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Power to the people?

Global Times by Matthew Jukes and Wang Fanfan on Thurs, 21/01/2010

eXisi North Street. Photos: Guo Yingguang

Xisi North Street. Photos: Guo Yingguang

The old and restored Xinhua Bookstore in Xisi

The old and restored Xinhua Bookstore in Xisi

On New Year’s Day, the Xinhua Bookstore in Xisi reopened to the public after two-and-a-half-years. The two-story Qing style building has a pungent smell of paint, a stunning red color and artificial drawings on its beams. It stands in the northwest corner of the Xisi intersection, like an alien in the neighborhood.

When the No. 4 subway was built underneath the bookstore, the groundsill started to fall, which caused the whole building to lean and the walls to break. “Yellow dust fell from the ceiling when the drill was working. The building would have fallen apart if it was not a wooden structure. We had to close it,” said Niu Shouyi, the manager of the bookstore, who has been working here since the 1990s.

Last May the original building, a historic site built in 1894 for the purpose of celebrating Empress Cixi’s 60th birthday, was torn down. The so-called “restoration” only kept the same design and structure of the original, but the materials were mostly new.

The fate of the bookshop building would have been a precursor to the future of the old Xisi area, if Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) had not gotten involved.

Horrible

Though the one-time horse and pig market has become a street full of electronics shops, people live their quiet lives in the eight hutong on the west side of the Xisi North Street, believing that their homes are safe and insulated from those horrible demolition stories. This is because it is one of the 25 cultural conser-vation areas of old Beijing.

As often happens when dealing with governments, the movement for change started with a letter. When founder of CHP He Shuzhong was just a student in Shanghai, he wrote a letter crying out for help over the abuse that cultural heritage undergoes in China.

Dodging the bulldozers and traders, he was picked up by the Western newspapers, which pricked the ears of the powers that be, and no sooner said than done, CHP was under way.

Mr Zheng has lived in the No.1 Hutong of North Xisi since he was born. His family are no longer alive and his childhood neighbors have moved out, leaving him alone in a 30-square meter room.

“I have an apartment in the Chaoyang district, but I don’t want to live in the high-rise. I love living here. The parks and markets are within walking distance; it’s so convenient,” said Zheng.

However, in 2007, a party was organized by the Xicheng authority to redesign the Xisi area. Nine domestic and international architectural design firms, including the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) with Rem Koolhaas, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, were invited to discuss a proposal for transforming the area into a pedestrian shopping area with top-notch fashion stores.

Beijing’s Studio Pei-Zhu, designer of the Olympic Control Center was one of the participating firms of the New Xisi North project. The firm had its own idea and experience of restoring the shabby hutong area which has been destroyed during the industrialization of the city.

According to their regeneration strategy, architectural transformations and suitable programmatic elements would be introduced to the restoration, in order to convert these “tumors” into “urban incubators”: Centers that will create and maintain over time the necessary conditions for the sustainable regeneration, renovation and growth of the Xisi North area.

Carry the blind

He Shuzhong has a different idea. “All of the hutong area was planned to be knocked down, and whole area was divided into nine sections, and one of the nine firms was assigned to each,” he said, who was a participant at the proposal. Zhu Pei’s blueprints, however, appear to contradict this.

“It was bare capitalism, like a big and fancy party. They even had a fashion show. None of the local residents was invited to discuss the proposal,” said Wang Jun, the author of City Record, a diehard activist protecting old Beijing.

Right after the party, CHP organized a seminar, inviting architects, cultural heritage experts, media, local residents and other NGOs to discuss the proposal.

“In the seminar, we pointed out the inconsistency between the proposal for New Xisi and the current cultural heritage protection laws. Soon after the media exposed our discussion, the organizing committee of the New Xisi Project was dismissed,” said He Shuzhong.

In a city of massive transformation from tradition to modernity, He and his organization only pick what they think are the most important things to do. This often involves setting an example to local residents, awaking their cultural awareness and supporting them to defend their cultural rights.

“Local residents are the owners of the cultural heritage. They are the ones who should decide how their own houses are to be restored. They also should be the ones who contribute efforts to save and protect their residence. We are providing guidance and consultation,” He said.

In 2008, before the Beijing Paralympic Games, Beijing planned to put elevators in the Forbidden City, so as to provide a barrier free environment for blind tourists.

“Under the grand topics of the blind and the Paralympics, we had no excuse to stop them. But we cannot just wait around to see them destroy the Forbidden City with elevators and special roads for the blind. So we wrote articles, put them on our website, and sent the articles to the International Paralympic Committee and other international organizations,” said He.

Instead, he suggested that the blind could be carried to higher vantage points, precluding the need for elevators.

Pop

Starting from 1998, CHP has entered into complicated relationships between the property developers, government officials and the local residents. The difficulty they deal with goes far beyond the protection of cultural heritage itself.

“Because of what we do, we attract people from different sources who want to help us,” said Napatra Charassuvichakanich, an intern from the Princeton Asia fellowship and one of the foreign faces that have pitched in to help CHP. Now with a 200 plus volunteer network, alongside the new law they’re raising the profile of the work they do.

“In December where we got all these indie pop musicians together which attracted a lot of people, and younger people as well,” adds Jeanette Shepherd, another of the foreign placements. “We want to get people within the community to help save and help run these events.”

But it’s not all donations and philanthropy and nothing in China lasts very long on goodwill alone. There’s also some very practical leisurely work that they do. CHP has put out a booklet of hutong walks to be had around the city to help newbies understand the real “old Beijing.”

“We do a lot of work in that sense, actually going and interview people and surveying all the different hutong as part of our old Beijing project, and our heritage trails. It’s about seeing the buildings and learning about the history behind them,” said Shepherd.

But if it’s bulldozers at the door, or a leaky roof, where do local people turn?

“If you see anything illegal or suspicious you can call us, if you want legal consultation or if you want to fix your house and you don’t know how to, you can call us,” said Charassuvichakanich.

By illegal, it’s normally property developers that don’t have the full permission to storm over a courtyard in the blink of an eye. The CHP also runs a hotline, which runs directly to founder He Shuzhong, who once joked in an interview that around 10,000 people had his mobile phone number.

By getting the people to stand up, CHP is also helping the local government stay on top of its cultural history. With a founder who specialized in policy and law, they know how to stay on the right side of the Beijing’s authorities. “I think more than anything else we’re helping to make sure that their laws are more than appropriately enforced,” said Charassuvichakanich.

CHP would like to thank Global Times for allowing us to republish the article for educational purposes.

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