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A closed mill in Beijing no longer makes steel but it has purpose in the Olympics

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The landscape of Beijing was once dominated by a sprawling steel and iron mill. The capital city of China decided to shut that down about a decade ago, except they did not tear it down. And as our great correspondent NPR's Emily Feng reports, you might see it during February's Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Picture this - a pre-2000s Beijing with an entire district dedicated to Shougang, or Capital Steelworks, its smelting furnaces emerging through the industrial smog like a steampunk vision.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE SOUNDING)

FENG: This is archival and simulated sounds of the mill assembled by artist Sang Erhao, whose parents were second-generation Shougang workers.

Edward Steinfeld, a dean at Brown University, conducted political science research at Shougang in the 1980s and remembers it well.

EDWARD STEINFELD: Its physical plant was huge. When you entered this thing, you'd see, of course, all the smelting operations and the furnaces.

FENG: He remembers feeling overwhelmed by the chaos of the mill - pipes gushing steam, the crashing and banging of the steel rolling factory - sounds recreated here by Sang Erhao.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY CLANGING)

STEINFELD: When the shift changes would happen, you'd see armies of thousands of thousands of workers in their - you know, in their silvers, their heat-resistant clothing, going back and forth.

FENG: Shougang's equipment had been directly taken from an old Belgian steel mill. Shougang had its own steam-powered railway system to move coal and ore. As a 20-year-old, Liu Guiyun operated factory cranes, lifting huge buckets of molten alloys.

LIU GUIYAN: (Through interpreter) The work environment was very bad. In the summer, the entire building would get so hot, you could burn yourself on the railings.

FENG: But she was proud to do the job. She was one of the select engineering talents who tested into an elite state job. You might not think it now, but the polluting, loud Shougang mill was a source of pride for China's ruling Communist Party. And Steinfeld, the Brown professor, says many cities then plopped chemical plants or iron mills right in the middle of residential areas.

STEINFELD: Steel became not just an important industry for China, but it became a symbol in a way, an embodiment of socialist command planning. But it was also an embodiment of modernity.

FENG: But as China's state-planned economy gave way to a more liberal one, Shougang kept losing money. In 2010, Shougang officially closed in Beijing. The pollution and noise were just too much. Beijing had a choice - demolish or clean up and renovate the old mill. They chose the latter.

The massive concrete silos where workers once stored metal ores and coal are now sleek office spaces, and other parts have been converted into snow-making facilities. It has freestyle snowboard facilities and a giant ski jump for the Winter Games in February, though the facilities have yet to be used in competition and we could not see them because of Beijing's strict COVID protocols surrounding the Olympics.

YANG SI: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Shougang is a cultural symbol, says Yang Si, the curator of Re Guoji, a new museum space in Shougang's former Silo No. 4.

YANG: (Through interpreter) People were born in Shougang's hospitals, attended its schools. And after graduation, they came to work at Shougang. That's why its workers feel such a strong connection to the place.

FENG: Liu Guiyan, the former crane operator, also has a second career working in the museum at the mill where she once worked and lived. The place is still full of memories for her. She met her husband here, and its dormitories are where she raised her children.

LIU: (Through interpreter) I feel it's quite honorable my old workplace is now an Olympic tourist destination.

FENG: Tourists today can buy Shougang soda, the orange-flavored pop the factory once gave away in liters to rehydrate overheated steel workers.

LIU: (Through interpreter) It tastes exactly the same. The Shougang flavor really has not changed.

FENG: From the museum, a visitor can follow the remains of an old elevated railroad track to Shougang's Blast Furnace No. 3. The area is now a Starbucks and a brew pub, where most of the food and bev (ph) are named after gang, or steel.

I'm going to have a cheeseburger, and I think the Ingot IPA.

AOWEN CAO, BYLINE: I really want to have guang chuar (ph) (laughter) and the Guangpi (ph).

FENG: That's NPR's Beijing producer, Aowen Cao. Together, we tuck into our dinner while gazing out at Shougang's retired smokestacks and a swoop of the mill's ski jump, from which some of the top athletes in the world will be jumping off soon.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.