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A Tale of Two Chinas: While the PRC Demolishes its Historic Buildings Taiwan Saves Them

There is more that separates China and Taiwan than a narrow strait. Where ancient buildings and traditional neighborhoods are seen as a barrier to profit on one side they’re the other’s ticket to develop a budding tourism industry. There is perhaps a reason for the shift in the winds of tourism.

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We’re told that China has a 5,000 year old civilization, but from walking down the streets of most cities the country appears to have been founded somewhere in the vicinity of late 1970s. To put it simply, beyond select tourist attractions and random structures scattered around historically kinetic places like Shanghai, it’s an oddity to find any buildings older than this. 40% of all homes in China were built after 2000, and, according to the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, almost all buildings constructed before this will be demolished and rebuilt within the next 20 years.

This all out purge of historic buildings and traditional neighborhoods has unsurprisingly caused a knee jerk reaction that’s striking China’s tourism industry at its core. Along with air pollution, toxic food, poor water quality, tourists are now stating that one of the reasons why they’re less inclined to visit China is because of its lack of a visible historic legacy. Tourism is down 2.5% from last year, and this is in the face of a new 72-hour visa waiver program for air passengers that was anticipated to boost the numbers of visitors. Meanwhile, tourist visits to Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan have rose considerably (67%, 17% and 50%, respectively).

From China Real Time:

A state media report on the topic carried earlier this year by China Daily also cited experts who faulted the country’s haphazard approach to historical preservation as a reason behind waning tourism enthusiasm. Across China, lanes built in a heavily reconstructed, faux-historical design selling identikit souvenirs are the norm, a disheartening phenomenon for tourists hoping for more of a sense the authentic.

“We have to value our local history and China’s cultural heritage. That’s what foreigners come to China to see, not soaring skyscrapers and wide streets, which can be seen in every Western country,” the report cited Peking University’s Wu Bihu, professor focusing on tourism development, as saying.

A response by China Rhyming:

And yet here we are with Shanghai’s Xintiandi still being lauded as a best in class example of preservation (!!) and Dongtai Lu antiques market (admittedly long degenerated to largely “selling identikit souvenirs”) about to fall to the bulldozers for a series of “skyscrapers and wide streets.”

Not that anything will change – property developers in league with the Party will remain the dominant force, so-called renovations will remain haphazard and ill-planned and badly executed…but at least nobody can say they weren’t told.

To travel through China is to swim the same monotonous seas of identical looking high-rises, twisting elevated highways, carbon copied shopping malls, and an endless procession of same, same skyscrapers. It has famously been stated that if someone was dropped into the center of any city in China there would be absolutely no way for them to tell if they were in Nanning or Nanjing, Qingdao or Quanzhou, Changzhou or Chengdu — places that are thousands of kilometers apart. At a quick glance, the country comes off as being nothing other than the same place mass produced everywhere, like sneakers on an assembly line.

Though it is very possible to leave this fray and find regionally unique, ancient, and traditional places, it often takes a higher amount of geographic knowledge, time, linguistic ability, and a propensity for rugged travel than most tourists are able to muster. The typical tourist visit to China will consist of shopping malls, a few token crowded historic sites, and new replicas of old things. The China that many come to experience is now firmly shut up behind the plate glass of museum showcases. The China that you see in the movies, historic documentaries, and read about in literature has been substituted for something far too pragmatic to be of much interest to anyone who is just passing through. Once a country demolishes its cultural heritage it’s gone for good, no matter how many replicas of it are built later on.

China has systematically destroyed that which foreign tourists often find most interesting about a country, and now it’s asking why less people want to visit. Tourists are smart enough to know when what they are being shown is fake, they can tell a newly built “Old Street” that is full of vendors in corny costumes from time worn hutong full of families who actually live there; they are wise enough to consider whether a country of concrete and kitsch is really worth traveling to the other side of the world to see.

Though on the other side of the strait things are much different. On Kinmen, an island group administered by Taiwan 5,000 meters from the Chinese mainland, old buildings are not viewed as an embarrassing testament to backwardness and poverty to be demolished ASAP, but are seen as the key to the islands’ prospective tourism renaissance. Rather than bulldozing the ancient villages that cover the landscape to oblivion and replacing them with grey concrete blocks that not a single person on the planet has ever lauded the aesthetics of, the local government has realized that in the modern world the old has value — especially when it’s as artistically dynamic and historically intriguing as what’s on Kinmen.

As I traveled on Kinmen I became aware of a remarkable governmental program that seeks to save its architectural and cultural heritage in an economically innovative way. Across Greater Kinmen Island seven ancient villages were selected by the National Parks Service to be restorated, beautified, and prepped for low intensity tourism. A program was initiated where the government would lease houses of historic value from the families who own them, preserve and rebuild them, and then rent them out to local residents for the purpose of tourism related enterprises.

About Kinmen’s historic preservation program

This was a timely move, as many of the houses in these villages where on the brink of collapse and some were in advance stages of decay. To put it simply, many of the villages of Kinmen are in the process of being abandoned, they are places that the young move away from, leaving behind geriatric no-mans-lands that will soon be left as ghost towns. Many of the old houses in these villages are devoid of residents, they are primarily being used as storage sheds for the families who own them. At best, they will be visited once or twice a year for religious purposes; at worst, nobody ever returns — some of the houses haven’t been visited in so long that nobody even knows who owns them anymore.

Rather than seeing this situation as an opportunity to wipe the real estate slate clean, clear the land, and cash in off of constructing modern buildings as is done on the mainland, Kinmen did the complete opposite. In the process they came up with a system to preserve their architectural and cultural heritage, while at the same time providing locals with a business opportunity and the groundwork for a potential tourism industry which will bring people into places that were on the verge of becoming defunct. The result is a landscape of architectural diversity, traditional artistry, and history.

Go inside a restorated historic home on Kinmen

Kinmen is now a living museum, and visitors from mainland China can go there for a look at how beautiful their country once was before it was bulldozed and turned into what is arguably the most hideous looking country on the planet. There is perhaps a reason that Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau’s tourism numbers are rising rapidly while those of China are falling that goes beyond pollution and politics: when people travel they want to see something different, something they’ve never seen before, something to “write home about.” In a word, they want to see something remarkable. High-rises, wide roads, and identikit tourist shops are as unremarkable as it gets.

While mainland China has stayed a course of systematically destroying all semblance of its long history, Taiwan’s Kinmen Island took the opposite road. Where would you rather visit?


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Filed under: Architecture, China, History, Kinmen

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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