○ Ji'nan's landmark old train station was demolished in 1992 due to its symbolism of the colonial past
○ The local government announced plans to rebuild the station in 2013, but faced controversy
○ Now a debate is going on over whether a duplicate is necessary
A wooden model of the old Ji'nan train station. Carpenter Yang Chonghua has spent three years crafting the replica. Photo: CFP
China boasts a long history and diverse culture, but many modern Chinese cities look virtually identical, and visitors often have to search hard to uncover what remains of their cultural legacy. Many of China's ancient relics were lost during chaotic rebellions, foreign military incursions, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and most recently, massive demolition under the drive for urbanization.
One Chinese city is obviously regretting its decision to demolish a treasured piece of historic architecture. Residents of Ji'nan, capital of East China's Shandong Province, have voiced their support for the reconstruction of a landmark train station that was demolished over 20 years ago to make way for a new building.
Designed by a German architect, the old train station was demolished in 1992 both due to practical concerns over greater passenger numbers and the belief of some in the local government that the building was a painful reminder of European imperialism.
According to a poll conducted by news app iJinan on whether its readers would support a reconstruction - plans for which were abandoned a few years ago - 1,637 people said they would be in favor, while 834 voted against it. Many locals hope rebuilding the beloved train station could help restore a precious memory. But experts doubt whether a duplicate could ever have the cultural and historical significance of the original.
"No matter if it is rebuilt, it will forever be a painful memory for the people of Ji'nan," one netizen remarked.
The facade of Ji'nan Railway Station that was built after the demolition of the German-designed train station Photo: CFP
Building and demolition
Officially called the Tianjin-Pukou Station upon its completion, the station was financed by German and British colonial interests in China during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Construction started in 1908, with a design provided by German architect Hermann Fischer, and was completed in 1912.
With its railway linking northern China via Tianjin and southern China at Pukou in Nanjing, East China's Jiangsu Province, the train station served as an important stop in China's railway system, and was once the biggest train station in Asia, helping transform Ji'nan into an industrial and commercial center.
For many Ji'nan locals, however, what made the station special were its stunning architectural features that are still imprinted in their memory. The Art Nouveau-style station, featuring a tall bell tower, boasted a dome roof, arched windows embedded with stained glass, and curved patterns on its walls, typical elements of German architecture in that period. In the 2010 book World Architecture in China, professor and architect Charlie Q. L. Xue calls the architecture "the finest example" of a foreign-designed railway station in China.
The station served the city for 80 years, before it was demolished in 1992 against the wishes of many citizens.
The growing traffic at the old Ji'nan station and the limited number of passengers its waiting room could hold - only about 4,000 - were major reasons given for its demolition to make way for a larger station. "During busy days, travelers often had to wait in a queue several hundred meters long that snaked from the waiting hall to the plaza in front of the station. During the Spring Festival, the plaza was almost like a camp site, making it nearly impossible to enter the station," Lu Shen, a retired official at the Ji'nan Railway Bureau, told magazine Sanlian Lifeweek.
Surprisingly, ideology was also part of the reason for its demolition. Many people attribute its demolition to Zhai Yongbo, then major of Ji'nan, and Xie Yutang, the vice mayor. Xie allegedly said that the old train station was "an emblem of colonialism, reminding me of the days when Chinese people lived under oppression… The green dome of the bell tower looks like the helmets of Hitler's army. How on earth is it beautiful?"
Lu recalled, "It was a time when what officials said meant everything. They thought the train station was a symbol of the time when the imperialists invaded China, and ordered the construction of a new one that's bigger and better. They never thought about culture and history."
The demolition was finally decided upon when Li Senmao, then railway minister, visited the Ji'nan bureau in January 1990. That June, the local bureau started working on a design for a new station, and later received approval from Ji'nan's city and Shandong's provincial governments that the old station could be demolished. In April 1991, the railway ministry (which became part of the Ministry of Transport in 2013) officially approved the plan, including the demolition of the old station.
When a massive new glass and steel station was built in the mid-1990s, many citizens criticized it as ugly, lifeless and derivative.
A bell tower imitating a feature of the old Ji'nan train station has been built on one of the city's streets. Photo: CFP
Debate on rebuilding
Over the years, many experts and locals have mourned the old train station, calling its demolition a great loss for the city. Many netizens wrote about their memories of the train station on their blogs, lamenting its disappearance.
In 2013, in a plan to revamp the new train station, the local government proposed spending 30 million yuan ($4.3 million) to reconstruct the old train station on the southern side of the train station plaza, amid commercial complexes and hotels. The government claimed the facsimile would attract tourists and bring enormous financial value to the area.
However, the proposal was a perfect reminder of the brutal demolition 20 years prior and brought the public's anger from all those years ago back to the surface. "It was a stupid decision to demolish it, and then the government made another stupid decision to rebuild it, in order to boost tourism or something," an urban planning expert who declined to be named told the Global Times.
"It's meaningless to rebuild something when it's almost impossible to recover the original materials, design and construction methods. Even if the new building resembles the original one, it would be a fake that lacks cultural and aesthetic significance," Zhang Linwei, an architecture professor at Tongji University, told the Global Times.
Li Ming, director at the Archaeological Institute of Ji'nan, said, "The meaning of the old train station extends far beyond the building itself. It influenced the city's development."
Li said the train station witnessed the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the turmoil during the Republic of China period, and the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1931-45).
In 2014, Tang Jialu, a member of CPPCC's Ji'nan committee, asked the provincial government to stop the rebuilding project, citing these reasons. In November, Ji'nan's urban planning authorities responded that after hearing the public's opinion and consulting experts, the city has decided to halt the project.
But many who have worked at the station or those who have special ties with it still hope one day they'll be able to see the old station reconstructed.
Xu Guowei, a collector of old blueprints of the old train station, is a staunch supporter of rebuilding it. "No matter why it was demolished, now that our economic might has grown, we can totally rebuild it. From an architectural perspective, many Chinese ancient buildings, made of earth and wood, have had to be repaired and restored every few hundred years, including palaces in the Forbidden City … Ji'nan's Confucius Temple was also demolished and rebuilt," he told Ji'nan Daily.
"The earlier we rebuild it, the better," he said.
Even the People's Daily, the Communist Party's flagship newspaper, has joined the discussion. "The blunt demolition turned out to be a huge mistake that's ignorant and short-sighted," reads a recent opinion piece published by the newspaper.
"Compared with rebuilding it, it's better to erect a monument on the original site, in order to warn our successors not to make the same mistake again," the article reads.