by Tong Lam
A massive earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale struck the Province of Sichuan on May 12, 2008, killing more than 90,000 people. In response to the disaster, the Chinese government launched the largest rescue mobilization in recent history. While the government’s swift response initially elicited widespread praise from domestic and international media, the shoddy construction of many of the collapsed buildings, particularly schoolhouses, soon became a focus of public attention. According to official estimates, more than 5,000 students perished in the earthquake due to the fall of school buildings alone. Tormented by unspeakable pain, many parents of deceased children spoke out against greedy local officials, construction companies eager to cut corners, and the cozy relationships between the two groups. These parents called for inquiries into the engineering failures and forms of corruptions that may have contributed to the fall of hundreds of school buildings.
Corruption aside, there is no doubt that the substandard infrastructure of areas in the disaster zone was also a product of how this remote mountainous region had long been neglected by China’s rapid economic growth. Not surprisingly, infrastructural development has since become a key priority in post-quake reconstruction and recovery. In addition to new highways, residential buildings, and schoolhouses, the government has constructed many state-of-the-art earthquake or geologically related museums as part of a larger program to bolster tourism in the region. The most curious structures in this drive are the large-scale urban earthquake ruins preserved as memorials, shrines, and tourist destinations. In the old city of Beichuan, for example, the entire ruined city has been preserved and turned into a theme park. Tourists can take an eco-bus to the center of the abandoned city and wander along the newly paved roads and walkways between the collapsed buildings. In the case of the old town of Yingxiu in Wenchuan county, which is even closer to the epic center, hotels, restaurants, and shopping strips have been built within a short walking distance from the rubble where thousands of residents were buried alive.
There are placards everywhere that remind visitors to be respectful of the deaths in these sites, yet the idea of turning massive earthquake ruins into theme parks seems to raise serious ethical questions. This is particularly the case since memories of this natural and manmade catastrophe are still hotly contested. There is an extraordinary tension between the needs of tourism and that of commemoration, and these theme parks also represent an unprecedented kind of disaster tourism. But then, there are many ways in which this fast changing country is venturing first into uncharted territory with profound implications.
*Photos © Tong Lam. For captions, click on the images.