Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Rumours of a proposed redevelopment scheme for the Gulou area of Beijing have been troubling my sleep for the past few months.

Now, I learn to my dismay that they are considerably more than rumours. It seems the plans are at quite an advanced stage, and over the past couple of months have been prominently touted in the leading state-run newspapers - which is in effect an 'official announcement' that the project is going ahead. I don't think there have been any eviction notices served yet, but the grapevine is now suggesting they might start coming within the next month or two - in this country, people don't get very much notice to move out of their homes. Indeed, I wonder if the work may not have begun already. There's been a HUGE hole in the ground a quarter of a mile to the east of the Towers - preparations for who-knows-what - for more than a year now. The entire block at the north-east end of Jiugulou Street was cleared last autumn; and in the last few days, a row of houses down the north-west side of that street (right at the end of the road I live on!) has also been demolished.

The plan involves building a new museum and a network of shopping arcades in the immediate vicinity of the historic Drum and Bell Towers (just a few minutes' walk from where I live, and easily the most attractive quarter of Beijing), a gaudy 12.5-hectare commercial complex to be naffly named the 'Beijing Time Cultural City' ("Cultural"?! Oh, the irony!). Apparently, most of this is going to be underground (it's said to be just one part of a grander project to create a staggering 8 sq km of subterranean malls in the capital by 2030), but its construction will presumably necessitate the bulldozing of most of what is currently above ground in the area. At the very least, it will massively compromise the amenity of the neighbourhood for a good two or three years while the building work is in progress (the widening of the adjacent Jiugulou Street a few years ago took well over a year, and that was a relatively trivial undertaking compared to this). The historic towers themselves will be preserved, but much of the traditional single-storey hutong housing surrounding them will almost certainly be swept away, and the character of the neighbourhood will be transformed beyond recognition. The most beautiful, the most charming part of Beijing, the centre of my life all the years I've been here, my main reason for staying.... may soon be destroyed. I am sick to my boots. If this goes ahead, I think I'll have to quit the country.

Opposition to the proposal is gathering. The Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP), a Chinese non-profit group, is at the forefront of these resistance efforts (check out their page on the Gulou redevelopment), and is holding a meeting this Saturday afternoon from 2.30 to 5.30 - in a restaurant called Contempio, on the Zhangwang Hutong just off Jiugulou Dajie. The meeting will be chaired by He Shuzhong, the CHP Chairman, and will include contributions from Bian Lanchun, a professor of architectural history at Tsinghua University, and Wang Jun, a reporter with the Xinhua newswire service. Dominic Johnson-Hill, the British founder of the Plastered t-shirt emporium, one of the most conspicuous successes on the nearby Nanluoguxiang shopping street, is also slated to speak, but his Mandarin is pretty good, so the meeting is likely to be conducted entirely in Chinese.

[I wish them well with that, but I am dubious about the usefulness of this meeting. I pass on the details for anyone who may be interested; and I think it's important to spread awareness of these proposals, and to promote the campaign to overturn them. However, I rather fear that: a) the meeting may well get banned or broken up by the police (tolerance of public protest is low at the best of times here in China; particularly right in the heart of the capital; and there are too many people - people high up in the Communist Party - who will have a financial interest in a scheme like this; wherever there's a budget in the billions of renminbi, you can bet that a hefty proportion of that is going to go in kickbacks); b) the chosen venue is in any case far too small for the number of people it is likely to attract; c) there is a danger that it will attract more foreigners than local Chinese, and that, I feel, would be counter-productive - it must be the local residents, not us prissy interfering laowai, who challenge and defeat this madness.]

I'm inclined to think that the most powerful tactic might be to try to get the Towers listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites (I was rather surprised to discover that they aren't already). The Chinese government is usually dismissive of any "outside pressure", but an organization and an accolade as prestigious as this would surely provide considerable leverage; it might be enough just to let it be known that the buildings are under consideration for inclusion on the World Heritage list, but that the process is likely to be compromised by major construction work being allowed anywhere nearby. Alas, I doubt that such a move could progress quickly enough; if national and city authorities are determined to go ahead with this, the wrecking-ball could start swinging in a matter of a few months. And I would guess that, in practice, consideration for World Heritage status can't proceed without the approval of the national government.

Update 27/3/10: Well, it seems today's 'action meeting' has been cancelled - at barely a day's notice. I think the authorities got wind of it and advised the organisers and/or venue owner that the activity would be deemed 'unharmonious'.

No big surprise there (sometimes I wish my prognostications weren't so uncannily accurate). As I outlined above, I fear the event would have attracted a majority of laowai, and that would probably have done more harm than good.

Update 9/11/10:  We learned a couple of months ago (check out, for example, Peter Foster's article in The Telegraph) that the horrendous 'Beijing Time Cultural City' project had been shelved - although I fear there will a worse come in its place one day.  Local government officials are making ominous noises about "looking at other proposals".  Also, incorrigible cynic that I am, I have my suspicions that the whole thing might have been nothing but a ruse in the first place.  For six months or more, the CHP and other conservation groups and local and foreign media were almost exclusively focused on this particular - quite possibly non-existent - threat to Beijing's heritage.... while all around the Gulou area other huge construction projects have begun forging ahead unopposed.  It's an intriguing hypothesis; but I really don't think our city government officials are that smart.


stuart said...

'The plan involves building a new museum and a network of shopping arcades"

Just what the doctor ordered for a city running short of white elephants: more shops.

Froog said...

Yes, the stupidity of this proposal is just mind-boggling.

Yes, let's flatten a beautiful historic district and tear apart one of the city's most vibrant communities to build the world's biggest souvenir shop.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if the funding falls apart, and the project is abandoned half-built for several years. We've seen that happen numerous times before in this city as well.

gary said...

Really? Man, that SUCKS. These clowns have no respect for their history.

Froog said...

No - no taste, no common sense, no respect for the ordinary people dispossessed, no sensitivity to the character of the neighbourhood or the historic importance of its older buildings, not even any realistic appraisal of whether this is going to help or harm tourism (it's certainly going to be catastrophic in the short term; and I can't see it bringing any big improvement in the long term).

These people don't care about anything but lining their own pockets.