A Street Scene from Beijing

On Karen’s Blog

Karen has written something very cool over on her blog about The Arcanum. Go check it out!

Shooting in the rain

It goes against every instinct of mine to go out and take photos in the rain. It’s literally something I have to force myself to do because I know how interesting streets and places with people can be when there is a bit of rain splashing about. I usually always come back with at least one or two keepers, and that makes me thankful I forced myself to do it. I’m hoping some day that my instincts flip around the other way and I no longer have to force myself! 🙂

Daily Photo – A Street Scene from Beijing

This is one of my favorite new areas of Beijing. Even though I've been to Beijing four times or so, it was my first time to this area. I was also lucky that it was raining, so it was even more interesting. This is a very old part of the city that was razed and widened during the Olympics. I actually have no idea what is original and what is rebuilt… although I have a sneaking suspicion that none of it is original.

A Street Scene from Beijing

Photo Information

  • Date Taken2013-05-28 00:00:00
  • CameraNEX-7
  • Camera MakeSony
  • Exposure Time1/100
  • Aperture8
  • ISO100
  • Focal Length10.0 mm
  • FlashOff, Did not fire
  • Exposure ProgramAperture-priority AE
  • Exposure Bias

  • chinadukes

    Another brilliant photo by Trey, but another important thing about this post is his commentary on what is called the Qianmen/Dashilan area just south of Tian’anmen Square in which he wonders about the authenticity of this part of Beijing.

    A lot of long-term expatriates were concerned about this area when its modernization was announced in the mid-2000s (probably anticipated long before), and not a few Beijingers. It was a favorite of tourists and photographers, because it had long been a vibrant commercial area. It was built by people from all over China who came to Beijing to make their fortunes selling specialties from their hometowns in the nation’s capital of the Ming and Qing dynasties just outside a city wall they were rarely, if ever,
    allowed to enter. The real winners were those whose goods were purchased by the imperial family and courtiers in the Forbidden City. Some of these “time-honored brands” remain popular to today.

    In fact, it was the first place I visited to photograph when I returned to Beijing in May 2004 for a ten-year stint as a magazine editor, which would later lead to my acquaintance with Trey. I began walking on the East Third Ring Road that day and walked all the way across the Dashilan area and Qianmen Dajie before resting and dining on Xinhua Jie to its west.

    That evening, as I dined, I lamented the probability that the area wouldn’t last much longer. The buildings along my route, though interesting, were in terrible shape. They were very small; a two-story wooden structure might contain only 600 square foot of floor space or so, which meant they were unfit for almost any imaginable human purpose in modern times.
    They were obvious fire traps.

    There had been rains, and an untold number of housing units dating to antiquity on the western side of Qianmen Dajie had flooded. I could hardly imagine how difficult life was for the people who inhabited them, although there was no doubt about their long-term value and importance, because of their location in the city and the historical events that had taken place in and around them. Many famous Chinese intellectuals, artists, writers, generals and the like had once resided in this area.

    Time flew, and a few years later, the city announced the modernization project portrayed in Trey’s photo. There was great concern about how sensitive city planners would be in modernizing the area, and there was no small amount of fear that the development would end up becoming an embarrassment

    to the city, rather than bringing new commercial life to the area. Further, there was great concern whether the area would cater too much to foreign tastes and too little to Chinese sentiment. One must remember that the great majority of tourists to this area are Chinese coming from all parts of China. Accommodations for every strata of society were needed to maintain the “nature” of the place as it was in 2004 or so. People who worked in the area needed places to live and to store their goods.

    As my colleagues and I were working on this story, I inquired whether anyone on our staff had ever lived in the area. One sub-editor said he’d grown up there, just a few yards off Qianmen Dajie. I asked him what it was like.

    He answered, “The thing I remember is having to get up early on winter mornings, then standing in line in the snow for my turn in the communal restroom, wondering if I’d be able to eat breakfast and get to school on time. There was no running water, just a hole in the cement floor.”

    I asked, “What do you think of the plans to demolish the old structures where you used to live [note: some of the nicer ones in the area]?”

    He said, “I’d like to be the one driving the bulldozer.”

    Construction began, with an eye on getting the core area of the project done before the Beijing 2008 Olympics, and this was done.

    One English friend of mine detested the new development and vowed never to set foot in it. I took a longer view, because I’d seen how shabby the old areas had been, how unsustainable they were and how they’d hardly be able to accommodate the Beijing 2008 crowds. Still, one wondered.

    The only question was how local and international tourists would accept the place as it developed.

    That question, for me, was answered during the Spring Festival celebration of 2009: One could hardly move there, because there were so many people jammed into the area, taking photos in front of the new buildings, and the place was jammed with foreign tourists when I visited there during the summer. It’s popularity had only grown by the time I left in May 2014, even if rents had shot sky high.

    And as development continued to the west of Qianmen Dajie, more and more of the existing ancient structures, many laden in layers of history, were retained. There are many small temples and old guild halls in this area, and I hope these old structures are retained as well, for they convey the sensibility of the Chinese culture better than any modern words, however sincere.

    There is one other issue in this area, and the area surrounding the Temple of Heaven to the south: the cost of preservation. The authorities in Beijing have limited building heights in the area to something around 11 stories in a city where buildings now have many more. For developers, not being able to “build up” in the area means it’s very hard to get a suitable return on a real estate investment.

    But the authenticity of Beijing’s Qianmen/Dashilan area can hardly be measured in dollars or renminbi alone; its historical value is immeasurable.

    In time, Beijingers will make Qianmen/Dashilan what they want it to be, just as they once made old Beijing what it once was, and that will be an interesting thing to see, whatever it turns out to be.

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