Sunday, April 29, 2007

Old Beijing falls to Olympics bulldozer

: April 29, 2007 - Even the scribes of the Chinese state media were moved to a chorus of wistful regret last week at the news that the home of Beijing Opera is to be razed as the city’s redevelopment for the 2008 Olympics reaches a climax.

The demolition of the Guanghe theatre, where opera has been performed since the last years of the Ming emperors four centuries ago, is the latest assault on the ancient fabric of the city.

The theatre stands in the Qian-men district, once a fabulous warren of temples, apothecaries and aristocratic courtyard mansions huddled in the shadow of the Forbidden City.

There is no place for such untidiness in mayor Wang Qis-han’s £19 billion plan to fulfill the slogan “New Beijing, Great Olympics”. The Games have sealed the fate of an old Beijing that had survived the wars and revolutions of modern Chinese history.

The bulldozers and developers have already wrecked swathes of the imperial capital, evicting half a million Beijing citizens over the past decade and consigning them to tower blocks along the city’s outer ring roads.

“I urge the completion of these projects as our most urgent task for next year,” the mayor told city officials recently.

There is something shocking about the demolition of the Guanghe theatre that has struck a chord among lovers of China’s traditional culture and architectural heritage.

It was here that boys dressed as women sang and danced for mandarins and rich merchants in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Here too that Mei Lanfang, the Beijing Opera’s greatest maestro, launched a tortured artistic career immortalised in the film Farewell My Concubine.

It was Mei’s legacy that caught the attention of Xinhua, the state news agency, whose dispatch last week reported the decision to tear down the building and replace it with something suitable for “shows like those on Broadway”.

More than a century has passed since Mei, a mere boy of 10, took to the boards as the girl weaver in a classic opera with the evocative title of Palace of Everlasting Youth: Secret Betrothal at the Magpie Bridge.

Xinhua lamented that the theatre would be “crushed under the onslaught of Beijing’s remorseless bulldozers” and concluded that “yet another of the country’s cultural heirlooms is doomed”.

In fact it is worse than mere cultural vandalism. It is a perfect illustration of the political methods that have flattened three-quarters of Beijing’s hutongs, bustling lanes of historic homes and communities, to replace them with symbols of state power and shopping malls.

The official line on the demolition of the Guanghe theatre is a flimsy justification that the building was declared unsafe back in 2000. In reality, according to Chinese architects and experts who spoke anonymously, not only is there no need to tear it down but the Beijing municipality has the expertise and funds to restore it.

The proof is to be found in the archives of the People’s Daily, which reported with pride, in June 2001, the reopening of a rival opera house, the Guangde theatre, founded in 1796, after a lavish programme of renewal.

The Communist party was forced to acknowledge the corruption at the core of its relationship with commercial developers when it purged Liu Zhi-hua, the former vice-mayor, who was responsible for overseeing the construction of Olympic venues. The state media said he was at the centre of a scandal involving millions of yuans in bribes from property speculators.

In China all land is owned by the state and held under fixed-term leases by its tenants, allowing the government to issue eviction edicts without challenge. There are no rights to inspect plans, no public hearings and no scrutiny is permitted in the press.

Gangs of thugs have been sent to terrorize some recalcitrant Beijingers out of their houses, para-military police have suppressed a handful of protests and the state has handed out scant compensation to those forced from homes occupied by their families for generations.

Meanwhile, in classic propaganda fashion, the party has made much of the preservation of two 350-year-old Taoist temples unearthed on the site of the Olympic green, alongside the principal stadiums.

There was a more awkward fuss when diggers at the skeet-shooting venue uncovered a mausoleum for imperial eunuchs and 700 graves from which archeologists hastily retrieved more than 1,500 precious artefacts.

“Up until the 1950s Beijing was an architectural wonder, an almost perfectly preserved metropolis from the preindustrial era,” wrote Ian Johnson, the author and journalist, in his 2004 book Wild Grass.

Mao Tse-tung deliberately began its destruction when he razed the city walls, but his work has been completed by “reformers”, aided and abetted by some of the West’s most distinguished architects and consultants. Perhaps one day somebody will write a libretto about it.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

No comments: