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Panel pleads for city vision

Global Times by Huang Shaojie, Monday 24 May

The capital may well be repeating the 1950s mistake of knocking down the ancient city walls unless it starts appreciating more of its intangible qualities and taking on the responsibility for preservation, a panel of local and international community leaders suggested at a roundtable discussion Sunday.

Panelists shared opinions on “Vanishing Beijing: Why Preservation Matters,” a discussion organized Sunday afternoon by the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) in the Capital M restaurant on Qianmen Dajie.

“One way to understand what is cultural preservation is to understand what is cultural destruction,” said CHP chairman He Shuzhong, a cultural conservation advocate.

“And the best example of cultural destruction is right out the window.”

Qianmen Dajie was demolished and rebuilt between May 2007 and May 2008. A new pedestrianized street was reopened for the Olympics.

“The street, together with its communities, have lost their soul,” He said.

“Life is barely there and business is barely there too. All the street can do is attract some low-end tourism.”

But that is not to romanticize the old quarters of the capital or the living conditions there, the panel warned.

In fact, the high density of residents and poor upkeep of siheyuan courtyards have harmed the hutong alleyways, undermining their cultural and historical significance, said panelist Li Luke, an associate professor of architecture at Tsinghua University.

The city’s courtyards were seized by the government in 1949.

“What used to be living space for one person is now shared by 10,” Li told the audience.

“Their houses are old and without a toilet or shower.”

“It’s weird when you have splendid renovation projects for public structures on the one hand, but rundown quarters for people who live there on the other,” Russell Buchanan told the Global Times after the discussion.

Buchanan, who has lived in Baishun Hutong for two years, is shooting a documentary about the hutong.

The problem is not one of technology or financial resources.

“Beijing is good at getting foreigners to help with city planning,” said panelist James Stent, a CHP director.

“Foreign architects contributed to the CCTV Tower, the Bird’s Nest et cetera yet the city has done nothing to enlist international resources for its cultural conservation mission.”

The old city is like an old dirty antique chair from the Ming Dynasty [1368-1644], said He in his closing remarks.

“You can fix it if you’re willing to go to the trouble.

“But instead of that, the government just throws it away and brings in new cheap patio chairs.”

Ted Plafker, Beijing correspondent for The Economist and Deng Jiaqi, a retired professor and Beijing resident were also on the discussion panel moderated by Susan Osman, host of The Beijing Hour on China Radio International.

Read the original article.

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