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Asia Calling:The Changing Faces of Beijing

来源:Asia Calling    作者:Grace Wu     2009-06-13

Over the past three decades, the rapid pace of China’s economic development has made many parts of the country unrecognizable to older people.  

Nowhere is this felt more than in the nation’s capital Beijing, where historic buildings have been razed to make way for flashy modern developments.

Some experts say that the recent destruction of the old hutongs or lanes of Beijing has been taken place at ‘unprecedented speed’.

This Saturday marks China’s fourth Cultural Heritage Day and our reporter Grace Wu takes a closer look at some of the changes in the capital Beijing and the people trying to slow the march of time.
“This is taken around 1905. This is the Zhengyangmen after the boxer rebellion reached Beijing and a large part of the tower was burned down. The tower was rebuilt a few years later. This is what they called the arrow tower where you can shoot arrows through the holes here.”


Simon Gjerol is originally from Denmark but now he runs a shop in the bustling hutong area at the heart of Beijing, selling postcards, made from old photos taken mostly in the early 20th century.

The Zhengyangmen, more commonly known as Qian Men, stands at the south end of the Tiananmen Square, one of the very few ancient gates, still standing in Beijing.

“You know today it has been rebuilt with a slightly different look. You can still see the arrow holes here. They are more or less the same. It’s the most common pictures of any gate in Beijing.”

But the picture of Tiananmen Square, a few hundred meters away from the Front Gate, confuses many local Chinese.  

“The Tiananmen Square, of course there was no Jiniantang (the memorial hall), it’s actually right here. And the square is much larger, and there is no tree on it. So a lot of people, we have experienced, when they come to the shop, they look at a long time at the picture and they have no idea where it is. ”

The changes at the squares reflect a wider pattern of destruction and renewal over a century of development.

The city remained well preserved after the liberation in 1949, and the government initially planned to maintain old Beijing in its entirety by building a new administrative center far away from the Inner City, then surrounded by ancient city walls and gates. But this idea was quickly shelved and the city walls were torn down and replaced with Soviet Union style buildings.

But according to He Shuzhong, founder and director of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, a Non-Governmental Organization working to preserve local culture, the worst kind of destruction to the old town didn’t come until the 1990s.

“The most severe hit to the city’s traditional image came within the last twenty years because of the introduction of the massive scale of real estate construction. Driven by commercial interest, the skyscrapers made of cement and steel replaced traditional courtyards and lanes. The speed and the extension of the destruction is unprecedented. With the old city gone, much of Beijing’s charm and character has disappeared. ”

In 2005, when the city government finally issued a regulation putting 25 historical and cultural areas in the old town under protection, the areas on the list of preservation represented just 17 percent of the total area of the old town. Most parts of the ancient city, which was first settled more than 2,000 years ago, can only be viewed through old photos and postcards.  

Simon Gjerol says many customers express regret when they see his old photos of Beijing.

“You can see that there is a growing interest in the population of Beijing to learn and get to know more about Beijing’s history. That’s what we can see in the shop clearly, that in the time of open, more and more people come ask questions. Older people bring their children and grandchildren tell them about old Beijing, what was like when they were young. ”

Zhang Guiyu is a resident living nearby. She misses Qianmen Commercial Street, which was demolished to make way for a neat, dazzling shopping area.

“The picture of the old Qian Men is my favorite photo of the shop. It was where I used to live. I always take my granddaughter here and show her the picture. Now that area has turned into a modern mall. It just doesn’t feel right.”

Since in 2006, the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center has been closely monitoring the twenty-five 25 other areas placed under heritage protection.

He Shuzhong says protecting the areas from developers remains a challenge.

“I think the regulation on protecting the 25 areas within the old town is so far the most comprehensive regulation guiding the preservation work. Despite the very detailed legal clause, there are still some illegal activities taking place. This is a major problem of enforcement. We’ve noticed that since 2005, nearly all the cases or the attempt of demolishing old houses or streets are secretly initiated and operated by some governmental entities or powerful merchants who have connections with the government. In recent years, such cases have been significantly decreased, thanks to the louder and unyielding voices from individual residents, protection activists and grassroots NGOs. I’m hoping that such destruction will come to an end soon.”

He Shuzhong adds that there are still many that are not being cared for properly and they deserve to be classified into related preservation levels as well.

And he says its not just old homes and buildings that are bulldozed in the name of progress. Unique and alternative lifestyles and traditional businesses are also being lost.

原文和在线收听地址:http://www.asiacalling.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=438%3Athe-changing-faces-of-beijing&catid=3%3Achina&Itemid=204&lang=en

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