Living in Europe for four years, I developed an interest in how different people treat their historic structures. Edinburgh, where I lived, is one of the largest UNESCO World Heritage sites in the world, with both New and Old Town areas that make up the city center built between the 1300s and 1700s (my first flat was in a building erected in 1530). By comparison, Portland is a very young city, but as one of the oldest cities on the US West Coast, it has a rich history and has done some impressive preservation of its own. China’s modernization during the 20th century often came at the cost of its rich cultural heritage, a process that has gained speed over 30 years of economic reform. But what is China’s view of historic preservation today?
Many historic structures were lost during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th century and more was lost in 1967 when Red Guards vandalized temples and palaces as a part of the Cultural Revolution. More recently, Beijing has attracted media attention for unceremoniously tearing down most of its famous hutongs. The loss of the city’s historic original canals and waterways — without any infrastructure to replace their important drainage functions — resulted in dramatic flooding and loss of life. Strangely, China passed historic preservation regulations three times over the course of the 20th century. The problem has been timing and history… The first set was passed just before the Second Sino-Japanese War (WWII) after which prior regulations could no longer be upheld. The second batch occurred in the mid-1960s just before the Cultural Revolution began. The last and current regulations were established in the 1980s, at a time when China’s economic growth trumped all other priorities. All of that said, Beijing is still home to many historic landmarks and areas that attract people from across the world and Shanghai’s famous Xintiandi is a popular example internationally for the economic benefits of redeveloping a historic district. This latter lesson has not been lost on the major cities of Southwestern China.
Last weekend we visited Chengdu, one of China’s ancient capitals from a time before the country was united under a single emperor approximately 4,000 years ago. The sense of history and continuous culture is palpable when you visit the city’s many temples and palaces, and in the last decade many historic areas have been redeveloped into very popular shopping areas, including Jinli Street, Qin Tai Liu, and Kuanzhai Alley. We visited these areas to see what they held in store for travelers and to compare them to Chongqing’s own Ciqikou Ancient Town, which I’ll do at the end of the post so stick around!
Jinli Old Street
Originally dating to 221 CE, Jinli Old Street was redeveloped in 2004 and gives visitors the experience of shopping in some of the old city’s original streets. A common local criticism of this area is the fact that it was almost completely rebuilt from scratch (the original structures are long gone) and therefore is somewhat of a Disney creation. It is an extremely popular site in Chengdu day or night.
Qin Tai Liu
As luck would have it, we visited Qin Tai Liu by accident! We were walking from the People’s Park along a major east-west road to Huanhuaxi Park and the Dufu Cottage to the east and the giant Shu Dynasty gate at the northern edge of Qin Tai Liu drew us in. Although the buildings of Qin Tai Liu are styled similarly to those in Jinli, the road itself is a busy boulevard with statues and greenery running down the middle. A major problem is that there are no real sidewalks making this busy street an exceptionally good place for tourists to get hit by cars while window-shopping. And there is a fair amount of window-shopping available as well as opera theaters, restaurants, and access through the East Gate to the Chengdu Culture Park, which is very comfortable and connects to the Taoist Temple of the Green Ram (an excellent attraction!). At the end of Qin Tai Liu is a very attractive stretch of Jinli (not the old part) that follows the meandering curves of the Brocade River and directed us back on our journey to the Dufu Cottage area.
Our last stop in Chengdu is perhaps my favorite. Kuanzhai is actually three pedestrian-only alleys all redeveloped starting in 2005 (one is still being worked on). Two of the alleys – Kuan and Zhai Alleys – are part of a conservation district that includes handful of historic sites in Chengdu. Both streets are lined by well-preserved Qing Dynasty buildings and old Phoenix Trees with leafy canopies providing shade in many areas. High-end courtyard restaurants occupy most of the interiors (we ate at one) with shops along the street fronts. The area was home to 3,000 Chinese soldiers and their families who retired to the area following duty during Tang Era expansionist battles in neighboring Tibet.
There are a few surprises along these streets, the most obvious being a section lined by a hidden water system that creates a dense fog at regular intervals. Although providing a mild cooling effect, this feature is a reference to Chengdu’s famous and omnipresent fog more than anything else and was very popular with younger visitors to the area. There was also French building containing a chocolate shop and the coolest Starbucks I have ever seen which is also surprisingly well integrated into the historic fabric of the alleys.
Jing Alley has a different feel with courtyard restaurants and patios on one side and an original brick wall on the other containing historic markers, scenes, and information. Along the wall there are many kiosks selling folk art and local street foods.
Chongqing’s Ciqikou and Shibati Old Areas
Chongqing is the fastest growing metropolitan area in China and holds 32 million people within its municipal boundaries including many villages and cities. So far we have visited two historic areas: Ciqikou and Shibati. Ciqikou is the partially redeveloped site of an ancient porcelain manufacturing port dating from the 1300s located upstream from the city center on the Jialing River. We found the area a very enjoyable walk with a unique mix of highly developed tourist areas, temples, and vacant back alleys quietly falling apart. As many tourists’ comments can attest, there is little marking the ancient port town’s porcelain industry. Instead, shops sell local street food, tourist trinkets, clothing and lacquered artwork. Sitting on numerous hills, there are many high viewpoints and two of my favorite cafes in China thus far were both on one of these hills. The first we stopped at due to rain was located at the very top with Tibetan flags and seating looking out at the rest of the area. When the rain picked up the owner invited us into her home in one of the old buildings where we watched China’s version of “The Voice” with a family, two teenage boys, and a kitten looking for a place to take a nap. It was a unique and highly enjoyable experience with an excellent (albeit expensive) cup of coffee.
My other favorite café was run by what appears to be some well-traveled Chinese university students. At least one of them spoke English well and a number of other students showed up while we were there. The interior was covered in pan-European imagery and ornaments showing the changing nature of this historic community. Overall, Ciqikou is not the polished tourist experience or economic success story we found in Chengdu, but hidden among the aging and cracking structures, there are some great discoveries and perhaps a bit more heart.
Shibati, located on the southern shore of Yuzhong, contains the last remaining example of the low wooden buildings the entire city was built from. It is not redeveloped, it is not sterile, and there are no tourists in sight. Run down structures are piled upon each other creating a dense neighborhood along the sides of 18 Steps Road. What 18 Steps Road gives us is a unique opportunity to see an ancient area and a choice: Redevelop its historic structures along the lines of Kuanzhai and Ciqikou, or complete the clearing of the peninsula and throw up more uninspired high-rise structures. What happens next will have more to do with political realities and land values. Can an argument be made for economic growth through retaining the city’s history even in the face of high real estate values, or will the march of modernization and short-term municipal revenues continue unabated? Given the speed of development in Chongqing, we will know the answer very very soon.
Interested in learning more about historic preservation and redevelopment in China? I recommend reading an excellent article over at UC Berkeley’s website written by Zhu Qian in 2007 (Warning: Link goes straight to a PDF download).