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.

Re-visiting the Drum Tower area in Beijing

베이징의 Drum Tower 일대는 베이징 방문할 때마다 한번씩 찾아보는 듯하다. Gulou 鼓楼 라는 역사적 유적이 위치해 있고, 인근 Houhai 后海 등이 있어, 주변에 Hutong 胡同이 완전 철거되지 않고 제법 남아 있기도 한 곳이다. 그래도 갈 때 마다 상업화가 진전됨을 볼 수 있다.

이번 여행길 아시아나항공 기내 잡지에 베이징 관광 가이드가 비치되어 있어 훝어 보니 이 근방 지역에 위치한 상점, 식당 등이 꽤나 소개되어 있었다.

9월 7일 오후, 점심도 들 겸 해서 Houhai 지역 Qianhaidongyan 前海东沿에 자리잡은 Nuage라는 베트남 식당을 들러 쌀국수 한 그릇 먹고 (45yuan) 인근을 걸었다. 잔뜩 흐린 하늘, 멀리서 천둥 소리가 들리더니 곧 굵은 빗방울의 소나기가 내린다. Paralympic Games가 있다 하더니 혹 인공강우를 실시한 것은 아닌가 의심 해본다.

From Houhai and Gulou, Beijing

Gulou를 벗어나 동쪽으로 좀 걷다 보니, 어느 Hutong 골목길 안쪽으로 빨간 색 깃발이 보여 무언가 하고 들여다 보니, 멋스런 까페 안에서 어느 인터넷 동호회의 남녀 ‘소개팅’ 같은 것이 벌어지고 있는 듯 하다. 오래된 Siheyuan 四合院의 일부를 개조한 듯한 까페도 재밌게 보았지만, 그 안에서 남녀 20여명이 모여 웃음꽃 피우는 것이 80세대 젊은이들의 새로운 풍속도를 보는 듯했다.

이어 찾은 곳은 Jiaodaokou 交道口 지역의 Nanluoguxiang 南锣鼓巷. 남북으로 약 100여미터 길게 뻗은 이 곳은 Hutong길이었던 듯 한데, 이젠 길가로 많은 수의 trendy 공예품 가게, 식당, 까페 등이 늘어서 있었다. 잠시 앉아 맥주 한잔 기울였던 Tibet Cafe 사람에게 들으니 2~3년 전 부터 이렇게 변화하기 시작했다 한다. 다른 친구에게 들으니 정부에서 올림픽을 대비해서 꾸몄다 하는데…어떻게 해서 세를 얻어 가게들이 들어섰는지 궁금하다. 사유화 된 주택이라면 주인이 rent 수입을 얻기 위해 빌려 줬다 할 수 있지만, 공공주택이었다면 정부가 관리했을텐데 원래 주민은 어떻게 이주시키고 가게 주인들에게 세를 주었을까?**

From Nanluoguxiang, Beijing

아무튼 제법 trendy 하게 바뀐 이곳은 구경하러 온 외국인들, 중국 젊은이들로 북적거렸다.

** 덧붙임: 며칠 뒤 만난 삼촌/숙모에 따르면, 대부분 개인소유의 주택을 세를 주어 가게로 전환한 것이라 한다. 좀 더 알아봐야겠다.

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