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Drum-roll stops on Gulou demo

Inter Press Service by Mitch Moxley, Friday 19 November

On a chilly but bright fall day near the Drum and Bell Towers, one of the Chinese capital’s top tourist draws, business is brisk for Boss Liu. Drivers working for Liu’s rickshaw business ferry dozens of foreign and domestic tourists through the historic alleyways of a treasured neighborhood that, as recently as October, was slated for demolition.

In January 2010, Beijing officials announced plans to gut the neighborhood, called Gulou, a charming 12.94 hectares surrounding two brick towers that for centuries told Beijing’s time, to make way for what they dubbed “Beijing Time Cultural City.” The US$73 million project would include courtyard homes for the rich, a “timekeeping museum” and an underground mall.

The news drew international attention. But in September the plans were quietly scrapped – welcome news to Boss Liu and others who live and work in the neighborhood’s narrow lanes, called hutong.

“If Gulou is demolished, Old Beijing will disappear,” he says. “Beijing will look like all big cities. There will be no business for us.”

The redevelopment of historical neighborhoods is nothing new to Beijing residents. In the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, many of Beijing’s hutong neighborhoods and their signature courtyard homes were torn down to make way for high-rise apartments, office buildings and shopping malls, even in areas officially designated preservation zones.

Other neighborhoods have been torn down and rebuilt with little regard for historical accuracy. Qianmen, a once-vibrant Ming and Qing Dynasty commercial neighborhood near Tiananmen Square, was bulldozed and converted into an idealized version of what it once was. Today, mint-condition trolleys run visitors up and down a soulless avenue of luxury shops.

“Eighty percent of Beijing’s courtyards have disappeared at astonishing speeds,” says Zhang Wei, founder of OldBeijing.org. “If we do nothing to stop this, Beijing’s hutong and courtyard homes will only be accessible in museums. Beijing can be transformed into New York in five decades. But it would take New York 5,000 years to become a city like Beijing.”

Gulou, however, seemed impervious to the city’s development scramble, and the news of its redevelopment sparked an outcry from historians and preservationists.

The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) spearheaded the opposition, calling for any development to preserve the area’s historical integrity. He Shuzhong, a lawyer and CHP’s founder, organized Gulou residents to discuss the plans, despite police opposition, and invited media to cover the developments. CHP is currently working on a plan to improve living conditions for residents in the neighborhood, although He would not discuss specifics.

“I’m confident the neighborhood can be preserved,” He told Inter Press Service. “Gulou is precious.”

For now the city seems to agree, although no one is quite sure why the plan was shelved. Some have attributed it to complications caused by the merger of the Chongwen and Dongcheng district governments. Others say it was simply too expensive.

Still, Gulou’s future still remains uncertain. An unidentified city official was quoted in the state media in September as saying the Time Cultural City was “a thing of the past”, but that the neighborhood’s future remained unclear.

Even after the neighborhood nearly succumbed to the wrecking balls, residents have a hard time believing anything could happen to it.

“The plan is nonsense – it’s too expensive,” says Li Jian Xin, 29, the owner of two shops on nearby Nanluoguxiang, a popular hutong home to dozens of bars, cafes and stores. “Gulou is a residential area, and there are too many people living there to turn it into a commercial area.”

But some residents, who live in cramped and often decrepit homes, are disappointed they will not be moved.

Chen Yi, 64, lives with her daughter and grandson in a tiny apartment with no central heating or toilet. The kitchen doubles as a shower, and Chen’s room is so cluttered with boxes, clothes, children’s toys and more that there’s barely room for the single bed she sleeps on. The nearest public toilet is 40 meters down the alley.

“Of course I hope they tear down this area,” says Chen, who has been denied subsidized housing three times. “I’m not happy here. For old people – we’re too weak.” Other long-time residents say they will fight to the end to stay in their ancestral homes.

“It’s impossible to change this place. Gulou is our country’s heritage,” explains one of a group of grey-haired ladies chatting in a lively hutong. “It’s too expensive” to tear the neighborhood down, another says.

“We don’t want to move. We’ve lived here a long time,” says the oldest of the group, a 96-year-old surnamed Gong. Gong insists her home is not too cold in the winter, so she will not consider living in a high-rise apartment. She was raised in this neighborhood and says it has changed very little since she was a young girl.

“It’s impossible to tear this down,” Gong says. “It’s a very special place.”

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