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Manzhouli: Self-portrait of a City, by Tara Manshon

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

Manzhouli is a city on the border of two worlds. As a result, the people who live there speak two half-languages, having never learned the whole of each. To make up for this, they switch between each half, sometimes within the same sentence. When meeting new people, Manzhoulians can become self-conscious and not knowing which half to use or even if both halves are adequate, they can fall into extended silences, often giving strangers the impression that they are very quiet and reserved people.

Print of small town with yellow and brown buildings
Dusk, by Jodie Chilcote

A favorite pastime of Manzhoulians is to collect broken and discarded items. Homes are often decorated with the unwanted and it is not unusual to see citizens wandering the slate streets, their arms carrying broken turtledoves and wayward slugs. Children build fortresses from forgotten cicada shells, weaving the legs into intricate latches, barring even their parents from entering. When visiting a Manzhoulian’s house for the first time, it is considered good manners to bring the host a gift. Business cards, old plane tickets and coffee shop napkins with doodles are understood to be extravagant and therefore widely and graciously accepted.

The architecture in Manzhouli is reminiscent of a matryoshka doll, layers of boxes hidden inside each other. From the outside, the buildings are indistinguishable from each other, every single one grey and square as if they were large concrete blocks placed throughout the city. Beneath its drab exterior, each building is more ridiculously vibrant than the next, some with licorice striped towers, some with gingerbread staircases. Because of the absurdity of its design, visitors often struggle to find the next box, the doors hidden like cicada latches.

The most experienced visitors are encouraged to visit City Hall. Unlike other buildings where the boxes lie enclosed in itself, City Hall lies parallel, perpendicular, adjacent and around itself. Its winding corridors and jutting windows give the impression of a cardboard Christmas tree, each level stacked at odd angles. At the very center of the last box is a faded merry-go-round with rusted bars and a custodian whose only job is to turn the wheel. In the slow, cold months, when the city has few visitors and no one steps into City Hall, the custodian still turns the wheel, his hands blistering against the metal. He watches it spin, the faded paint blurring to white.


Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, Tara Manshon has lived in the United States for fourteen years and still looks the wrong way when crossing the street. She is a recent American University graduate with an MFA in Creative Writing. This is her debut publication.


Jodie Chilcote is in her final semester of her MFA at Kendall College of Art and Design. While getting her BA from Spring Arbor University, she discovered her enjoyment of Printmaking and has continued that line of study throughout her education. Jodie enjoys depicting the various aspects of community, and the lack there of, within her work. You can view more of her work at her @printsbyjodie or on her website.


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