Li Yang was born in 404. It is the name of his hometown in the deep Gobi desert in western China, where China started making its first nuclear bomb in the late 1950s. The city was built in 1958; it occupied an area of 4 km2 and included a factory, police station, school, and a residential area. In the 1990s, it was China’s largest nuclear base, and there were almost 100,000 people who lived there.
The idea behind building this city appeared in the 1950s in response to China receiving a series of nuclear attack threats from the United States. The Government of the Republic of China decided to build a nuclear technology base so that it could carry on its own bomb research projects. The first generation of 404’s residents was also its builders.
Li Yang’s grandfather and father worked in 404. Local residents called it hecheng, or nuclear city. A popular slogan is “After offering your youth, offer your life; after offering your life, offer your children and grandchildren.” Li Yang is the third generation of 404.
When he went back to 404, now almost a deserted city, to take photos in September 2014, he found a plutonium manual outside of the public bathing room’s gate. The handbook was universal in 404 residents’ homes. Despite its small size, the city had similar facilities to other large cities in China. This was because 404 was designated a “closed city,” meaning there were residential and travel restrictions in place.
Due to large-scale cave-ins, most people living in 404 were relocated to Jiayuguan in 2006. Now, only some 1,000 residents remain. Countless identical housing blocks stand empty, their doors sealed shut with walls of brick.
404 Not Found comprises photographs made between 2013 and 2016. Yang visited the city four times, staying for three days on each visit. With no place to stay the night, he drove back and forth every day, following a carefully planned itinerary save time.
The most solid building in 404 is a hospital designed by Soviet architects. They knew this place well. That became a big concern after bilateral relations soured in early 1960s, as local residents were always worried that the Soviet Union would attack the place. All 404 children were familiar with air strike sirens and used to the air defense maneuver.
To outsiders, 404 residents’ life was dull. Roasting potatoes and watching stars were the main way to kill time for children, in addition to doing sports. When Li Yang left the city, the population had dwindled massively. He recalls that there were only about 100 children in his grade. He left two years before all residents did, enrolling at a college in the Sichuan province in 2003 to study computer science.
After graduating, Li Yang moved to Beijing and became interested in photography. Between 2013 and 2016, he created a project called 404 Not Found. During these years, he returned to his hometown for three days at a time to capture pictures of deserted streets, abandoned buildings, and empty parks.
The incredible portfolio of photographs he produced contains his life experiences and memories from childhood and adolescence. The project won the Best Photography Award at the 7th Dali International Photography Exhibition.