Has the UNESCO curse struck again? That’s what some are asking after the residents of Chikan, a historic town that’s part of the southern city of Kaiping, have been ordered to leave.
The area’s diaolou (which translate in English as ‘watch towers’) were granted World Heritage status in 2007. Its fame grew further after popular movies such as Let the Bullets Fly and The Grandmaster were filmed there.
Visitor numbers surged. Last year six million people visited Guangdong’s Kaiping. But the local government says it cannot protect Chikan’s European-style architecture while people still live in it. In April, it gave the residents nine months to sign compensation agreements and move out.
“We have lived here for generations. Now we are suddenly being asked to leave. We cannot bear it,” an old woman told the Nanfang Daily.
Chikan took its current form in the mid-19th century as residents who’d made fortunes overseas retuned and transformed the riverside town. It boasted two grand colonial style libraries and a three-kilometre waterfront lined with porticoed townhouses. Further inland the same people built the flamboyant diaolou – ornate and fortified watchtowers blending Western, Chinese and even South Asian aesthetics.
Nanfang Daily says the road to Chikan has been dug up and bus services have stopped to force the locals out. Ultimately they will be allowed to live in an adjacent area in sympathetically styled houses, the Party secretary Chen Jiewen said.
But why kick the people out? After all the charm of any historic city is its mix of older architecture and vibrant local life.
The answer according to Chen is that Citic Private Equity, the company stumping up the funds for the project, doesn’t want to waste its money.
“From the investors’ point of view if you don’t control the property rights, the investment will be lost,” Chen told the Hongmen Daily.
In fact, Citic used the same strategy when it removed the residents of Zhejiang’s Wuzhen when it was redeveloping the ancient riverside town in 2003.
Even towns that don’t resettle their population have been adversely affected by the rapid growth of Chinese tourism.
Most of the original Naxi minority inhabitants of Lijiang in Yunnan, have moved out since it got World Heritage status in 1997. Today the shops, restaurants and karaoke bars are largely run by Han Chinese, not by the original inhabitants.
Pingyao – another UNESCO town in Shanxi – moved half of its population out but allowed 40,000 to stay to keep the place alive. Opinion is divided: some tourists describe it as an over-restored “theme park” others says it still has original charm. WiC visited China’s former banking capital last year for a couple of nights and can attest Pingyao’s definitely at its best between 7am and 8am before the tourist horde arrives. (For more on Pingyao see the special Insight edition ‘Where banks were born’ on our website.)
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