Drawing on field observations in Dandong and Sinuiju, corresponding border cities in China and North Korea, respectively, this extended visual essay meditates on the mutual imbrication of landscape and history in this border-contact zone. Whereas Chinese soldiers and tourists passing through Dandong once used North Korea—real or imagined—as the photographic backdrop to construct their socialist imageries from comradeship to the industrializing future, mainland tourists today regard North Korea as an economic and political failure vis-à-vis China's high-speed growth. Aside from being a trade hub, Dandong has become a giant theme park for those who seek to consume everything North Korean. Meanwhile, amid the sense of Chinese superiority over their neighboring country on the other side of the Yalu River, China's own past, much like the murky river that divides the two historic port cities, has become more disarticulated than ever.

It is often said that the past is a foreign country, an expression meant to suggest that we should be careful about judging the past by today's standards. But when a foreign country is described as embodying a living past, the issue is no longer about historical sensitivity. Instead the perceived temporal difference serves to relegate a foreign land to the status of a backward other. In recent decades China's rapid economic development has resulted in many of its neighboring countries being ascribed such a status in the popular imagination. This is especially the case for North Korea, China's long-standing ally due to its geopolitical proximity and once-shared ideology. In 2018 I decided to make a research trip to Dandong, the most well-known Chinese border city along the Yalu River (Armok River in Korean) that separates the two countries, in order to observe these changing dynamics.

Growing up in Macao—a former Portuguese enclave at the southern edge of mainland China—in the waning days of the Cold War, I certainly had firsthand experiences of this othering, both in my own exoticization of the mainland as the other as well as in my observation of Western observers' othering of Communist China. Like many locals, members of my extended family scattered along the Chinese coast, and crossing the border through the neoclassical-style archway called the Portas do Cerco, colloquially known as the Barrier Gate, when we visited them was always a fascinating experience for me as a child. I still remember those absurd-looking Chinese border guards checking our travel documents on the mainland side from inside a tiny and dim wooden box, with only their eyes and fingers barely visible to us. But I also remember the puzzled eyes of Western tourists who gathered around the archway on the Macao side, peeking nervously into mainland China with their cameras and binoculars. It seems that the more a border is sealed and weaponized, the more desirable it is as a tourist backdrop.

In those days travel through the ornamented archway originally built in the mid-nineteenth century by the Portuguese after a brief battle between the Kingdom of Portugal and the Qing Empire was like illicitly passing from one universe to another. Nonetheless it would be years before I understood the geopolitical significance of the Barrier Gate and its other Cold War equivalents such as the famous Berlin Wall crossing, Checkpoint Charlie. For us locals, what outsiders considered to be a geopolitical landmark between the “free” and “communist” worlds was both a nuisance and a marker of difference between the more prosperous colonial enclave and its poor cousin. Put differently, even though our visits to the mainland were merely occasional, they were routine enough for us to feel that the gate was an inconvenience, and yet, at the same time, even without dramatic military standoffs and tank maneuvers, the rifles and the wooden faces of Chinese soldiers were reminders of the unfamiliar world on the other side of the border. Thus for local residents the everyday experience of living in a Cold War contact zone entailed a constant negotiation of affinities and differences that were based in often-contested cultural and political registers.

However, my visit to Dandong was not motivated by a desire to reminisce about my experience of growing up in a Cold War border town. In an earlier trip to North Korea with a small group of Western academics, I was struck by how Chinese and Western tourists often had vastly different experiences due to the government's highly restricted and orchestrated guided tours. For instance, during a visit to the Victorious War Museum in Pyongyang, after our group finished viewing the main exhibition that portrayed the Korean War (1950–53) as a US-initiated surprise attack that was roundly repelled by the heroic North Korean military, I was singled out and led to a separate exhibition because of my perceived ancestry that was curated primarily for mainland Chinese tourists. The supplementary narrative in this exhibition highlighted the military assistance supplied by the more than two million Chinese soldiers that made up what was officially known as the Chinese People's Volunteer Army. That and many other experiences I had during my first visit to North Korea have led me to believe that North Korea is a master of modern spectacle, not a bizarre and backward “hermit kingdom” it has commonly been portrayed as in the media. Nonetheless in the photographic world alone, there has been a blooming industry of North Korean imageries that is quite ready to highlight the country's reclusive and inscrutable nature. Often the North Korea depicted in photobooks and international photography festivals involves common scenes such as empty and oversized squares, female traffic police officers in miniskirts, and ridiculously enormous statues of the leader, catering to the Western audience's desire to see the autocratic, racialized, sexualized, and Orientalized landscapes of the Communist other. Paradoxically not only have these supposedly “unseen” and “secret” images become a cliché, but they are also images authorized by the spectacle-conscious regime. During my visits to North Korea, I was constantly amused by how much North Korean tourist guides and minders would do to make sure photographers complied with the official image-making guidelines, including, sometimes, where to take a photo and how to frame it.

In short, despite the camera's perceived truth claims, photographic images of North Korea often reinscribe the spectacle, boundaries, and stereotypes sanctioned by authorities and imagined by image consumers. Borders in this regard entail not just weaponized administrative realities such as fences, walls, and de-territorial data points but also cultural and political imaginaries. The North Korea secluded by physical and imagined borders thus bears different meanings for different people. It is in this sense that the question of how middle-class Chinese view their controversial neighbor, especially in light of China's growing global confidence, has particularly fascinated me.

My trip also included a day trip to Sinuiju—Dandong's North Korean counterpart—arranged by a local group tour operator that catered to mainland tourists. Most mainland day-trippers were from the middle or lower-middle class in the region. They were relatively well traveled domestically but did not always have resources to make frequent international trips. A short trip to North Korea and even just the Dandong area was therefore an attractive way to see a different country. Unsurprisingly most day-trippers came with family members and friends. Others traveled with coworkers and retirees from their workplaces. In fact it was not uncommon for state and nonstate enterprises to pay for group tours for their current employees and retirees as a workplace perk.

According to a tour operator I spoke with, Chinese interest in visiting North Korea has soared ever since the high-profile summits between the two Koreas and between North Korea and the US. Yet, with the pandemic starting to rage around the world not too long after my last visit, North Korea, like much of the world, has shut down its borders for tourism. Its heightened tensions with South Korea and the United States have also resumed. However, it is unclear to what degree the limited social flows introduced by tourism were helpful for improving Chinese visitors' understanding of the country in the first place. If my experience is any guide, Chinese day-trippers did not appear to be too eager to learn about their northeastern neighbor despite North Korea's rising diplomatic and military profile. Most tourists seemed to me to have already formed their opinion about the country, and tourism simply helped to reinforce that opinion, including their perception of the relative standing of North Korea in relation to China. For instance, in the Sinuiju history museum, our first stop, many members from my group simply sat in the entrance lobby the entire time, chatting away with their friends and coworkers. One of them that I had a conversation with pointed to a red banner with a slogan that neither one of us could read and told me that he had seen this before. “These are like our slogans in the past. They just changed the party name and the leader's name,” he said. Other visitors wandered aimlessly and stared without emotion at the various portraits of leaders. Few were paying attention to the museum guide's enthusiastic explanation, let alone finding anything interesting enough to take a photo of. Also only a handful of mainland tourists had thought to bring a camera with them, even though they had been told in advance that cell phones could not be brought into the country.

Later, when one curious young man pointed his camera to the street instead of the compound of the elementary school that we were visiting, he was immediately stopped by a watchful tour bus driver. Such incidents were, however, rare, since mainland day-trippers were very disciplined. Before entering North Korea, they were urged to show respect for the host country by not engaging in any unauthorized activities or questioning if something was fake. North Korean guides, for their part, were very adept at making mainland Chinese feel at home, turning the unfamiliar environment into a familiar one, even though they never hesitated to display their own national pride. The two North Korean guides in our tour bus, for example, sang Korean folk songs as well as Chinese ones. At one point they started singing the Chinese Communist classic “Socialism Is Great” and invited the audience to sing along. And most did. The guides also thanked China for dispatching soldiers to assist their country to fight against US imperialism during the Korean War. Likewise the guides were well versed in contemporary Chinese political discourse. Just before our group departed North Korea, one of them urged mainland tourists to work hard to build a “harmonious society” and to realize Chairman's Xi Jinping's “China dream” of “rejuvenating” the nation. Seeing how enthusiastic the young North Korean guides were, several elder mainlanders became nostalgic for a time when young Chinese were as dedicated; they expressed their admiration for the North Korean education system, which, according to them, served the nation well, whereas in their view education in China had become too self-serving.

It is tempting to read this subtle critique of Chinese education merely as a reaffirmation of the public perception that North Korea is still living in the past. Yet the sentiment of longing voiced in that critique can also be construed as a nostalgia for the future. The Chinese party-state has been insisting that in order to make China great again, so to speak, or to achieve a “national rejuvenation,” its citizens must represent China favorably, holding to a “correct view” of its history and its place in the world. Any departure from the official narrative that resolutely celebrates the greatness of the Party and the supposed destiny of the ethnic nation is condemned as “historical nihilism.” Among other things this orthodox historical view requires the avoidance of any scrutiny of the irreconcilable political and ideological ruptures between China's socialist and postsocialist eras. Even outside of China, the Chinese party-state increasingly seeks to compel others to tell positive stories about it by using its soft and sharp powers alike, as if telling the state-sanctioned China's story is inseparable from the need to make the world safer for Chinese nationalism and authoritarianism. Thus, paradoxically, judging from mainland tourists' desire for positivity about their own country and the affirmation they received from these organized tours, North Korea appeared to provide a space for them to experience not the past they may have thought they were nostalgic for but rather an imagined future that they were in fact longing for.

By nightfall the daily parade of tour buses once again crossed the Yalu River to the Chinese side. My fellow travelers were exuberant and talking loudly to one another, debating where to go for dinner or how to divide the souvenirs among their friends and families. As Sinuiju vanished into the misty horizon when we approached the bright lights of Dandong, I too suddenly experienced relief, a feeling that was uncannily familiar from my childhood. And this was also not the first time I experienced a sense of ease on entering China from North Korea. The irony did not escape me, just as it had not the first time I left North Korea for China, and I knew full well that feelings of relief and being safe were always relative. The border as a marker of difference, real or imagined, can be a powerful emotional trigger for the border crosser.

Obviously border crossing as a form of identity construction does not always require the crossing of any physical boundaries. In the case of Dandong, border crossing can take place through distant observation and imagination. Only some of the Chinese tourists who visit Dandong actually visit North Korea, and most Dandong residents themselves have never been to the other side of Yalu. Yet for Dandong residents and visitors, North Korea is very much an everyday experience. “We don't need to go there because we can see everything from here,” a middle-aged man who was hanging out with several others along the riverbank told me. An elderly woman chimed in, saying that she could gauge the situation in North Korea by looking at the pace of construction from across the river. She vividly chronicled when each building went up over the decades, her photographic memory a font of historical images that not even a Google Street view (which in any event is censored in China) could rival. My interlocutors also mentioned what seemed to be an open secret that there were North Koreans working in factories and service industries and living in closed compounds in the city in a program cosponsored by both governments. According to them, North Korean workers made just about US$240 a month, with two-thirds of it paid to their own government. This was how the cash-strapped North Korean regime used cheap labor to exchange for Chinese currency and how some Chinese businesses reduced their costs. At the same time, it was equally well-known that Dandong was a popular shopping destination for well-connected North Korean elites. When asked about North Korea's nuclear program, my interlocutors by the riverbank all claimed that they could feel the ground shaking every time a test was being conducted. “But the Americans are so barbaric, and they are always bullying,” one of them said. “The North Koreans need the bomb to feel safe.”

Despite their having a level of understanding for the circumstances of North Koreans, residents and tourists in Dandong generally look down on their neighbors across the river, denying them as contemporaries. After all, even though Dandong's own skyline is hardly impressive by any Chinese standard, that of Sinuiju significantly pales in comparison. At night in particular, whereas the small cluster of buildings and the surrounding farmland on the North Korean side are dead quiet and submerged in near total darkness, Dandong's smoggy sky is illuminated by seductive lights emitted by restaurants and loud karaoke bars.

For tourists who do not wish to venture into North Korea, the section of the Great Wall north of Dandong arguably offers the best vantage point to survey the country's adjacent area. In one of the crowded beacon towers, I overheard a spirited discussion about what to make of a tranquil village on the North Korean side below. One man argued perceptively that the fact that there was no visible smoke even during lunchtime was an indication that it was an abandoned village. The nice-looking and orderly village was just a prop the regime was using to make itself look good, another man similarly insisted. But the youngest man in the group disagreed. After observing the village through one of the binocular telescopes tourists can pay to use, he contended that the village did not even look that nice and that things appeared to be broken. Yet another man suggested that residents had retreated because of the rising tensions between the two countries. As these tourist-spectators were busy explaining, or rather mansplaining, others were competing for a spot to take photos. Then when a lone North Korean border guard suddenly emerged from nowhere, walking sluggishly across the vast empty field with a rifle hanging from his shoulder, everyone got excited. A consensus was reached that this was the best photo op the site had to offer. The cinematographic scene indeed reminded me of many of the masterfully staged spectacles for tourists that I had seen during my previous visit to Pyongyang and other cities.

If the section of the restored Great Wall north of Dandong allows tourists to project their perception of difference onto the past by imagining the grandeur of China's imperial history, the situation in the southern end of Dandong enables them to project that perception onto the future, thereby reinforcing it. As in many of China's so-called ghost cities, this new district in Dandong was entirely devoid of tourists and even residents during my visit. There were rows of unoccupied residential blocks, unused shopping centers, and empty lots decorated with public art and sculptures that were already falling into ruin. There was even a brand-new and yet eerily empty theme park, an embodiment of a familiar cultural trope of ruination and abandonment. Nonetheless, like elsewhere in China, empty apartments in Dandong's new district had long been snapped up by investors and speculators. Far from being seen as ruins, these buildings were regarded as opportunities in waiting in the Chinese context. The long, spectacular, unopened new bridge that spanned the Yalu River and led into a field of wildness on the North Korean side was the most symbolic of this potential. It was a bridge to nowhere, an architecture of anticipation, a crude declaration of infrastructural surplus, and an indictment of North Korea's backwardness. In a country where infrastructural development is upheld as a metric of progress, it is little wonder that so many mainlanders consider today's North Korea a mirror of China's past.

But China's own recent past is itself a messy affair. It lacks the kind of visual clarity that new and restored historic infrastructures seem to offer. That messiness is perhaps most fully manifested in Dandong's urban landscape. Dandong is one of the few remaining cities where a giant Mao statue still stands prominently in the public space. The iconic Broken Bridge, built by the Japanese empire in 1911 and destroyed by US aerial bombing in 1950, likewise reveals intricate layers of history. In addition to testifying to the solidarity of the two people's republics when they were more ideologically aligned than they are now, it also points to a time, from the turn of the twentieth century until the end of World War II, when the life and economy of these two border cities under the Japanese empire was integrated. What's more, there is still a sizeable ethnic Korean community—one of China's official ethnic nationalities—living along the border today. Their presence is a reminder of the multiethnic nature of the last dynastic empire—the Qing (1644–1912)—and how this area contingently ended up becoming part of the modern Chinese republic in the twentieth century. All of this is part of a deeper history that is more complicated than the simplistic narrative of imperialism and victimhood tirelessly cited by the Chinese party-state. And it is through the information border, including the notorious internet Great Firewall—not the barbed wire—that the party-state attempts to maintain its legitimacy by shielding its citizens from so-called nihilistic historical views and foreign influences.

As for Dandong's ethnic Koreans, they are not always readily visible to visitors. What matters most to tourists are North Korean–themed restaurants, gift shops, and other consumable visual clues. For example, along the boardwalk, female tourists can rent traditional Korean costumes for photos that are taken using Sinuiju as the backdrop. There is also quite a lot of decommissioned Chinese military equipment from the Korean War available for photo ops. In addition to North Korean–themed souvenirs, other popular souvenirs include models of the newest Chinese aircrafts, tanks, and warships that evoke themes of militarism, technological advance, and patriotism. In fact tourists can begin their adventure to North Korea without even leaving their hotel rooms, as a member of the check-in staff at an old, state-run hotel by the Yalu River proudly told me. She was referring to the pair of binoculars in my room, a standard amenity for all hotel guests. She even encouraged me to carry the binoculars with me during the day. The theme park in the city's new district may be empty, but Dandong itself is already a giant theme park for mainland consumers and leisure seekers, a place where Han Chinese nationalism, militarism, selective memory, and infrastructural development coalesce into a matrix of feel-good stories about China in its contrast to North Korea.

On the morning of July 1, the anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, a group of decorated Chinese veterans gathered in front of the Broken Bridge to celebrate the party's birthday. The year of my visit also coincided with the sixty-fifth anniversary of the armistice of the Korean War, which gave the commemoration event even more weight. More than an hour after the event was supposed to have started, the veterans were informed that the local party leader due to appear at the event was still in a meeting. Worrying that some of the old veterans might faint on such a hot summer day, anxious young soldiers distributed more water and provided shade for them. It turned out that the group included a few Korean War veterans, the youngest of whom was eighty-seven years old. The veterans themselves, albeit impatient, were in high spirits. Some started to sing revolutionary songs, including the popular propaganda song “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China.” Meanwhile passerby tourists were excited by the unexpected scene, and many struggled for a space to snap a selfie with the proudly decorated veterans.

When the local party leader, whoever that was, finally arrived, it was raining. By then only the TV crews and a few spectators were left. I, too, had retreated into my hotel room across the street, from where I watched the ceremony. After all, I had my binoculars! But even with the window opened, the noise of the traffic and rain made it impossible for me to hear anything. The speech given by the leader was brief, and it appeared that everyone was eager to wrap things up quickly because of the punishing weather. Still, amid the tasteless propaganda banners and oppressive political rituals on such a gloomy day, the dignity of these old veterans and their unwavering belief in a system that was long gone seemed to inspire at least some respect, if not hope.

Meanwhile the rain had rendered Sinuiju invisible and turned Dandong gray and hazy. For some this scene might be perceived as harmonious and poetic; for others it was grim and dull. Either way, at this border contact zone where landscape and history are mutually imbricated, the two historic border cities and the murky river between them had dissolved into an amorphous mess. And the historian in me knew it would take more than binoculars and cameras to decipher its meanings.

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