The charm of old town is still ap­peal­ing

China Daily (Latin America Weekly) - - Page Two - Con­tact the writer at david@chi­

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.

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