Yelang Valley lies on the gentle slopes of a remote hill outside Guiyang, the capital of southern China’s Guizhou province. It is home to a surreal park dotted with eerie representations of faces, deities and creatures from Chinese mythology.
The aesthetic inspiration, however, is a European, the legendary Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, and like his artistic hero, the mastermind behind the 50-acre park, Song Peilun, will not live to see his greatest creation to its end. Although Song started on the project about two decades ago, only half of his master plan has been completed.
“I will keep working until the day I die, but I’m already 78 years old and I know I won’t live much longer,” Song says.
Gaudí did not foresee his death when he was killed by a tram in 1926 at the age of 73. His still-unfinished cathedral, the Sagrada Família, was in its early stages of construction.
“But his spirit carries on,” Song says, “almost a century after he passed away, and the world is yet to witness the opening ceremony of his masterpiece. I hope the same will happen with Yelang Valley. My wish is that someone will love it as much as I do and keep the work going once I’m gone.”
It takes a village
Under the scorching sun, workers carefully add layers of stone to what will soon be another gigantic head overlooking the stream that runs through the valley. Whenever the main structure of a figure is complete, Song covers it with mosaics made of broken tiles, a characteristic of Gaudí’s work. The technique, known in Catalan as trencadís, involves covering the surface with shards of china or clay.
“I use pieces of old jars and even discarded construction materials I take from nearby developments to give the figures their unique look,” Song says. Flowerpots become eyes, and old roof tiles form noses. “I’ve always been aware of the need to reuse and recycle. Now, someone will make a selling point of that.”
Most of the workers are from the Miao and Buyi ethnic groups, Song says. “They are experienced stone-structure builders, use only artisanal techniques and work for free because they want to take part in the project.”
Sometimes, villagers even donate their own money “because I’ve always been in debt,” says Song, who claims to have invested more than 3 million yuan (US$436,000), his life savings, in the project.
Bringing Chinese legends to life
As a child, Song was fascinated by the stories that his grandparents told. He was also terrified of the masks that Nuo opera performers would wear to play those legends.
“There were some small, mysterious castles in my hometown” in Meitan county, Guizhou, he says, “so I dreamt of having my own heavily guarded castle from which to fend those monsters off.”
His dream is now coming true. In Yelang Valley, mythological creatures made of stone hide among the trees and behind walls. Faces split with a chilling rictus beneath threatening eyes scare children and intrigue parents.
The whole endeavor started in 1993. Self-taught Song was switching jobs as an art teacher when an agency in Hong Kong asked him to replace another artist on a trip to the United States.
“They were opening a Chinese culture theme park in Florida,” Song says.
He was reluctant to go at first, but friends and family encouraged him to give it a try.
He ended up staying in the United States for a year and brought back many ideas for a culture park in his native Guizhou.
In 1997, Song discovered a tranquil valley for rent, signed the contract and started to sketch out his most ambitious work of art yet.
Not for sale
Song’s project has attracted overtures from numerous investors. The government has offered subsidies and financial aid to develop the place into a tourist attraction, but Song has turned them all down.
“This is not a theme park. This is art."
“This is not a theme park,” he says. “This is art. I hang up all the calls from developers and investors. They would just force me to change the place and take over once I’m dead.”
Song is critical of both the excessive commercialization of modern Chinese art and development of the country’s cities, especially as the bulldozers are drawing nearer. A few years ago, the government took away some of the land he rented to build a campus for Guizhou University. And not far from Song’s park, Guangdong-based developer Country Garden is building luxury apartments for Guiyang’s rapidly growing middle class.
The offer of riches holds no allure for Song, but he has worried about the ramifications of rejecting offers of financial support. A concrete water tank near Yelang Valley’s entrance is set to be torn down, and many old buildings in the area will likely follow suit.
“The thought of a possible eviction made me upset,” Song says, “but now I just enjoy the process of building it and hope the government will understand the advantages of preserving Yelang Valley.”
‘An oasis of art’
Despite growing interest in Song’s work, Yelang Valley still feels remote. The only way to reach it is by car or taxi, and it is not listed in official leaflets or online guides published by the China National Tourism Administration. Nevertheless, a steady stream of families is arriving.
“It’s a pleasant park and a place full of surprises,” says a mother of two girls, one of many locals who are familiar with Yelang Valley. “You may walk around the trees and find unexpected things. I thought most figures were African or American, but I was surprised to know that we also have this kind of thing in our culture.”
Summer in Guiyang gets hot, so a highlight of Song’s park during school holidays is the stream that flows through it. Children splash around in a natural pond while their guardians upload photos to social media.
“I like to see the place full of life,” Song says. “Visitors enjoy the art in a way that makes them part of it.”
When they ask him about the future of the place, he promises to keep working on Yelang Valley for as long as he is able.
“I’ve drawn a master plan, but it’s not detailed,” he says. “A bit like Gaudí did, designs are rough sketches which I shape in detail when I get inspired.”
And inspiration can come from anywhere — opera scripts, history books, art exhibitions and even his granddaughter’s drawings.
“I have a daughter and a granddaughter,” Song says. “They enjoy what I’ve created, but I won’t push them to carry on with my work.”
“An oasis of art in a world moved by commercial instincts.”
“I just want to let people know about a forgotten part of our history and create a utopia,” he says. “An oasis of art in a world moved by commercial instincts.”
Song smiles when he talks about his own mortality — a recurring topic — but there is one last thing he would like to do before the time comes.
“I’ve studied and been inspired by Gaudí’s work,” he says, “but I’ve never been to Spain to see it for real.”
Adapted from an original article first published in the South China Morning Post.