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Building Hotels in the Forbidden City: China’s Urban Development

eChinacities.com by Susie Gordon, Thursday 22 July

Photo: Harry Alverson

By the year 2015, an estimated 60% of China’s population will live in cities. By 2020, it is predicted that around 100 Chinese cities will have a population of 1 million or more. This movement away from rural areas into cities is changing the face of the urban environment, but is China’s metropolitan development proving to be a success, or a wholesale demolition of historic areas?

Urban development in Beijing and Shanghai has been heavily affected by the two major world events that have come to the cities. The 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Expo have turned the international gaze on China’s two super-cities. For municipal governments, this has meant an extraordinary focus on modernization. Officials fear that foreigners will see Beijing’s hutong alleys and Shanghai’s shikumen as backward and underdeveloped. As a result, much of the urban development has focused on clearing these areas and building glossy new buildings in their place. Where creating extra living space is concerned, replacing low rise accommodation with multi-story apartment blocks is a good idea, but when it comes to preserving cultural heritage, it’s an outright disaster.

Shanghai gives a nod to preservation in projects like Xintiandi. The brainchild of American architect Benjamin Wood, the ‘New Heaven and Earth’ lifestyle hub was developed by Shui On Land, turning an area of shikumen earmarked for demolition into a trendy entertainment district. Foreign visitors are charmed by its stone arches, squares, and alleys, while locals revel in the designer boutiques and luxury restaurants. A few blocks further south is the Tianzifang complex, which grew up around a candy factory on Taikang Lu which was converted to an art gallery in 1998. The winding lanes and alleys behind the former factory are now home to street-level boutiques, craft shops, galleries and bars, while often-disgruntled residents still occupy the upper floors. Visitors (both local and foreign) love the quaint charm of Tianzifang illuminated with twinkling fairy lights in the evenings, but for residents who don’t keep the same hours as the bars and restaurants, life is less rosy. A sign visible from one of the restaurant terraces, written in broken English, begs visitors to be quiet when night falls.

If Shanghai’s shikumen have suffered, Beijing’s hutong have been decimated, and their residents haven’t always succumbed easily to relocation. In 2003 there were several suicides, including a man named Wang Baoguang who set himself on fire in protest to his forced removal. During a hutong clearing program in the run up to the 2008 Olympics, a resident called Ye Guoqiang leapt off a bridge.

In an open letter to President Hu Jintao, tenants rights advocate Xu Yonghai wrote:
“Demolition and eviction has several decades of history in China. In the past, ordinary people longed for demolition and eviction (because they were moved to better homes), but now, ordinary people fear demolition and eviction, they hate it, and even use death and suicide to oppose it.”

The people of Beijing are more attuned than Shanghai’s to halting the spread of urban development at the expense of cultural heritage. The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) is an independent non-profit organization dedicated to opposing threats to cultural preservation. Their latest project involves lobbying the government against plans to redevelop the Gulou area around the Drum and Bell Towers. Presently, the district is made up of dilapidated hutongs, which the initiative will demolish to make way for the Beijing Time Cultural City. Heritage-conscious locals and expats plan to circulate a document laying out the cultural cost of the project, and hope to drum up support. The CHP’s founder and president, Hu Shunzhong, believes that renovating the Gulou area would be “akin to building hotels in the Forbidden City”.

Previous attempts to transform China’s cultural heritage into higher grossing tourist hotspots have not been entirely successful financially. The redevelopments are often blind to the interests of tourists, and it’s not unusual for gaudy, newly built storefronts around historic sites to remain empty. It would be a shame if Beijing’s vibrant Drum and Bell Tower neighbourhood was leveled to make way for a half-empty mall housing a handful of souvenir shops.

Shanghai’s ambitious One City, Nine Towns scheme is an example of over-imaginative urban development gone wrong. While discussing the city’s population problem in the year 2000, the mayor of Shanghai was inspired by the foreign concessions of the colonial era, and suggested building a series of satellite towns based on European and North American municipalities. Thus there are now two “German towns”, Anting and Lingang Harbour City, a “Città d’Italia” in Pujiang, and suburbs based on English, Canadian, and Swedish towns. These new suburbs were designed to mop up the overspill from the main city, but the scheme has been an embarrassing failure. Most of the towns lie empty, attractive only as tourist destinations and backdrops for wedding photographs. The plain truth was that few people want to live in gimmicky, poorly constructed faux-cities on the outskirts of Shanghai with poor transportation links.

The case of Chengdu’s slums is an example of how urban planners get things right. During the 1970s and 1980s, Chengdu was ringed with rundown real-estate. With economic migrants arriving, and young people returning from Cultural Revolution re-education camps, the low-budget housing on the banks of the Fu and Nan rivers was filled to bursting during the late 1970s. The economic reforms of the late 1980s sent unemployment and poverty levels soaring, and the urbanization of the 1990s created a floating population of over a million rural migrants on the fringes of the city. The problem of the slums was solved in 1997 when the municipal management initiated a “lowest living standard”, resettling 100,000 people through an affordable housing policy paid for by the government. The slums were torn down and replaced with better quality housing, and a three-tier municipal system was set up comprising neighbourhood councils, district governments and metropolitan administration.

In Shanghai’s former French Concession, a building venture is underway that throws the whole issue into sharp focus. The Portman House Jian Ye Li project is turning a block of 1930s French-designed shikumen into a 39,600 square meter plot of exclusive real estate comprising 61 luxury serviced apartments, 51 five-level villas, and 4000 square meters of retail and entertainment space. The redevelopment is being overseen by Portman Holdings in association with the CB Richard Ellis Group. According to CBRE’s President and CEO Chris Brooke, Jian Ye Li is “a sensitive restoration and development of the city’s historic and fast disappearing shikumen houses”. This is a noble gesture but very possibly a misguided one. The fact that the historic shikumen are being torn down and rebuilt into what will be among the most expensive real estate areas in Asia is hardly in the spirit of preservation.

The long-running criticism of China’s obsession with the wrecker’s ball is to do with how the country views its heritage. It is a uniquely Western privilege to laud the past and glorify the old; in a country which is developing as quickly as China, and with so much of its population migrating towards the cities, it is unwise to judge too harshly.

Read the original article.

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