Thursday, 28 April 2011

Preservation v progress – the future of Beijing's hutongs

There was an article in the Chinese newspaper ‘China Daily’ a few weeks ago that I found rather interesting, and I’ve finally decided to get around to writing about it.  It concerned historic building conservation issues in Beijing, but particularly with regard to the historic hutongs (胡同), the living conditions for their inhabitants and the desire that some people have shown to save them from total destruction.

If you’re not aware of what they are, hutongs are traditional Chinese neighbourhoods made up of a number of courtyard houses, known as siheyuan (四合院), accessible from small alleys.  Individual hutongs can feature many small, winding alleyways and are places in which people can quite easily become lost.  They are thought to date back to the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and were once used as administrative divisions within the city.  For many centuries they were the standard housing for Beijing residents of all social classes.  Although the majority of remaining hutongs date from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties some are older, and even appear in historic poems and are still associated with historical characters who lived, worked and died in them.  The oldest surviving hutong is believed to be Sanmiao Street, said to date back more than 900 years.  Interestingly, and definitely not recommended for fat tourists, the narrowest hutong is Qianshi Lane - just 0.7 metres wide!

Even the names of many hutongs are fascinating and reference local characters or features, bearing names such as the Lane of Grand Councillor Wen, Goldfish Lane or the Lane of Piggy Bank.

But to return to the article, what interested me about it was that, although China Daily is something of a Communist party mouthpiece publication, it raises an interesting and fundamental issue regarding conservation – to what extent should the needs of the modern inhabitants be taken into account, and to what extent should 21st Century living standards be imposed on historic fabric?  Or to put it another way, should terrible old holes to live in be protected because of their age or rarity?  Although the article was written about China, and China is facing this problem many times over, it applies to everywhere and should not be disregarded, even in our so-called developed countries.

So what did the article actually have to say about the hutongs being torn down and replaced by more modern apartments?  Well, it started with quite an aggressive tone towards those wishing to see the hutongs preserved,

‘the razing of centuries-old hutong … caused a hullabaloo among conservationists as they rallied to protect China’s vanishing cultural heritage.  With modernity blazing throughout the city like an out of control steamroller, they argued, what will be left of China’s past?  What I want to know is this: how many of those conservationists, or reporters, ever lived in an old, un-renovated hutong house?’

The article continues to paint a less than delightful picture of life in a hutong:

Despite the quaint, otherworldly charms of some of the siheyuan, most of the demolished hutong dwellings, put simply, stank. Who wants to share hole-in-the-floor latrines, have rats and cockroaches as pets, or stoop to get in the front door?

There was the leaking roof , cockroaches in the kitchen, blankets of dust like you wouldn't believe, and constant power outages.

Every day, the stench of grandma's wok-fried breakfast would swarm up the stairs, take my olfactory glands hostage and make my eyes bleed. Every day, one of the old ladies would shout at me to turn off the hall light, despite there being no switch outside my apartment allowing me to do so.

In terms of health and hygiene, there was no fire escape. If there was a fire, basically, we were all going to fry. The place wasn't just dirty. You could have raised an army of darkness from all that crud, if you knew the right incantation. The dust on one of the light bulbs outside my front door alone probably contained enough microbes to wipe out an entire solar system.

However horrible that existence would be the issues that are raised are ones that - how can I say this without causing offence – are overwhelmingly caused by the inhabitants rather than the fabric of the building.  The poor sanitation, public health and electrical supply problems can be solved by the government.  The dirt and dust, holes in the roof and antisocial behaviour are, quite frankly, the fault of the inhabitants and their choice of lifestyle, rather than of the historic fabric of the hutong.

Another issue is that the replacement apartments so lovingly described by the article’s author are often out of the financial reach of the hutong’s inhabitants, making the simple solution of tearing down the hutongs and putting everyone in clean, modern air conditioned apartments with gleaming floors and plasma TVs an unrealistic one.  The hutong inhabitants would be moved somewhere else (probably no more appealing or sanitary) and their place taken by the new middle classes - more acceptable to show to the world but hiding rather than solving a social problem and still ultimately destroying the heritage.

However, I would like to keep this article on the issue of historic building conservation, not get sidetracked into a discussion of the rights and wrongs of Chinese social habits and government rehousing projects.

An important word in the first quote above is ‘un-renovated’ – the hutongs could retain their character and still provide a more modern standard of living, much as a Medieval English manor house can feature modern wiring and appliances alongside it’s original features.  As far as I’m aware, most inhabitants in historic English houses also manage not to wallow in their own filth because of the age of the building either.  The all-or-nothing ultimatum of the article is, in my opinion, its biggest flaw – the only options put forward are for people to continue to live in squalor or for everything to be torn down and replaced with a modern high rise apartment block.  This is clearly far too lacking in the shades of grey and mitigation that is central to historic building preservation.

Beijing is, of course, a city developing at an alarming rate, and problems regarding preservation of historic buildings frequently occur.  One issue is that decisions are not backed up by a developed suite of national heritage policy.  ‘Progress’ is the overriding driver, not to mention the desire to make money at all costs.  Dissenting voices are of course to be heard, from the residents of such neighbourhoods themselves as well as from international heritage organisations.

So what is the mitigation?  Certainly there needs to be some element of surveying the surviving hutongs and an attempt to quantify their relative significance.  At least then decisions on the future of individual hutongs can be made within a context and with prioritisation.

One interesting, if rather flippant, suggestion was made by the article’s author:

Not that I'm advocating destroying a country's natural and cultural heritage wholesale. But, I mean, isn't that why god invented museums?

So the answer to the problem is to bulldoze all of the hutongs except the few that are chosen to be turned into museums?  Hardly.  I work in museums and love them dearly, but in this instance I have to disagree with the author of the article.  A sanitised museum experience (dare I say especially a Chinese one with all the inherent political interference) is not a replacement for a living tradition any more than a Disney theme park is an adequate replacement for a real Medieval castle.  Although there may certainly be some scope to interpret hutongs through museum displays and public access, I do not see this as an adequate mitigation for the destruction of the remaining ones.

However, there is perhaps a route forward in the general area of finding alternative uses for the hutongs other than purely as accommodation.  The China Daily itself ran another article in September 2010 highlighting a hutong that has reinvigorated itself by combining the residential area with “coffee shops, boutiques, restaurants and drinking rooms.  In the words of one resident "Here you get the real hutong feeling, the real Beijing feeling."

The article states that:

perhaps the most charming aspect of this Beijing gem is the sense of community held by business owners and residents.  Adhering to the classic hutong attitude of community, both intertwine to create a comfortable, unflashy business district that doubles as a relaxing place to take a stroll.Here all of the business owners are all really nice, it's more of a community than a business street and people visiting the street get that feeling’.”

Perhaps such initiatives, although obviously not suitable for every single hutong, suggest that there are ways forward that preserve something of the spirit of the hutongs without turning them into static heritage attractions or seeing them all disappear under a mass of those ugly generic Chinese apartment blocks.

The first step is surely getting people to see the hutongs as more than dirty relics of a time when China was humiliated by the rest of the world, and realise that once they have allowed these historic neighbourhoods to be replaced with characterless apartment blocks, they will never be able to get them back.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Bolton Wanderers and their Chinese crest?

While watching a Bolton match on TV the other day, something in their badge got me thinking.  The design of their crest looks remarkably similar to the design on a lacquered Chinese decorative plate my wife and I received as a wedding present.

Wikipedia describes the club crest as ‘the initials of the club in the shape of a ball, with red and blue ribbons beneath’.  From what I can gather, the club has been using variants of their current crest since the early 1980’s.

Here’s the Bolton crest:

And here’s our plate

So is the truth:

A) The designer of our plate is a secret Bolton fan and works it into his designs

B) The marketing company designing the Bolton crest was either Chinese or likes Chinese designs

C) It’s a complete coincidence

D) They look nothing like each other and you now think I’m crazy

Answers on a postcard, please!

Monday, 25 April 2011

Lincoln City v Cheltenham Town, 25 April 2011

Venue: Sincil Bank, Lincoln
Attendance: 3,007
Final score: 0-2

Gentle reader, I'm afraid that I have to report a death.  Today, my last vestige of hope for Lincoln City avoiding relegation has breathed it's last. Following today's debarkle I can now see no other outcome than City spending next season, and the foreseeable future beyond, outside of the Football League.

Actually, I’m not quite that suicidal yet, but I’m afraid that, barring miracles, City’s defeat to Cheltenham this afternoon has left the fat lady gargling in the wings.

Cheltenham came to Sincil Bank themselves not entirely clear of relegation worries, but certainly further away from them than the Imps. 

Many of the Imps faithful, myself included, allowed themselves a little spark of optimism before the match.  Despite only picking up a point from the previous two away games it was desperately close to being 4, and there were signs that the Imps were not a spent force.  There was a tangible feeling that, with a little luck and a big roar from the home crowd, three points could be gained that would propel Lincoln towards safety.  That feeling was enhanced by the return of Ashley Grimes from suspension, the diminutive hitman proclaiming his intention in midweek to finish the season with 20 goals to his name.

Rather than give a blow by blow account of the match as I normally would, I have decided to report this match more simply in terms of the blocks of play as I perceived them.

0 - 25 minutes.  City played with confidence, if a little nervously at times.  Grimes and Hutchinson looked full of movement and Grimes put a good chance over the bar.  Cheltenham did nothing.

25 - 45 minutes.  City panicked slightly and started hoofing the ball long to nobody, constantly gave possession away cheaply and never looked like scoring.  Cheltenham did nothing.

45 - 65 minutes.  City played well again after the halftime team talk, knocking the ball around and almost creating a few chances.  Cheltenham did nothing.

65 minutes.  City allowed Cheltenham a rare foray into their half, the ball being spread wide and crossed in for an unmarked Josh Low who headed home from all of 18 yards past a floundering Parish.  1-0

65 - 88 minutes.  City were completely clueless, headless, leaderless and talentless.  They were unable to find a single pass or look at all like they had the first idea how to get back into the game.  Cheltenham didn’t need to do anything.

88 minutes.  Cheltenham won a freekick roughly 25 yards out on the right.  Andrew curled the kick past the virtually non-existent City wall and past Parish, who only seemed to start moving after the ball had hit the back of the net.  2-0

88 – 94 minutes.  City fans began to leave.  Cheltenham didn’t to do anything but wait to celebrate their own safety from relegation and the gift City had just given them.

OK, that summary may be a little harsh on Cheltenham, but they seemed to come to simply defend and come away with a point, and aside from taking advantage of two poor pieces of play from City, that’s what they would have done.  They were there for the taking, and on this afternoon’s performance I think that any half decent League 2 side would have beaten them comfortably.

Elsewhere at the bottom, Barnet, Northampton and Stockport all drew, leaving City 2 points clear of Barnet in 23rd.  Stockport now require mathematical miracles to survive, so the reality is that it’s one from three for the final wooden spoon.  The danger for City is that both Northampton and Barnet are capable of scoring goals.  The only light at the end of the tunnel for City, if one can indeed be seen, is that their survival is still in their own hands.  If Steve Tilson can somehow manage to make something click in his players then maybe, just maybe, another few points can be gained from the remaining two games and they can keep their noses in front.  Sadly, I won’t be down at the bookies tomorrow laying any money on that being the case.

24 Elliott Parish
25 Cian Hughton
2 Paul Green
6 Danny Hone
3 Joe Anderson
31 Ali Fuseini
26 Tom Kilbey
9 Gavin McCallum
15 Luke Howell
27 Ben Hutchinson
29 Ashley Grimes
10 Drewe Broughton for Hutchinson (71)
8 Clark Keltie for Kilbey (71)
4 Adam Watts
14 Josh O'Keefe
19 Jamie Clapham
39 Scott Spencer
1 Joe Anyon

1 Scott Brown
7 Michael Pook
6 Martin Riley
22 Steve Elliott
3 Danny Andrew
4 Dave Bird
24 Marlon Pack
11 Junior Smikle
8 Josh Low
9 Wes Thomas
17 Theo Lewis
23 Matt Green for Lewis (82)
20 Frankie Artus for Thomas (90+2)
5 Andy Gallinagh
14 JJ Melligan
16 Kyle Haynes
18 Jake Lee
12 Daniel Lloyd-Weston

Friday, 22 April 2011

Bury v Lincoln City, 22 April 2011

Venue: Gigg Lane, Bury
Attendance: 4,248
Final score: 1-0
Lincoln began the Easter Bank Holiday with a difficult trip to high-flying Bury.  City went into the game on the back of their point and improved performance against Crewe.  Bury, with 4 straight victories and the 5-0 mauling of City at Sincil Bank earlier this season behind them, would prove a sterner test altogether.

By the end of the long weekend the relegation battle certainly won’t be decided, but we will be a little bit closer to knowing who will be in the dreaded bottom two places come 5pm on 7th May.

There were some interesting comments made to the media from certain City players this week, particularly Gavin McCallum, to the effect that they prefer to play away from home because of the pressure they feel at Sincil Bank, and the ‘hostile’ attitude from some fans.  Now, I have never booed my own side at a football match.  I absolutely subscribe to the ‘12th man’ principle – that fans do make a difference at matches, and should lift their team rather than berate them, and that is never more necessary then when backs are to the wall.  But, I absolutely cannot stand so-called professional footballers whinging in such a manner.  They are paid to do a job.  They are professionals.  I’m a professional - I get paid to go and do my job, no matter how much pressure there is to achieve the targets set me.  Why is it acceptable for footballers to blame their own inept performances on the paying customers?  Do actors blame on-stage mistakes on the audience?  City’s home performances this season have been genuinely dire - this is not a case of an occasional off-game.  The fans have been frustrated because of consistently poor play by both individuals and the team, but I have to say that I think the fans’ reaction could easily have been far worse, particularly considering the batterings City have taken on a few occasions (batterings that McCallum suggests are because of the fans’ pressure rather than bad marking, missed tackles and comedy goalkeeping).  I have one thing to say to McCallum – man up, let your football do the talking and stop blaming a minority of fans.  To that minority of fans I say turn the boos into shouts of encouragement and let’s see if that leads to some better performances!  If you’re interested, I wrote about booing at football matches before in a post called ‘Taboo to boo?’.

So, to return to today’s match.  City’s lineup saw a few enforced changes.  Cian Hughton, a player I have a lot of time for, returned to the side after being left out entirely at Crewe.  He replaced Julian Kelly who has returned to Reading now his loan spell has ended.  O’Keefe came back into the side for the injured Keltie, who had played so well on Saturday.  Green retained the captain’s armband and his place in the centre of defence with Watts not yet recovered from illness.  City again named only 6 players on the bench, including Patrick Kanyuka, of whom the less said the better.

Bury had a couple of ex-Imps in their lineup in the form of big defender Ben Futcher and midfielder Lenny John-Lewis, who started on the bench.

City began the match in confident mood, even though it was Bury that forced an early chance, Hone blocking Ajose’s shot.  City’s formation of 5 in midfield and Hutchinson as lone striker continues to be a good away formation, and City were looking good when using the wings. 

Ben Hutchinson and Ben Futcher squared up to each other early on, and the City players generally seemed fired up and keen not to repeat the earlier embarrassment handed out by Bury.

After 10 minutes, Bury created another chance when Bennett cut inside from the right, going past Fuseini who he had just dispossessed.  He slid a pass in to Ajose who put his shot wide of the upright.

Despite Bury having the best chances, the game was a fairly even contest, with Bury content to let City have their share of possession, and City were looking confident when on the ball.

After 24 minutes the Imps created their best chance.  Hughton went on a run from inside his own half, cut inside and fed the ball to Kilbey on the edge of the area.  He struck his shot well but saw it saved by Belford.

The hot weather meant that neither side was prepared to run around too much, and no more real chances were created.  City went into the half time break with the score at 0-0.  It had been a more measured match than the blood and thunder that can often be seen in League 2, and City would have been more than happy to see the match finish with the same scoreline.

Bury started the second half in positive mood – attacking straight from the whistle.

On 56 minutes, Bury got the breakthrough they wanted.  Sweeney swung in a corner, finding Tom Lees unmarked, and the defender duly headed home.  It was the only time the City defence had switched off but they had been punished, but it was yet another goal conceded from a set piece this season.

The goal visibly affected City’s confidence , and only a few minutes later Hutchinson went in late on Skarz.  Despite the home crowd’s desire for a red card, the referee only showed the Imps striker a yellow.

On 71 minutes, Imps manager Steve Tilson tried to re-invigorate his demoralized team by bringing on Mustafa Carayol for Josh O’Keefe.

The change did little to increase City’s chances of getting back into the game, and Bury came close to scoring a second when Sweeney sent a shot just over Parish’s bar.

The Imps then used their remaining substitutions, bringing on Broughton and Spencer for Kilbey and Hutchinson.  The unlikely pair almost combined for City immediately, but Spencer couldn’t get his shot away after Broughton won a knockdown.

City’s chances were dealt a blow when Carayol, only introduced 20 minutes earlier, hobbled off, leaving City to finish the match with 10 men.  Only just coming back from injury, hopefully this recurrence is not serious, and City can make use of the winger in the remaining games this season.

As the match entered injury time Bury nearly doubled their lead, but first Parish and then Hone did well to keep them out.

The last kick of the game was a freekick for City but Anderson could only hit the wall.

Ultimately it was an even match on a hot day.  City did well but did not have the quality to take the half chances they created.  Bury stayed patient and took their chance when it came.  City were punished for their only real mistake but that’s a lesson they haven’t learned all season.  There was no disgrace in the performance from City, but when the points tally hasn’t been increased that feels hollow compensation.

With the teams below City playing tonight or tomorrow, they will have to wait until tomorrow to see if the 6 point gap between City and Barnet will be closed.  All of the other bottom sides face tough matches so hopefully City will lose little ground before they face Cheltenham on Bank Holiday Monday.  Hopefully the pressure of playing at home won’t prove too much for the City players.

1 Cameron Belford
7 David Worrall
5 Ben Futcher
4 Tom Lees
3 Joe Skarz
17 Kyle Bennett
8 Steven Schumacher
6 Peter Sweeney
14 Michael Jones
15 Ryan Lowe
25 Nicky Ajose
11 Andy Haworth for Jones (66)
12 Lenell John-Lewis
for Ajose (78)
29 Max Harrop for Lowe (90+2)
21 Andrai Jones
22 Zach Rothwell
26 Luke Mc
20 Richie Branagan

24 Elliott Parish
25 Cian Hughton
2 Paul Green
6 Danny Hone
3 Joe Anderson
31 Ali Fuseini
14 Josh O'Keefe
26 Tom Kilbey
15 Luke Howell
9 Gavin McCallum
27 Ben Hutchinson
7 Mustapha Carayol for O’Keefe (71)
10 Drewe Broughton for Kilbey (85)
39 Scott Spencer for Hutchinson (85)
19 Jamie Clapham
40 Patrick Kanyuka
1 Joe Anyon