Skyline von Schanghai

14.11.2007 | Von:
Ou Ning

The past has said goodbye to us

Beijing artist Ou Ning on progress, the Olympic Games and the elimination of tradition

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bpb: Jointly with Cao Fei you did a research and filming project on Da Zha Lan, a traditional quarter in the center of Beijing. Why did you choose Da Zha Lan?

Ou Ning: We are always concerned about the areas with high density of architecture and poor people in the center of expanding metropolitans in China. From our point of view, this phenomenon is a brother of the social, political, economic and cultural problems brought by China's urbanization process. In 2003, we had a documentary and research project concerning such an area named San Yuan Li in Guangzhou, a major city in South China. The project was part of the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. In 2005, we got the financial support from Kulturstiftung des Bundes to research the fast expanding Beijing pushed by the 2008 Olympics. We spent over a month visiting and investigating different places around the capital. In the end, an area, named Da Zha Lan, close to Tian'anmen Square became our destination. It's a slum located in the very heart of Beijing, full of aged architecture and migrant people with low income. It is exactly what we have been looking for.

bpb: What are the main problems in Da Zha Lan today?

Da Zha LanDemolition and rubble are part of everyday life in Da Zha Lan (© Ou Ning)
Ou Ning: The main problem of Da Zha Lan is that it is decaying at an amazing speed. It used to be the most important commercial area in Beijing. During the Ming and Qing Dynasty, it was the most active area of old Beijing, full of shops and patrons. Even after the start of the socialist period in 1949, it still kept many stores and facilities, as a witness to the prosperity of the capital. Things started to change during the 1990s when Beijing moved its center to the east for new space of its expansion. Large amounts of investment swarmed to Chaoyang District in the east dueto its close distance to Tian'anmen Square. In contrast, Da Zha Lan must not have buildings higher than the ancient architecture in the Forbidden City. Therefore, unbalanced development of different areas in Beijing appeared. The east is changing everyday while the south – where Da Zha Lan is – stopped its development steps. It is the conflict between historical protection and city development that Da Zha Lan has been suffering from. What's worse, the government itself is not capable of carrying this big burden while China's property rights and tax system didn´t give civil capital enough confidence to invest in this area. As a result, the municipal and public facilities like the ones in Da Zha Lan can't be updated on time. Elites kept moving out. The rent and life index kept falling. Migrant people with low income swarmed in. The former golden commercial area in the end became a slum.

bpb: Beijing is undergoing a tremendous change. Since the 1990s the city is booming: skyscrapers, new business and commercial districts are rising almost everywhere. How do the citizens of Beijing feel about these changes?

Da Zha LanOne of the old inner courtyards (© Ou Ning)
Ou Ning: Most Beijingers are happy to see Beijing become a metropolitan. Compared with their former houses – courtyards shared by many families, with great risk to catch fire and without private bathrooms – they obviously prefer those modern apartments with well equipped toilets and kitchens, and security guards. Maybe they still feel nostalgic about their old homes from time to time but few would really like to move back. They like to work in high-end office buildings and go shopping in super malls. Only during traditional festivals like the Chinese New Year will they remember Da Zha Lan and buy something of old style as a souvenir there. Ironically, only very rich people can afford those old courtyards today. They bought one as a whole and moved the habitants out. Modern facilities are added to make it comfortable to live in. When everything is trying to be standardized, the "hutong" – old, narrow alleys with courtyards alongside – life has become a luxury. It's a tremendous cost to chase after modernization for a city or a country. We sacrificed our history and memory for the so-called progress. We invested enormous social and environmental costs for the so-called development. When we embraced modernization, we realized the past had said goodbye to us. When we had spent all we had for a new dream, we realized what we had was actually invaluable. This is the paradox of history.

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