Monday, February 09, 2009


...or, "the spreading pancake".

I learned a valuable lesson the other day. As a friend and I mounted our regulation 1960s Chinese bicycles and began to ride off towards the nearest noodle bar, he told the one rule I must obey when cycling in China: just keep looking forward. Concentrate on what's going on in front of you and don't look back, he said, and everything would be just fine. This could almost be proverbial. New China is determined that its history, however treasured, should not get in the way of its future. No building or neighbourhood is sacred, none exempt from the march of progress.

In the 1930s, the urban planner Edmund Bacon (father of Kevin) travelled to Beijing, and said it was "possibly the greatest single work of man on the face of the earth." It "taught me that city planning is about movement through space, an architectural sequence of sensors and stimuli, up and down, light and dark, color and rhythm," he said. Beijing has historically been planned and built as an harmonious and coherent whole, despite the successful attempts of successive regimes to stamp their mark upon the city.

Sze Tsung Leong is a Chinese-American photographer who has captured the momentary juxtaposition of the fading past and encroaching present (there is an interview with him here). Each shift in history, he says "from dynasty to dynasty, from imperial rule to communism, from communism to the market economy," seeks an erasure of history. Certainly the scale and pace of destruction and construction under capitalism has exceeded that of the Communists in the 1950s, who knocked down countless hutongs and parts of the city wall in order to widen roads, modernise the city's infrastructure and create that permanent desert of neo-classical Sino-Stalinist concrete, Tian'anmen Square.

The history of Beijing really begins in the early fifteenth century, when the third Ming Emperor Yongle moved the imperial capital to the city (Beijing means 'northern capital'). Under the Ming dynasty, great temples and imperial palaces were built - the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven are the best and most famous examples - and a walled city was built around the symmetrical shape of the Chinese character symbolising imperial authority. When the Qing Dynasty replaced the Ming, the city became partially suburbanised and secularised. Markets were installed in some previously sacred places, and nascent commercial networks were created.

In the early days of the republic, the nationalist Kuomintang transferred the capital to Nanjing, but when the Communists took power and unified the country in 1949, the capital was restored to Beijing.

The Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall contains a bronze scale model of Beijing as it was in 1949. It shows a city which, at first glance, is similar to today's Beijing: coherent, harmonious, planned along two axes (the core North-South axis running through Zhong Lou, Gu Lou, the ruins of Dadu, the Forbidden City and Beihai Park, the Temple of Heaven and Yongdingmen). But a closer look reveals just how much has changed during the CCP's time in power. Under Mao, the city was transformed to ease the flow of traffic; under subsequent reformist leaders, and particularly in the last 10 years, Beijing has been re-invented to ease the flow of capital.

This re-invented Beijing is revealed with extraordinary precision in the showcase room of the Exhibition Hall, where a gigantic 1:70000 scale street-by-street, block-by-block, building-by-building model of the main city has been assembled, with satellite photos around the edge. The model is overwhelming and utterly absorbing, and demands one's time and concentration.

The view from the upstairs gallery gives a sense of the city as a whole - how the concentric expansion of the ring-roads has suburbanised Beijing, how the Forbidden City remains at its heart but also how this semi-sacred space has been invaded by such postmodern confections as the National Theatre, how the Olympic Park lies precisely on the N-S axial line, just a few kilometres north of Tian'anmen, how the eastern, former residential parts of the city are making way for the forces of big business, finance and corporate propaganda. But still, as a relative stranger to Beijing, I spent an hour and a half slowly wandering round at ground level, trying to spot the threatened hutongs, looking out for my hotel, retracing my footsteps from earlier that morning, trying to get my bearings in this formidably huge room.

In the corner of the room, on a slightly larger scale, was a model of Beijing's new Central Business District. Every city has one of these now: a collection of buildings which project metropolitan confidence in private enterprise at such a bellowing volume, that one wonders if they aren't over-compensating for something. But sure enough, if any world city has a right to a CBD, it's Beijing.

The decision to build a CBD in the east of the city was agreed in 1993; an Administrative Committee was established in 2002, and construction had reached the usual Chinese express pace by 2004. (De/construction is a much less transparent and bureaucratic process in China, as Sze Tsung Leong explains: "the houses are mostly inhabited by those who have been left behind by the economic revolution. Because the people who live there now don't have the means to protect themselves, and because the legal system does not favor them, in most cases it has become an uneven battle between developers and government agencies on one side, and residents on the other. Of course the latter almost always lose.")

The CBD, the financial and media centre of China, is now largely complete, all 4 square kilometres of it, and is dominated by Rem Koolhaas's headquarters for CCTV, the Chinese state television channel. Koolhaas apparently suffered no loss of sleep after being chosen as the architect to build the propaganda engine of the CCP: "Participation in China's modernisation does not have a guaranteed outcome ... the future of China is the most compelling conundrum, its outcome affects all of us and a position of resistance seems somehow ornamental."

Planners and bureaucrats know that it is politic not to annihilate the past completely. Like all great urban expanders in the history of capitalism, those who seek to build in the cities of China will pick land where real estate prices are lowest, where housing takes the form of slums (this creates a dual advantage, since developers can fulfil their civic responsibility through renovation) and where uprooted residents are unlikely to make a fuss. Nevertheless, the past is profitable too. The last decade or so of Beijing's development has come at the expense of its hutongs, the back-alleys traditionally home to the city's poor. Nobody much wrung their hands on their behalf until it was pointed out that the loss of these charming and intricate alleyways might affect tourism. The government then sat up and took notice, and pledged to conserve hutong neighbourhoods, as well as other historical sites and buildings.

One of the strangest examples I saw of 'historic conservation' was Qianmen Dajie. I mentioned in this post the ambiguities of old/new, genuine/fake etc - well, I was right to be suspicious about Qianmen Dajie. Many of the hutongs just south of Tian'anmen have been knocked down and replaced with ... facsimiles of the old hutongs! Where these are not yet complete, great plaster boards stand at the entrance with artist's impressions of how the new hutong will look, or black and white photos of how the old hutong used to look. One wonders why one needs the hutong at all, given all this virtuality, but local politicians and developers are clearly very proud of their 'Qing Dynasty Disneyland'. The old tram system has been re-built, though since no shops and restaurants have yet opened beyond the beginning of the street, it doesn't really take you anywhere. When the building works are complete, Qianmen Dajie will be home to several traditional Chinese stores, including Starbucks, Apple and Prada.


Blogger yianvn said...

Nice post.

2:40 AM  

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