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Midtown Makeover

Efforts to renovate the neighborhoods of Beijing’s Central Axis have revitalized their historical atmosphere and improved residents’ lives

By Yuan Suwen Updated Mar.1

Nanluogu Alley, near the Drum Tower in downtown Beijing, has become a popular tourist street, December 31 2022 (Photo by VCG)

Houhai, close to the Drum and Bell Towers, features a lake surrounded by traditional buildings, especially hutongs and courtyards. It has become a bustling commercial district with shops and cafes, November 1, 2022 (Photo by VCG)

In Beijing’s Xicheng District, to the northwest of the Drum and Bell Tower area, Lao Shi’s small house is nestled inside a narrow hutong, the narrow alleys that characterize the heart of old Beijing. Shi’s family of four live in a compound covering an area of 35 square meters. They share the cramped space with over a dozen pigeons.  

The 48-year-old Lao Shi likes to raise pigeons, a popular pastime with Beijingers for hundreds of years. His pigeon coop was made of plasterboard, which had weathered and turned yellow. At the end of 2022, Xicheng District government offered to replace the old one for free. The replacement is made of iron with a dark gray roof that resembles the surrounding traditional courtyard environment.  

It is part of Beijing’s efforts to revive not only old buildings but also the vitality of its Central Axis. Beijing is applying to include its Central Axis, which runs from Yongding Gate in the south to the Drum and Bell Towers in the north, on the UNESCO World Heritage List.  

While the Central Axis represents imperial power in ancient China, the Bell and Drum Tower area on the Central Axis has been an essential part of daily life for ordinary people and a commercial hub for more than 700 years. 

Living Heritage 
Qin Hongling, dean of the School of Humanities at the Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture, likes to spend her weekends visiting the old parts of Beijing, mostly confined within the city’s Second Ring Road, which the old city walls were knocked down to build. Walking through the neighborhoods around the Drum and Bell Towers is “a process of feeling the charm and humanistic atmosphere of old Beijing.”  

The Drum and Bell Tower area is the oldest commercial center in Beijing, home to large courtyards for influential officials and modest houses for ordinary people. Qin said that during the 2000s she could easily meet interesting people in the hutongs. Many of the large courtyards were turned into government offices or dwellings for multiple families. For example, the former residence of Kang Youwei (1858-1927), a prominent political thinker and reformer in the late Qing Dynasty, became home to several households. When tourists passed by, Qin said residents would regale them with the story of Kang’s life, an oral history passed down for decades. Now the houses are in disrepair, their residents relocated to other parts of Beijing in 2016.  

Nowadays, visitors can find a mix of new and old – traditional local street food and fashionable milk tea drinks, stores selling nostalgic old gadgets and trendy bars inside ancient houses.  

Qin is reminded of her hometown, Chengdu in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, when she sees the food stores that line Di’anmenwai Street, which runs directly south of the Drum and Bell Towers toward the Forbidden City. But the hustle and bustle of hutong street life differs from the laid-back vibe of Chengdu.  

Sitting on a rooftop terrace and sipping tea by the banks of Shichahai, an artificial lake to the west of Di’anmenwai Street, she can see the Bell and Drum Towers peering over the undulating waves of old rooftops stretching toward the horizon. “The feeling is terrific. I can smell the vitality of the old city,” she said.  

That ancient vitality continues today. A magnet for visitors and Beijingers alike with its mix of stores, bars and ancient monuments set along winding alleys and lakes, it is common to see couples taking wedding photographs in front of the Drum Tower, elderly people doing their morning exercises and crowds of skaters on the frozen Shichahai lake in the winter.  

According to Beijing’s application package on UNESCO’s website, the Central Axis reflects “the evolution and accumulation of the historic urban landscape during the last eight centuries.” “Ancient architectural space integrates with modern local communities,” Qin added, “which is unique to the Bell and Drum Towers area.”  

“More importantly, the real-life experience provided by the architecture and scenes of people in old Beijing is full of a sense of history. The evening drum and morning bell sounds from the Bell Tower and Drum Towers have a profound historical connotation, like a solemn ‘monument’ in the daily rhythmic sound,” Ji Jianqing, a researcher at the Institute of Culture of the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, wrote in his book Searching for Old Beijing. 

Yandai Alley historic area, located in front of the Drum Tower, is thronged with tourists, October 5, 2022 (Photo by VCG)

Chance of Sustainability
Yet these historical sites and locals’ memories are facing threats because of the booming population. Documentary director Wu Qun has lived in Beijing for 40 years. He remembers courtyards in some old hutongs on the western edges of the old city used to be residences of princes and the nobility. “Back in 1994, when Parkson Store from Malaysia entered China and set up its first shopping mall on the western edge of the Second Ring Road near Fuxingmen Street, it attracted many young shoppers,” Wu said. Wu’anhou Hutong next to the department store was lined with old pagoda trees, he said. “Many courtyards boasted grand house doors, and the most impressive thing was the wooden framed windows covered with red paint.” Wu’anhou Hutong used to be the residence of the Duke of Wu’an and his descendants during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It was demolished many years ago. “At least in the late 1990s, the hutongs in Beijing were still very beautiful, very quiet, and the buildings were relatively simple, without so much cement and steel like today.”  

Life in the old city of Beijing disappeared as the use of courtyards changed, many of the grander ones no longer housing residents. As the population increased between the 1950s and 1990s, more residential courtyards were demolished, or changed beyond recognition as constructions were added or buildings renovated to accommodate the many households they contained. “Infrastructure couldn’t meet the demands of these crowded courtyards,” Wu said. Living conditions were poor, as most courtyards lacked even basic sanitation like toilets. Most had no heating or sewage systems. As the pace of urbanization increased, many old Beijing courtyard dwellings were demolished as being unsuitable for modern living needs, and concrete apartment blocks took their place.  

“If the whole Beijing city had been preserved, it would have been able to become a world heritage site, but unfortunately, now the old city is incomplete, traditional walls have been torn down, and part of the moats have been disrupted by subways. We hope to keep the remaining ancient elements as much as possible, thus the [UNESCO] bid is an opportunity,” Lü Zhou, director of the National Heritage Center of Tsinghua University, told NewsChina.  

Yu Ping, former deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Cultural Heritage, stressed that preserving the Central Axis should not only focus on single sites, but more importantly, on protection and utilization. “Instead, we should implement the overall sustainable protection targets for the heritage elements and their environment in nearly 588 hectares in the core urban area,” he told NewsChina in September 2022.  

In Beijing, where ancient structures are ubiquitous, integrating ancient architecture into the modern environment allows for their sustainable development. Beijing has launched over 100 restoration projects since starting on the UNESCO bid in 2011.  

The sustainable development of historical cities has become an important concern worldwide. “Our bid to list the Central Axis as a World Heritage Site is actually for the better protection and development of historical cities, which meets UNESCO’s heritage protection goal,” Yu said. 

A demolished residence near the Bell Tower, Beijing, December 8, 2014 (Photo by Zhang Jie)

‘Fifth Facade’ 
Efforts have been made to renovate some neighboring residential compounds along the Central Axis of Beijing to harmonize them with the surroundings. The revamp of Lao Shi’s pigeon house is part of a program called “the fifth facade” renovation, a reference to the area’s roofs. By November 2022, the renovations in the Bell and Drum Towers area were mostly completed. The ongoing program covers four hutongs including the one where Lao Shi’s family and his pigeons live.  

According to Liu Weiyan, who works on the renovation program, it covers an area of 1.19 hectares to the northwest of the Drum and Bell Towers. It included 89 households with a total construction area of 2,536 square meters. Liu said the fifth facade renovation targets the roofs of houses that do not meet the requirements of the Central Axis. It involves the demolition of illegal constructions, decoration and removal of ancillary facilities, and pigeon house renovation, as well as cooperation with communities in the Shichahai lake area to carry out the demolition and restoration of roofs and illegal constructions.  

Apart from demolition of illegal rooftop structures, as families often extended their homes with extra rooms or terraces, facilities including solar-powered water heaters, solar panels and some air conditioners that affected the overall aesthetic were removed or covered. Liu said the government gave free indoor electric water heaters as compensation for removing solar panels. 

Some modern buildings have been lowered in height. The threestory Di’anmen police station is now reduced to one floor with a new traditional-style roof.  

To improve residents’ living conditions, the sewer system has been repaired, and wheelchair accessible ramps have been built for the elderly and disabled. Residents and shopkeepers were solicited for their opinions on improving the facades of stores and businesses.  

“People understand the World Heritage Site application is a big deal, so most local people support it,” Liu said. The process for the clearance of illegal constructions in communities was based on sufficient negotiation with locals. “No removal project was conducted under coercion,” he said.  

To restore the old courtyard communities to their original style and layout, in the spring of 2021, a voluntary relocation program around the Drum and Bell Towers began. Residents can apply for equivalent financial compensation or relocation to other districts.  

Among the 30 courtyards with 185 households covering a total area of 5,250 square meters, 14 courtyards involving 72 households applied for the program. According to Liu, a significant number of residents were willing to relocate to larger modern apartments in other districts on the outskirts of the city. The Shi family moved from a 9-square-meter house to a much larger two-bedroom apartment. The Peng family spent part of their compensation to move from their 20-square-meter house to a twobedroom apartment of over 80 square meters.  

“The purpose is to reduce the number of households by 30 to 50 percent so we can restore the old architectural layout. The people who choose to stay are very important elements of the landscape,” Qin said. She believes that cultural heritage should be integrated into the city and become part of people’s daily lives.  

According to Chen Mingjie, directorgeneral of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Cultural Heritage, “If the cultural relics are ‘teeth,’ then the surrounding environment are the ‘lips.’ The teeth should be well-protected, and so should the lips. For example, vacating non-ancient buildings that are close to ancient ones protects the cultural relics, significantly improves the living environment and enhances the happiness of residents, thus attaining a win-win situation.”  

Lü thinks that after years of efforts, the reconstruction of the block near the Drum and Bell Towers has considered both their modern popularity and traditional style, which is an ideal transformation project.  

Shan Jixiang, former director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage told the Global Times in August 2022 that the application for the World Heritage Site process could benefit the conservation and revival of cultural heritage along the Central Axis by inspiring more people to learn about heritage sites and increasing awareness of protection efforts.  

As the official description of the Beijing Central Axis on the UNESCO website states, although some historic remains along the Central Axis have been altered or vanished during past renovations, “the Axis as one entity adapts to the social needs in different periods and plays an important role in the development of Beijing city.”  

Photographer Zhang Jie, a Beijinger, has spent over eight years taking photos of the Drum and Bell Tower area. He said that after 1996, as the environment in the surrounding areas changed, many non-locals and foreigners came to visit or live in the hutongs. “This reflects the openness of Beijing as an international city that attracts all kinds of people from all walks of life,” Zhang told NewsChina.  

Zhang feels he now has a new opportunity to understand the Central Axis: “The story of the Central Axis will never end, so I will continue to explore it, and as far as the Central Axis remains, it can guide people, and I won’t get lost.”