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Renovating Traditional Chinese Buildings as an Alternative to Destroying Them?

Can China’s few remaining historic communities continue existing in the face of rampant progress?

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TAIZHOU, Jiangsu – The Wūyā Cafe is an oddity in Taizhou. It is a trendy cafe bar with a retro design that is popular with Chinese college students looking to chill out with a cup of coffee or tea and foreigner English teachers on the prowl for their daily regimen of booze. Its interior loaded with turn of the 20th century to 1930s era Western and Chinese kitsch — posters from old movies, black and white portraits of stiff necked Chinese women in ornate dresses, archaic advertisements for stuff people don’t use anymore, antique-looking porcelain vases, replicas of ancient sculptures, etc. In this sense, the place is nothing out of the ordinary and is actually representative of a new commercial trend that’s rippling through the country. What’s unique about this cafe is it’s location: at the edge of a traditional-style community in an old brick house.

Like all other old cities in this part of the country, Taizhou, which has a 2,100+ year history, was once a colossal maze of traditional style brick buildings with terracotta tiled roofs. As the city began modernizing the old-style architecture began being replaced with frill-less, uber-functional, box-like concrete buildings and, recently, 21st century style shopping malls and apartment high-rises.

This is a normal process. As countries progress — particularly developing ones who feel compelled to race ahead and “catch up” with more advanced countries — architectural styles change, old buildings are rampantly demolished and new, modern ones built in their place. In this fray of development many countries seem to lose site of their historic and cultural heritage and the value of a diverse urban landscape. Taking this modernization movement a few ticks too far can leave a country covered in a sterile architectural monoculture, something that China has done to the extreme.

Keeping pace, Taizhou has been eradicating its traditional style communities as though they were some kind of epidemic or something embarrassingly backwards that would be better off expunged from existence — or at the very least hidden from view. There is an entire swath of the old city, from the Podzijie shopping center north to the Xintongyang canal that had recently been sledge-hammered to oblivion and bulldozed into a wasteland. Just three years ago a very old neighborhood once stood where the Wanda Plaza is today. This is a process that has been going on here for decades, but has sped up considerably in recent years in an effort to attract companies and workers to China Medical City, a central government backed, colossal pharmaceutical research facility that is being built in the south of the prefecture.

Though even still, unlike neighboring Yangzhou — where the only apparent traces of the city’s 2,500+ year history are a couple large pagodas conspicuously placed at the intersections of roaring avenues that are flanked with modern buildings on all sides and a scattered collection of tourist sites — Taizhou still has some of its traditional neighborhoods remaining intact and lived in. But this is not because they are particularly valued.

In point, the remaining old communities here are treated like slums rather than expositions of the city’s history, culture, and legacy. These neighborhoods stand as yet to be conquered pockets of another time hiding out in the inner spheres of massive city blocks which are surrounded on all sides by modern buildings. Generally speaking, nobody but the people who live in these old neighborhoods seem to have much interest going into them. Some tend to look down their noses at them, as though they are decrepit ghettos full of dangerously deteriorating buildings that don’t even have toilets and are the unfortunate refuges of deprived old people who have nowhere else to go.

“Nobody wants to live in those places,” a young local woman once told me. “Not even my dog wants to live there.”

When you go into these traditional communities the people who live there often tell a different story. Though many happily take the government’s relocation package when they are selected for relocation and go live in a modern apartment somewhere, many don’t want to leave — some outrightly refuse to do so. This later group seems to appreciate their lifestyle, the old culture, their private, ground-level homes, their personal space, the uncrowded streets that cars can’t even drive down, and, especially, living in direct proximity to their family members and neighbors they’ve known for generations.

I’ve stated this many times before, but I can never reassert this enough: life is different in these traditional neighborhoods, they are communities in the true sense of the word, and there is a social essence in them that doesn’t readily transfer over when the people are moved into apartment complexes.

More on The China Chronicle: Demolition of Ancient Communities Still Going Strong in China

Traditional villages and neighborhoods have been getting sledge-hammered to pieces, loaded on trucks, and removed from the face of existence all through China, and up until very recently few people seemed to care. At this advanced stage of development, where most of China’s traditional architecture has been wiped away, it’s becoming evident what’s being lost.

The director of the rural construction department at the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development as well as president Xi Jinping himself have recently been speaking out against the wholesale destruction of ancient villages.

But the scarcity of genuine ancient communities is beginning to make novel and potentially valuable throughout the country.

The Wūyā Cafe would not have looked out of place in a hip stretch of a Beijing hutong or in the tourist area of Suzhou, but it is in Taizhou, Jiangsu, and is the first “modern” business that I know of to have opened up in a traditional style house here.

There is a reason why Chinese and foreigners alike pack the Wūyā Cafe, and it isn’t because they serve coffee and tea (the city is packed with cafes), and it definitely isn’t because it’s cheaper than the other options (it’s actually pretty expensive). From what I can ascertain, this cafe’s popularity is due in no small part to the house it’s lodged in. The place has character, the architecture is interesting, and the history is real. The old style Chinese house, with its low lighting, brick walls, clay roofing tiles visible overhead, and its irregular layout is intriguing. Even through all the kitsch and imported beverages and the ironic modernity of the throwback theme, there is a sense of authenticity that pervades the air: the place is a genuine representation of the city’s historical, architectural, and cultural legacy.

The myriad recently built “traditional Chinese style” towns and streets that have been popping up all around the country — including Taizhou — to bolster tourism often come off as sad anachronisms at best, hokey replicas at worse, especially when up until very recently China was bulging at the seams with authentic traditional architecture. What is more is that sometimes genuine old villages are demolished to make way for their replicas.

“Fixing them costs money but destroying them makes money.”

More on The China Chronicle: Taizhou Destroys an Ancient Community to Build a Replica of it

The Wūyā Cafe shows that an old house in a traditional neighborhood of a tier three city in China can be transformed into a thriving business that is routinely packed with customers from all over the city. It is very much within reason that Taizhou’s few remaining old neighborhoods could support an ecosystem of small businesses, preserve the city’s last shreds of architectural heritage, as well as offer much needed respites from the monotony of the modern cityscape that lies beyond — if the demolition squads are kept at bay.

All through Europe there are modern people living in relatively ancient houses and historic villages with all the amenities of contemporary times. Many cities in Morocco and India have historic districts coexisting with modern ones. What would Europe be if it exchanged its architectural heritage for shopping malls? What would Morocco become if it demolished all of its ancient medinas and replaced them with high-rise apartments? What would happen to India if it razed its ancient cities to the ground and then built replicas of them for tourists?

Tourist sites aside, what would China be without its historic neighborhoods, its hutongs, and its ancient villages?

The typical Chinese city is grey, ugly, and congested. It has pointlessly wide roads and squares, and functional, boxy buildings clad in grimy concrete or dirty white tiles. The old parts of town have been demolished, save perhaps for a solitary pagoda, rebuilt and sucked dry of its historical sap. Its roads are jammed, the air filthy, the streets often unwalkable. Pavements and public entrances are blocked by private vehicles, whose owners scream abuse at cyclists and pedestrians for getting in their way. It is, in short, anything but ‘liveable’.

China’s leaders are not totally unaware of this depressing fact. In 2007 Qiu Baoxing, then vice minister of construction, launched a tirade against the dreary monotony of China’s urban landscape. He lambasted local officials for the ‘senseless’ destruction of the country’s architectural and cultural heritage as China pursues its headlong rush towards modernization. Lamenting the ugly, uniform buildings casually erected on old temples and ancient streets, he put his finger on the most depressing aspect of modern Chinese urbanism. ‘It is like having a thousand cities with the same appearance’, he complained. –China’s Urban Billion


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Filed under: Architecture, Articles, Changing China, China, Culture and Society, Development, Disappearing Traditions

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 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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2 comments… add one

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  • Félix October 27, 2013, 9:08 pm

    Great article. I’ve been going to the old districts of Jinan quite a lot, most of them are either turned into tourist attractions/street food hell, or remarkably empty, except a few octogenarians sitting around. But the few worthy stores, bars and restaurants in there have a lot of character and it’s fun to ride around at night.

    I disagree with the last paragraph though, the quoted text from “China’s urban billion”. Sure, it brings some good points, but some are fallacious too, like the “pointlessly wide streets”. Wide streets are positive progress and an effort towards sustainability. Posting it without contextualization contradicts a bit the article you wrote about Zhangjiagang, Jiangyin and the other modern cities of Jiangnan, in which you praised the large open spaces and lack of congestion. … no?

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    • Wade Shepard October 28, 2013, 2:10 am

      That’s very true, parts of the quote do contradict some of the articles that I’ve written previously, but I didn’t wanted to break it up and “censor” it, so to speak, as the main point of it, in the context of this article, I agree with. I also don’t mind a good contending viewpoint every once in a while 🙂

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