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Beijing's hutong heirs grow greedy

Nanluoguxiang in downtown Beijing is ranked as one of the 25 best Asian flavored tourist destinations recently in Time Magazine. (Photo: Global Times)
Nanluoguxiang is a hutong area near the Drum and Bell Towers that are both romantic and artistic. They are popular among foreigners to seek out a little Chinese culture, while the Chinese who come do so mostly for coffee and pizza. The areas are full of bars, cafes, shops, and of course, visitors.

I love Nanluoguxiang and would certainly go there more if there were fewer people. When I went there for my first time in the summer of 2007, it wasn't nearly as popular as it is today, but then it was a symbol of a developing Beijing.

Given its success, of course, local government is keen to expand it further. Take a walk around the area these last few days and you will see a lot of construction work now covering the area.

Recently I heard that the district government is also planning to create more Nanluoguxiang because of its magnificent success. They have invested a huge amount of money to create an area they will call the "cultural and business center". It will sit close to Confucius Temple, which already seems to me like a genuine Chinese cultural center, and will include the Wudaoying hutong.

But this action makes me angry. As those hutong become more famous, their rental fees climb so high that many residents and numerous stores serving the community have to move out. This causes obvious inconvenience to anyone that is left and suddenly the community is dead.

New shop and restaurant owners flood into the area to tear down historical courtyards and replace them with shabby buildings to soak up new money. Over time, the old Beijing flavor disappears.

These business-oriented hutong will undoubtedly bring greater revenue to local authorities, which I believe is the whole point they created them in the first place. I am not easily fooled by the promise of enhancing local culture; it's only ever about enhancing what goes into the purses of officials.

Ulterior motives aside, I also personally don't like the idea of destroying or defacing any more remnants of historical value. I still occasionally go to Nanluoguxiang, but I know it is not the same place as I recall from my first trip.

Last time I tried to take some pictures in the hope of finding Chinese elements with original meaning left intact, but all I got was disappointment. I didn't see it as anything special anymore because it had become virtually the same as any other shopping area; way too commercial.

These areas need to find a natural balance and not be driven exclusively by money. Chinese people love to talk about harmony but they sometimes get lost in material gain. What they once consider valuable as historical or cultural remains are often pushed aside when money is put on the table.

I hope local authorities learn the real lesson of Nanluoguxiang. This place became famous because it was an area of natural beauty first - the businesses moved in gently to cater to the tourists. But making a tourist area by loading it full of cafes and shops first is not the same idea and it will only harm the area.

We have few of these areas left in Beijing. They say you don't know what you have until it is gone, which I think will ring true for local government if they don't quickly stop their economic madness that is eating through the city's ancestors.

Then we will really need the Bell Tower to sound a warning of the end of the city.
Source: China Daily
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