Historic "Red Light District" Deemed Off Limits as Tourist Attraction

In Beijing, the area of Baishun, Yanzhi, Shaanxixiang and other five alleys was notorious as the city’s "red light district" prior to 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded. Located in and around the Dashilan area of Xuanwu District, the eight alleys once housed more than 2,000 brothels. The structure of each brothel varied, and all were different from ordinary houses occupied by residents. After 1949, some brothels were turned into hotels and others as residences. Recently, a travel agency in Beijing, which specializes in organizing visits to alleys, or hutong, decided to revamp three or four compounds in the area, planning to make them a tourist destination.

As it is unprecedented in China to turn a former "red light district" into a tourist attraction, it aroused much controversy among the general public. The reason given by the travel agency for the proposed new "tourist attraction" is that brothels reflected one part of Beijing’s history. This incurred the immediate rejection of society and, as a result, the plan was called off.

Be Aware of Demoralizing Behavior

Dong Yingchun (Commentator of Workers’ Daily): The brothels of old Beijing still find favor in some people’s eyes, and attract more than 100 tourists a day. Worse still, a travel agency in Beijing tried to take advantage of this, attempting to make money under the pretext of displaying Beijing’s “history.”

If we allow this to happen, couldn’t the "red light" be spread everywhere in the country? Some people criticize TV serials for displaying the flourishing scenes of old brothels, now others want to move them from the screen to real life.

Developing a scenic spot represents the orientation of building culture. An economic flourish is not bound to bring about cultural progress. First, when people seek economic benefits, they often neglect or give up fostering the building of culture. Second, when old concepts are broken up, some people will be at a loss or go astray in cultural pursuits. Therefore, it has been an important task of society to keep a balance between economic development and cultural building. Generally speaking, a nation that has lost its original culture will find it hard to position itself in the world, and eventually lose its spiritual support for sustained economic development.

In brief, building a culture depends on the following aspects:

— Efficient leadership and management of the government;

— Creation of cultural staff;

— People’s cultural quality; and

— Guidance for businesspeople dealing with cultural projects.

Taking the view of the current situation, a great improvement has been made in the first three aspects, but some cultural businesspeople do their utmost to peddle pornographic objects to meet the demand of spiritually immoral people. Dancing halls, discotheques, beauty parlors and Internet bars are places that engage in the "beauty economy." Rebuilding and opening former brothels falls in this category.

Of course, demand decides supply, but the supply should be within the legal and moral framework, and this is a rule businesspeople should follow. Nowadays, fewer people flagrantly violate the law in their business, but more and more are playing moral "ball" to make profits, which is contaminating our fine social morality and traditions. The urgent need is to curb this problem through strengthening management of related businesses and defining a clear demarcation line in morality. If the sites of brothels are used as a scenic spot, it will be harmful to social morality, people’s ideology and traditional culture. Worse still, it will stimulate the appearance of similar "business."

How Can It Be Called Beijing’s History?

Wu Mou (Writer of Guidance for Shopping magazine): The man who wants to turn the old brothels into a tourist attraction falsely calls them part of the "history of Beijing." Following his logic, opium houses may also be called history, so can barber shops and bars where pornographic activities are undertaken, and all should be protected as historic relics. We should look squarely at our history, rejecting the dross and assimilating the essence. The essence needs protection. Does the dross need displaying, too? Any activities making a profit at the cost of good social morality should be stopped.

The Key Lies in How to Develop It

Yang Dongping (professor at Beijing Institute of science and Engineering): The following three points are worth noting while dealing with the issue involving the development of former brothels.

First, simply calling off the plan to rebuild and display former brothels cannot sidestep such a problem: What attitude should be taken about the dark side of the country’s history? Ruminating them with a low taste, or taking a point of view from an academic angle?

Maintaining the features of the eight alleys and turning the area into a museum of old Beijing might be a suitable way to develop our tourism industry.

In fact, taking advantage of old brothels is not a new creation. Many movies and TV serials have profiled brothels in Beijing prior to liberation. It is said that a new TV serial describing the life of prostitutes in Beijing before 1949 will soon be broadcast. If the life of prostitutes can be reflected in movies and TV serials, why can’t it also be shown in the tourism sector? But the problem is how to display this theme. Apart from brothels, the reflection of imperial palaces and the Qiao’s Mansion (a famous ancient building complex) in works of art also meets the same problem: Displaying them from the angle of ruminating or from the angle of history, relic and folklore?

Anyway, what makes people happy is that these 100-year-old houses still remain. The reason for this is that the great number of old houses in the area creates huge work to knock them down, rebuild new ones and relocate local residents. But the problem we will face sooner or later is whether these old houses should be kept and protected.

The criterion to evaluate historical relics is based on the political and moral standard at a certain time. Therefore, the destruction of historic relics often occurs. For instance, the former residences and tombs of Li Hongzhang, Hu Shi, Chen Duxiu, Qu Qiubai and many others were alternately built and destroyed because the evaluation of them by people of later times changed.

Another example is A Bing, a famous folk musician in China. Several years ago the city of Wuxi, where A Bing lived for many years, planned to rebuild his former residence. But some people rejected the plan because of A Bing’s "illegal love affair with a woman." As a result, his former residence was rebuilt in his birthplace, instead of in Wuxi.

Hangzhou, a beautiful city in south China, revamped and rebuilt historical relics that had been destroyed during the "cultural revolution." But the tomb of Su Xiaoxiao was not included, largely because she was a prostitute.

The destruction of historical relics for other reasons is also serious. The Courtyard 11 in Badaowan Alley, Beijing is the former residence of Lu Xun and his brother Zhou Zuoren, both famous Chinese writers. The house today is still packed with more than 30 households, and the damage to it is obvious.

In addition, development of real estate also resulted in the destruction of historical relics. Many precious relics had been demolished, including Yuedong Hall and the former residence of Cao Xueqin, author of China’s famous classics Dream of Red Mansions, for which the appeal for protection had been strong. Many scholars noted that the number of historical relics remaining today is quite small, compared with London, Paris and Rome, and that efforts should be made to maintain and protect historical relics.

Three kinds of buildings make up China’s architectural features: (1) imperial palaces and official residences; (2) temples and altars; (3) compounds with houses built around a courtyard, and the lanes and other buildings lived in by ordinary people. The first two types have been protected by the state, but the third type of building, many more than a hundred years old, such as theaters, teahouses, bars, hotels, wharves, schools, and jails are vanishing day by day. How can it be called a real ancient capital, when it only has imperial palaces and gardens, and official residences?

Under such a situation, the old houses in the Dashilan area seem to be rare and special, and have became tourism resources. But concern should be given to the protection of overall historical appearances, including brothels, teahouses, restaurants, commercial property, halls and other buildings, instead of just brothels. By doing so, the area is expected to become a museum housing unique regional and historical features, and displaying people’s lives and customs, as well as the historical relics, architecture and commerce of old Beijing.

Problems Behind the Brothels

Yang Gengshen (Reporter from Workers’ Daily): It took just three days from the announcement of the news to develop old brothels by the media, to the cancellation of the plan. This indicates the strong power of public opinion and also the right attitude of the person who wanted to rebuild and open the brothels for tourism. Behind this, we also find other problems.

Launching a tourism project must be examined and approved by the related department. Generally speaking, before the plan was announced to the public through the media, it had gone through all these procedures, and the related department had studied its feasibility for development. If the approval of the related development is correct, it should not "lose its stance." Otherwise, the incident disclosed the arbitrary working style of the department. They should take some responsibility for this incident.

(Beijing Review November 15, 2001)

In This Series

Beyond the Modern Facade--A Journey Into Beijing's Hutongs

Roaming Memory Lane



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