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Beijing Modernisation is Like Building Hotels in the Forbidden City

Heritage Key by Michael Kan Tuesday 30/03/2010

The Drum and Bell towers of Beijing were built during the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century. Photo provided by Michael Kan.
The Drum and Bell towers of Beijing were built during the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century. Photo provided by Michael Kan.

As parts of old Beijing modernize and turn into new high-rises and shopping centers, preservationists are hoping to draw the line with one of the capital’s historical districts. Last night, the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center spoke with journalists about stopping the redevelopment of the city’s ancient Drum and Bell towers. Now the group is seeking to rally public support and pressure backers of the project to give up the plan.

“I think allowing it to happen in such an important neighborhood would be a great waste,” said He Shuzhong, chairman and founder of the group. “That would be akin to building hotels in the Forbidden City.”

The towers — a pair of city landmarks more than 700 years old — are slated to be the site for an upcoming restoration expected to start later this year. According to Chinese media reports, the project would cover 12.5 hectares and include building public squares and a museum in the surrounding area.

Living Heritage

In spite of the project’s goal to revitalize the area, He and his group have come out against what they say is a government-led plan. They argue that the project will inevitably lead to the bulldozing of the existing historical homes present in the area. Many of the surrounding neighborhoods are made up of traditional residences called hutongs, which preservationists have worked to protect.

“These neighborhoods are special in that they encompass all the important elements of historical heritage in China… It is living heritage.”

“These neighborhoods are special in that they encompass all the important elements of historical heritage in China,” He said. “It is living heritage.”

Not only does He want to prevent such so-called “restoration” projects from spreading, but he also believes the project violates the country’s laws governing historical sites. To gather public support, the preservation group plans to circulate a detailed article stating their views. The hope is that the public will begin taking notice and force the government to take action.

“You need to touch the right pressure points and then you can make things possible,” He added. “But if you are not able to completely stop (the project), you might be able to reduce the impact, reduce the damage caused by it.”

Stared at by Tourists Like Zoo Animals

The Drum and Bell towers of Beijing were built during the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century. Photo provided by Michael Kan.

Although the group hopes to raise awareness about the issue, a scheduled public forum held last Saturday was abruptly cancelled a day before the event. He would only say it was due to various reasons. But other news outlets speculated that government pressure may have forced the event’s cancellation.

Heritage Key attempted to contact the companies involved with the project, but none could be reached or did not wish to comment at this time.

Even as the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center is working to oppose the project, residents in the surrounding neighborhoods are divided in their opinions. Some agree and say the restoration will have the opposite effect, while others say they would gladly receive compensation to move out so they could live in a better home.

He acknowledged that not everyone shared his opposition toward the project. He noted that some of the complaints by residents living in the neighborhood include “the chaotic living environment and being looked at by tourists like animals in a zoo.”

He said that this was not an issue with the neighborhood or the buildings themselves, but that the residences had been allowed to deteriorate.

“This particular area may look chaotic, but the area surrounding the Forbidden City was just like that 10, 20 years ago,” he said. Over time, the neighborhoods can be improved and repaired with the right projects. But as for the current redevelopment plan proposed for the area, He said, “A project like this can be better done elsewhere.”

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