Examining China’s Craze to Raze
Down with the old
Down with the old, up with the new. Such is the way in contemporary China. In every major town and every major city, the past is being replaced or sanitized in the name of tourism and the mighty Yuan, as these two myopic siblings stomp hand in hand over much of the uniqueness still remaining.
And so it is here in Beijing. My first salutation from the city being a walk down Qianmen Dajie (前门大街) on the hunt for my hostel. Recently redeveloped in time for the Beijing Olympics, Qianmen Dajie is one of the most well-known examples of the contemporary Chinese trend for what has become known as ‘historic redevelopment’, that is, the demolition of historic but neglected neighbourhoods and their rebuilding in the so-called ‘old-style’ as commercial tourist streets. Across the country, city chiefs are proudly showing off their newest projects or proposals thereof, while those residents and businesses that were forced to make way are left to silently curse their misfortune.
In Beijing, the Qianmen redevelopment caused a great deal of controversy thanks to its extended history and prominent location. Running some 850 metres along Beijing’s central axis, from Qianmen towards the Temple of Heaven, Qianmen Street was formerly the main southern artery leading out of the city and the main route to Tian Tan for the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. During the annual journey to perform the prayer for good harvests, the emperor would travel with his entourage down Qianmen Street displaying his Son of Heaven status for all to see.
For better or worse
Back then, there was no H&M or Uniqlo for the emperor to pick himself up some trendy new threads, but as one of the oldest and most famous commercial streets in Beijing, with a history of over 500 years, Qianmen Dajie is as much a part of Old Beijing as the historic buildings that surround it. Beijing’s most famous establishment dedicated to its most famous dish – Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant – first opened its doors on Qianmen Street in 1864 and is still going strong today. Duyichu dumpling restaurant and the famous Beijing Muslim restaurant Yitiaolong, both with histories stretching back over 200 years, are here. While the Changchuntang drugstore, established in 1795, is still operating at its 28 Qianmen Street address.
The latest makeover, however, led to protests over the relocation of residents and the demolition of many of the hutong residences which had characterised the area for hundreds of years. The famous siheyuan courtyard buildings were torn down, the community was broken up, and many of the family run businesses that thrived in the area were put out of business. Some of them, naturally, refused to move out, staging their own personal battles of resistance. But ultimately, with the force of change upon them, they too bowed to the inevitable.
Now, for better or worse, Qianmen Street is a world away from what it was. Pimped and prettified with a selection of stores seen on pedestrianised shopping streets the developed world over, it is another mark of China’s embracing of globalisation, and of globalisation’s embracing of China. There is a Starbucks and a Zara, a Haagen-Dazs and Costa Coffee; tourists pose in front of faux-ancient façades while we all turn a blind eye to what it all means. So it goes.
10,000 homes a year
But this is China, a country intent on development, and no amount of western sentimentality for what-once-was will stand in the way of this most intriguing of growth spurts. In a land with one of the world’s oldest civilizations, the drive to reinvent itself from insular under-achiever to 21st century global leader has left little that is sacred.
That isn’t to say everything around Qianmen Dajie is as soulless as it may on first appearance seem. Any detour east of the main street allows the opportunity to get lost amongst the many hutong that have managed to escape the bulldozers. These narrow, one-storey alleyways, have become havens for the non-gentrified, local way of life that is fast being replaced. Within their warren, life still goes on governed by the day-to-day practicalities of families living together as a neighbourhood rather than by turnover and the luring of tourists. Kids on bikes ride home from school, street food vendors tend their grills, and the area remains largely untouched by the development frenzy going on elsewhere.
But though these hutong may be removed from the current round of urban renewal, as recent history shows, they cannot consider themselves entirely safe from harm. Whereas in the 1950s, Beijing’s hutong numbered around 6000 they have now been razed or redeveloped to a total of only 2000. 10,000 homes a year, it is said, are lost from the city’s hutong each year. And though public pressure and the work of preservationist groups have seen some success in preventing further projects getting under way (most notably in the Drum and Bell Tower area of the city), there is still a feeling of pessimism amongst Beijingers about the fate of their city’s heritage.
Still, with my rucksack on and a general idea of where I was heading, Beijing’s hutong were proving to be the vibrant, at times infuriating, labyrinth of courtyards and alleyways I’d always known them to be. I saw the same streets and same people variously cooking, eating, playing cards or getting on with whatever trade they happened to make their living by as I stumbled around without a map. Even when I asked for directions I would soon be lost again and going round in circles. But getting lost in the hutongs is one of the delights of a Beijing stay, and after making it to the hostel and dropping off my bags, the hutong were mine to explore as I pleased. How long they will remain, however, is a question only the developers can answer.