New Life in Old Beijing, Part II

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When I arrived in Beijing on the third day of the Chinese New Year, I was expecting the city to be quiet, and it was, except on Nanluoguxiang, a long alleyway near the Drum and Bell Towers that is lined by small shops, cafés and restaurants. Nanluoguxiang was busy — swarming with people, in fact. On my previous two trips to Beijing, in 2009 and 2010, it hadn’t been nearly as crowded. I chalked it up to the holiday.

When I returned to Beijing last month, though, I found Nanluoguxiang just as busy. Not only that, but many of the independent shops I remembered from my first visits were gone, replaced by chain bubble tea outlets and souvenir stores. Dozens of hawkers had set up camp along the street, most of them selling useless tchotchkes with blinking LED lights. It is still a charming street, but it has clearly made a leap from eccentricity to mass-market tourism. There’s even a Starbucks.

(Quick aside: the Nanluoguxiang Starbucks had the lowest food safety rating I saw in Beijing — a “C”. I can’t decide whether that is funny or terrifying, considering the standards in most Beijing kitchens.)

In some ways, it’s hard to begrudge Nanluoguxiang’s success when the alternative is demolition and redevelopment, which has been the case for so many other Beijing hutongs. In China, the normal process of gentrification is thrown out of whack by the sheer scale of everything: you can either go upmarket, which means really upmarket — Maserati dealers and that sort of thing — or mass market, which means an unceasing crush of weekend tourists and trinket vendors. The period of being a pleasantly polished enclave, which lasts for years or even decades in the life-cycle of North American and European neighbourhoods, is astoundingly short in Beijing.

Even Wudaoying Hutong, a street near the Lama Temple that is currently a laid-back haven for interesting businesses, seems to be marching inexorably towards the fate suffered by Nanluoguxiang. “The business types are changing from being local independent businesses, small restaurants and cafés. A Time For Tea, the bubble tea shop — I think there’s eight of them on Nanluoguxiang and one just opened on Wudaoying. That’s not such a good sign,” says Neill Mclean Gaddes, an architect who lives nearby. “Residents are just renting out their spaces and it’s overcommercializing.”

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Weekend crowds near the Gulou

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Nanluoguxiang

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Hutong near Nanluoguxiang

It’s a process of ground-up regeneration, but without any checks and balances to guard against excess, it ends up destroying the character of the neighbourhood in the same way as any top-down redevelopment project. Well, maybe not entirely — for an example of complete eradication of a formerly distinctive area, you need only look at Qianmen Avenue, a busy commercial artery that runs south from Tiananmen Square. Many of Beijing’s cultural treasures — including Peking opera and roast duck — trace their origins to the area.

With such a venerable history, it was only natural that the Beijing government decided to tear the neighbourhood down before the 2008 Olympics. Of course, this wasn’t destruction for the sake of a run-of-the-mill shopping mall, but something grander — “modern antiquity” in the words of the Financial Times. Blocks of commercial buildings and old hutong houses were demolished and replaced by a pseudo-historical theme park inspired by what somebody imagined the district looked like in the Qing Dynasty.

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Qianmen Avenue

Six years later, Qianmen Avenue bustles with tourists, but it’s hard to escape the Disneyland feel, especially when you venture off to one of the sidestreets, which are still lined by empty shop spaces. Apparently, the new development has been so unpopular with businesses that the local government has had to offer multinational chain stores a rent subsidy in order to lure them into the area. On the upside, Qianmen is so widely loathed that it has become a cautionary tale for even the government. “It’s really clearly understood that it is not a successful model,” says Gaddes. Like the American backlash against urban renewal in the 1960s, Qianmen has served as a catalyst for an alternative kind of regeneration, which can be seen just a few blocks to the west, in the ancient neighbourhood of Dashilar.

“Nanluoguxiang and Qianmen, they’re opposite ends of the spectrum — one is completely top down and the other is no-regulation, bottom-up,” says Gaddes. “What we’re trying to do in Dashilar is negotiate the good aspects of both bottom-up and top-down.” More on that in the next and final installment of this three-part series.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday July 07 2014at 12:07 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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