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Beijing bulldozes its old neighbourhoods

USA Today by Calum MacLeod, Thursday 24 May

A pedicab driver leads a convoy of travelers touring Beijing's Drum and Bell Tower neighborhood.  By Frederic J. Brown, AFP/ Getty Images

A pedicab driver leads a convoy of travelers touring Beijing's Drum and Bell Tower neighborhood. By Frederic J. Brown, AFP/ Getty Images

BEIJING — Wang Weiguo sits outside his small home in one of Beijing’s hutongs, the old neighborhoods of one-story brick and tile-roofed structures being demolished one by one to make way for modern construction.

Wang’s attitude is to bring on the bulldozers.

“Ordinary people can only rely on the compensation from demolition to afford decent housing,” says Wang, 56, who hopes the government will soon pay to rehouse his family in a modern suburban apartment.

After decades of development, the number of hutongs has shrunk to about 1,000, down from more than 3,000 in 1949, says He Shuzhong, founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, a non-governmental organization. Few inner-city areas retain the traditional feel and historical value of the Drum and Bell Tower neighborhood Wang calls home, says He.

The government plans a makeover dubbed the “Beijing Time Cultural City,” which will create a large public square, museum, shops and underground car park in the neighborhood.

The result will be “an amusement park,” He Shuzhong worries, as soulless as the commercial “Chinatown” that replaced the old Qianmen neighborhood, bordering Tiananmen Square, before the 2008 Summer Olympics. Authorities detained several evicted residents who tried to protest during the Games. Qianmen “could have been cleaned up and improved, but now it simply does not exist, it’s just a film set now,” He says.

The Drum and Bell Tower neighborhood is named for the massive towers that face each other and once dominated the skyline of old Peking.

Dating back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the towers have stood in one form or another for more than 700 years. Their mammoth bell and imposing drums were once tolled and beaten to announce the closing of the city gates at night and the hours of the day.

Today the neighborhood is a warren of grayish brick homes packed against each other with alleyways snaking into an occasional courtyard. Dusty streets 15 feet wide are a hive of workmen, shopkeepers, schoolchildren and tourists.

Wang Yi, who is a few doors down Bell Tower Bend, a winding alley crowded with rattling three-wheeled pedicabs, opposes relocation.

“I must protect my ancestors’ home,” vows Wang, 55, inside the courtyard he says is 200 years old. “Courtyards like mine symbolize Beijing culture and the lifestyles of the common people.”

The head of the Dongcheng district where the neighborhood is located has said little of the project. The developer, Beijing Oriental Culture Assets Operation, likewise declined to comment.

Concern among scholars and several media reports prompted an official defense of the project last week. Renovation will resolve chronic overcrowding by removing dangerous and illegally built structures, according to a statement by the Dongcheng Historic Appearance Protection Office.

Jin Hongkui, former vice president of the Palace Museum inside Beijing’s Forbidden City, says the area symbolizes the social and political system of the Imperial Era, when dynastic emperors ruled China. The planned renovation risks damaging nearby hutongs that bear centuries-old names, Jin says.

“Beijing used to have many beautiful courtyards, but so many have been demolished,” he says.

The area draws thousands of domestic and foreign tourists a day. Their noise bothers Wang Weiguo, while his neighbor Wang Yi has opened his home to tour groups for a small tip from their guides.

After touring Beijing’s bigger attractions, Mary Bull, a visitor from the USA, enthused about the hutong.

“It was nice to walk through a low-key area and just look through a doorway and think, ‘This is China,’ ” says Bull, 19, a sociology student from Detroit.

Keeping that lived-in look has fueled the recent success of Nanluoguxiang, a nearby area in which hip shops, bars and restaurants have appeared.

“People like coming here because it feels like it’s living, it’s a good mix of residential and commercial,” says Dominic Johnson-Hill, a longtime British resident who runs Plastered T-shirts.

Done right, a hutong can be enhanced rather than harmed, some say.

Old Beijing “is very crowded, but we don’t want it to be an empty city,” says Yu Yongjun, deputy head of the Jiaodaokou Subdistrict office that oversees Nanluoguxiang.

“Preserving the old appearance must run together with raising people’s livelihoods and encouraging appropriate business development,” he says.

The Nanluoguxiang project cost $59 million since 2006 and involved relocating 3,000 residents, leaving more than 20,000 people, Yu says.

He hopes officials managing the Drum and Bell Tower renovation can learn from the example of Nanluoguxiang.

He Shuzhong worries the wholesale demolition represented by the Qianmen model will prevail.

“Many projects in China begin demolition even before the design and approvals are complete,” says He, whose organization is lobbying the government to adopt a cheaper plan to improve and protect the buildings.

At a senior level, Beijing officials believe the old city areas are “too dilapidated, too old and too dark, and they want them to be more beautiful, lively and brighter,” He says.

“China lacks even a single very successful case of protecting old city areas,” He says, but Europe’s many examples offer hope if the government agrees to involve international experts.

“This is a precious area, not just in culture and history but in economic value too,” He says. “There are ways to balance protection and development.”

Read the original article.

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