Beijing’s whirlwind of development, like the rest of China’s, is having serious consequences for the city’s traditional neighborhoods. In wake of such destruction and construction, who is behind the movement to protect the structures of Beijing’s past?
We spoke to Matthew Hu, Beijing-based cultural heritage preservationist and WildChina expert, about Chinese cultural tourism versus cultural preservation, the impending Gulou-area demolition, and what you don’t know about the Great Wall.
WildChina Travel (WCT): How did you first become interested in Chinese heritage preservation?
Matthew Hu (MH): As a Chinese citizen, I’m naturally very interested in Chinese history. I think it’s interesting: it tells me who I am and where I’m from. My generation has been taught history is a very censored, standard way that has been tightly controlled and approved by the government – it’s not very in-depth. In my various jobs relating to Chinese culture and cultural heritage preservation, I’ve always been asked by foreigners to explain my own culture.
This prompted me to read more about Chinese history, to really understand it. In order to do so, you really have to understand Chinese heritage. It’s everywhere you go – historical sites, the buildings across from your home, etc. So, this is where my jobs took me. I learned about residential, storage, administrative, ceremonial, and other types of buildings present in Chinese history and culture. They tell you so much about what traditional Chinese culture is all about.
WildChina Travel (WCT): How have your professional and personal interests related to heritage preservation evolved over the years?
Matthew Hu (MH): At first, when I was in the travel industry, I went from place to place exploring different traditional Chinese structures. In heritage preservation, you do the same thing, but have more time to understand the rationale, historical background, hidden reasons, and socio-economic circumstances that contribute to the creation of a building or structure.
So, my main focus in work has not changed, but rather become more focused. In any culture in China, whether it be Han Chinese or that of a minority group, I find that the most impressive aspect of it is usually the architecture that supports, literally and figuratively, their customs, beliefs, and other aspects of culture. Heritage preservation gives me the opportunity to understand how such structures accomplish this.
WCT: What have your latest projects/initiatives been relating to heritage preservation in China?
MH: Right now I am working on a hutong renovation and preservation project that integrates renovation training into the process. While it is certainly important for preservationists to renovate hutongs, local construction teams, as well as owners and tenants, need to know how to properly restore these homes for longer-lasting cultural impact and better structures.
We are collaborating with the local government on training sessions on how to properly and sensitively renovate these courtyard homes, in order to maintain an air of tradition and authenticity. Correct practices are crucial to these homes’ upkeep; otherwise, they quickly deteriorate. For example, if one layer of plaster is put onto a hutong home being renovated, it is proper to wait 7 days until the next coating, so that the first layer is stable.
Construction teams, in the interest of time and money, often keep putting on layers without waiting for that first coat to dry. You can see the difference – half a year later, these homes’ walls are already peeling. It’s important to get the details right in this process to properly and effectively preserve these structures.
WCT: Which type of Chinese structure, in your opinion, is most culturally important in China’s history? Why?
MH: It’s hard to say, but if I have to choose, I think the Great Wall and the hutongs. Both are much more diversified than many people think. Take the hutongs, for instance. Each one is different from the other. The culture in each area of hutongs is different as well.
As for the Great Wall, each section is unique – different materials are used, aesthetics are different, and more. The Wall has been glorified because it is a symbol of Chinese civilization, but so much of it is neglected because some sections are in remote areas and don’t look as impressive as other parts. Both the hutongs and the Great Wall are largely misinterpreted and neglected.
WCT: In light of the Gulou demolition, how do you think the area will change? At this point, is there anything preservationists, activists, and citizens can do to protect the traditional hutongs?
MH: As of now, the government has already begun the project. It’s hard to say what we can do at this point. There is no public petition process, so the public cannot be part of the game. Anyone who cares about the hutongs can still go and document these areas, and preserve them in that way.
While many see the demolition as a development that will be unsatisfactory to many parties, which I do not dispute, I am more inclined to look at it as a case study in understanding preservation versus economic impact. In the government’s eyes, not including the public opinion might save them money avoiding grassroots campaigns and petitioners to stop the development, which would mean jailings and other methods of control. In that way, they can coordinate a systematic method of renovation within the government. This system of disregarding public opinion, however, is not right, and so the outcome will not be satisfactory. We need to keep a close eye on this project and follow its development.
Photo credit: Organized Networks
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