Destroy it and they will come

Urban heritage at threat in two cities

Destroy it and they will come

China's past is shown the exit

Talk of China’s fast-eroding architectural heritage usually focuses on Beijing’s central district of hutongs. There are now only about 500 remaining examples of the courtyard houses in the city (although most are at least now on the protected list).

But two very different cities are facing similar challenges of their own; Kashgar and Tianjin are both struggling to conserve their own urban heritage from redevelopment.

Kashgar is getting the most attention in the international press, with news that thousands of families are to be uprooted from the maze of streets and alleys that make up the Old City. But Tianjin’s historical buildings have made the domestic media too, especially the actions of a group of historical activists keen to protect the Five Avenues area of the city.

Both cities have a heritage reflecting China’s trade links with the rest of the world. Kashgar’s past is the more evocative one as a stop on the old Silk Road, to the far west of China’s most westerly province (or autonomous region) of Xinjiang.

In fact, with a population made up predominantly of Uighur peoples (of Turkic or Central Asian origin), the city is as distant from its Han Chinese peers culturally as it is geographically. Distinct enough, in fact, to serve as a major site in the filming of The Kite Runner, the 2007 adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s popular book about a young boy from Kabul. So some critics wonder if there is a political agenda to the relocating of a resolutely Islamic community. This is unfair, says the China Daily. In fact, the redevelopment aims to save lives. If an earthquake similar to last year’s Sichuan disaster was to strike further west, thousands could be killed.

But the Daily is also critical of other municipal authorities in China, who too often “love to demolish”. This is a nation that is “too thirsty for symbols of modernity,” it says. Many local governments are also now flush with money to spend on their rebuilding plans.

Tianjin, which is located on the Pacific Ocean in China’s northeast, also has a long history as a trading city, although the buildings now at risk were built a lot more recently, at the start of the last century.

In particular, conservationists worry about the Five Avenues area (formerly the British quarter) and its mix of grand houses and offices.

Whereas Kashgar’s old city is a warren of Islamic architecture, Tianjin’s threatened quarter is made up of leafy gardens and stuccoed mansions – the residences of the colonial community that settled in the concessionary zones ceded to eight foreign powers in the city after 1860.

China does have a series of regulations that aim to protect its architectural history but they are not always respected by local governments. It can take the work of activists to draw attention to breaches.

Of course, in the cases of both Kashgar and Tianjin the architecture in question is not Chinese, which may play a part. Nonetheless, in Tianjin the State Cultural Relics Bureau (apparently for buildings, rather than for people) has forbidden further bulldozing. But those backing the redevelopers have pointed out that the buildings are not on a central list of protected property, and demolition notices have been pinned back up at a number of locations.

Perhaps the activists should also work on getting local governments to rethink their tourism promotion policies. Xu Jianrong, Kashgar’s vice mayor has called Kashgar “a prime example of rich cultural history,” but how many of the city’s million plus annual visitors will want to return if the Old City is knocked down completely?

Xu isn’t too concerned, as he’s promising to oversee a full rebuild of the area, complete with replica Islamic architecture. Proponents of redevelopment in Tianjin are saying something similar; that they need to raze the existing architecture so that they can make space for new historical attractions for tourists to visit.

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