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Beijing’s hutong saved after heritage groups campaign

The Telegraph by Peter Foster, Thursday 9 September

 A 'hutong' in central Beijing  Photo: AFP/GETTY

A 'hutong' in central Beijing Photo: AFP/GETTY

Plans to redevelop the crooked courtyard houses and narrow hutong alleyways around the ancient Drum and Bell Tower met with stiff opposition after they were announced in March, with conservationists warning of the destruction of one the last living architectural jewels in the city.

Such protests have frequently been ignored during China’s headlong rush for development which has seen the destruction of mile after mile of traditional Beijing hutongs, however on this occasion the authorities appear to have listened.

China’s state media reported that the plans had been “shelved”, to the delight of conservation groups. “The Time Cultural City is a thing of the past,” an anonymous deputy director of the local district government said.

The plans for an underground shopping complex and a themed ‘Time City’ had dismayed conservationists who feared the end for an area that has been a vibrant part of Beijing since the days of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when the two towers were used to mark time in the city.

The news was especially welcomed by Wu Lili, the managing director of Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, which led opposition to the plans and called for any development to preserve the character of the area.

“It is great news! The cancellation gives time for everyone involved to reconsider the development plan of the Gulou [Drum and Bell] area, and think how to integrate the historical value with the need to improve residents’ living standards,” she said.

In recent years the area has reinvented itself as a faintly bohemian cultural quarter with chic boutique shops, small galleries, restaurants and courtyard hotels.

Dominic Johnson-Hill, a British businessman who has run a business in the area for the past eight years, said the decision to rethink the development represented a “turning-point” in attitudes towards conservation in Beijing.

“It shows that people in China do now care about their history. The hutongs may be ramshackle and even grotty in parts, but they are part of the living history of the city and people are starting to see that destroying that is very short-sighted.

“I think this represents a turning-point, the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s are starting to appreciate that money and growth is not the only consideration, as it was in the past. It was local people, not foreigners who led this protest, and that’s very encouraging.”

Read the original article.

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