古镇: Death-knell for Yunnan's Historic Towns

In China even the 'old towns' are new. Under the 古镇, or ancient town, moniker old towns are razed and their population driven out to make space for sanitized versions of Chinese history that drive the tourist dollar.

Early in 2014, the '1300 year-old town of Dukezong' burned down to much public lament. Despite bearing no resemblance to any real Tibetan settlement, most vistors were enchanted by its architecture and ethnic culture. Few seemed to wonder why every house was either a shop, a restaurant with a big picture window or a guesthouse not only with indoor, but ensuite plumbing. If this was an ancient town, what happened to it? What happened to its inhabitants? Why was it not mentioned in one of the most comprehensive guides on Tibetan areas published just a few years ago?

In fact, while built on the site of an earlier Tibetan settlement, the 'ancient town' had been built less than a decade ago. Even Disneyland Hong Kong was older than 'Dukezong', to use the fictional name given to this fictional 'town'.

Restoring old towns, preserving their architecture, while at the same time providing modern comforts for residents and visitors alike would be hard to argue with. But the the whole-sale rebuilding of old towns together with fake temples and other 'historic' sites is a business entirely different from preserving historic buildings for future generations to appreciate.

Ostensibly it is about monetization of history, yet it even lacks the honesty of Disneyland. It conceits a fake history of Chinese-ness that makes it possible for drunk Han tourists to shout 'Xiang-ge-li-la' in the streets of Zhongdian who would not dare to set a foot into a Tibetan village. It renders a safe version of history as Yunnan being Chinese since the Han, where territory was never contested and non-Chinese groups were just waiting to become 'minority nationalities' in their own land.

Zhongdian is not the only place where real history is erased and new history constructed.

In Kunming, most parts of lao Kunming have now fallen to the bulldozers. Some neighbourhoods, such as the old Muslim quarter now pretty much only exist in name, erasing the role Muslims played in the Yuan conquest of Yunnan. The bird and flower market, most famous perhaps because it was one of the last intact sections of town to disappear, was replaced by olde-worlde style concrete shopping buildings most suitable for the deep pockets of chain stores and restaurants. In a couple of years, few will remember the old. Who remembers Tongren Jie, a Guandong style street that was pulled down to make space for Jinbi road and reincarnated as a shopping complex?

In Zhaotong, the rabbit-warrens of the old town were torn down a few years ago, dismantiling not only the town's historic layout in favour of a grid system, but also remarkable Han-Hui culture that characterized this historic city, a main gateway for Han migration to Yunnan. Huize, the old Dongchuan, has still retained its old central street and the guild-halls that were the meeting places of the businessmen of historic times.

Jianshui, often lauded, has given itself a new historic square and lots of fake historic buildings, while the real old town is decaying, seemingly unloved, until maybe it is 'too late' to rescue anything and it will became obvious that those parts of town must be torn down. In an insult to Confucius, the large secondary school that once abutted the Wenmiao has been relocated from this place of learning. In nearby Tuanshan, long-term residents have been driven out of historic buildings that are now empty museums, void of life.

In Shiping, famous for its stinky tofu, the old town, where many of the tofu eateries were located, has been sanitized, removing much of the traffic, but also removing much of the commercial activity that kept the old town alive. Some of the intricately wood-carved buildings that were ironically protected from decay by serving as government offices are now empty as officials have moved to bigger concrete buildings in the government temples in the new town.

In Dali, one of the early reconstructions, at least the northern part of the old town was left a living city. Its southern part has become a conglomeration of tourist shops, most bizarre maybe the Wumiao, an old temple rebuilt as a shopping arcade. Less noticable are the older reconstructions, such as the Tower of Five Glories, once a typically Bai tower, but resurrected in Qing style, perhaps to make Dali more a part of China then it has been historically: it was the capital of a secessionist movement as late as the 19th century. A new marker proclaims Dali as the early capital of Southeast Asia, boldly using Nanzhao history for modern Chinese claims of influence.

Almost forgivable are those 'ancient towns' constructed in places where any trace of old settlement had long disappeared or never existed in the first time. Chuxiong's Old Town of the Yi People is such a case: an entertainment district in an otherwise pretty drab city. Wuding, north of Kunming and hoping of tourist money that a new expressway will bring, has recently followed suit.

Blueprint for this development was the old town of Lijiang, once known as Dayan, that rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the 1996 earthquake. At that time still a living town, now every single house has been turned into a shop or guesthouse and it is rare to see a Naxi woman in the streets apart from those at the daily tourist dance on Sifang Square. Noisy bars have replaced the tranquility that once characterized the town where, apart from the road layout in parts of the old town, nothing remains old, so that even the Unesco has threatened to remove Lijiang from the World Heritage list. Indeed what heritage is in a cluster of trinket shops?

Shaxi, in Jianchuan county, is, or better was one of the few counter examples to this sort of development. But then the master plan for its restoration was drawn up by an award-winning Swiss architect, Jacques Feiner, who ensured that not only the old buildings were restored, rather than rebuilt, using traditinal techniques and materials, but that also other parts of Shaxi's history, such as the Mao era slogans on doors were preserved. But as this type of development failed to bring in the desired tourist dollar, it was only a question of time until large modern hotel and shopping complex were built right inside the old town as is happening now.

So, after all there is no reason to mourn the loss of Shangri-La. It will be back soon. Bigger and better and older.