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August 1, 2015

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Looking for new ways to protect old towns

SHANGHAI is considering setting up an association for its old towns in a bid to protect them better, according to experts.

China currently has 252 national level old towns, including 10 in Shanghai, and 276 national level ancient villages with two in Shanghai.

“The biggest dilemma the city’s old towns face are the developers, who are keen to build faux-old commercial streets in the towns to make quick money, leaving the truly old and original architecture aside,” said Ruan Yisan, a Tongji University professor and director of China’s Ancient Architecture Research Center.

“The prevailing logic is that you need to develop tourism and boost the economy to protect these towns, which is so sad. If money is the ultimate goal and when the end justifies the means, those old houses we want to preserve will be the victims.”

The city’s cultural heritage buildings are protected by laws, but enforcement is patchy. Some heritage buildings are rebuilt while others are destroyed to make way for new developments.

Last month, an 85-year-old shikumen complex with 119 buildings in Hongkou District was found being dismantled. Shikumen refers to a Shanghainese style of architecture that combines Chinese and Western elements. Almost half of the homes were knocked down before the government stopped the demolition company due to public complaints.

Last year, a century-old home on Wujin Road, where Sun Yat-sen (first president and founding father of the Republic of China) once gave a speech, was listed to be removed, according to the urban planning bureau. But, once again, complaints led to the building being saved.

Experts said the residents in these old houses usually don’t understand the importance of their homes. Poor facilities make life inconvenient, thus the majority believe that newer is better, which may be true when it comes to mobile phones, but it’s certainly not the case when referring to buildings.

Tan Yufeng, general engineer from the City Cultural Heritage Research Center, referred to two 2005 cases, one in Nanxiang old town, Zhejiang Province and the other in Shanghai’s Fengjing water town, as examples.

He said they were applying to have Nanxiang listed as a national level old town.

“Nanxiang has two very beautiful old towers dating back to the Northern Song Dynasty (960 AD-1127), which under the criteria would have earned a bonus point on the application, but we were astonished to discover there was a three-story house set up illegally beside one tower,” Tan said.

He said the illegal structure meant they had to cancel the application.

Ruan said he has long advocated using original materials and skills when restoring old buildings to their former glory.

“Don’t invent, add or renew ‘old things’ to an old house without doing research,” Ruan said. “Don’t brag that you revived Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) architecture because no one alive has ever seen such buildings.”

Although Fengjing has been listed as a national level old town, Ruan said it’s a poor example of preservation. Three bridges in the town’s center were made with concrete instead of stones, he said, adding the windows in many houses have been restored in a modern way rather with the ancient tenon-and-mortise technique. A stickler for detail, Ruan also said the roofs look all the same, while in the old days each house had a different roof.

Despite the problems, Ruan still said things have improved greatly in the past 30 years.

“At least today no one would propose to dismantle an old town,” he said.

During the 1980s, Ruan said he argued with numerous local governments that wanted to dismantle old towns and build new neighborhoods.

He made field trips to old towns in Zhejiang and found the rivers were badly polluted by nearby textile factories.

“I wanted to have talks with the local governments, but the officials shooed me away, accusing me of disturbing public order,” he recalled.

While Tan also said the situation is better today, he adds that heritage architecture protection is too often associated with money making.

“People are developing the ancient towns, but as they are doing that they are destroying the truly old houses to build new things that look old,” he said.

Another problem is that the cultural heritage protection department is not involved in decisions about which old buildings are demolished.

“Under the Protection Ordinance of Historical, Cultural Areas and Outstanding Historical Buildings, only the land planning and the housing management departments have authority to make decisions,” Tan said. “This explains why some old houses in Shanghai are openly demolished.”

Neighboring Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces have launched protection regulations tailor-made for ancient towns and villages, but Shanghai hasn’t followed suit.

Business management is another challenge. Each old town is run by a development company, but each company’s board chairman is the town government.

“The company doesn’t have much autonomy,” Tan said. “Plus having the government involved means it takes longer for decisions to be made. These development companies are all struggling hard, most are running a deficit.”

Over the past six months, Ruan said he and his team of experts have visited 16 ancient towns to do thorough research.

At a recent conference in the city about protecting old towns, Ruan urged the government to set up an association of the city’s old towns so that they can work together on both the preservation and development fronts.

Ruan’s suggestion isn’t new. In 2013, he participated in the joint UNESCO World Heritage application project of 10 old water towns in Zhejiang and Jiangsu.

“There are more than 100 beautiful water towns in the Yangtze River Delta region that I’ve researched,” he said. “These towns are intact and still original.”

Ruan said he’s optimistic about preserving old towns. He once joined the renovation project of Xinchang in the Pudong New Area.

“Villagers always complained about poor public facilities in the town, but after we added sewage pipes and installed electric wires, we found young people started coming back,” the professor said. “This tells us if the infrastructure is improved and life becomes convenient for the locals, the place can be alive again. Old towns offer people a new way of living; it’s not backwards at all.”


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