Destruction or Facelift for Beijing’s Gulou? French Press Reports, Photos

…faire peau neuve….

Destruction or facelift for the venerable and endangered Gulou/Drum Tower neighborhood in north Beijing?

Efrafan Days, a UK-based blog, carries an essential report/opinion piece on this issue, rich with links, on the coming holocaust of historical architecture and rise of historical kitsch in Beijing.

Rather than duplicate all the effort presently, I thought I might translate a solid report which was published about a month ago on the excellent French Sinophile site Aujourd’hui en Chine [Today in China] entitled “In Beijing, the historic Gulou area to get a facelift.”  In addition to their original reporting, the authors linked to a disheartening Flickr feed of photos of already-destroyed hutongs moving south from the Second Ring Road.

Harold Thibault & Céline Lepetit, “A Pékin, le quartier historique de Gulou fera peau neuve [In Beijing, the historic Gulou area to get a facelift],” Aujourd’hui a Chine, March 2, 2010 [translation by Adam Cathcart].

The extension of a subway line and construction of a cultural center in Beijing on the passage of time explain why a large proportion of traditional houses in the neighborhood of the bell tower and drum will be razed and then rebuilt “in the old style.”

Local residents and some preservationists of old Beijing are astonished [s’étonnent/ 吃惊] at the lack of information about the project and, following the loss of nearby Qianmen’s emblematic charms [魅力] after a makeover of a similar genre, are worried about what will happen to Gulou.

In the northern part of the district, which touches the second ring road around the center of Beijing, the destruction has already begun.

Many hutongs – the narrow streets of brick houses with the gray features of old Beijing – have been destroyed, leaving a large vacant lot covered with bricks. Here, one invokes the subway:  By 2012, Line 8 must pass through Gulou, linking the north of the capital to the lake district and the bustling Nanluoguxiang (有生气的南锣鼓巷) and, also, the Museum of Fine Arts.

Courtyard homes (四合院/ cours carrées) destroyed and refurbished
But an old man, a local, has another explanation: “It’s the courtyard yard homes, the traditional square yards, which can be sold to rich people and officials.  Some parts [of the demolished neighborhood] will be used for the subway station, but the majority of the land will be used for business, continuing what they did further south [e.g., in Qianmen]. They couldn’t do it all at once, it would have caused too much discontent, “ he said, standing in front of the barren land (枯萎土地/les terrains laissés vides).

While boutiques have proliferated in the area, the demand among Chinese and foreigners for these typical houses has jumped, especially when they are in good condition. Prices have followed. As a result, the operation should be profitable.

Prices for the best-renovated courtyards for wealthy provincials or foreigners start at a level approximate to the costs [for homes] around major Western capitals.

Meanwhile, in some ruins, young guards in uniform have taken the place of families as the prelude to complete destruction.

More to follow, perhaps…

Cops clear north Gulou for the bulldozer harvest, late January 2010-- photo via Harold T

Postscript: For some reason the only way that I can deal with the emotion that surrounds this issue for me (having lived in Gulou off and on for a good five-six years) is to play French cello music.  Sorry!

1 Comment

  1. Cheers for the ping-back, Adam.

    I discussed this elsewhere, and there was surprise that the Chinese state still was applying such modernist ‘solutions’. The results are easy to predict, such as Slough which never has received those friendly bombs.

    This book by Yale political scientist James C. Scott was recommended. Any book which makes a cadastral survey sound interesting, discusses the Leninist vanguard and uses concepts such as “scientific forestry” as metaphors for improving the human condition has got to be worth a try.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s