Boom wrecking Beijing landmarks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BEIJING -- The irony was probably lost on Beijing's city fathers: While they spent last week celebrating the most famous Peking Opera star of this century, workers were hauling away the remains of the theater where he gave his greatest performances.

In the century-old theater's place? A faceless shopping arcade to cater to Beijing's nouveau riche.

Unfortunately for China's cultural heritage -- and its future as a tourist destination -- the recent demise of the Jixiang Theater is being repeated across the country. In Suzhou, for example, unplanned urban growth has badly polluted the city's famous maze of canals, spoiling a city that once drew comparisons with Venice.

This onslaught of thoughtless development is one of the downsides to China's double-digit economic growth. While China's cities are gaining wide new roads, shopping centers and luxury apartment blocks, they have been losing many of the landmarks that somehow survived revolution, war and the anti-cultural destruction of earlier Communist rule.

The latest assault against the old has all but overwhelmed the best efforts of the country's nascent urban planning offices.

The situation is especially acute in Beijing, where fast economic growth is clashing with a city that brims with artifacts stemming from the 700 years when it was home to China's emperors and the center of the country's universe.

"There's terrific pressure between economic growth and urban protection. We hope to win, but we don't always win," said Dong Guangqi, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Institute of Urban Planning and Design.

One loss was the decision to tear down the Jixiang Theater off Beijing's biggest shopping street, Wangfujing. The theater, the only remaining one in Beijing devoted solely to Peking Opera, was where Mei Lanfang performed many of the female roles that made him so famous.

Although the theater was originally on the city's list of protected buildings, it lost this protection when a foreign investor proposed a 17-story shopping and office complex.

Loss after loss

The old theater's loss was another shock for many Beijing residents, who have seen how postwar politicians sacrificed the city's mighty walls, most of its huge gates and scores of temples, restaurants, bridges and ceremonial archways. In a rare critique of authorities in Beijing and Shanghai, where old movie theaters have also been knocked down, the China Daily pleaded for a broader view of development.

"Shanghai and Beijing cannot become world-class cities without first-class theaters where first-class troupes can perform," it warned.

Another loss that attracted much private criticism was Beijing's recent decision to tear down the Central Academy of Fine Arts and replace it with another mall.

The academy, whose students built the "Goddess of Democracy" statue of Tiananmen Square in 1989, is to be housed in a new complex 10 miles outside the city center.

"The old campus isn't much to look at, but it's located in the heart of Beijing. In the future, we'll be working in a suburb near the airport. Only a bureaucrat could think that this is an improvement," said a student.

Perhaps the biggest losers in Beijing are the capital's traditional courtyard houses. Under pressure from developers and overpopulation, these human-scaled structures are being replaced by gleaming office towers for joint-venture companies and luxury apartments for Beijing's booming population of foreigners and the newly rich.

All told, Beijing will see about 200 major projects completed over the next three years that will add 21 million square feet of commercial and residential floor space.

A typical project: Financial Street, a huge banking and commercial center on the edge of the old city that calls for the demolition of 20,000 homes, some dating back 500 years to the Ming Dynasty. The residents of this area, who didn't have a say in the project's design, are being resettled in concrete silos up to a dozen miles from their old homes. Although the new apartments have central heating and more living space, many residents say they would have preferred to live in their ancestral homes if they had been given a bit of money to fix them up.

These new housing blocks have come to define the cityscape so much that an old Communist leader, former Politburo member Wan Li, complained privately to a city official that Beijing now resembles a wok: low in the middle and high on the edges. Once famous for its view of the Fragrant Mountains to the west, central Beijing has only a few locations where the foothills of the Mongolian plateau can be glimpsed through the smog and high-rises, Mr. Wan said.

It's not that city officials are oblivious to Beijing's problems.

Mr. Dong of the urban planning institute points out that Beijing has enacted height requirements for buildings being built in the old city, which surrounds the emperor's former palace, the Forbidden City.

The few buildings to have violated these limits, he said, were built in 1984 and 1985, when urban planners hadn't yet recovered from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976 and saw the country run by ideologues who ordered old buildings leveled in hopes of wiping out the past and creating a new, Communist China.

Even these new height restrictions, however, have not been entirely successful, Mr. Dong concedes. Original plans to require most buildings to be under 25 feet were abandoned, he said.

Many other rules are simply ignored, he said. On the lively Dazhalan shopping street south of the Forbidden City, for example, intricate stonework on a Qing Dynasty building was covered recently by garish aluminum siding -- against the planning office's protests.

"I think these kinds of renovations are cultural destruction. Once a situation like this is created, it's very hard for it to be changed back," Mr. Dong said.

While no city can be a museum to past cultural glories, city officials concede that unplanned growth will make Beijing a less interesting tourist destination. To preserve some semblance of Beijing's Chinese spirit, if not its original Chinese buildings, Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong has backed architects who add little curved green roofs or tiny pagodas to the top of new buildings.

Less than masterpieces

The results, however, have been less than aesthetic masterpieces.

"So now every building has to have a pavilion-type rooftop. What a crazy idea. You can't recapture history, you have to preserve it," said a Communist Party member who has written on Beijing's history.

Sometimes, preserving a building isn't enough to keep its character. The Dongbian Gate, for example, where Chinese troops fought valiantly to repel Western invaders in 1900, is now overwhelmed by a highway overpass and flanked by rows of concrete apartment towers.

Even the city's most famous tourist landmark, the Temple of Heaven's Hall for Good Harvests -- which adorns everything from boxes of tea to key rings -- is not free from neighboring blight.

"The grounds of the temple rise to the main hall, which is the highest area of the whole site. This gives the feeling that the emperor was walking up to heaven," said Mr. Dong. "But as buildings have been erected around the park, the temple has become minuscule and smaller and lost the grandeur it possessed in the old days.

"We have a saying for that: Heaven has come back down to earth."

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