Residents are Divided Over Planned Restoration of Beijing’s Drum and Bell towers

Cultural preservation and Beijing’s ongoing development may be set to collide with a new project in one of the city’s historical neighborhoods. A pair of landmark buildings in the capital, the Drum and Bell towers, is at the center of a new redevelopment plan that has left a group of preservationists concerned. I spoke to some locals, and some experts, about the future of the towers, and was surprised by the divided opinions I came across.

Dating back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the citys Drum and Bell towers have stood in the capital for more than 700 years. That history has attracted developers to rebuild the area into a new attraction.

In January, the Chinese press reported that the 12.5 hectare project would be built in the area and surrounding neighborhood. Called Beijing Time Cultural City, it would involve building plazas and a museum around and beneath the two landmarks.

Restoration has been reported as a major goal behind the project, with the developers aiming to capture the feel of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911). But the scale of the development would likely mean that many of the current stores and residences in the area would be torn down. These residences include historical courtyard homes called hutongs, which are common within the capital but have seen their numbers dwindle with Beijings ongoing development.

Forging Ahead With the Changes

In response, the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, which has worked to protect historical areas of the city as well as other places in China like Kashgar, recently announced its opposition to the plan. Later this month the group is publicizing the matter by holding an open meeting to discuss the issue.

He Shuzhong, founder and chairman of the group, described the neighborhood around the Drum and Bell towers as a special district that still retains a traditional Chinese atmosphere. He doubted that the project would do much to restore the area, adding that he saw no need for its construction.

If you force the residents out, if you get rid of the hutongs and the courtyard residences, this place will be destroyed and have no historical value, he said. The Drum and Bell towers will become a very lonely place.

The developers behind the project did not return Heritage Keys messages. But a Chinese news report indicated that construction would be completed in 2012. Store owners and residents living in neighborhood, however, say they have not received word on when building might begin.

Bian Lanchun, a Tsinghua University architecture professor, plans to speak at the upcoming forum. Bian said in cases like these where a historical district is being put up for redevelopment, people can work to protect the area if they are willing.

Divided Public Opinion

But shop owners and residents in the neighborhood seem divided on what should be done.

A store owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said she had little support for the project, adding that it will likely ruin the historical feel of the neighborhood.

Many of my customers come because of the atmosphere of this area, she said. But after this development, I dont think they will want to come back.

Yet many others in the area said they supported the project, even as they might be faced with the prospects of losing their businesses or homes. Some cited the expectation that they would be fairly compensated for their property, while others said it would be a major improvement for the city and neighborhood.

One female resident, who wished not to be named, said she welcomed the project.

Im not satisfied living in my hutong, so Im willing to see them tear down this area, she said. Our hutong is quite large, so I expect to see a good amount of money in compensation.

The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center is holding its discussion forum on March 27th, from 2:30 to 5:30 PM at Contempio bar, located at No.4 Zhangwang Hutong.