During China’s Cultural Revolution, one of Mao’s bright ideas, people burned, broke, buried and threw out loads of items connected to the arts and intellectual pursuits. Lately, due to economic development, the treasures found in Beijing’s old neighborhoods are being removed in the name of development. Old houses along alleyways that date back to the imperial city are being torn down and modern buildings thrown up at a dizzying rate. Eighty-eight percent of the original, ancient neighborhoods are gone, according to this New York Times article.
The article is mostly about one man who has taken up the cause to save the buildings’ architectural treasures like ornate doorways, screens and statues. Li Sontang has been collecting these items for years by going to sites where buildings are torn down. He’s able to get the goods for nothing and has paid workers to take away the heavy stuff. With the bounty Sontang has gathered, he started a museum.
The Songtangzhai Museum is housed in a two-story building from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) . With its $4.50 admission fee, the museum offers people a glimpse into what Beijing looked like before Mao and bulldozers showed up. I’m hoping that Beijing officials get a clue that they have a tourist hot spot if they stop tearing down what is left. Restore it to its earlier beauty and entice people to head there by the opening of interesting shops and eateries. All they need to do is turn to Singapore’s Boat Quay to see what can occur.
There was a neighborhood I visited in the mid-1990s that that was in back of Mao’s tomb. Of all we did in Beijing, wandering down the alleys was the highlight of our trip. One family who didn’t know English invited us into their humble house for tea. In one shop, I bought two carved wooden panels that were probably off of someone’s door. One panel is of children doing a dragon dance. The other shows another ceremony. I’m wondering if the neighborhood is still there anymore. I doubt it. How terrific it is that there are people like Li Sontang who recognize treasures and save them.