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From Ancient Capital to Asian Mega-City

Goodbye to Old Beijing

May 28, 2004


BEIJING -- When Liu Jianbin was growing up in his Beijing neighborhood, he'd often hear the opera star next door rehearsing or visit the shop selling ritual paper horses used in funerals. In the dense warren of narrow streets and single story courtyard homes, he'd watch people buying fried bread for breakfast or listen to the birds.

"My deepest memory was listening to the woodpeckers pecking at the wooden posts in the temple, getting the bugs out," he said in his eighth-floor apartment in central Beijing. "The sound was distant yet clear. When I had nothing to do, I'd sit and listen."

Beijing's hutongs, as the city's distinctive alleyways are known, were bustling centers of life. But today, a different kind of bird fills Beijing's landscape -- construction cranes. Real estate developers have spent the last decade furiously tearing down swaths of the old city and putting up nondescript office towers and apartment compounds. Hundreds of thousands of residents have been forced out of their old neighborhoods and into anonymous apartments on the city's outskirts.

Liu, a 62-year-old steel worker turned amateur historian, can barely keep up. Though he moved out of the hutongs long ago, he has visited just about every one in Beijing in an effort to record their history. Already, hundreds of historic hutongs have disappeared, eaten up by the forces of modernization.

Four years before it is set to host the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing is undergoing an astonishing transformation. The fabric of the old city is being torn apart while modern office parks and splashy architectural wonders fill the landscape. As this ancient capital strives to put its mark on the 21st century, some wonder if it will completely lose its past.

"In the face of modernization, globalization and the 2008 Olympics, Beijing seems to be prepared to turn itself over to real estate developers," Li Xiguang, vice director of Tsinghua University's journalism school and one of many scholars who have been publicly appealing for better preservation, wrote in the China Youth Daily.

"We will not be Beijing anymore if the construction goes on like this," Li said in an interview.

What's more, the unbridled speed of the development has left little time for proper study and planning, experts say. As a result, the city has grown into a nearly unmanageable tangle of congested roads and irrational development schemes.

Six thousand households have been forced to relocate for construction of Olympic venues, just a tiny fraction of the 400,000 households that have been moved for redevelopment since 1991. Some had just a few weeks notice to move their belongings before the wrecking ball arrived.

"Beijing now has the 'big city disease,"' the state-run Economic Daily recently declared.

China's capital has grown faster than city planners had ever imagined. A decade ago, the population for 2010 was forecasted to be 12.5 million. It now exceeds 14 million and is projected to reach 16 million by 2008. That does not include a floating population of more than 3 million workers, mostly migrant laborers from the provinces, a figure that also continues to increase.

Vehicle growth has exceeded projections even faster, leaving city leaders unprepared to deal with mushrooming traffic and air pollution problems.

"With the current traffic congestion, people don't have confidence to manage a very successful Olympic Games," said Chengri Ding, professor of urban planning at the University of Maryland and head of a team that will be the first Westerners to advise Beijing's planners since the Soviets left in the 1950s.

How Beijing handles its urban ills matters hugely to the rest of China, which is undergoing unprecedented rates of urbanization. In the next couple decades, as many as 30 million people will move to cities from the countryside every year, Ding said. Those cities will look to Beijing as a model.

"How the cities can manage this massive transformation -- this is what planning should address," he said. "Planning should not just be a beauty contest."

But in the new China, form seems to be winning out over function.

Urban planning in Western countries involves not only architects but also economists, engineers and social scientists, said Ding. But here it is still done largely by architects. The result is world-class buildings in a third-rate city, critics say.

Beijing is accumulating its share of bold landmark buildings. The new National Theater is a giant glass and titanium dome that locals have likened to a duck's egg. The headquarters of CCTV, China's national broadcaster, will be in the shape of a trapezoidal loop. The Olympic stadium has a bird's nest form covered with crisscrossing steel bars. All were designed by renowned international architects.

The city hopes to spend $180 billion on infrastructure in the next four years, including $33.8 billion for Olympic-related projects. Projects range from the vital, such as new subway lines, to the frivolous, such as an automobile museum.

Urban developments get going at lightning speed: firms are regularly asked to submit a workable master plan in eight weeks, a process that could take six months in the United States, said Greg Yager, senior partner in the Shanghai office of RTKL Associates, an American urban planning firm.

Still, city leaders have recognized the need for a new vision. Beijing announced this year the broad outlines of a new master plan which it hopes will address the fundamental problems caused half a century ago when Mao Zedong decided to retain a single city center and build the new city on top of the old city. The plan calls for multiple centers, with new urban areas outside of the historic center.

Still, demolition of Beijing's beloved hutongs continues unabated.

Li, the journalism professor, said the destruction violates the spirit of Beijing's Olympic bid slogan, "New Beijing, Great Olympics," which he authored.

"By 'new Beijing,' I meant we want to have a new humanism in Beijing ... a new humanistic city," he said. "But the local officials and planners took this slogan literally. They think 'new Beijing' means destroy old Beijing and build a new Beijing."

Much of Beijing's history is in its hutongs. For hundreds of years, they have been home to temples, famous artists and historical figures. Their very names give a sense of the times, from Bee Breeding Hutong to Chasing Thieves Hutong.

As the times changed, so did the names, with the 10-year political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution inciting the most drastic changes. Suddenly there were names like Anti-Revisionism Road and Red Sun Street.

Liu, the former steel worker, is trying to record all the name changes and collect oral histories.

In the historic center, the area surrounding the Forbidden City that is about the size of the island of Manhattan, officials have blocked off 25 "preservation zones" covering less than one-quarter of the surface area. But the zones are nearly useless since corruption and an unclear definition of "preservation" allows developers to get away with almost anything. Most scholars say the entire area should be off-limits to development anyway.

The city's official justification for tearing down old homes is that they are dangerous and sub-standard; some don't even have toilets.

Many residents do not want to move out of their old neighborhood into a distant high-rise. Wang Wenming, who has spent more than 40 years in his one-story courtyard house near the Forbidden City, worries about taking the elevators in apartment buildings.

"What if they break down?" he said. "You go up and you'll never get down. You'll die up there."

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