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Renovation 'uncompleted'
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Centuries-old Qianmen Street in downtown Beijing has reopened for more than 8 months now. But, residents are still complaining that this newly face-lifted street that was so overhauled as to bring people back to what it was some four to five hundred years ago is "not at all complete."

The Night View of the New Qianmen Street [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com/ Xu Liuliu]

The Night View of the New Qianmen Street [CRIENGLISH.com]

When it was hastily reopened to the public on August 7 last year, just one day before the Beijing Olympics Games started, only 12 local brands in Beijing, such as the famous Quanjude roast duck, set up their chains on the historical street. In other words, most of the 180 storefronts along the street were empty.

This situation remained unchanged for months until a big news broke that this half-empty street will receive its first international new-comer - H&M - on April 23. One of the largest apparel retailers in Europe, H&M has announced its first flagship store in Beijing will be in place on this ancient street. Following suit are several other international brands including Zara and Starbucks.

Although thousands of tourists from both home and abroad flocked to the street every day, feedback has been mainly negative. Visitors complained that if one doesn't want to wait in lines for hours before a meal at Quanjude, or Duyichu, another 271-year-old restaurant known for steamed pork dumplings, they have no intention of buying tea or jade as there isn't much else to do there.

Older Beijingers who are now returning to Qianmen Street with nostalgic memories, will likely be much disappointed to find old stalls that once sold traditional snacks they are familiar with are no longer around.

Old Qianmen Street used to be a miniature of Beijing, which is renowned for its history, variety, and inclusiveness. All the people, whether nobles from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD) or the poor could get their favorite things on the 800-meter stretch that was once full of traditional crafts, acrobatic performances, snack food and also luxury wares like jade and jewelry.

Besides time-honored stores like Quanjude, now a listed firm and Zhangyiyuan, a well-known tea shop chain, old Qianmen Street was the traditional center of Beijing snacks. Some businesses were set up there for decades or even centuries before they had to be relocated due to the massive renovation. Residences in Beijing love those delicious but cheap delicacies served by shabby, crowded small shops. But now, amongst a cluster of brand new architecture, simply copies of old buildings, they cannot find the true flavor of yesterday.

When the face-lifing project was launched, the local government vowed to preserve typical "old Beijing" flavor. Later, buildings there were delicately decorated in traditional Chinese style. But, the soaring rents after renovation stopped relocated snack stalls from moving back. This causes Beijingers to sigh and lament that the new Qianmen Street is "not at all complete."

Yes, indeed, it's not at all complete, according to Niu Qingshan, the head of Beijing's Chongwen District in which Qianmen Street locates. During an interview held on April 1, Niu revealed that Tongrentang, a leading producer of traditional Chinese Medicine and Wuyutai, another large tea shop chain will set up shop on the street this year.

To give a boost to small-sized enterprises, the district government will annually invest 10 million yuan in subsidies and offer personnel training in order to attract more local brands to Qianmen, said Niu Qingshan. In the future, the local brands on the renovated street will increase to 70 percent, and international ones won't dominate the historical street, he added.

If the measures mentioned above take effect, Chongwen District can set a good example to other cities in China. In a fast-developing country like China, demolishment and renovation will go on every where. We have seen too many once prosperous business districts lose their traditional characteristics and charm after a face-lift these years. Nearly all renovated business districts look the same in China today, no matter where they are located.

Because removal contractors want a reward after investing huge sums of money while small enterprises and individuals such as traditional craftsmen are too vulnerable in the face of mighty firms.

Unfortunately, weak players who were often the carriers of history and culture are typically nostalgic. When they are forced to leave, part of our history and culture will fade. At first, people might be excited to see newly-built buildings, tidy streets and international brand stores. But later, they will gradually realize that is not enough - at least, they cannot find familiar stalls and historical flavors from their childhood.

Such a widespread feeling of "incompleteness" poses a problem for cities' administrations. How can we balance the municipal development and nostalgia of tradition and memory? The city of Beijing has started its pilot journey to find answers. We hope it will soon reach its goal to really complete the renovation project of Qianmen Street, namely, to bring back a diverse street composed of both the real tradition and modernity.

(CRI April 22, 2009)

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