Chen Weihua

History lost to the bulldozers of progress

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-05-24 07:58
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I was strolling in the main square of Mexico City, the Zcalo in the Centro Histrico, the central historical neighborhood, when several high school students asked if they could interview me for a video project.

In broken English, one of the girls wanted to know my impressions of the city.

It was my second trip to the historic Aztec and Hispanic city. The Centro Histrico, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is like a gigantic museum, but with vibrant life in every street, square, cantina and dance club.

On a daily basis, the Zcalo is noisier than either Tian'anmen Square in Beijing or People's Square in Shanghai simply because of the hundreds of vendors there - pedaling everything from handicrafts, T-shirts, souvenirs and voodoo dolls to herbs, fruits and local snacks - and the street performers. In Shanghai, these have long been outlawed from its People's Square.

I found a cafe in a historic building overlooking the square, the price for a set meal plus my beer came to 70 pesos, or about 40 yuan ($6.1), which means that the average Mexican can afford to eat in a place in such a prime location.

In Shanghai, the locals would have already rented the place to an upscale restaurant where a meal would cost from 500 to 1,000 yuan per person or it would have been rented to an international fashion brand that would use it as a flagship store like those on Shanghai's Bund.

Shanghai proudly claims the Bund as a showroom of diverse historical international architectural styles. But when tourists throng the Bund to see and take picture of the amazing skylines on both sides of the Huangpu River, most never get a chance to see the wonderful interior of the buildings.

As economic development is the priority, Shanghai is leasing these places to the highest bidder instead of making them accessible to people. It has been decades since the Shanghai Museum occupied one of the mansions on the Bund.

In Mexico City, the best buildings in town are art museums, such as the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a splendid white-marble palace of fine arts, a concert hall and arts center. The Castillo de Chapultepec, another impressive historical building, is also a museum.

In Shanghai, that splendid mansion on the hill would most likely to be turned into an upscale hotel.

That Mexico City has been keen to preserve so many historical buildings and neighborhoods is in stark contrast to the enthusiasm of many localities in China to dismantle and destroy their old neighborhoods, streets and buildings in a speed never before seen in history.

The old pebble-paved streets that are everywhere in Meico City's Centro Histrico and even the financial hub of New York City are no longer found in Shanghai, which used to have many of them.

Our cities still believe that looking new is better than looking old. You can see that in Shanghai's Yuyuan Garden and the historic canal towns around the city that have been given a face lift to such an extent that people can no longer feel much of their original flavor.

Although you might argue that this is at least better than bulldozing the old buildings and old neighborhoods, like the hutongs in Beijing and the nongtang in Shanghai.

When several Chinese vice-mayors attending a meeting in Seattle touted their city's long history, much of that history had already been wiped out in the massive urban transformation of the past three decades. We have turned much of our precious history into double-digit GDP growth.

Mexico City has a lesson to teach its rapidly developing Chinese counterparts: Its well-preserved old neighborhoods serve as a bitter reminder that we have lost much of our history and civilization that we believe is at least 5,000 years old.

In truth, many of our cities, neighborhoods and buildings, look no more than 30 years old at most.

The author is deputy editor of China Daily US edition. E-mail:

(China Daily 05/24/2011 page8)