and interest has retreated​, and only broken China Dreams remain. The landscape of Beijing is littered with areas that once hummed with activity but ​now​ stand desolate.

Most familiar to many, perhaps, was Wonderland, on the outskirts of northeast Beijing and still visible from the Badaling Expressway. This was a proposed 100-acre “Luxury Brand Outlet Mall and Eco-Resort,” under former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong 陈希同, that was supposed to attract tourists in the millions and generate billions in annual revenue for Huabin 华彬 (a.k.a. the Reignwood Group) and its investors. All that ​was built​, however, ​was some​ colorful fairytale facades, rusty signs, and a giant concrete castle whose graying edifice seems to echo Neuschwanstein’s dreamlike spires more evocatively than even ​the Magic Kingdom​ ​at Shanghai Disneyland​. ​For years, ​this doomed tower look​ed​ over only mud and corn, its land long since re-appropriated by farmers. And then it was demolished.

Continue here to read the full article with interesting images  |  ||  April 04, 2018   |||