In several of the photos that make up photographer Tim Fenby’s Nanjiecun series, red flags can be seen waving in the background. In one photo, a man on a moped snaps a picture of a large portrait of Joseph Stalin flanked by flags on either side. In another, a waving Chairman Mao statue stands before a line of flags and a huge primary-colored rainbow (that, according to Fenby, lights up at night).
What at first appears to be a kitschy and somewhat surreal communist-themed amusement park is in fact Nanjie, China’s last surviving Maoist Village. In the 1980s, when the rest of China was introducing market reforms, Nanjie went the opposite direction, instead embracing the ideas of collective ownership that Mao espoused. “It was relatively successful in the early ’80s,” Fenby says. “When privatization started happening in China and a lot of the old guard of communism weren’t happy with the changes, they would point to this town to demonstrate that collective ownership works.”
These days, residents of Nanjie still receive free housing, health care, education and food rations, which are managed by a collective. Each day, residents still wake up to loudspeakers blaring “The East Is Red,” the classic anthem of the People’s Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. But it’s no longer the shining exemplar of collectivism it once was. In the 1990s, when state banks poured money into the town because of its political importance to communist supporters, the town’s economy grew significantly. By the early 2000s, however, Nanjie’s debt had far eclipsed its profits.
That’s the Nanjie that Fenby encountered when he visited the town in early April of last year. After hearing about Nanjie on a local radio station in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, Fenby grew curious about the place and decided to see it for himself. He arrived to find only one hotel in town: the Nanjiecun Hotel, a huge, grandiose establishment that was empty besides Fenby an another couple of families. “Hundreds of rooms and about six of us,” he says. “Twenty or 30 years ago would have been a nice, very wealthy-looking hotel. Now there’s all these staff members in red suits running around trying to act like they’re doing something.”
Fenby found the streets just as quiet, with statues and portraits of Communist icons around nearly every corner. One of the more bizarre places in town, he says, was the greenhouse, where faded statues of pandas and kangaroos sit among giant palms and patches of bamboo, and where, as captured in one photo, he encountered a crowd of villagers wanting to take his picture. For the three days he stayed in Nanjie, he often would go to the square at night, where people would hang out with friends under the light-up rainbow, an apt symbol of an unfulfilled dream. “It’s a bit of a time capsule,” he says. “A strange, surreal little bubble.”
See all of Fenby’s documentation of Nanjie in the gallery above.
All Photos: Tim Fenby