China: The Old, the New, and the Gone

Posted by on Apr 12, 2016 in Beijing, China, Cities and Urbanisation | No Comments

01:05 (UTC±00:00 +DST), 12 APR 2016 | GBR HARROW, GREATER LONDON

Beijing Chai

Urbanisation in China is something that is literally breathtaking to behold. In late 2009, I did a drive for about a hundred miles just east of Beijing — it’s Yanjiao and Dachang for those keeping count. I was just absolutely stunned by just how urbanised this erstwhile rural part of the Middle Kingdom became.

Urbanisation has also meant massive upgrades for many Chinese. The hutong alleyways of Old Beijing, as an example, had communal toilets instead of toilets in each compound. For those living “above ground” as in what I call the “low-rise” flats, we had loos that looked like they were hastily rushed, and a minimal kitchen solution. Getting rubbish out the house was a simple case of chucking them in “communal waste bin” — which “came to” when you lifted a lid on a part of the stairs between to floor landings.

In newer flats, we have better amenities, an emphasis on recycling, better transport links, and improved security. And yet, what I find pretty saddening is whilst we’re being couch potatoes (or sucked in our 9 inch screens) in those newer, and probably glitzier, high-rises, we’re seeing more and more of the older parts of town go away — for good.

In London we have an amazing proportion of town, especially in the suburbs, staying as they are. In fact there’s a building in Pinner that says it’s there for probably almost 500 years. The only close equivalent we have that in Beijing is the Forbidden City. Commoners hardly get that much preservation these days.

China is a fantastically exciting place to be in right now, and I do look forward to my return later this year. But I’d personally rather not go tearing down buildings when the spirit moved you. While the new buildings aren’t half as grotesque as the Trellick in London (or worse, what we see in Thamesmead), architectural diversity (and not in terms of sticking in absolutely weird buildings in the middle of nowhere!) makes those Chinese cities that more charming.