Death by a thousand cranes

“The national bird of China is the crane,” quipped Hu Xinyu, managing director of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre. Construction cranes are indeed everywhere in China, and so is this joke. While travelling across China to research my book, I heard it in Lanzhou, Xi’an, Taiyuan and even far-flung Kashgar. But in Beijing it took on an especially bitter tone.

Now open of Beijing’s largest hutongs is facing death by a thousand cranes. Gulou is a poor, ramshackle neighbourhood north of the Forbidden City and crowned by the Bell and Drum Towers. The ancient quarter is undergoing rapid modernization, as bulldozers raze the whimsically roofed courtyard homes to make way for sparkling new malls, condos and a museum.

The New York Times’ Andrew Jacobs has produced a short video essay on the destruction of Gulou – a lament, as it were, on the loss of architectural heritage, but also the end of a way of life for its residents, who are being relocated to distant apartment blocks outside the city.

In 2002, the Beijing municipal government published a conservation plan of twenty-five protected historic areas. However, the heritage designations cover only 1,038 hectares, or 17 percent, of Old Beijing. “Courtyard by courtyard, hutong by hutong, the city has been mapped in detail,” Hu told me during our interview in his Beijing office. He showed me the conservation plan, a thick tome with dozens of intricate maps. “The problem is that nobody is using this book,” he added.

Hu explained that private homeowners and developers simply ignore the rules when renovating historic buildings and hutongs. And when local government leaders put their weight behind a new real estate venture, the destruction is unstoppable.

“The old flavour of Beijing is being lost,” Hu lamented.

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