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Don’t Turn Blind Eye to Hutong Print

Original text special to chinadaily

On a cold, wet (sometimes snowy) weekend in Beijing, one could not but think of them the city's group of volunteers who every weekend take photographs of the city's hutong that are being knocked down one after another. I got a little worried when I failed to log onto their website on Friday night. I hope it was just because my home's Internet connection went wrong as it has done quite a few times recently.

It is a strange phenomenon, in fact, when there is so much media hype about the Beijing auto show, a showcase for what many people think is tomorrow's lifestyle, the city is quickly forgetting about the unique beauty of its past.

It is an even stranger thing, if one considers the fervour with which local officials here and there are vying for their cities to get UN world heritage status when Beijing is showing such a marked lack of enthusiasm to campaign for its hutong.

Perhaps the officials think they have got more important work to do, such as prepare for the 2008 Olympics. But what the 2008 Olympics means for Beijing, and for people around the world, is not just a sports event. With better-preserved hutong, Beijing could attract more visitors and win greater applause.

Much was reported about Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan's trip to Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago to learn about the city's experience in managing itself, particularly its mass transit system. Managing traffic is understandably an important part of a sprawling city's public administration. But municipal government officials should also learn how some other cities such as Rome and Kyoto are managing their cultural legacy.

Considering the reports recently surfacing in the local press that part of the hutong tourist services may be under the control of gangsters, or networks that may not be fully legitimate, and some of the service staff do not seem to even have a minimal level of training, the state of the hutong is mind-boggling indeed.

Why must a city treat its beauty from the past like this, only to be left to the mercy of the mafia?

Enough is there to betray a kind of psychology that managing the old hutong is a troublesome piece of work, and only turning them into high-rise buildings (like in many similar downtowns in the world's "modern" cities) can the space occupied by the hutong generate money, or any benefit for the always money-thirsty public administration.

Especially when one compares the amount of money that may be generated from the high-rise office buildings in the land still occupied by rundown hutong with the amount of money that may be spent on the protection of the old tradition, the contrast is enormous. Without changing this financial pattern, every city official, who is expected to spend on hundreds of other projects, would almost naturally agree to knock down the hutong and sell their land rights.

From a management point of view, there is little hope that the hutong can be properly protected unless they can be used to generate a good cash flow for Beijing's economy. In the long run, to protect more hutong would require more innovative ways in planning the city's development, along with a lot of public debate.

But to start with, what Beijing should do is to use the Olympics to attract more visitors to its hutong, and to use hutong as part of its campaign to promote the forthcoming event.

At the very basic level, it should set some standards for the contractors managing hutong tourism and related services.


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