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park19 in 石围塘 shiweitang

A very strange day yesterday of taxis and ferries and walking around parts of Guangzhou that are very much not on the tourist map, through the old colonial docklands, and across post-millenium high-tension toroids of concrete arcing into the stratospheric haze like upended tuning forks above the Pearl River. To look for somewhere to perform Apocalypse FACE OFF. The first choice, in warehouses with the factor’s banyan tree-shrouded mansion buried at one end, banking right up against the river, a kind of Guangzhou Brooklyn of former British Empire tea and opium. But that was not for this year.

So, a taxi across town and across the river to the Shamian Island concession, and onto the ferry into the main current of the river, strong milky tea brown and livid green whorls of mangrove shoots washed down-river by storms and snared in the mid-current vortex up-welling, the incoming tide from two hundred kilometers south pushing anchored barges the wrong way, and all veiled in a somnambulistic white haze.

To 石围塘, the stone encircling pool, and a part of Guangzhou that is mostly still the village it was. Across the river are the teeth of 40 storey apartment blocks. Here, it is banyan trees hundreds of years old, the ash-grey bricks and precise white mortar of Qing Dynasty architecture, and the endless rhizomic dwellings, one sprouting from another and each supporting the next in red brick and mud-dust ceramic bamboo tiled roofs, all leaning like a crowd off-balance.

We – Park19 and myself – came to look at what may become the next Park19, a small, abandoned former shipyard manufacturing complex, abutting the river, and encircled with its own walls, the inner courtyard themselves circumscribed by dormitories and machine rooms, and split into two with the stone pool, a limpid milky jade punctured by glistening soil-black frogs at the heart.

Shiweitang would be an astounding place for an artist village. Big enough for accommodation for visiting artists, plenty of studio space, one building could easily be converted into a theatre or performance space. And all this wrapped in trees and courtyards, the river outside the front gate, a café and bar and blazing high-speed internet. Many of the gargantuan factories that lurk outside its walls are also empty, and besides Guangzhou’s air being the wrong colour, it’s ripe for the vast underground arts scenes that are supposed to populate such discarded boroughs.