Somehow I managed to sleep until 11 this morning. I haven't done anything like that for ages. Oh well...
So at about half past five on Sunday evening lzh and I got off the 726 bus at Qianmen. I was astounded. I hadn't been down that way for a very long time. It has changed drastically with all that renovation they're doing on the Qianmen area. The 726 stops at the southwestern corner of Qianmen, where the renovations seem to be finished. The difference is simply amazing. There's a whole new street running southwestwards from Qianmen- 煤市街, Coal Market Street, if I remember rightly- and a lot of the clutter has been cleared out opening up space for lawns and trees, and opening up views of some of the old buildings that had been hidden by all that clutter. Although it is far too early, of course, to comment on the renovation of the whole Qianmen area, because it's still under way, that section between the northern ends of Qianmen Dajie and Meishi Jie is really impressive, a huge improvement on the noisy clutter that was there before.
We ate at the Mian Ai Mian/面爱面 restaurant that has appeared there, and I couldn't help but spend most of the time staring out the window at the view that was suddenly much more pleasant and beautiful than it had been the last time I was in that area.
Then we wandered off looking for a bus that would take us directly home (there were none, we wound up taking the subway, but that was actually plan A, anyway). Qianmen Dajie itself was blockaded behind high walls covered with posters of what the area is supposed to look like once the renovation is completed, but just on the other side was another newly-opened street and more clutter had obviously been cleared out. Again, a huge improvement over what had been there before.
A lot has been written about the destruction of Old Beijing and its hutong culture. A lot of people have written that renovated hutongs are somehow too ersatz or fake or something and therefore are just as bad as replacing the hutongs with modern apartment complexes. In fact, it seems many people, mostly Westerners, seem to think that renovating or rebuilding historic sites is building some kind of fake historic site. I have to disagree. One man's pleasant afternoon spent on touring quaint old hutongs in Old Beijing is another man's, in fact many more people's, life spent in horrid conditions in a small apartment in a crumbling, old courtyard with little privacy and less space, having to use a public toilet and public bathhouse, dreaming of the convenience and ease of life in a modern apartment. My point is, it's very easy for us relatively affluent (or even rich) Westerners to moan about the destruction of Beijing's heritage and its replacement with either characterless apartment complexes that could have been flown in from anywhere in the world or "ersatz" hutongs spruced up and sanitized for harmonious people in a harmonized world. Reality is, if Beijing is going to keep any semblance of its traditional culture, the hutongs must be renovated. Renovated hutongs are not erzatz heritage. Think about it this way: The hutongs date from the Yuan Dynasty. Do you really think that they've been untouched for the last 800 years? Of course not. They've been maintained, renovated, destroyed and rebuilt time and time again. That's how they're still there.
What I'm saying is the renovation of the hutongs is both necessary and natural. Necessary because nobody can in good conscience expect people to continue to live in the hutongs as they are- dirty, unhygienic, rundown, and increasingly dangerous. Natural because the fact is throughout history throughout the world buildings and urban environments have constantly been maintained, repaired, renovated, and often replaced. Nothing stays the same, nothing stands still. Renovating the hutongs will not damage, destroy or falsify Beijing's culture or heritage. The current renovation of the hutongs, and indeed the replacement of some hutong areas with modern apartment complexes, is part of the natural change and development of Beijing's culture.
I can't help but thinking that in 50 or 100 years time "conservationists" or "preservationists" will be fighting to stop the destruction or even the renovation of Beijing's Mao-era buildings, saying that such buildings represent an important part of Beijing's cultural heritage that must be preserved at all costs. Then they'll be saying the same thing about all the luxury apartment blocks being put up now- assuming any of those new buildings last the distance, which is, of course, assuming any of them are built properly.
And as we were finishing our meal, I overheard some foreign guy trying and failing miserably to communicate something to the poor woman behind the cash desk. I stepped in to see if I could help. Long story short, turns out this guy was going to be leading a tour group through Beijing in the very near future (this week, I believe) and he wanted a card with the restaurant's address and to find out if he could get a free meal and a commission if he brought his twenty tourists to eat there. lzh asked him why he wanted to bring tourists to a Japanese restaurant. Anyway, here's this guy in Beijing for the first time ever, not able to speak even one simple word of Chinese, and he's about to be leading a tour group through Beijing. Good luck, buddy. Oh, and he was Dutch. Somehow almost all the Dutch people I've met have been strange. I say 'almost all' because the few Dutch people I've met in New Zealand seemed pretty normal.
But anyway, the whole point of this post is: Renovate the hutongs. Go ahead, do it.And remember, very many of the hutong residents protesting some new development in there neighbourhood are not trying to preserve the squalor they live in; they're holding out for more money. That's right, they're protesting because they think the compensation they were offered was too low. And they're probably right, too. I think people, especially relatively affluent Westerners whose homes have all the mod-cons like private bathrooms and flush toilets, should remember that before they try to argue that the squalor that is hutong life should be preserved.