Haze Cave is a comic of urban contemplation - drawn in texture, like breathing in the downtown core. Pigao works in deep and subtle charcoals, a murky cloud of swelling blacks and rusted reds occasionally brightened by cheerful blues: the specter of daylight. These gloomy, deep, organic shades breathe into minimalist cartooning and backdrops of slick modernity. The comic opens with a night drive on the highways of Beijing, the lights of cars streaking between modern skyscrapers, around which smog and shadows pervade, haunting the atmosphere with their psychology.
The book is comprised of several loosely divided segments, but can be read as two halves: the first is about daily life caught in the acceleration of urban development in Beijing, while the second is a visit to the titular Haze Cave, a fictional heritage site in Hangzhou that amalgamates several actual locations. At its center is an unnamed protagonist, standing in ambiguously for the artist, an urban transplant struggling to keep roots amid renoviction and rising rents. Evenings with friends are spent sharing stories of planned demolitions and contemplation of the suburbs, while urgent text messages are exchanged about tenant rights. Before and after work hours, the bustling metropolis is empty and sparse - small groups of friends loitering in city parks and parking lots while the sun sets over concrete and rows of trees. Our protagonist sits alone in her apartment, griping about her landlord and earnestly asking her cat if Hangzhou would be a better home after all, when a friend suggests a trip to the nostalgic landmark of Haze Cave.
The second half of the book, the visit to the cave, shifts to a cultivated, scenic atmosphere, hints of blues increasing and verging into vibrant green beneath a manicured foliage of trees and ancient stones. In this changed setting, Pigao's subject encounters contradictions and absences. She remembers very little about the cave; her friend describes vivid carvings, while she recalls them as “small and worn down.” A security guard who stands ever so slightly too close for comfort demands no photos be taken, at once breaking the magical atmosphere of this apparently sacred space with his embodied bureaucracy and asserting its mystery - a place that can be visited and remembered but never recorded. Standing before imposing statues of serene religious icons, Pigao's protagonist thinks “There's no way I just forgot this,” though she only recognizes the end of the cave, an unremarkable crevice. In a final surreal passage, she finds herself in an outside world much like that crevice, and while adjusting to the surroundings discovers that she quite literally does not fit in. A final spread of the protagonist and a friend sitting in a park bookends a work which began with a drive past skyscrapers.
Through these two sections, Pigao deftly explores an emotional landscape of absence and exclusion so deeply part of modernity. Urban centers expel their residents - it is impossible to truly belong to a place that constantly pushes people aside for building projects. No matter how long you stay, a city is never truly your city. And yet the homes we've left are not unchanging; even if they remain the same, we change, we become new people, and we forget. Haze Cave has been untouched beyond the path for visitors for thousands of years, and yet it has changed and warped in memory to the point of becoming unrecognizable, of becoming surprising. Or perhaps it has changed. Perhaps restorations were made and were long since forgotten. Has Pigao's protagonist forgotten Hangzhou, or does she remember an inaccessibly different time? Pigao charts a contemplative terrain of personal diaspora, a fog of place and time, the haze of memory.