Bulldozers Meet Historic Chinese Neighborhood

BEIJING — Mao slept here. So, too, did the imperial eunuchs who found themselves unemployed after China’s last emperor was sent packing. For much of the last 700 years, however, the most prominent residents of the quarter just north of the Forbidden City have been a pair of massive brick towers whose drums and bells helped Beijing’s citizenry keep track of the hour.

These days, those who reside in the neighborhood known as Gulou are anxiously counting the days until construction crews begin turning its 32 charmingly decrepit acres into a polished tourist attraction called Beijing Time Cultural City.

Anchored by the ancient Drum and Bell Towers, the $73 million redevelopment will include courtyard homes for the rich, a “timekeeping” museum and an underground mall, presumably well stocked with Rolexes and Cartiers — or perhaps their more affordable counterfeit cousins.

Since the project was announced in January, historians have been sounding the alarm. So, too, have the expatriates who cherish the area’s old Beijing authenticity. “When they’re done, the place is going to look like Universal Studios,” said Robin Foo, a Brunei-born Chinese architect who has spent the last six years turning a local Yuan dynasty temple into a swank cafe and catering hall.

But the outrage is harder to find among the thousands of poor families who live in the ramshackle collection of gray brick houses topped with wavy roof tiles. “Tear the whole place down,” said Zhou Meihua, 72, who shares a 20-square-foot pair of rooms with three generations of family members. “If we get enough compensation, we’ll happily move out.”

Government officials tend to stoke such sentiments by failing to update old neighborhoods in a way that preserves their existing fabric.

Instead, they seize property in parts of the city they deem “unhygienic and unsafe,” rezone much of it as commercial property and sell it for huge profits. The concession to history often consists of a few new buildings with upturned eaves and garishly painted timber slapped on concrete facades.

Local officials often claim that the need to renew old areas requires their destruction, critics say. Over the past two months, a huge section of old homes just north of Gulou was bulldozed to make way for the construction of a nearby subway station.

“This is not about preserving a historic monument. It’s about saving a living, breathing community that has evolved organically over hundreds of years,” said Yao Yuan, a Peking University professor who specializes in urban planning.

For preservationists, the challenge is to convince local power brokers that there is still money to be made by modernizing old single-story homes, block by block, and then allowing some of the original residents — and their old Beijing ways — to remain. Keep the charm, they say, and the tourists and tax revenue will follow.

For He Shuzhong, a lawyer who runs the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, that means bringing up his favorite analogy about a tattered Ming dynasty chair that would have immense value if spruced up.

One can easily toss away the chair and buy a plastic one, he tells poker-faced officials, but if it were repaired and cleaned, the Ming chair would be worth 10,000 plastic chairs. “It’s the same thing for these old neighborhoods,” Mr. He said, gesticulating with urgency. “They are our unique heritage that cannot be replaced.”

So far, such arguments have had limited impact on this redevelopment-crazed city. In recent years, two-thirds of Beijing’s 3,000 narrow lanes, known as hutongs, have been subsumed by mega-developments, many of them in neighborhoods that were officially designated preservation zones.

Government-affiliated builders either ignore the law or use words like “historic” and “restoration” to describe patently new construction. Critics say the most egregious example of this trend can be seen just south of Tiananmen Square, where the city’s most fabled shopping district, Qianmen, was replaced by a soulless but expensive facsimile of its former hurly-burly self.

“The renovation of Qianmen wasn’t about preserving history, but about creating a fake Hollywood version of it,” said Mr. Yao, the urban planning professor.
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