Drum Tower and Bell Tower area in Beijing facing redevelopment

The heritage conservation area surrounding Beijing’s Drum and Bell Tower is another place that I try to make a repeated visit whenever I am in Beijing. The first time I was here was back in 2002 when Shishahai was at its very early stage of becoming an entertainment zone. It was still tranquil back then. In the summer of 2004, when I was back in Beijing to organise a workshop, I was told that some academics and heritage conservationists including journalists were busy with writing a petition letter to stop the imminent demolition along Jiu Gulou Dajie as part of its expansion. Since then, I remember coming across with occasional news reports about whether or not this area with a high concentration of dilapidated courtyard houses would be subject to demolition and redevelopment.

Drum Tower

Bell Tower
Earlier this year, I received an announcement from the Beijing Cultural Heritage Conservation Center that it was to host a forum ‘Saving Gulou‘ on the planned demolition of this neighbourhood. It was cancelled eventually due to government intervention. The Center’s web site states:

“Despite Gulou’s cultural importance, multiple sources have indicated that a 5 billion RMB budget has been allocated to convert 12.5 hectares of the Drum and Bell Tower area into a ‘Beijing Time Cultural City’ – putting the neighbourhood in serious danger. Such a massive scale development will include large infrastructures like public squares and a museum. As a result, there will be extensive evictions, demolition, and construction in this ancient area, and gone will be the traditional courtyards, hutongs, and local residents.”

Until today, it seems that the district government has kept quiet not to reveal the actual detailed plans regarding the neighbourhood redevelopment, which makes the future very uncertain for every party involved including local residents. While the immediate surrounding area north of Drum and Bell Tower remains intact, the southern parts of Drum Tower East Street and Drum Tower West Street show a visible trace of demolition already taking place. Zhongtao Hutong, closer to the northern section of the 2nd ring road, is also going through demolition.

Demolition: South of Drum Tower West Street
Demolition: South of Drum Tower East Street

Since the early 2000s, Beijing has been experimenting with various conservation strategies. So far, it seems like there are two distinctive models: Nanluoguxiang (or perhaps Shishahai) model and Qianmen model. The former involves gradual upgrading of facilities and dwellings as well as selective demolition and reconstruction. Courtyards in relatively good conditions get traded as they nowadays attract high-end investors (mainly overseas Chinese so far). The Qianmen model involves a complete make-over (some refer to it as ‘fake-over’) of an entire area by means of demolition and reconstruction, though a number of people would disapprove what has become of Qianmen nowadays. A senior editor at China Daily told me that the district government wanted to re-create the kind of architecture and streetscape from the 1930s and 1940s when Qianmen was at its heyday commercially, and hence took the building prints from those days to rebuild all the new buildings. Obviously, the array of these buildings create a strange atmosphere as if you are in a film shooting scene. The same senior editor mentioned earlier was correct to point out that there was no longer the kind of interaction between these shops on ‘new’ Qianmen and local Beijing residents, which used to create the unique and vibrant environment in the old days. Most shops that now exist along Qianmen Street are hardly affordable by ordinary Beijingers, and those with buying power are unlikely to come to this street to do shopping due to the touristic environment. After all, for the newly rich in Beijing, there are far more attractive places than Qianmen to do shopping. On the other hand, many tourists would find it expensive to shop here. It would be interesting how the shops survive here.

Qianmen: View South

Going back to the potential redevelopment of Drum and Bell Tower areas, it would be very important for the government (especially the district government in this case) to realise the importance of the interaction in order to keep the soul of this place. Otherwise, it will create another ‘ghost’ town.

China’s Population Census to start soon

Mainland China has been conducting the national population census every 10 years since 1990, and there will be another this year, starting on the 1st November. It is said that 
census-takers will visit each household (see China’s 6th national census to start on Nov. 1). While walking around in Beijing, it was interesting to see how important this census taking exercise would be. Posters and written notices were displayed around the city to alert the imminent census-taking. The pictures on the left show some of the posters on a wall next to the Lama Temple (Yonghegong) in Beijing. ‘Harmonious society’ continues to receive the main emphasis. It is also interesting to notice that in the first picture, while the Chinese statement reads “Population census constructs world city”, its English equivalent underneath has no reference to the ‘world city’.
For China, the importance of accurate data including census is needless to say, and I am sure many academics around the world who study China using census data would be eager to wait for its release.

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Wudaoying Hutong, the next Nanluoguxiang?

Nanluoguxiang in Dongcheng District of Beijing is now known as a culture district, promoted by the district government as a showcase for heritage conservation and tourist attraction. While many hutongs in Beijing’s inner city areas have disappeared due to demolition and reconstruction-oriented urban renewal strategies, some hutongs have been selectively experiencing revalorisation through upgrading (if interested in this topic, see my paper, ‘Urban Conservation and Revalorisation of Dilapidated Historic Quarters: the case of Nanluoguxiang in Beijing’). Nanluoguxiang has been one best example, with its heavy concentration of traditional Beijing residential dwellings known as hutong and its long history that goes back to the 13th century.

This time in Beijing, I came to notice a newspaper article that talks about the rise of Wudaoying Hutong as the next Nanluoguxiang. The hutong is located west of the Lama Temple (Yonghegong), and I’d assume the area is also part of the designated heritage conservation area. The hutong connects Yonghegong with Andingmen, and is a relatively quiet place. I took a walk along the hutong, and it does experience some infiltration of commercial/cultural activities, which would probably resemble the early phase of Nanluoguxiang. Continue reading

Beijing Xinzhongjie neighbourhood – Demolition begins

Every time I come to Beijing, I try to make a repeated visit to some selected places in order to see what’s been changed. In a way, it is a semi-academic exercise, almost a ritual, in order for me to grasp the speed of Beijing’s socio-spatial changes. After all, Beijing is a city that condenses its development trajectory many folds.

One such place is called Xinzhongjie, located near Worker’s Stadium in Dongcheng District. This is an area that I studied several years ago. If any reader is interested, some of the findings can be found in my article, Residential Redevelopment and Entrepreneurial Local State. Part of this neighbourhood was redeveloped several years ago, now accommodating Yangguang Dushi (or Sun City), a high-rise commercial housing estate. Upon completion of the first phase redevelopment, there were rumors that the remaining part of this neighbourhood would experience redevelopment fairly soon, but somehow, the work has not taken place until recently. When I came to see this area last year March, the area stayed exactly the same as what I had seen back in 2003.

The neighbourhood now depicts a marked difference. It is quite visible and evident that demolition is now taking place, and the low-rise buildings that used to accommodate small businesses appear to have become the first target. It is very probable that the local authority took years to sort out the fragmented property rights of these small businesses, which may involve numerous rounds of negotiations with various work-units and business owners regarding compensation measures. It seems like these negotiations have now reached conclusion. Most residential dwellings remain intact as of now, but I would expect that they would be subject to demolition quite soon. One last remaining pingfang (one-storey dwelling) neighbourhood in this part of Beijing will soon disappear. It would be interesting to find out what becomes of this neighbourhood and the fate of the original residents.

[Travel] The Old Bookworm, Beijing

An interesting plae that I happened to find by chance. It is located on Sanlitun South Street, diagonally opposite the new Sanlitun Village complex. It is fairly spacious and has a large collection of China-related ‘English’ books, and apparently hosts book talks, which is something that I also find quite new in Beijing. It seems quite popular among expats and local Chinese younger generation. The venue is open until 2 am. It also operates a roof terrace bar, but it opens till 12 midnight and is also recommended when it does not rain.

It certainly has a different feeling when compared with all those noisy bars on Sanlitun North Street, which has also become ‘orderly’ – no longer appealing to me at least. It serves Western food and the quality seesms acceptable. And most importantly for travellers, it provides wireless internet connection. Apparently, all the cafes that I’ve been to so far in Beijing this time had wireless internet provision. Quite a big ‘progress’.

Update (as of 3 September 2012)
The venue’s web site: http://beijingbookworm.com
Address: Building 4, Nan Sanlitun Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100027, P.R. China
How to get there:

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[Travel] Beijing Sanlitun – Fancy new development emerging

Beijing has changed again. This time in Beijing, the new development on Sanlitun North Street (known as ‘Sanlitun Bar Street’) came to me as a surprise. Sanlitun Village is something completely new to me, and it is apparently very bustling, full of luxury shops, bars, restaurants and cafe that aim at the new ‘middle-class’ in Beijing. Beijing’s Apple Store is also based here. The whole complex is quite visible from distance, and it has an inner courtyard space with fountain areas as well as roof-top terrace that accommodates fancy bars. It certainly is a new type of development that Beijing has not seen before, and I am wondering who is behind this development. Perhaps another Hong Kong-originated capital?

Right next to the complex situates another new development site of Sanlitun SOHO, and the name makes it clear who the developer is (correct me if I’m wrong). It is another huge complex of seemingly mix-use, and does stand out in this whole area. I am not quite sure but in my memory, the area used to be a low-rise hutong-like area, which accommodated some small bars (less fancy but cozier than those bars on the main Sanlitun Bar Street), but it seems to have been all demolished fairly recently.

Obviously, this part of Beijing is a prime site, and it is not so surprising that this area is going through this type of development. Perhaps it has come too late from the government and developers’ perspective. What is interesting is that these new development projects are making the previous development obsolete in style. Those residential and commercial buildings built in the 1980s and 1990s (or even in the early 2000s) appear to be outdated when they are juxtaposed with the new development. We will see what new development is going to be triggered in the near future.