x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Preservationists of old China have reason to cheer

The capital is not going ahead with the proposed redevelopment of one of its remaining areas of old-style courtyard houses and hutong lanes.

One of the old hutongs near the drum and bell towers in Beijing, surrounded by courtyard houses, that will not be redeveloped.
One of the old hutongs near the drum and bell towers in Beijing, surrounded by courtyard houses, that will not be redeveloped.

BEIJING // Amid countless stories of bulldozed neighbourhoods and disappearing cultural heritage, preservationists in China have recently had cause for cheer.

The capital is not going ahead with the proposed redevelopment of one of its remaining areas of old-style courtyard houses and hutong lanes.

Plans for a Time Cultural City would have seen the redevelopment of 125,000 square metres of an old neighbourhood near the city's famous drum and bell towers to create an underground museum on timekeeping, with restaurants, shops and other attractions.

It would have represented the latest of many large demolitions that have caused the number of hutongs to fall from more than 3,000 at the time of the 1949 communist takeover to about 1,000 now.

The trend is not unique to Beijing. During the past few decades, many Chinese cities have demolished old city centres and neighbourhoods to make way for development.

Near the drum and bell towers, contractors have instead started work on a much smaller museum that will take up only 15,000 square metres.

The drum and bell tower area "is of vital cultural importance", according to Michael Meyer, the author of The Last Days of Old Beijing, which chronicles life in the disappearing hutongs.

However, he wondered whether residents would have preferred to have moved out, if compensated, and seen the area redeveloped. "Most of old Beijing's traditional courtyards are nearly uninhabitable, so advanced is the dilapidation, along with a lack of toilets and central heating," he said by e-mail.

The dilapidation, Mr Meyer said, stemmed from the nationalisation of housing stock, starting in 1956. Rents were highly subsidised and as householders did not own their homes, they did not invest in their upkeep.

That the courtyard houses were made of perishable materials made the situation worse. Original hopes to renovate them have waned, as it is cheaper to demolish and compensate residents, and new projects have generated considerable income for local authorities through land sales.

As well as being architecturally interesting though, the courtyard houses also foster a community spirit absent from modern high-rises, said Chen Xin, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"The Chinese urban areas have lost their community network," he said. "If we preserve such a traditional way, it reduces the cost of the social safety network."

Yet residents seem unenthusiastic. Li Qiuhong, 50, a retired hospital employee living in the drum and bell tower neighbourhood said "this area is just like a slum, very dirty and very crowded".

She described as "really bad" the decision to shelve the redevelopment as she wanted to leave, be paid off and move into a new flat.

"I've been living here since the 1960s and the courtyard houses haven't been changed for decades," she said.

Those who believe the area should be preserved should be invited "to live here for one month to see the truth", said Jin Li, 40, an unemployed resident.

"The scholars who point and say these should be preserved, they are living in nice buildings. They want to preserve this poverty," he said.

Whether the reversal of plans to redevelop the drum and bell tower area stems from recognition of the importance of preserving China's architectural heritage is unclear.

After waging a public campaign against the demolition plans, He Shuzhong, the founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre (BCHPC), welcomed the scaling back of the development. Mr He told local media the decision showed the government "has a better understanding of the value of old community culture and it accepts the voices from the public and non-governmental organisations".

In some other parts of China, preservationists have also protested this year about the demolition of traditional areas. In Dalian, locals campaigned against the demolition of European and Japanese-style buildings, while in Datong, west of Beijing, a city centre neighbourhood of traditional houses is being razed for redevelopment.

The government does now give "more emphasis to cultural heritage protection", according to Zhang Pei, a BCHPC project officer.

"They have issued a number of protection policies and regulations and related protection measures. However, the protection of cultural heritage is still very difficult," she said.

While acknowledging "leaders are concerned about protecting what's left of old Beijing", Mr Meyer said preservation may not be behind the change of heart over the drum and bell tower neighbourhood.

"The largest factor in halting the project may well have been its financing," he said. "Beijing is not unlike other world capitals, in that its planning decisions are largely driven by the market, not diktat."

The global economic crisis had slowed much of the destruction, he said, although historical neighbourhoods remained "under major threat".

Jin Li, 40, a saleswoman also living in the area, said the old areas should be transformed.

"It really is a slum. There's no saving face," she said. "All the rubbish and the public toilets and the smell. It not only affects our lives, but China's international image."

dbardsley@thenational.ae