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A Better Future for Gulou – CHP’s Views on the Planned Redevelopment

The “Saving Gulou: A Better Future for Gulou” public discussion was recently cancelled the day before it was meant to be held, primarily because it was going to cover two basic but important issues: the rights of local residents and protecting Gulou’s cultural heritage.

Despite the cancellation, CHP would still like to make its stance clear.

CHP hopes that the cultural heritage of the area and lives of the residents are respected, and that Gulou will continue to be a true and authentic representation of traditional Old Beijing. CHP does not oppose all projects in the area, especially ones that will improve the rights and livelihoods of the local residents and businesses, but full responsibility needs to be taken to ensure work is carefully completed and in the historical context of this culturally significant neighborhood. The Dong Cheng Government needs to carefully consider its historical responsibility to this unique area, and we would like to see them come forward to preserve Gulou for future generations with a careful and sustainable approach.

Historical significance

Gulou is one of Beijing’s most culturally and historically valuable neighborhoods. Not only is it a central area of Old Beijing, but it is also protected under the Shichahai Historical and Cultural Protection Area.

Traditionally, Gulou has been fundamental to Beijing’s long and colorful narrative. It is situated on the northern end of the central axis that runs North-South through the middle of the Forbidden City. It was built on this critical axis as the Drum and Bell Towers were key time-keeping buildings, dating back to the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) and played an important part of Beijing residents’ day-to-day life. It was, and remains, a central hub of Beijing – surrounded in different directions by the Forbidden City, bustling commercial areas and residential neighborhoods – all vital aspects of traditional life.

Gulou is now one of the few surviving representations of the traditional culture of Old Beijing, as more and more significant neighbourhoods like Qianmen are demolished and disappear into the past. Gulou encompasses all the essential elements of Old Beijing, both tangible and intangible, with the Drum and Bell Towers, hutongs, courtyard houses, and, importantly, its traditional residents.  Each of these characteristics make the area so culturally rich, and the Drum and Bell Towers, for example, bereft of its surrounding context – the people, the hutongs – would decrease their individual historical and cultural value.

Through restoration, protection and cultivation, Gulou can become a foundation of Old Beijing and remain one of its most culturally valuable places.

Pressures on Gulou

While Gulou is a vital part of Old and present Beijing, it currently has clear problems that threaten its existence. The poor quality of life of the local residents is among the most important.

Generally, the complaints about the quality of life in the hutongs are bad and chaotic living environment, congested traffic and intrusive tourists.

Some of the comments on CHP’s website before the discussion event reflect this:

“Losing the life of the local residents? Are we residents ornaments? Is this a zoo? Are our lives simply for foreign tourists to gawk at? Who of you has cared about our lives? If you stay for one day you’ll think it’s great, but how about living here for 10 years? This is a horrid location!”

“I have lived my whole life on Gulou Dongdajie, and while I loved it when I was small I hate it now. Before, every summer I would love to sit in the cool shade of the trees on the side of the road, or skip rope with my friends. Just look at it now! I almost never go outside, people and cars are everywhere. You try living such a noisy, anxious life. The wonderful past that I remember no longer exists. So much time spent preserving this area, and this is what has come about?”

“BJCHP, don’t bring this kind of trouble! You all live in big houses, but what about the everyday people!? Go bother the government about it since you can! But don’t go pulling the media over to your side. Can I offer a bit of advice to those standing speaking without sore and bent backs? Put on our shoes and think it over, empathize with the local residents that have lived for decades in these conditions that you can’t even imagine! If you come on 27 March to listen to the thoughts of local residents and come up with ways to improve living conditions, then we welcome you! But if you come with the same half baked commercial ideas, to protect the interests of businesses and your own so-called ‘cultural appreciation’ horseshit, then you better not step into Zhangwang Hutong or we’ll beat you all down!”

CHP fully identifies and understands these comments. Hutongs have degenerated because the administrators and supervisors have not maintained or taken measures to look after them. To improve this situation, the residents need to be assured that their homes won’t be demolished so they have stability, and improvements can then be made. But this will be a lengthy process. Just like the old city of Beijing was not built over a few years, this area can’t be renovated in a short time – it needs to be a careful and well considered process.

There are residents who don’t want to live in Gulou, and if this is the case, they need to have the opportunity and right to be able to choose not to. They might not want to live in a courtyard house, but rather in a high-rise apartment. They need this right and opportunity,  and the government to make it possible.

The government also needs to consider to rezone Gulou’s commercial and retail areas, and the activities of tourism, because residents need some privacy and peace. Currently, commercial activities and tourism are everywhere in Gulou and this is causing frustration for residents.

The planned development project

The second major threat to the neighborhood is the proposed ‘Beijing Time Cultural City’ development project. According to the media, the project will potentially affect a 12.5 hectare area with the Drum and Bell Towers at its center. The proposed boundaries are: Jiugulou Dajie to the west, Dofuchi Hutong and Wangzhang Hutong to the north, Caochang Hutong to the east, and Gulou Dongdajie and Xidajie to the south. It includes the triangle at the southeast corner of the Drum Tower.

The majority of the project construction will take place underground. Above ground, the project has two main focuses: celebrating traditional time-telling and improving the quality of the residents’ lives.

The project includes enlarging the current square between the Drum and Bell Towers and widening the streets beside it. There will be smaller squares, including a ‘Beijing Time Marking Memorial Square,’ ‘Beijing Time Marking Light Band’ and ‘Time Celebration Plaza.’(English names are yet to be confirmed.) The Drum and Bell Towers will also resume telling time.

These plans reflect one of the goals of the government’s project: highlighting the historical time telling functions of the Drum and Bell Towers. Their historical role, however, is already well known. This is to the extent that “晨钟暮鼓” (pinyin: chen2zhong1mu4gu3) – a classical saying that means ‘morning bell, evening drum’ and refers to the drum and bell –  is a commonly understood phrase. Building a ‘Time Cultural City’ to remind people of the significance of the towers will not only overwhelm the effect of the towers, but also divert people’s attention away from the structures themselves. Simply improving the quality of the museum exhibitions inside the Drum and Bell Towers can encourage a deeper level of appreciation and understanding.

The Time Cultural City is clearly a government investment project, and the government’s goal is also to improve the physical form of the area and upgrade the quality of life of the local residents. The government believes the area is a bad environment that is too densely populated. They plan to address the overcrowding by relocating some residents to the outer suburbs of Beijing. However, there has been no comment on who potentially would need to move, if people will have the right to choose, and if it will affect both rented properties and residents with the land titles for both houses and shops.

We support the government in making significant investments in the protection and cultivation of cultural heritage areas such as Gulou, and also making great strides in improving the quality of life of local residents.

The long term management of the physical area – currently characterized as dirty, disorderly, and substandard – has been neglected. However, recklessly spending billions of yuan to undertake massive relocations, demolition and construction projects is not a method that should be undertaken for cultural preservation and cultivation. Indeed, these tactics may very well result in only a crude and basic ‘upgrade’ of the remaining local residents’ living standards.

Overall, this proposed development is immediately reminiscent of the Qianmen redevelopment project, which resulted in the destruction of the area’s cultural and commercial value. It also has familiarities to several neighborhood redevelopment projects in Xi’an that almost totally wiped out the historical structures of the areas, and made them noisier and worsened local traffic.

The Boston International Design Group (BIDG) is seemingly the selected designer for the Time Cultural City plan. BIDG has two offices, one in Massachusetts in the USA, and the other in Shanghai.

CHP called BIDG, and was told that the Dong Cheng District government contacted BIDG. BIDG said they have only completed research but denied designing a plan for the government. BIDG were not always clear with their answers.

As reported by CHP, there was an impression drawing and written overview on the project on the BIDG website, which was soon removed. Their website now contains no mention of this project. The BIDG representative said that this was not a final or definite plan, but was only some images. He did not say why they were removed.

When asked whether they would continue their research, BIDG said yes, but also said that the government had made recently made less contact with them regarding the plan.

Caring for the Drum and Bell Tower rejuvenation project – an alternative plan

Since the government is willing to spend such large amounts to improve the Drum and Bell Tower neighbourhood, and has stressed the protection of the cultural heritage of the old parts of Beijing, we therefore suggest the government cancel the Time Cultural City project and instead invest the budgeted funds in a ‘Caring for the Drum and Bell Tower’ rejuvenation project. Such a project could become a prominent model for cultural heritage protection. It would improve local living standards and civic participation, as well as become an exciting precedent for the Party and government in enjoying the gratitude of local residents. In terms of content and methodology, the Caring for the Drum and Bell Tower rejuvenation project should firmly establish the following points:

1. Gulou is a historically rich area and its cultural heritage should be emphasised, understood and valued by all. It is a truly historical area that is full of profound meaning, which would be lost if transformed to a ‘modernized’ or ‘pseudo-historical’ neighborhood like Qianmen. Construction, redevelopment, or demolition projects that could potentially harm Gulou’s cultural heritage should not occur and Gulou must receive the utmost protection.

2. Because Gulou is such a culturally important area to Beijing, the government should invest in restoring the neighborhood by renovating rundown housing and helping to improve the local residents’ quality of life. The current local business areas and busy tourist trails have already impacted on residents’ privacy and the peaceful environment of the hutongs, and should be examined and potentially revised and rezoned by the government.

3. Proactive and reliable measures to improve living standards should be adopted. Residents should have the opportunity and right to choose if they want to live in the hutongs, and the government should both bring about this opportunity and protect this right. The government should also guarantee the basic living conditions of residents by increasing affordable housing options to satisfy local residents’ basic needs. Taking drastic measures is not a sustainable solution to ease the pressures on local residents.

4. The creative cultural industry is deeply rooted in cultural heritage. Gulou should develop a creative business base that it is closely linked to the cultural heritage of the neighborhood. Businesses should be mainly developed by local residents with the government’s encouragement with beneficial policies. A thriving creativity industry, however, can only be built on a firm cultural foundation, arising out of centuries of heritage, such as in neighborhoods like Gulou. In Europe, for example, many cities and towns are centers of cultural creativity, but have successfully preserved not just their major monuments, but also the neighborhoods.

5. The protection, cultivation and development of Gulou touches upon cultural heritage, the cultural industry, tourism planning and many other fields of expertise. The future of this area also affects many different society groups: residents, shop owners and businesses, the general public, tourists and the government. These groups need to be heard. By organising a series of international seminars, a range of ideas and sustainable methods could be assembled, and the government could show that it has truly taken ‘reform and opening’ to heart. A series of public discussions and forums for residents, where popular opinions could be heard and adopted, would be a true case of civic participation. The establishment of Caring for the Drum and Bell Tower rejuvenation project steering committee with the full and fair participation of residents, scholars, media, the public and government would be a landmark step in the advancement of Chinese society.

CHP looks forward to a better tomorrow for Gulou, wherein cultural heritage is protected, historical areas are treated with dignity, residents’ lives are respected, and the three coexist and develop together. To support such a goal, CHP hopes that the government can implement a Caring for the Drum and Bell Tower rejuvenation project to serve as a model for the protection of historical neighborhoods all across China. It is the Dong Cheng Government’s responsibility to preserve this area in its historical context. CHP’s question to the Dong Cheng Government is: are they willing to accept this responsibility?

CHP would like to thank our volunteer translator, Ben Golze, for his outstanding translation of this article.

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