The charm of old town is still appealing
I have an exercise bike in my apartment in Beijing and every morning I sit on it, pedaling and sweating away until I have burned off 300 calories. It takes about an hour — all that hard work for fewer calories than you’d consume by eating a Snickers bar.
It’s also quite boring, although I do go into a sort of trance after a while when the endorphins start to kick in. I have my bike positioned in front of a large window and, with the air conditioner blasting cold air onto me, I look at what is going on outside. Sometimes there might be workmen doing repairs on the roof of the opposite building, or a magpie might appear and I’ll hope to see another one for good luck.
But the things I most enjoy watching when I’m on the bike are the tower cranes on a building site a few blocks away. I see them twisting and turning, stretching and lifting, and marvel at the technology that keeps them upright, and the bravery of the operators doing a job I wouldn’t touch even if my life depended on it.
Until recently, I was curious about what exactly they were working on. Then I went on holiday for two weeks and returned to find that a new building, already several stories high, had suddenly appeared. The speed with which it had been built was incredible and it’s still getting taller every day.
Progress in Beijing, as with the rest of China, moves at an incredible rate. But is progress the right word for such rapid development?
Traveling around the city, seeing the gleaming high-rises of all shapes and sizes, I often find myself wondering what the city looked like before all this “progress” started happening. Surely there were some beautiful old traditional buildings. Couldn’t they have been saved? Couldn’t Beijing have chosen to look more like Amsterdam and less like Manhattan?
My home in England is in a town that was overlooked and neglected for many years. In previous centuries, it had thrived because of the wool and textile industries and there are some lovely old buildings. But over the years it declined to become a rundown place where few people wanted to live.
Then something amazing happened. By the 1970s, homes had become so cheap that hippies and struggling artists started to snap them up. What had been a small industrial town became a Bohemian haven. Such a trendy environment then attracted the attention of yuppies — teachers, lawyers, doctors — who started moving in, tidying up the town and boosting property prices. The small shops and businesses began to thrive.
The newcomers love the old buildings, the unspoiled environment. If any speculator comes along with a plan for a large development — one that involves tower cranes, for instance — there will very soon be a fierce campaign to get the project rejected.
There must be many areas in China that feel as if they are being bypassed by the modern world — but maybe they should be counting their blessings. People are naturally more comfortable in environments created on a human scale, where nature isn’t a distant memory.
There is a lot more to true wealth than a fancy apartment in a tower block. So if you live in an old town that seems to have missed out on prosperity, take heart. Concrete jungles aren’t the only route to a better life.
A man walks past a mural by Chan Ying-fat at Pacific Place, one of Hong Kong’s biggest shopping areas, last week.