Not another Qianmen?

Updated: 2012-03-29 09:55

By Cheng Anqi and Zhang Zixuan (China Daily)

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Liu Sheng is concerned the transformation of his community around Beijing's Drum and Bell towers will overly commercialize the area and ruin its authenticity.

"They want it to be a commercial tourism district, but we want to save it," the 77-year-old says.

He recalls that in the 1950s, the walls around the towers were low and could easily be climbed over. He and his childhood friends would spend afternoons watching slideshows, playing soccer and staging cricket fights in the square.

Later, a playground and recreation area showing free films was built, until the 1980s, when the wall was raised and a turnstile was put in for tourism.

"The tickets run up to 80 yuan ($13), which we can't afford," Liu says. "So my grandson has never seen the other side of the wall. It's a pity."

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage's ancient architecture expert team leader Luo Zhewen warns the renovation must be moderate to maintain cultural vitality.

Expert Committee of National Historical and Cultural City Protection secretary-general Wang Jinghui says sustaining the area's historical function and style is most important. So, large-scale demolition is unnecessary, he says.

"The reconstruction of Qianmen is a lesson," says Wang, also the former deputy director of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development's urban planning department.

The Qianmen area was heavily renovated into a tourism zone critics call "Disneyfied".

"When the preservation of original style and tourism are in conflict, preservation should always win," Wang says.

"Tourists won't go if the style isn't authentically historic."

Xiao Hui, a 22-year-old tourist from Anhui province, agrees.

"These shabby houses look authentic. It would be disappointing if Beijing looked like every other commercialized old town. We'd only be able to see the real thing in movies."

Tourist Wang Zheng believes the areas are in dire need of renovation.

"These lanes are messy and dirty, which dampens tourism appeal," he says.

Expert advisor of Beijing Committee of Historical and Cultural City Protection Wang Shiren also believes the renovation is necessary and will give oomph to the Beijing Central Axis' World Heritage application.

"The central axis' northern end's messiness doesn't fit the area's overall image," Wang Shiren says.

"It's not symmetrical and the houses, most of which were rebuilt by occupants, are in poor condition and have an inconsistent style."

He stresses the renovations must follow the law, be approved by experts and improve locals' lives.

Renovation supporters say protection laws will ensure famous siheyuan (traditional courtyards) will not be torn down or dramatically altered.

The stakes involved were alluded to a year ago, when the government voted to designate a 12.5-hectare area around the Gulou as a cultural village of the historic district. The area is a city block of houses and tenements along Zhongluowan.

But critics argue the 5 billion yuan ($793 million) project would have mangled the cityscape and their protests shrunk the proposed project into a 10,800-square-meter museum.

British tourist George Bill says on his first trip to Beijing's hutong, long a point of fascination for the 76-year-old, that it would be a pity if the renovation destroyed this "important part of Beijing's historical heritage".

"Buildings are being lost as we speak," he says.