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Sunday, Dec 08, 2019

New look for China’s Chandni Chowk

Imagine the debate if Prada, Apple, Starbucks and Rolex were to open shop in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk or inside Mumbai’s historic Crawford Market. Reshma Patil tells more.

world Updated: Aug 13, 2008 22:32 IST
Reshma Patil | China Correspondent
Reshma Patil | China Correspondent
Hindustan Times

Imagine the debate if Prada, Apple, Starbucks and Rolex were to open shop in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk or inside Mumbai’s historic Crawford Market.

Something similar happened this Olympic season on the north-south axis of Beijing across an 840 metre commercial street dating back almost 600 years — twice as old as Chandni Chowk.

Once a royal boulevard that grew into a rundown neighbourhood of generations-old teahouses, shops selling cloth shoes to wood-fired roast duck, the controversially razed and renovated Qianmen Street opened on August 7.

Image-conscious Beijing calls it a showcase of a ‘culture-enriched’ Olympic Games. Only by visiting Qianmen can one really experience a cultural journey in this ancient capital, says a brochure on the reborn landmark.
Over 20 global brands have signed contracts to operate in grey, crimson-and-green buildings designed to take one back a century.

Ironically, millions of Chinese campaigned online last year to banish US coffee chain Starbucks from Beijing’s ancient Forbidden City.

“Critics call it a ‘fake antique’, an example of the Disneyfication of architectural heritage,’’ Michael Meyer, author of The Last Days of Old Beijing, told HT.

“I like many things about it, including photographs of the original building and old-style blue address plate before each structure.’’

The inclusion of benches at Qianmen Street is a rarity, said Meyer. Tiananmen Square does not have a single bench.

Walking by the sloping roofed stores and birdcage lamps, one notices more signs of how the planners did not forget public facilities. There are prominent escape routes, public toilets and decorative stone garbage bins.

At the front gate stand two restored trams that will ply after the Olympics marathon. Among the restored Quanjude roast duck restaurant dating 1864, and a 270-year-old steamed dumpling eatery, is a China Post Office renovated with archival data.

Beijing has defended the ouster of residents and destruction of old buildings in the yearlong multi-million dollar project, saying that the street will transform into a business hub with a historic look.

“What worries me is that the project is in the heart of Beijing’s oldest neighbourhood,’’ said Meyer. “There are living neighbourhoods on either side. Residents worry that it will not be a place where they are welcome. The intangible cultural heritage of old neighbourhoods, the dense social networks and markets maybe eroded.’’

The multinational stores have not yet opened. But inside the street’s Cathay Bookshop, tourists and locals are buying black-and-white postcards of the Beijing that vanished with the approach of the Olympics.