Out with the old

The New York Times is covering the leveling of another historic district of Beijing. Read the article here.

As I read this I noted the disdain for Chinese-style urban redevelopment, the recognition that the Chinese living in the old housing being destroyed don’t appear too upset about it and anticipation of the “disney-esque” (meaning superficial and artificial) tourist attraction replacing the neighborhood.

Naturally, I have a similar visceral reaction to the neighborhood around the bell and drum towers, an area I enjoyed immensely, being razed and replaced with tourist attractions in the Chinese style (lots of cheesy photo ops, fabricated scenes and hired actors instead of real people all serving the purpose of making money off busloads of wide-eyed tourists). However, I have spoken elsewhere about the fact that my preoccupation with “authentic” tourist sites is culturally bound (see this post, point #2). In fact, I think the whole notion of authenticity, like privacy, is a cultural construction.

Will the Chinese come to develop a more Western appreciation for the old and a desire to preserve historical artifacts? I suspect that there will be more emphasis placed on preservation over time but that it will never look like the US. There are a couple of reasons for this.

1. The vast majority of Chinese live in rural areas with old construction. With economic development, Chinese all over the country are discovering the joys of tourism. The draw of Beijing (apart from the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, etc – places that have as much chance of being razed as Versailles) is that it, in the eyes of most Chinese tourists, it is a new city with gleaming skyscrapers, wide car-strewn streets. For most Chinese the twisting lanes and subdivided hutongs falling before the bulldozers are not historical, they are the conditions of contemporary rural and low-income living. Only when such areas are truly rare will them become something noteworthy to the Chinese.

2. The Chinese do not seem to mind “Disney-fication” in the form of completely new venues designed to offer a particualr depiction of the old (or ethnic or whatever). The emphasis on replication and the extent to which (for both pragmatic and cultural reasons) flawless copies (or even low-priced fakes) are taken as acceptable for all practical purposes is pretty well entrenched. In the West the divide between real and fake is sharp and unambiguous. Tourists presented with a copy or reproduction will feel that they have been taken. In China this is not the case. Folks see the boundary between copies and originals as a matter of degree and for most purposes unknowable. For example, shortly before we left I was at the market and noted that one of the vendors was selling Converse All-Stars except that they weren’t All-Stars they were “Cortises All-Sports” with the exact same typeface as converse (and they were only 18rmb, less than $3). But here’s the thing – as someone who has been wearing Chucks since 8th grade, I can tell you that they had the same treads, the same uppers, etc. Although I can’t be sure, given the other inventory at the stall and the fact that Chucks are manufactured in Guangzhou, I would guess that those All-Sports were made at the factory after hours or nearby with pilfered or overstock materials. I can further attest to that fact that, up to this point, they seem to be well assembled. What does it mean when I say those all-sports are fakes? And why should I care about having all-stars when I can have all-sports?

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