“Invoices, invoices, invoices!” (Facturi, facturi, facturi)
the street call of roadside invoice sellers
Europa market was the earliest and most important Chinese market in Romania. Today as anti-Chinese sentiment, racism and ensuing attacks against citizens of Asian origins or tourists is being recorded in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak (Rich 2020), one needs to be reminded of another Europa. What went by name of Europa after 1989 at north-eastern sprawl of Bucharest city, growing after a curtain of blocks at the ends of Colentina hood – cradle for early strains hip hop and abundant graffiti, will probably go down in history as another example of capitalism chewing its own tail.
A large swath of stands is left in tatters, half destroyed half to go, the rest waiting for the mouth of bulldozers and ready to intervene demolition teams, making this place look almost like the prefab version of an ancient city strewn along the bifurcating northern or southern routes of a previous silk road. One forlorn station along the Taklamakan desert of today.
Last year, in 2019, 30 years after its inception, Europa, the core of the greatest Chinese informal market of bootleg goods in Romania, not yielding to notices of eviction and foreclosures was terraformed to make room for even more problematic Capitalocenic outgrowths. Bulldozers transformed the area into an empty lot, almost as unrecognizable as all those sites dotting the new Romanian rustbelt sprung up in a flash of disinvestment and repeated industrial dismemberment.
It is not the first time it has happened, and nor is it probably the last, but Europa Market was the first shapeshifter to arise out of political upheaval and economic destabilization. The first core of concentric growth was pushing outward and enabling the next generation of serial numbered modular stalls arranged on a orthogonal grid pattern, along alleys, and probably going back to the Rites of Zhou.
This was to go too.
Visualized from outer space, trough google Geo-mapping eyes and local televised news outlets, it provokes a zoom-in, a plunge from above in the Age of the World Target (Chow 2006). Europa market was transformed into a tide of waste at the behest of flexible accumulation, when it was finally chosen as target practice for Schumpeterian disruption, a site of imposed self-deconstruction and forced auto-phagia (Popa 2012), to be returned to its absentee land owners intact, red marked as drop zone for development bombs.
Now it lies shattered, as if a typhoon struck more than 500 improvised booths and stalls, a life time of trade measured in a tide of empty packaging, multicolored raffia bags, torsos of headless plastic mannequins, cardboard boxes once carefully folded and stappled, blank invoices strewn around, innumerable tangles of plastic rope, shoes of all sizes, unpaired undergarments, toys studded with leds – the floatsam jetsam sucked in and out trough rapidly accelerating swirlpools of production, distribution and over-consumption.
Europa market was the low tek sister island of that fictional e-waste Silicon Isle of discarded Prostethics envisioned with a clarity honed by a social and environmental sensibility by young Chinese SF writer Chen Quifan’s in his recently translated Waste Tide (Tor Books translation by Ken Liu 2019). As China vowed to stem the avalanche of e-waste to Guiyu – the largest electronic waste site in the world and enforce its long-standing ban, garbage flows from Western Europe have been redirected towards Romania and Bulgaria. Illicit rubbish trade has been growing tenfold, plaguing both countries. Their ailing industrial sector has been refurbished into catering for the waste tide coming from the rich neighboring countries of the EU. Cement works such as Chiscadaga in Western Romania are now being powered by burning waste at a tremendous health and environmental costs as related in a video report by France 24 English channel titled – After China, will Romania become Europe’s rubbish dump?
It is almost as if the post-, the what comes next of “After China” in the title is opening our imagination towards the unthinkable and the already happening, a “what if” followed and verified by the consequences of an “but then!” (Stengers 2018 ).
As Beijing stopped accepting used plastic, flows are being redirected, by-passing border controls and checkups, batteries hidden inside car tires and so on. Instead being up ahead that memorable great chain of development, so-called “backward” or developing countries (as Romania was self-labeling even before 1989) have been actively inserted into what has become a constant hinterland subsumed by the capitalist system of enforced under-development as integral part of the global market (chuang 2020). After China Romania is basically exporting its last forested areas as wood to Austria and Germany nowadays and importing garbage.
Something went wrong in Europa Market, like the Silicon Isle, this other Europa didn’t appease the proper gods, didn’t sacrifice enough or didn’t sacrifice the right ones, or just lost the mandate of Heaven.
Here too, daily rituals made people appear and disappeared, all involved in a vital and lucrative migratory exorcism that kept the raids of police at bay for three decades.
Not that this Europa market could ever be compared with the living nightmares of Guiyu town that became the actual basis for Chen Quifan’s science fiction work. Nevertheless, this Devil’s Gift of toxic waste is still around us, still trying to find the route of least resistance on its way towards future Silicon Islands, still trying to a find a way to leach and fumigate China and other places with polluting tides.
This is not written in support of deregulated neoliberalism, capitalism with Asian values (Zizek 2011) or the establishment of yet another taxation free paradise or investment friendly smart city area – or any of the ongoing processes of hedging wealth and legalizing previous turbo capitalist ventures into transmogrified legal tax evasion heavens. Nor is it in support for the labor camp work networks supplying western tech giants nor the Uyghur re-education camps.
These last 30 years the murky history of Europa market has been characterized by murderous takeovers, dirty deals, money laundering and unbridled real estate mafia activities. Its history lie in 1991-1992 when a police colonel (*actually militia as it was called back then) responsible with passport controls and border checks started buying land next to Colentina neighborhood in order to establish Europa based on an older template, a Chinese-Turkish goods shop near the main train station in Bucharest. In a true vein of gangland Netflix shows, the 1995 the colonel dies in a very suspicious truck accident and so his former partner Dumitru “Niro” Nicolae joins forces with local mafioso Nicu “Gheara” (the Claw) linked to Kitzbuhel, Monaco, Cote d’Azure holdings. The fight to control this area is virtually a movie to be made at least as good as Polanski’s Chinatown or a case study on what happened in many other places around the country. You could write a who’s who list just based on the local celebrities, former mayors, businessmen who were involved. Two former presidents, Ion Iliescu and Emil Constantinescu from opposing parties seem to be linked to it. Suffering vendetta – it passed trough several, probably intentional cremations, with various parts at various times burning to the ground.
So it would be senseless to glamorize in any way the life of people making a living under what can be described as neo primitive accumulation, at great peril to themselves, within crammed spaces and hellish conditions under a worsening climate, with intense heat waves and blaring sun during summer months, no matter how much shadow those windblown canvases seemed to provide.
For all its worth, I am also trying to reclaim here a kind of hyperreal Europa written with big Chinese characters probably stitched and sewn together using pirate bootleg typos from Adibas, Nika, Pulma branded goods that have clothed our last generations.
A mutant, garish never before seen Europa – putting to shame ethno-state politics and nationalistic trends blooming all over Fortress mono- Europe, far removed from the new walled countries and barbed wires being installed and raised almost simultaneously at the Eastern borders of the continent. What better moment to reclaim such a space post factum, after it has done its work, after it traded back & forth for 30 years, after it’s all gone, all destroyed, all demolished to make room for another unreal estate boom and bust, just a ‘propriety’ returned to the owners where even more financialization of the housing sector can take place.
Reclaiming the Europa-Bucharest black market as a twilight- SciFi infected sinofuturist Europe of sorts, would make it an impossible but welcome Interzone. One that does not settle for cheesy Techno-Orientalist tropes (Roh et. al. 2015) and we should be able to not follow into the pitfalls of Blade Runner or why it got it so wrong. This porous contact / buffer Sino- Turkish- Romanian- Vietnamese- Romani- Bulgarian- Iranian- Indian- Pakistani- Syrian- Afghan- Nepali ++ Interzone that lasted 30 years and commingled at the ends of Bucharest and kept together various immigrant flows and low income communities at close quarters with each other, under constant fear from both their overlords and the authorities. Always making a hard bargain, always forced to sell and buy at dumping prices, living and sleeping on top of gigantic bags full with bootleg goods. Having to eat from the same single-use plates, using the same spoons or chopsticks, eating at the same unhygienic but always tasty improvised joints, living the hard life of a porter pushing huge sky-high sealed stacks of boxes down the same lanes, on their own backs or on two wheel hand held trolleys. We have to stop associating cosmopolitanism with NY, Paris, London, Berlin global North cities and multinational HQ and acknowledge where the other side of globalization lies, a more multifariouss, dense entaglement that is to be found far from the financial districts of the West and thriving among the polyethnic, much less glamorous, intimate and makeshift worlds of Chungking Mansions (Gordon Mathews 2011).
For 30 years Europa Market opened up at same early morning opening hours – 4am, following other rhythms, trying to dodge the controls, laboring under the same cruel optimism and get-rich schemes in order to settle accumulating debts, keep worker remittances flowing and dream to get even and pay the interest rates on those overdue travel expenses to Europe.
Even if the lives and hurdles encountered by these mostly invisible immigrant communities happened at the city margins, there was contact and always the real possibility to follow the same goods trafficked from the fringe to center city outlets at triple or more of their initial price.
The tramway 21 still connects Europa Market (now just Niro or Red Dragon) with the exact precise geographical center of Bucharest and its metallic terrestrial sphere displaying the four cardinal directions next to the St George plaza.
In a reversal of its Euro-centric policies and colonizing moves, this Europa wasn’t just a beam in the eyes of the owners/authorities or a lost station on the new Silk Road but a harbor for a welcome tide streaming in after 40 years of Deng Xiaoping reforms, probably the greatest accelerationist in history.(Steven Shaviro 2013)
Before mall-ification, new arrivals started coming, wielding metal lattice work, building stalls out corrugated metal, while traders streamed in from all around the country to buy under the counter goods and resell them for a meager profit farther on along the chain. Co-dependence, tight relations and friendships became the norm, bilingual contacts, nicknames, children co-mingling and informal business collaborations started taking shape for the first time at such a scale. Not so much different and out there but over here, tightly woven and still far out.
This unrecognizable Europa is of unknown and uncertain contour, has too many in and outs, too many unguarded gates, many guardian shishi lions, many unregistered and unlicensed activities. Its immateriality and fluidity responding to the whim of decisions taken elsewhere, retracting or expanding in accord with fleeting competitive interests, paying protection money to who knows who. It could well manifests itself as a protean polymer wasteland that could always host a Mos Eisley Cantina or a Dragon Inn, the nearest kind of what a weird, incongruous Asian futurist (Xin Wang 2017) bazaar would look like before air conditioned feng shui fountain halls of Red Dragon (1, 2, 3, 4, +n) warehouses and malls moved in.
After 30 years of black market living rife with plastic contraband, cheap China and Turkey made orthodox church merchandise including min zip-lock plastic bags filled with Athos myrrh, the exuberant over-ripe harvests of global containerization and constant traffic of copy-does-not-kill cheap goods finally was rerouted elsewhere. After providing the first boot-camp of entrepreneurial exercise, after fortunes were made and unmade, after police and taxation raids, Europa – the first post-1989 Bucharest great bazaar has been deemed a drag.
“Illegal” – “without authorization” – “copy” – “fake” – “money washing” – “fraudulent” – “unregulated” – “bootleg” – “1 million Euro each year” – “shadowy”, “IP rights”, “Patents”, all these terms that abound in the Romanian press do what they have been doing all along, obscuring and creating false binaries about the nature and operations of capital. They are engaged in trying to separate between the proper and the unclean, the good and the bad, the velvet – and the turbo- capitalism, the old and the new oligopolies.
What is obscured here is the most obvious fact that Europa, the Europe of Euro-zone, of free markets, the rabidly free Europe – that of free algorithmic capital flows inside Fortress Europe was doubled by this other Europe, a cash economy and makeshift example of a new composite alloy that apparently somebody finally decided it cannot easily retrofit into current plans and future development.
We should consider Europa the preemptive graveyard of present feelings attached to the most banal of consumer goods, everything that dressed and undressed the unfashionable bad taste of the European East, their kids and grand kids, and both grandparents. Those very goods that will fill up in the future all those landfills and dumping sites that won’t stay still, and will keep inundating and spilling over into tomorrow.
This is a magnifying glass stance that lacks the tragic or spectacular sublimity of catastrophes that dominate and characterize apocalyptic media depictions or the current coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Europa market offers pause to glean over, stooping down to rummage physically and mentally trough the images and the detritus of the new, compiling all those anonymous, pirated, fake, bootleg consumer goods that have outlasted the onslaught of the original because they never had one. Those inauthentic fakes that mocked any type of brand loyalty towards the corporate mega-franchises. Even the latest coronavirus memes in Romania bare witness to the kind of gallows humor that abounds in relation with Red Dragon/Europa – fake news regarding a fake bootleg coronavirus being sold illegally on the black market. Nevertheless there remains the fact that reduced environmental complexity as well as the survival of the cheapest has gestated and evolved viruses beyond their initial range within industrial environments and has made them follow unimpeded the same distribution pathways as the cheap goods themselves (chuang 2020).
As emphatically as in Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse from 2000 made by the great late Agnes Varda, people are seen in a current TV news reel collecting and gleaning from the remains of Europa various tidbits, various goods they accidentally discover, recuperate and clearly don’t want to leave behind in the rubble.
This rummaging trough the present, brings the stark realization of unsuspected traces left by an entire invisible trajectory trough half of Bucharest city after these countless goods have traveled half a world. Cory Doctorow has aptly called these – the “pre-mutated” products of the new knockoff Galapagos, without an original, without a master copy, retooling hundreds of Chinese e-cig factories into hoverboard supply-chains (Doctorow 2015). Mememufacturing is at the core of Europa Market, and heaps of scattered commodities remind us of something else as well – a different type of post-apocalyptic nostalgia in a minor key. A type of nostalgia surviving the very fact that all these objects are cheaply done, come from apparently nowhere and are easy to replicate, easy to break and part of a truly apocalyptic throw-away culture. These are total no-nos, not by any means recognizable referents, or collectible pieces of Euro-American or International pop culture, nor vintage collections. This is the world of shanzhai where fake DVDs have given way to easy to repair mobile phones.
They manifests the same tension and degree of attachment to the very “garbage-to-be, despite the significant financial and environmental costs of those goods” as Christopher Todd Anderson pointed out in his foray into Pixar company ‘garbology’ and the detritivore habits of a digital audience (I thank Sașa Staicu for kindly suggesting this paper).
In this sense Europa market should be considered a potential site for an applied field of waste theory or cultural garbage studies (Anderson 2012).
In the age of big supermarkets advertising so-called authentic traditional Romanian goods, neo-folkloric shirts and ethno- products with each and every occasion, attaching putative self- certified local product labeling to almost everything, we see the fallout of market erasure still bouncing back at us from the ignored leftovers. The most worthless bric-à-brac, the abandoned Created-not-Made-in-China – mass without mass produced items is climbing back into attention from the pit of dejected oblivion. As we hover, prowl and rummage around it, this metastable situation (Simondon 1992) of the abandoned mass is rife with all sorts of incompatible, disparate dimensions.
In a short recent essay in Romanian, Alexandru Polgar, a Romanian philosopher and translator, takes on the full gravity and so-called inertia of universal Garbage (Polgar 2018) against even the practice of gleaning, urging us actually never pick it up, to let it do its own work, to not break its monumental being in the world and omnipresence that suddenly seems to unite the particular with the universal.
Europa market and Red Dragon also fostered other rituals, each weekend, since mid 2010s, members of the burgeoning otaku fan community joined and took the tram no 21 from city center to go nearly 1h long quest to the end station next to Europa market.
They choose the local, mostly unlicensed Chinese cantinas or nearby restaurant – next to a huge aquarium, the first Chinese store with traditional products and food items as their favorite node, Everything in the midst of local CCTV tuned tv sets, incandescent woks, bustling kitchen life and people sitting next to you while watching TV news, chopping cabbage and preparing the next meal. This was the very place where most of the workers, porters and street sellers were eating and ordering their food. For a moment in time and space, all the Fan(ca)non gathered regularly in the same spaces. Various enthusiasts of gaming, Lineage MMPRPGs avatars, anime subbing teams, fandom archivers and AMV anime music video editors, convention and festival organizers (both Otaku and Nijikon festival) held their meetings and suddenly discovered another world, with its own rhythms and CD/DVD archives.
After becoming regulars, the otaku group even got their own table at one of the joints, also long gone since. I remembered very clearly this key moment, when suddenly, we gathered some courage to go up the stairs in one of the first Dragon Inns, in the rooms where huge bags of rice and large thick strands of haidai seaweed powdered with sea salt where lying in wait. Nearly 14 years ago, there behind a small plastic curtain, in a tiny room, there was a real Chinese otaku den – a small DVD/CD library with rows upon rows of brightly colored DIY sleeve prints with wuxia, historical, romance and the latest modern Chinese blockbusters in Mandarin.
Even some of the first mecha collections and Plamo models where found here in Europa market. Decorative items, Mary and Jesus lamps with rotating led auras, sacks full of glittery fairy-dust hearts and countless electrical parts became source and raw material for many local artists, maker labs as well as being sewn and shaped into the first local ready-mades and the first inexpensive Cosplay costumes available.
Long snake shaped Chinese aubergines started appearing as did various stands of fresh vegetables cultivated in the proximity, new super bitter melon cucumbers Momordica charantia with warty skin, fresh pak choi and soy sprouts, salty plums, 1000 year old eggs, jellified blob-like Sterculia lychnophora pandahai – a fat ocean expanding inside your glass under your own eyes. And in the end even Chinese water calligraphy sets as well as brushes, inksticks and inkstones.
In themselves these constitute the tail-end of a largely forgotten genealogy of Eurasian Socialist interchange, pieces of a puzzle that have replaced each other over time, following in the tracks of earlier school supplies from Republic of China into 70s and 80s Romania. In particular all those lenticular prints of Pandas on top of pencil sharpeners and pencil boxes moving and winking each time one turned them slightly over at various angles.
To end on a personal note, after reading in my teenage years translated versions of the Chinese classics such as Dream of the Red Chamber and available extracts from Journey to the West or Water Margin (Editura Militara stopped the translation abruptly in the early 90s), I managed to keep collecting issues of China Nouă (New China Romanian edition) and China Populară (People’s China) magazine from the late 80s on. Before downloadable costumes, my father did this first Sun Wukong Monkey King cosplay at an 80s high school carnival with a papier mache mask sporting a mohakw and a red – golden staff copied by my father from the 1961-64 donghua classic Havoc/Uproar in Heaven directed by Wan Laiming and produced by all the Wan brothers.
As expected, I became enthralled with the dawning fact that at the edges of Bucharest was growing what I considered the very first Romanian Chinatown, arising under a completely different premise than other older Chinatowns in Western Europa or the US. Europa exhibited all the characteristics of informal markets, spatial production and makeshift economies explored by Dr Helge Mooshammer and Prof Peter Mörtenböck across the world, more like the Budapest or Belgrade Chinese market, more Arizona Market than San Francisco. During these last 20 years or more, as a gwailou at home in Europa, I have been making back and forth trips organizing mostly anonymous guided tours, heady introductions to and from Europa market, riding on the local tramways or buses with old and new friends, or visitors, or visiting artists. There has been also a constant stream of Bucharest based artists gleaning the stalls of Europa market since its very beginning. Artist such as Suzana Dan and Anca Benera whom I crossed paths with and who’s exploratory work I appreciated, have shown me new ways of discovering Europa by forging their own particular trajectories in and out of it.
I considered myself lucky to have joined this caravan from downtown to the Europa market including a full student class from Copenhagen or traveling Vienna gallerists and their friends. For a meager sum, or a beer, a free dinner, an exchange, whomever asked and whomever wanted to see the living example of another Bucharest could join in. Along these years I even facilitated a collaboration by one Austrian women artist whose work involved local Chinese communities all over the world, trafficking, bringing and exchanging fortune cookies from various Chinese diasporas.
For a time, 10 or more years back, I even had a catchy Brucesploitation webpage put up by friends – Enter The (Red) Dragon – offering guided detours on demand, a telephone number, always happy when somebody called and ready to spin alternate histories about Asia- futurist becomings and full Asian hybridization in Europa, a fabled place where urban legends took shape. Once got there with Daniel Knorr from Berlin to make a few photos of the area, with the empty shuttered stalls at closing hours, always on the lookout for trouble ahead with the Romanian body guards implementing strict rules of no foto shoots and no pictures taken. At the same time, we took great care to ask visitors or friends to abide by the unwritten rules of the place and never expose unwittingly the already vulnerable immigrants to the prowling immigration officers or the police always targeting the weakest link in the bootleg traffic chain. During that period I sometimes got phone calls from people asking me just about the closing and opening hours at the Europa market mistaking Enter The Dragon with the official thing. My last tour was part of the Bucharest Disaster Detour 2016 after the Geneva Disaster Detour, a series of diverse weekly detours with local curioso, artists, actors, urban organized by Lucas Cantori and Julia Schulze as part of Bucharest’s unlucky-lucky bid for the 2021 cultural capital (which of course we manage to avoid).
It wouldn’t be at all surprised if in the near future the Chinese road & belt initiative will eventually decide to construct a theme park version of Europa next to the Red Dragon – with its own monorail and guided tours. Although difficult to envision at the current time, it would be so important to have an oral history archive where former Europa pioneers as well as visitors (past and present) would record and recount their first impressions, their struggles and trials before and after the fall of yet another station on the new silk road.
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Doctorow, Cory (2015). Pre-mutated products: where did all those “hoverboards” come from? https://boingboing.net/2015/11/29/pre-mutated-products-where-di.html
France English 24 report (2019). After China, will Romania become Europe’s rubbish dump?
Ivanov, Catiuşa (2019). Povestea Incredibilă a Complexului Europa: o moarte suspectă, legături cu mafia şi apusul unui imperiu https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/9299ed41d60d4528b1fbe18dc2dd0f28
Matthews, Gordon (2011). Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11878846-ghetto-at-the-center-of-the-world
Polgar, Alexandru (2018). Gunoi https://www.argumentesifapte.ro/2018/12/19/gunoi
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Roh, S David (2015). Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media https://muse.jhu.edu/book/40896
Roman, Mihai (2019). Sute de tarabe din Complexul Europa de la marginea Bucureștiului, închise și demolate. https://www.g4media.ro/sute-de-tarabe-din-complexul-europa-de-la-marginea-bucurestiului-inchise-si-demolate.html
Qiufan, Chen (2019). Read the First chapter of Chen Quifan’s Waste Tide https://www.tor.com/2019/04/02/excerpts-chen-qiufan-waste-tide/.
Staicu, Sașa Post Soviet Emotive Ethnography: Eastern European artists at the turn of the century and the historical reimagining of the apartment (2018). unpublished dissertation.
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Stengers, Isabelle (2018). Reclaiming Imagination: Speculative SF as an Art of Consequences: an interview with Isabelle Stengers by Casper Bruun Jensen and Line Marie Thorsen. https://www.natcult.net/interviews/writing-science-fiction-out-of-experience-sf-social-science-and-planetary-transformations/
Varda, Agnes (2000). Les glaneurs et la glaneuse. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0247380/
Yu, Ping and Lu, Chi (2014). A publicly funded health care system of China in the 11th to 3rd century BC, as recorded in the Rites of Zhou. https://hekint.org/2017/01/30/a-publicly-funded-health-care-system-of-china-in-11th-to-3rd-century-bc-as-recorded-in-the-rites-of-zhou/.
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videos about the demolition process. Complexul Europa a fost asanat. Contrabanda a ajuns moloz (2019) http://www.ziare.com/stiri/politie/complexul-europa-a-fost-asanat-contrabanda-a-ajuns-moloz-video-1576325