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Another Great Leap Forward
October 13, 2006

Let us destroy these old feudal barbarian neighbourhoods…

…and build something worthy of the revolution!

China’s westernmost outpost was a major silk road stop, an oasis in the desert, and is still the fulcrum point of Asia where Pakistanis, Turkic peoples and Chinese come to trade. Five years ago it was a tight labyrinth or mud-brick houses piled atop each other, an interesting place full of mosques, small bazaar stalls, and cafes where old men with outrageous hats sat on carpeted beds drinking tea. Three fourths of this old city has been destroyed since 1998, and most of the rest, including the last section of the city’s mud fortifications, will be gone within two years. What has gone up in its place is a series of banal rows of white-tiled communist blocks, wide boulevards, kitsch Chinese lampposts, and the largest Mao statue in China. The New Kashgar has a similar charm to some of the worst Soviet gulag towns. The old Central Asians are still here, but they’re looking a bit lost in this city that does not represent their culture.

China is making the same mistakes the West made 50 years ago in the pangs of postwar growth. The capital is littered with public service announcements promising “A Better Beijing” with beaming faces and saluting troops against a backdrop of highway interchanges. Multi-storied six-lane eyesores are being slashed through culturally significant urban fabric in all the major Chinese cities. This creates noise, pollution, and annoying barriers to pedestrian circulation.

For a country that supposedly believes in feng-shui, they are making it extremely difficult for pedestrians to navigate through straightforward intersections. Sideways are fenced off and walls are built in the middle of the road. Pedestrians must navigate through a maze of above-ground or underground passageways. One ends up going about Chinese cities in a frustrating up-down “where’s the damn underpass?” zig-zag.

This construction of highways is being done with no consideration for heritage. In Guangzhuo (Canton), a new two-story ring-road barrels straight through a sensitive heritage area that boasts the first European colonial settlement in China. This attractive area, Shamian Island, sits on the banks of a canal with old stone bridges that were once gated to keep the Europeans and Chinese apart. Ten years ago, it might have been interesting to linger on the benches near the canal looking at Qingping market across the way. Today the arched bridges lead straight into the concrete pylons of the noisy two-story ring road. Shanghai’s Bund area has been equally massacred by ten lane roads and concrete overpasses.

China sees highways as benchmarks of progress. We made the same arrogant boasts once but now we’re either tearing down these highways (San Francisco), burying them underground (Boston) or covering them and building above them (Montreal). Building highways increases sprawl and the demand for cars; Chinese cities face enough vehicle pollution as it is.

A whole communal way of life with vibrant street activity is disappearing. In North America, we seek to revitalize our downtowns because this kind of sterilization and standardization has destroyed them. We have returned to more traditional city planning and put aside Le Corbusier’s Machine for Living.

Traditional ways of life are being supplanted by soulless junk. This is not only happening in remote minority regions. Beijing still boasts some hutongs but they are quickly disappearing. These neighbourhoods of lively streets and quaint homes with upturned eaves in enclosed courtyards are being bulldozed. Large lots of white-tiled apartment blocks are being erected to replace them. Occasionally, as in Shanghai or Hong Kong, the new architecture that replaces the old in interesting. This is quite rare. For every HSBC building there are a thousand pastel Soviet blocs.

When Beijing hosts the Olympics, the foreign masses must not see these old feudal Chinese hutongs…

…they must see the modern face of the New China!

Beijing seems to have caught on to the fact that tourists like these chaotic Hutong areas but their understanding of WHY they like them is incomplete. A Hutong was set aside for conservation in Beijing but the planners have kept nothing but a shell. None of the spirit that makes these hutongs interesting was taken into consideration. The walls have been plastered up and painted to look clean. The variety of traditional shops and barbershop-whorehouses spilling out into the alleyways have been replaced with orderly wicker chair tourist cafes all offering the same fare. Armies of cycle-rickshaws emblazoned with the “Hutong Tour” logo cart tourists from the newly-built tour bus parking lot. Meanwhile, the locals who once lived in this area are leaving in droves because there are no longer any stores in the neighbourhood to serve them. The alleyways are alarmingly empty.

Heritage is being latched onto strictly because of its money-making tourist potential rather than its intrinsic cultural worth. This results in carnivalesque kitsch that spreads like the plague around heritage sites. Sometimes the original reason for the site is lost in the cacophony. This is the case at Xiamen’s Gulangyu Island. Wealthy European traders lived on this pastoral car-free island in beautiful large mansions until World War II. Today, one steps off the ferry to be greeted by a vulgar tourist trap: a faux-colonial shopping mall/karaoke nightclub, Xiamen Seaworld amusement park, neon palm trees, scores of recent white-tiled motels, a gigantic granite statue of Koxinga (who liberated Taiwan from colonialists), the Koxinga memorial hall, the Gulangyu Piano Museum, the Xiamen Currency Museum, a cable car to the man-made Sunlight Rock (highest point on the island), choo-choo sightseeing trains, etc. It’s worse than Niagara Falls.

Faux-colonial kitsch in Xiamen, China.

I ask myself where the real colonial mansions are located, the genuine heritage that was the original raison-d’être for this place, the reason I took an overnight train to this ****ing nightmare island. After seeking to escape the hordes by taking every available back street I finally stumble upon them. There, in an area with no tourists, are the walled-off compounds with crumbling European mansions. They look neglected beyond any hope of restoration. Bronze plaques are posted next to the rusting iron gates indicating that these buildings are “protected historic monuments.” Is this a joke? They may be listed on a state register but what’s the use if the government is doing nothing to restore them. In twenty years there will be nothing left but ruins and the Chinese will probably turn it all into a massive “archeological” amusement park.

This type of nauseating kitsch followed me wherever I went. There was no attempt to explain the Great Wall’s cultural significance on the site but one did find a cable car, a zipline, boat tours, and lots of people willing to take your photo for a fee. Even natural sites are afflicted by this. The singing sand-dunes of Dunhuang supposedly howl on windy days but one wouldn’t know it with the noise of thousands of tourists, honking horns, copters, etc. It’s hard to feel lost in a remote desert when you’re escorted there on the same tourist choo-choos you see at Gulangyu. Wooden steps have been built on the dunes. Pagoda stalls erected in the sand sell noodles. Gyrocopter, camel, or toboggan rides are touted. You have to zigzag through hordes taking pictures of each other. How is one supposed to get a sense of anything in this noise?

To be fair, many of the UNESCO sites in China do a good job of transmitting their significance to visitors with a minimum of kitsch. That said, the sheer amount of people who go through these places threatens to destroy them. I have never seen such overcrowded sites in all my travels. The amount of people in Beijing’s Forbidden City on weekends makes Notre-Dame-de-Paris seem neglected by visitors. The nouveau-riche Chinese middle class is travelling with a vengeance. 2000 people crowd through the tiny Mogao Buddhist caves every day, and these are located in an under-populated desert region on the outer rings of outer Mongolia. Some of the murals in these caves go back to the 4th century and mark the evolution of Buddhist art in its journey from India to China. Photos of these murals taken in the late 1970s show vivid colours and pink-skinned Buddhas. Today the colours have changed. The Buddhas have black skin and their features are indistinguishable due to the effect of 2000 people breathing in these cramped caves every day. When this started happening to prehistoric cave art in Europe the caves were shut to visitors. This is not the Chinese way: 2000 visitors X 80 Yuan admission = to hell with the integrity of the caves.

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