In what is a growing trend for China – knocking down its architectural heritage in the pursuit of economic development – the redevelopment of one of southern China’s most treasured old towns will force out 4,000 local families in order to make way for tourists.
Chikan is a beautiful town that is worthy of being preserved – some even describe it as a living museum. It’s popular with visitors who come from all over China to wander its unadorned streets, visit local market stalls, and try local specialties like tofu pudding, salted goose eggs, and sun-dried orange peel.
The town’s riverfront, with its rows of historic qilou (arcade-houses), is one of China’s most impressive sights. The town is known for its unique blend of Western and Chinese architecture, all of which is soon to be knocked down and redeveloped into boutique shops and hotels to drive up tourist numbers.
The local government says it has signed a 6 billion yuan (US$899 million) deal with Citic Private Equity Funds Management to redevelop the town. It’s hoped that by 2020, seven million people will be visiting the redeveloped Chikan old town every year.
This economic development comes at a price, and the hardest hit will be the local families who call Chikan home. They have been forced to sell and move away in order to make way for the redevelopment. No residents will be allowed to remain.
After selling their properties for a low price back to authorities, many residents have been left in the lurch, and are finding it hard to afford new or second-hand apartments in other urban areas.
It is hoped that once Chikan is redeveloped, the former residents will be able to move back again and take advantage of new business from increased tourism.
The redevelopment is expected to start later this year and take an estimated two years to complete. The aim is to make Chikan one of China’s top historical and cultural tourism destinations.
According to local government, it has decided to evict all the residents of Chikan old town in the interests of “heritage protection.” Because the old town urgently needed repairs. However, the families who have called it home for generations are not impressed. None of the residents were willing to sell their properties and move out, but they feel as though they have been left with no other choice.
Local authorities have already broken up the surface of the roads to the town (in the name of maintenance) and closed the bus station. Tour groups from Hong Kong and other neighboring areas can no longer access the town. Formerly thriving shops have closed down, and their owners have moved out because of the poor business.
Redevelopment projects of this nature are nothing new in China. The country’s aggressive pursuit of economic development has led to the destruction or endangerment of much of its architectural heritage – ironically often in the name of protection or preservation.
A national archaeological survey conducted in 2011 by China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage found that 40,000 unmovable Chinese relics have vanished, with half of them destroyed by construction work.
Local governments and well-connected investors have turned many natural and historical heritage sites into tourist-focused, money making machines. Sadly, it looks as though Chikan is just the latest victim.