I have found my house inside a museum in Beijing. Imagine trying to locate your apartment in a model of Mumbai city, with every building, street, flyover, slum, landmark and lamppost standing a few inches high. Would the urban layout invoke a surge of pride?
This week, China celebrated 30 years of economic reform that plucked millions out of poverty during its transformation into the world’s fourth-largest economy. So I took a shortcut to trace the changing face of its capital — from imperial days when the number of animals sculpted on a sloping roof indicated the homeowner’s rank, to today’s high-rises raised over the rubble of those traditional homes.
Beijing and Shanghai — built like Mumbai, by a migrant influx — have erected entire museums to connect their urban heritage and vision 2020, infrastructure challenges and solutions, with city residents.
While busloads of foreigners come to Tiananmen Square everyday, few wander beyond the world’s largest Square’s southeast edge to the city’s urban planning exhibition hall. Inside, one wall depicts a 10-metre high bronze relief marking 118,000 houses of the old city of 1949.
For a ticket worth 30 yuan (about Rs 210) you can walk all over Beijing — on 1,000 glass panels. Beneath the glass floor is spread an aerial photograph of the cityscape. Each glass panel can hold the weight of four people.
In the middle of the room stands a model of the city, fanning out neatly from the ancient Forbidden City palaces in the center. After a quick walk, I located not just the gigantic Olympic green and still unfinished skyscrapers, but also my home, neighbourhood, and the places where I shop and eat. As I stood over the miniature layout, every street seemed to fit into an aesthetic plan.
But the city is changing too fast for the museum. Last year, Beijing’s population crossed 17 million, dangerously close to the 18 million limit planned for 2020. Eleven new towns are being built on its outskirts. River water from China’s south is being controversially diverted for the thirsty north. By 2015, Beijing’s subway network will be bigger than that of London and New York.
The mini city on the floor will soon be outdated as Beijing becomes China’s maximum city.