Invasion of the history snatchers

The Qianmen district of Beijing is one that is very dear to my heart – although sadly, I now have to write that it was very dear to my heart. It’s gone now, replaced with an identical copy of itself.

I’ve mentioned before why I liked it so much. I spent many summer nights there, getting lost in the narrow, wandering, alleyways, drinking beer and eating delicious food in tiny little restaurants where staff bantered with customers, and everything was great as long as you didn’t look in the kitchen.

On my first trip to Beijing in 2004, my Norwegian friend Stefan and I stood around watching the card games in the street, and stayed around until the only people left were the locals, who would be walking around in their pyjamas because of the heat.

In 2005, I hung out with Fei from Xi’an; we dived into the old courtyard buildings, looking at the different architectural styles, and chatting to the migrant workers who paid extortionate rates for clapboard rooms that had been thrown up in the courtyards. Everywhere we went, we encountered a warm welcome. With her, I had a really enjoyable evening in a tiny dumpling shop, where we were quizzed and teased by the rest of the diners.

In 2007, I went back to find the area reduced to rubble, surrounded by hoardings. The new “walls” were graced with huge pictures of the future Qianmen; it looked like Second Life.

I guess I’ll see the reality for myself next year. It sounds like it’s appalling. I’ve just found an article about it in the online journal China Heritage Quarterly. An area that once was part of the jianghu (in my interpretation of it – see my About page):

he previously privileged occupants of the Inner City during the Ming dynasty were forced to move elsewhere, often to new residences in the Outer City. As a result of this brief southern migration Qianmen flourished, as erstwhile residents of the Inner City relocated their roots and businesses to the south. In addition to its already existing reputation as a mercantile centre, the area also soon became a new entertainment district which residents and visitors, many of them scholars from other provinces who were in Beijing to sit the civil service examination, could dine out at the many restaurants that lined the streets, find lodgings, purchase luxurious goods, or attend a performance of the opera.[1]
Fig.1 The demolition of buildings in Qianmen district in January 2007. [Kelly Layton]

Equally important for social life in Qianmen, and for its status as Beijing’s entertainment district, was the commerce in brothels catering to the varied sexual appetites of their male clientele. Indeed, according to the local historian Zhang Jinqi (and many salacious accounts in ‘apocryphal histories’, yeshi), it was here that the Tongzhi Emperor (r.1862-74), during one of his late night incognito excursions to escape from the frustrations of court life and his libidinally frustrated eunuch retainers, contracted syphilis whilst fulfilling his own concupiscent urges, from which he would eventually die.

has been transformed into a sanitised, commercial zone of shopping malls disguised in “authentic” Qing-style buildings.

OHO’s redevelopment of the area of Qianmen promises to be a new, faux-Qing-style pedestrian shopping mall, a place where Beijing’s residents and tourists may engage in lifestyle practices that dabble with history whilst never really having to come to terms with it.

Of course, the life will all be gone, and the community dispersed. I guess I can only be glad that at least I saw it as it was.

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