Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Beijing - city on surface_1

It is false to say the Olympics is all about the physical; in Beijing, it is all about the visual. Million-dollar decisions happen within split seconds of an image appeal. There is the common goal for instantaneous excitement, the dropped-out eyes on foreign faces, the wow-effect. The Olympics and the fast-paced development it brought about has led to ever more concerns that the Old Beijing is dying, thousand years of culture disappearing in thin air. Present discontent followed by nostalgia is common, but at the same time, questionable that the latter would be of remedy.

Take Qianmen Dajie ("front" "door" "street", in literal translation) in Beijing for instance, the re-creation of its historical facade has only attracted more criticism despite it being the discussed outcome of 30 experts in history, architecture and urban planning. Located along the central axis, south of Tian'anmen Square, this major avenue leads directly into one of the nine historical city gates. Once the most critical commecial district in the capital, all travellers arriving from the south would have passed by its storefronts, been to its theatres. Even emperors paraded through Qianmen to arrive at the Temple of Heaven in the south to pray for the country. The arrival of foreigners in the early 20th century only brought in more trades in the area, until the 1980's when Qianmen finally became obsolete and disassociated from the rest of the city development.

Amid controversies, the Olympics has restored its historical façade of the 1920’s, but along came a new identity – to relive the Old Beijing, and present to the world traditional Chinese culture. The by-product being that the street is no longer a street. Both north and south ends are fenced off to only allow underground crossing. Stores are spacious but lack occupants. The general wonder follows that the new identity of Qianmen is in no relations to its spatial design but all dependent on its historical facade. The new Qianmen will always be the new Qianmen as long as the façade stands.

Nostalgia is an oversimplification of the Chinese sentiment towards their capital. Exposing their own insecurity, hope for a better tomorrow is mis-attributed to the past. The new identity of Qianmen as an image projected to the outer world implied a default setting that ancient China equates Chinese culture, that nothing contemporary can define us as a nation. Further irony being that the "ancientness" on display is a distorted mutant of historical facade and foreign retail ownerships inside. The restoration of Qianmen was never about the uncanny replication of its historical facade, but how it represents our imagery of the glorious past. No matter how much it resembles the 20's, it does not belong to the city today, nor will it ever fit into our imagined past. As contemporaries, we will never be satisfied.

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